Arts and Culture

Distortions That Are Obstacles to Freedom

by Father Robert Lauder

Thirteenth in a series

ONE OF THE humorous experiences that I have had may be one that many teachers have. A former student approaches me and says what a great teacher I am and how much he learned from my lectures. As I am about to swell with pride, the student will say something to completely deflate me.

One former student, after praising my teaching ability, said, “I will never forget the way that you taught Bernard Lonergan’s vision of human knowing.” When the student starts to praise me, I am delighted but when he identifies me as the professor who taught Lonergan, my ego is flattened. I never taught Lonergan! It was another professor.

As I read Father Michael Paul Gallagher’s treatment of Lonergan in Faith Maps: Ten Religious Explorers fromNewman to Joseph Ratzinger (New York: Paulist Press, 2010, 158 pages, $16.95), I wish that I had had the opportunity to teach Lonergan because Father Gallagher makes Lonergan’s vision very attractive. When I think of Catholic philosophers and theologians who had an enormous impact on Catholic theology in the 20th century, Lonergan’s name comes to mind almost immediately.

Lonergan came to believe that the best way of dealing with the question of God is on the level of our freedom. But just how free are we? I believe that our culture puts all sorts of obstacles in the way of our freedom. One obstacle is that people are not encouraged or helped to deal with life’s most important questions.

Lonergan points out three distortions that can be obstacles to freedom. The first he called “individual bias,” the second, “group bias,” and the third he viewed as a preference for short-term pragmatism which prevents people from getting at the root of things. I think all three distortions work against our being open not only to questions about God but also being receptive to God’s presence in our lives.

The “individual bias” means that someone places himself or herself at the center of reality and acts as though that view of self is correct. I think of a person who is narcissistic, self-centered and unable or unwilling to raise important questions about the meaning of self and the meaning of creation. Lonergan says that even if self-centered persons are tempted to think that perhaps they’re involved in a self-deception, they dismiss the temptation. Self-centered persons have to be challenged but as long as someone is locked up within himself or herself, it’s difficult for the person to be aware of God’s presence and action in his or her consciousness and conscience. The only “voice’ that person hears is his or her own.

The second obstacle is “group bias.” I see this often today. The group drags the person down. Instead of inspiring and challenging an individual, the group does the opposite. More than 150 years ago, the philosopher and religious thinker Soren Kierkegaard warned about the dangers of the crowd or mob. It’s a great temptation to do what everyone else is doing. The illusion is created that if we go along with the crowd we will be safe. However because everyone is doing something does not make the action right or the best thing to do.

Some seminarians tell me that some of their contemporaries are surprised that a seminarian wants to be a priest. When their friends sound surprised, I suggest that the seminarians use the comeback line, “You don’t?” Every vocation — priesthood, marriage, single life — has dangers and involves risks. The only way to be saved and to receive redemption is to die to self and make a commitment to God. This is true for every human person.
The third obstacle, a preference for short-term pragmatism, I understand to be the choice for immediate, shallow answers to problems instead of trying to enter more deeply into the mystery of life and love and to be receptive to the mystery of God. People don’t have to become professional philosophers. However, they should be ready to confront questions about the meaning of their lives and whether they’re entering more deeply into relationship with God or whether they have moved God to the fringes of their lives.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.