Thomas Merton on Authenticity

A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It "consents," so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.

The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like Him. If it tried to be like something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give Him less glory.

No two created beings are exactly alike. And their individuality is no imperfection. On the contrary, the perfection of each created thing is not merely in its conformity to an abstract type but in its own individual identity with itself. This particular tree will give glory to God by spreading out its roots in the earth and raising its branches into the air and the light in a way that no other tree before or after it ever did or will do.

Do you imagine that the individual created things in the world arc imperfect attempts at reproducing an ideal type which the Creator never quite succeeded in actualizing on earth? If that is so they do not give Him glory but proclaim that He is not a perfect Creator.

Therefore each particular being, in its individuality, its concrete nature and entity, with all its own characteristics and its private qualities and its own inviolable identity, gives glory to God by being precisely what He wants it to be here and now, in the circumstances ordained for it by His Love and His infinite Art.
-- New Seeds of Contemplation, 29-30

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NCR Interview with Paul Knitter

The National Catholic Reporter has posted an interesting interview with Paul Knitter about his latest book, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian.

Knitter doesn't really say anything in the interview that isn't in the book, but if you haven't read it but think you might find it interesting, the interview is worth checking out.

I wrote a review of the book last summer. I indicated that I was going to write more about it, but for some reason never really got around to it for some reason. Maybe this summer, who knows.

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New Summer Plan

With the school year nearing it's end, and my summer holiday at hand, I've been giving some thought about what to do with my various blogs. I'll have a lot of time to write this summer, so I should have more time to devote to blogging than usual. (Of course, I say that at the beginning of every summer, and it never really works out that way...)

I was going to use this blog for my more theologically and philosophically-oriented blog posts, but instead I'm going to use my much-neglected known|unknown site for that -- it's already been redesigned, and I've started revising and posting some of my earlier posts about the philosophy of Bernard Lonergan on it. My stuff about James Fowler's faith development theory will be revised and posted there as well. When I write new stuff I'll cross-post it here, or at least mention here that I've posted it there.

This blog will be more of a "whatever I'm thinking (or reading) about today" kind of blog. I might merge the contents of my Bible blog with this one. I like writing about the Bible, but it's too time-consuming to do it regularly, so it's silly to have a separate blog for it.

I'm determined to continue not writing about bishops, though.



Authenticity, Authority, and Obedience, Part I

The espousal of authenticity as a moral ideal is a very modern phenomenon. Charles Taylor has identified its origin in the Romantic period (beginning in the late 18th century), but notes that “it has utterly penetrated popular culture only in recent decades, in the time since the Second World War, if not even closer to the present.”1

At present it competes with not only other modern ideals, but with premodern ones as well. Generally speaking, the dominant premodern ideal, particularly in the Christian West, was obedience to one or another external authority. In religious matters these external authorities would be things like the magisterium of the Church, scripture, etc.

Much of the present division in the Church results from the conflict between those who hold to the older ideal of obedience to external authority and those, who hold to various other ideals, such as the ideal of authenticity. For convenience I’ll sometimes use the term “conventional” to describe the ideal of obedience to an external authority and “post-conventional” to describe the ideal of authenticity. (I recognise, of course, that there are other ideals that might deserve the label “conventional” or “post-conventional,” but I’m not discussing those at present.)

The use of the terms “conventional” and “post-conventional” perhaps needs to be justified. It would seem to suggest that one can hold to the ideal of obedience to external authority before adopting the ideal of authenticity, but not the other way around. I imagine there could be exceptions, but generally this is the way it happens. Generally the ideal of authenticity can only be accepted when one has grasped the fallibility of authority. One can believe in the infallibility of authority and then discover that one was wrong. But one cannot very easily know the fallibility of authority and then forget what one knows. The movement from conventional to post-conventional is properly one of development. Movement in the other direction would be a regression.

It seems to me, then, that the conflict over these two ideals will not be overcome until a lot of people make the transition from conventional to post-conventional. There are powerful forces that make this exceedingly difficult, some within individuals, others that come from without. But part of this, I’m convinced, is that post-conventional approaches have not been articulated and made visible enough to have the kind of effect they ought to have. This is a pressing issue, because disillusionment with authority in the Church has never been higher.

One approach to authority that I think is quite straightforward and compelling is that articulated by Bernard Lonergan, which will be the subject of my next post.


[1] A Secular Age, 299.

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Authenticity, Self-Transcendence, and the Transcendental Precepts

[This rather brief post is primarily intended to explain some of the terminology that will be used in a series of upcoming posts.]

To be who we really are, to be our true selves, is to be authentic. Bernard Lonergan identifies authenticity as our “deepest need and most prized achievement.”1

We achieve authenticity, Lonergan says, through self-transcendence.2 It is through self-transcendence that we come to know what really is true and what truly is good – as opposed to that which only seems to be true or is only apparently good.

We achieve self-transcendence, and therefore authenticity, Lonergan says, by following what he calls the “transcendental precepts”:

  1. Be attentive
  2. Be intelligent
  3. Be reasonable
  4. Be responsible

It is only by being attentive to our experience, intelligent in understanding that experience, reasonable in judging whether our understanding is correct, and responsible in judging whether something is truly of value, that the human subject transcends his or her self.3

To be unauthentic is easy, but authenticity is hard. Authenticity, Lonergan says, “is never some pure and serene and secure possession. It is ever a withdrawal from unauthenticity, and every successful withdrawal only brings to light the need for still further withdrawals.”4

One would be hard-pressed to find someone who would counsel against the transcendental precepts. Still, we frequently disregard them, and this disregard is what Lonergan calls “alienation.” A doctrine that justifies alienation he calls “ideology.”5

(Alienation and ideology are typically the product of one or another form of bias, a complicated topic that I intend to return to in the near future.)


[1] Method, 254.

[2] Method, 104.

[3] The transcendental precepts are necessary to successfully complete the process by which we come to know what is true and what it is of value. I’ve discussed this process – which Lonergan calls “transcendental method” – before (see “Lonergan’s Three Basic Questions”), so I won’t bother explaining it here.

[4] Method, 110. I would prefer to use the term “inauthentic” rather than “unauthentic,” but for the sake of consistency with quotations from Lonergan, I’ll use his term.

[5] Method, 55.

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