Lonergan to the Rescue

There have been times I’ve gotten help from a professional, occasionally even a stranger, that’s made all the difference in the world. I’m thinking in particular of a dentist who pulled a tooth after I’d suffered an agonizing night of pain. Then there was the mechanic in the middle of nowhere.

He took three hours to fix my flat and then replace my damaged wheel, which had fused with the axel. He charged me-a short-on-funds student at the time-a pittance. More recently, after I had undergone a series of expensive but inconclusive heart tests I found a doctor who discovered that my chest pain was caused by an out-of-joint shoulder girdle. She snapped it back into place and my pain vanished.

As a teacher, every so often I get some gratifying feedback, but I doubt it is as often as dentists, mechanics, and doctors do. And as a theologian and writer, I rarely have a sense that I am directly helping someone. I console myself with Bernard Lonergan’s admonition about being “supremely practical by ignoring what is thought to be really practical.” But recently I got a taste of what it feels like to pull a tooth, fix an axel, or deliver a freeing diagnosis.

A dental hygienist I know-I’ll call her Jane-presented me with a difficulty she was facing. She and her husband are serious about their faith, and the week before they had hosted her husband’s sister and four other guests. The visitors were from around the country and they were attending a faith-sharing session at a local retreat house. Jane didn’t attend the seminar because she was having neighbors over. When Jane’s husband, sister-in-law, and the other guests returned home late that night, they walked in on a lively discussion in a room full of the smell of cigarette smoke and alcohol.

The mood turned a bit awkward and the party soon broke up. It was then that Jane’s sister-in-law announced that she sensed evil spirits in the house and said that it needed to be exorcised. Several days later, she led Jane from corner to corner in the house and prayed to ward off the evil spirits there.

Jane seemed distressed. On the one hand, she said, she was uneasy about having her sister-in-law do an exorcism on her house. On the other hand, she sensed that her sister-in-law and her friends were holy people. How could she object? What, she asked, did I think she should do if this happened again?

Lonergan came to the rescue again. I told Jane about his understanding of the three different types of conversion. The first is religious conversion. That is when someone is so in love with God that he or she is recognizably holy. Next, there is moral conversion, which makes one unselfish and good. And, finally, there is intellectual conversion, which helps us sort out issues regarding religious ideas and the nature of reality. Although the three types of conversion are interrelated, we can and ought to distinguish among them. Unfortunately, they don’t always occur at the same time.

Jane appeared to follow what I was saying. I went on to explain that it’s possible to be religiously converted without being intellectually converted. That being the case, it is also possible that someone who is authentically holy and perhaps even good can still carry around ideas that are confused, or even downright false.

Jane seemed exceedingly grateful for this insight. You would have thought I had snapped a dislocated joint back into place. While she could still acknowledge real holiness in her sister-in-law, Jane felt she now had grounds on which to decline future exorcisms.

I love being a theologian. Generally, I’m fairly content knowing that it’s “supremely practical” to focus on things that others don’t consider practical. But once in a while, it’s gratifying to offer direct help to someone like Jane. I suppose it’s the theological equivalent of fixing a flat.

Published in the 2007-11-09 issue: 

Dennis M. Doyle is professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton.

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