The Brexit vote was a close run thing. As debate turned from economics to immigration, so did the polls. Images of rickety boats crossing the Mediterranean and memories of Islamic terror prompted Brits to ask: what do we fear most? They were not alone in asking that question. Ideals of civil liberties and human rights that prevailed since the Second World War seem threatened, as popular movements rediscover fascism in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and elsewhere.

Even theology has taken a militant turn. Pierre Manent urges France to get Beyond Radical Secularism and take defensive measures: stop foreign aid for Mosques, ban the Burka, encourage loyalty to the Nation. John Milbank resorts to the friend/enemy binary in his Politics of Virtue, at least in the battle of barbarism versus civilization (read: British Empire).

What did Bernard Lonergan have to say in times of trouble?

As fascism spread across Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, Lonergan wrote as if democracy might prove a botched experiment. But his final chapter of Method in Theology is on communications.  In the final footnote, Lonergan turns to an English gentleman, R. G. Collingwood, who waged the fight against German fascism with his pen. In the New Leviathan Man: Society, Civilization, and Barbarism, Collingwood seizes on an important distinction that has roots in Greek philosophy. Plato, he tells us, had distinguished two types of discussion: eristic and dialectic. In the former—so named for Eris, the goddess of chaos in Greek mythology—you try to prove yourself right and your opponent wrong. In the latter, you try to show that it is your own view with which your opponent really agrees. Dialectic does not think in binary terms, agreement/disagreement, allowing instead the possibility of non-agreement, or better, potential agreement. In other words, the one with whom there is no agreement is not to be thought of as an enemy who disagrees, but as a potential friend. So for Collingwood, war, which is a state of mind, is the eristic of politics: not the continuation of policy but the breakdown of policy.

Lonergan aids us here because more than any other thinker, he gets to the core of what makes this dialectic possible. He calls it “self-transcendence” and it is a matter of asking questions. From some common experience we seek understanding, we reflect on the truth of the matter, and then ask about what is truly worthwhile. He believed that these “transcendental notions” are universal, that they alone make possible the conversion of non-agreement into agreement—and with it, the hope of a civilization that will respect the other person and his or her freedom.

For that reason Lonergan reminded us of those incarnating this virtue. Men like Luigi Sturzo who struggled for the poor as a mayor in Sicily, found harbor in London fleeing Mussolini, and on being made Senator for Life on his return to Italy affirmed, “I am for liberty.” He had discovered dialectic. He struggled, but victory came not in the earthquake, or the cords of iron, but in the still, small voice, the golden cord of a more gentle conversation.

Today’s crisis is one of self-transcendence.

I respect Manent, a long-term critic of the EU, but with Milbank, I voted Remain. The EU represents the ideal of dialectic, even if, at times, the reality is eristic. The situation is complicated, however, and I cannot say how Lonergan would have voted. What does seem clear to me though, is that if we want to avoid the politics of Eris we must find a new way of communicating. As Pope Francis explained last October to the Dialogue (Re) Thinking Europe Project, now is not a time to dig trenches.


The views expressed in this essay belong entirely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lonergan Institute staff or the values of Boston College.