This review of Fred Lawrence’s book The Fragility of Consciousness: Faith, Reason, and the Human Good, originally appeared in First Things.


A Castle of Thought

Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote Truth and Method at the age of sixty, after years of prompting from his students. They had begged him to “let the wider world know” the brilliant teacher they encountered in seminar. Frederick Lawrence recounts the origin of Gadamer’s masterwork in the course of his own book, a collection of essays on the relation between faith and reason that ranges over Gadamer, Heidegger, Lonergan, Benedict XVI, and other thinkers. Like Gadamer, Lawrence is a great scholar whose influence has previously been felt primarily in the classroom. The Fragility of Consciousness, his first book, lets the wider world know what his students have long had the benefit of.

Today a distinguished hermeneutic philosopher and theologian at Boston College, Lawrence started out decades ago with the intention of becoming a priest. After entering a diocesan seminary in Los Angeles, he was sent for further studies to Rome, during which time the Council was in session. Like many men in seminary then, Lawrence discerned a call to marriage. Meanwhile, he gravitated toward the thought of Bernard Lonergan, who recommended that he pursue doctoral studies in a German-speaking university. Lawrence went to Basel, where he attended the seminars of Karl Barth and Oscar Cullmann, and drove to nearby Freiburg to attend the lectures and seminars of Gadamer.

Lawrence eventually wrote a dissertation that brought Lonergan and Gadamer together. At the heart of both Lonergan and Gadamer’s work, argues Lawrence, lies an account of human knowing that avoids both a naïve objectivity and modern subjectivism. Both thinkers underscored the active process involved in any proper understanding. They did so through serious engagement with recent thought—for Lonergan it was Newman, for Gadamer it was his mentor Heidegger—while also mining the tradition for hidden riches. Lonergan spent much of the 1940s studying Aquinas’s understanding of the inner word, and realizing that for Aquinas, knowing involved an act of understanding that brought us into union with God. If one clung too closely to a visual metaphor for knowing, i.e., “taking a look,” then one risked losing the dynamic structure of knowing as wonder and discovery. Gadamer meanwhile turned to Aristotle’s concept of judgment. From Descartes onward, Gadamer identified the danger of an overly methodological model of knowing: As long as one had the right method, one could simply plug in a formula to reach the understanding. Gadamer found this to be a poor model for explaining what happens when we come to understand. It was Lawrence’s genius to bring together these two seemingly disparate thinkers, one a Jesuit cognitional theorist who taught his courses in Latin, the other a German hermeneutical philosopher of no obvious religious affiliation.

These essays reinforce my conviction that Lonergan can be compared to Hegel. Like Hegel’s, the works of Lonergan are an intimidating, awe-inspiring challenge. Many graduate students have entered the bookstore, flipped through the pages of Insight, or the Phenomenology of Spirit, and concluded, “Meh, better not.” The technical language and idiosyncratic use of certain terms also pose obstacles. Yet when one enters the castle of Lonergan’s thought, the view is breathtaking.

On the strength of his training, Lawrence was offered a position at Boston College, where he remained for over four decades. His formation continued through his encounter with Ernest Fortin, the Assumptionist priest and student of Leo Strauss. Fortin influenced the formation of Boston College’s Great Books curriculum, “Perspectives in Western Culture.” Through their collaboration on this course of study, Lawrence grew to appreciate Strauss’s contrast between Athens and Jerusalem, and the ancients and moderns, especially his generally forgotten narrative of the “three waves of modernity.” The most enjoyable essay in this collection is Lawrence’s appreciation of Fortin, which chronicles Fortin’s contributions to theology against the backdrop of declining scholasticism and rising relativism. Strauss observed that ancient philosophy could not avoid the theme of friendship, because philosophy from its origins asked questions dangerous to the political order, and thus discussion of these questions was best undertaken among friends. Lawrence cites Fortin’s capacity for friendship to explain “why the anti-philosophical and relativist climate of opinion didn’t engulf [Fortin] too.”

Lawrence always sought to make the best of authors on their own terms, but this did not preclude his criticizing them. For instance, he identifies Max Weber’s famous distinction between fact and value as the root cause of the disastrous bifurcation between the humanities and the natural and social sciences. In his reading of Weber, Lawrence locates the cause of a confusion that plagues both university and civic life: “The realm of nature investigated by science and exploited by technology becomes the value-free domain of fact.” This valueless domain extends into social policy, whose “descriptions are expected to yield information on the basis of which social policy can predict and control. Any normative judgment … gets systematically excluded.” Lawrence’s genealogy explains how a way of thinking that would have been impossible in the premodern world has become almost inescapable in our own day and time.

It is hard not to be nostalgic for the intellectual climate that formed Lawrence. A diocesan seminarian sent to Rome to study theology (and not canon law); the exhortation from such a consequential thinker as Lonergan to continue studies elsewhere; a university climate that would conceive reading great books as a way to understand the other; a university with aspirations to join the academic elite that hires conservatives like Ernest Fortin, let alone allows them to lead curriculum revisions: Could any of it happen today? Engaging this collection of essays is surely a step in the right direction.