Frederick G. LAWRENCE, The Fragility of Consciousness: Faith, Reason, and the Human Good. Edited by Randall S. Rosenberg & Kevin M. Vander Schel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017. pp. 424. $95.00 hc. ISBN 978-1-4875-0132-7. Reviewed by Paul LACHANCE, Independent Scholar.


Fragility of Consciousness provides a valuable, public introduction to a theologian who, though well-known to Bernard Lonergan scholars, may yet be to many an unfamiliar voice. Lawrence was a student of Lonergan’s in Rome and went on to his doctoral studies in Basel where he wrote his dissertation on Hans-Georg Gadamer and Lonergan. As Lawrence describes it, this engagement of the two great thinkers allowed him to articulate an explanatory account of the ontological structure of Gadamer’s hermeneutic circle by giving priority to being in love and the influence of grace and heritage (development from above), on the one hand, and personal discovery and responsibility (development from below), on the other.  The essays contained in this collection illustrate Lawrence’s development of these themes in an ongoing dialogue between German philosophical and Catholic intellectual traditions. The general field in which Lawrence plies his trade is political theology, in which he highlights the roles of language, culture, and the Trinitarian Missions in development from above.

Lawrence’s essays have much to offer, including insightful interpretations of his interlocutors—for example, Heidegger’s exegesis of Augustine’s Confessions, Book X; Gadamer’s rehabilitation of phronesis; Pope Benedict XV and Habermas on postmetaphysical thinking; as well as, Lonergan’s understanding of verbum, liberty, and conversion—and his own reading of Western culture and the exegesis of subjectivity in terms of conversation. But the central, ennobling feature of his work is the way Lawrence enacts hermeneutics both of suspicion and of charity. This amounts to a courageous endeavor to examine authors on their own terms and at their best, without failing to acknowledge their worse when it is absolutely necessary. And even then, Lawrence finds something positive, as in his ability to recast nihilistic tendencies of deconstruction as concern for the other within a Christian reading of social dialectic. In all of this, Lawrence seeks, as Lonergan explained, “to bring [conflict] to light, and to provide a technique that objectifies subjective differences and promotes conversion.” The loving objectification of conflict for the sake of conversion is the awesome undertaking Lawrence set for himself in his scholarship, teaching, and participation in a variety of communities of discourse. In short, this is his intellectual apostolate.

This central feature of the work constitutes Lawrence’s embodiment of Lonergan’s notion of methodical theology, and it may well pose a challenge to readers outside the circle of Lonergan scholarship. In the Author’s Preface, Lawrence notes, “The editors have correctly understood that in these articles I have chiefly performed what Bernard Lonergan in Method in Theology explained as the functional specialty of ‘dialectics.”” The function of dialectic succeeds upon interpretation and history, presupposing those specialties, and does not re-enact the work of interpreters and historians. Indeed, as noted, these essays provide a wealth of insights and explanations that are of inestimable value to readers. But many authors and ideas are touched upon only briefly and apparently summarily. In key instances, these many authors become players in an intergenerational drama illustrative of a horizon operative in the social dialectic, as in Lawrence’s analysis of the language by which the modern turn to subject is both mediated and truncated, in the central essay, “The Fragility of Conscious: Lonergan and the Postmodern Concern for the Other”. The reader may well come away with a sense of the incompleteness of the argument, where the requisite interpretations and histories are assumed and not spelled out.

In such cases, Lawrence is not principally doing either interpretation or history. The dialectician builds upon the understandings that have emerged during the great conversations of the past and present without foreclosing on other ways of interpreting ancient authors. Similarly, one may critically engage works of history all the while acknowledging that competing histories abound, and better ones may yet be written. It belongs to the dialectician to work with an idealized version of the past, knowingly presenting it as better than it was. It is through dialectic that Lawrence brings conflict to light and seeks a technique for objectifying subjective differences and promoting conversion. This work highlights the broader horizon within which better interpretations and more adequate histories might be written, and it also highlights the kind of subjectivity required of those who would undertake to do that work.

A second challenge arises from the nature of Lawrence’s work as a conversational theologian. Some of the essays included in the volume are occasional, in which Lawrence engages the thought of the people around him. For example, the influence of his friend and colleague, Fr. Earnest Fortin, is evidenced both in an essay written in Fortin’s honor and elsewhere. Here the reader is witness to a profound, on-going conversation. While Lawrence is careful to explain his terms and to observe the pedagogic cannons of scope and sequence as he leads his reader into this conversation, and while there is much to be gleaned from the content of the conversation as presented, nonetheless the reader faces questions of praxis and conversion: Is this conversation worth my time and energy? Is it worthwhile for me to do my homework so that I can take my part in it as an equal participant? It may not be, and yet it may be worth finding out how one might transpose Lawrence’s dialectical style into one’s own conversations. More broadly, these essays provoke deeper existential questions: Do I possess the requisite capacity “for admiration and for friendship”, which Lawrence avers is indispensable to “serious learning, liberal education, and authentic philosophy and theology”? The beauty of these essays is how they both speak about Lawrence’s conception of conversation and conversion as praxis and embody it performatively.

Finally, for Lonergan, methodical theology occurs in two phases, one of listening and one of speaking, and it heads toward communication in which the Body of Christ is sustained and strengthened in loving preaching and conversation. Dialectics occurs in the listening phase. The kind of church we are becoming is overdetermined by the manner in which we do our theology all along the line, as well as our preaching. Fragility of Consciousness superbly illustrates listening with the ears of the heart and witnesses to the depth and breadth of Professor Lawrence’s insight, scholarship, and Christian charity. In Bok XII of Confessions, Augustine, the ambitious rhetor, imagines what he would have liked to have achieved had he been Moses, commanded to write the book of Genesis—that nothing beyond the reader’s capacity be rejected as untrue and that all might find reflected in the book any truth they happened to have come upon already. Lawrence’s constitutional humility would in no way allow him to aspire, even in fantasy, to such exalted heights. Yet, it may be said for those interested in interpretation, history, dialectics, or for that matter any of the other five of Lonergan’s eight functional specialties, as well as those who labor under the hegemony of omnicompetence, these essays present something worth cherishing.