Lonergan on the Problem of Authenticity

In our time, said the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan, an “agonizing question” has arisen, “namely, how can one tell whether one’s appropriation of religion is genuine or unauthentic and, more radically, how can one tell one is not appropriating a religious tradition that has become unauthentic.”1

So the problem of authenticity occurs on two levels: the minor level of the individual in relation to their tradition, and the major level of the tradition itself.2

On a minor level, individual people might “ask themselves whether or not they are genuine Catholics or Protestants, Moslems or Buddhists,” etc. They might conclude that they are, and they may be correct—but they might also be incorrect. They may have appropriated some of the ideals demanded by the tradition, but there are other ways in which they have diverged from the tradition.

Whether from selective inattention, or a failure to understand, or an undetected rationalization, the divergence exists. What I am is one thing, what a genuine Christian is is another, and I am unaware of the difference. My unawareness is unexpressed. Indeed, I have no language to express what I really am, so I use the language of the tradition I unauthentically appropriate, and thereby I devaluate, distort, water down, corrupt that language.3

It’s important to understand what he is and is not saying here. He is not saying that there is one true form of a religious tradition, and that any divergence from that one true form is tantamount to inauthenticity. (Note that where Lonergan uses “unauthentic,” etc., I find it more natural to write “inauthentic.” I mean the same thing.) On the contrary, there is always the possibility of authentic progress when people understand the genuine ideals of their tradition and know what they’re doing when they effect change. It’s when people are inauthentic—when they are insufficiently attentive, when they fail to understand or be fully reasonable or responsible—that they appropriate their tradition inauthentically.

Such devaluation, distortion, corruption may occur only in scattered individuals, and then there occurs unauthenticity in its minor form. But it may also occur on a more massive scale, and then the words are repeated but the meaning is gone. The chair is still the chair of Moses, but it is occupied by scribes and Pharisees. The theology is still Scholastic, but the Scholasticism is decadent. The religious order still reads out the rules and studies the constitutions, but one may doubt whether the home fires are still burning.4

When a tradition becomes inauthentic, and when an individual takes that inauthentic tradition as normative, the best they can do authentically realise inauthenticity. This, Lonergan says, “is unauthenticity in its tragic form, for then the best of intentions combine with a hidden decay.”5

When this is the case, the individual has to meet the problem of authenticity on both levels: “Not only have they to undo their own lapses from righteousness,” Lonergan says, “but more grievously they have to discover what is wrong in the tradition they have inherited and they have to struggle against the massive undertow it sets up.”6

Lonergan adds that “the problem is not tradition but unauthenticity in the formation and transmission of tradition. The cure is not the undoing of tradition but the undoing of its unauthenticity”:7

The cure is not the undoing of tradition, for that is beyond our power. It is only through socialization, acculturation, education, that we come to know that there is such a thing as tradition, that it has its defects, its dangers, its seductions, that there are evils to be remedied. To learn as much is already to be a product of the tradition, to share its biases, to be marked in a manner that we can change only in the light of what we have learnt and in the directions that such learning opens up. However much we may react, criticize, endeavor to bring about change, the change itself will always be just another stage of the tradition, at most a new era, but one whose motives and whose goals—for all their novelty—will bear the imprint of their past. The issue is not tradition, for as long as men survive, there will be tradition, rich or impoverished, good and evil. The issue is the struggle of authenticity against unauthenticity, and that struggle is part and parcel of the human condition…8

The struggle against the minor form of inauthenticity has long been recognised. So St. Paul, for instance, exhorted the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith,” (2 Cor 13.5) to see, that is, whether you have authentically appropriated what has been handed down to you. It seems to me that the need for this particular struggle is universally recognised, even if it is not universally achieved.

The need for the more radical struggle, on the other hand, is a matter of some controversy. While there are many who recognise that their tradition has been distorted by inauthenticity, there many more who do not. There are some, indeed, who think it rather impious merely to consider the idea. Much of the conflict in the Church is over precisely this point, so it is a matter of considerable importance.

The authenticity of a tradition depends on the personal authenticity of the individuals who begin and transmit the tradition (which ultimately amounts to everyone within the tradition, to some extent). So it is important to understand what personal authenticity involves. I’ll continue by exploring some of his ideas on the subject.

[continuation forthcoming]


[1] Lonergan, “Religious Knowledge,” 130. (All of the quotations in this post have been taken from two lectures Lonergan gave in 1976 that were subsequently published in A Third Collection. Some of the material Lonergan used in his lecture can be found in Lonergan, Method in Theology, 80.

[2] See Lonergan, “Religious Experience,” 120.

[3] Lonergan, “Religious Experience,” 121.

[4] Lonergan, “Religious Experience,” 121.

[5] Lonergan, “Religious Experience,” 121.

[6] Lonergan, “Religious Experience,” 121.

[7] Lonergan, “Religious Experience,” 121-122.

[8] Lonergan, “Religious Experience,” 122.


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