Front Page


The Cynthia Crysdale Interview

Dr. Cynthia Crysdale is professor of theology at Catholic University in Washington D.C. She did her doctoral thesis on Lonergan, Kolhberg, and moral development. She is the editor of the book Lonergan and Feminism published by University of Toronto Press. She has published a number of articles in Lonergan studies including most recently "Revisioning Natural Law Ethics" in Theological Studies. Her new book is titled Embracing Travail:Retrieving the Cross Today published by Continuum. Dr. Crysdale sat down with Christine Jamieson and Paul Allen after the Lonergan and Feminism mini-conference at the Eastern Regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion in April 1999.

This interview is copyright by The Lonergan Web Site, 1999. All Rights Reserved.

1. How were you introduced to the work of Bernard Lonergan?

Well, it is hard to answer that without telling a few anecdotes. I didn't know anything about Lonergan when I was studying in Toronto. I had done my undergraduate work at York University and then decided I wanted to study theology. I spent a year at Wycliffe college after which I went to the Institute of Christian Studies at Saint Michael's College. So I ended up in this Catholic context although I grew up a Presbyterian. I was at that point an Anglican. There are several pieces here. In the middle of the 1970s in the evangelical Anglican circle when I was at Wycliffe there was a lot of polarization between people accepting biblical criticism and those who did not. Many of my evangelical friends who took the introduction to the Bible course called it "Introduction to Heresy." I was very glad when I moved on to Saint Mike's because there seemed to be a better integration of scholarship and prayer. In the Roman Catholic context there didn't seem to be the anti-intellectualism that there sometimes is in the evangelical context.

Any way, the first course I took was Foundations in Theology. The first section was the "mediation of revelation" through scripture, and the second section was "mediation of revelation" via the magisterium. This was very strange to me. It was all Rahner language which I had never encountered before. But when we started talking about the Bible I got quite frantic, because there were issues of the authority of the Bible. I had taken Greek, thinking that if I knew Greek I could get back to the real, real truth. I found it interesting that a lot of the questions that I had about the authority of the Bible were questions that my Catholic friends were just not very interested in, until we got to the section on the mediation of revelation via the magisterium. Then all hell broke loose, because the Catholics wanted to know what the nature of this authority was. My Roman Catholic friends were asking the exact same questions about the Magisterium as I and my Protestant friends were asking about the Bible.

In the meantime, I had gone to visit my professor because I was full of all these questions, such as "How do I know the authority of the bible?" and "How can I trust it?" At one point, I said "How do I know that what the Bible says is true?" She very wisely turned to me and said, "I think what you are asking is 'How do I know anything is true?'" The next thing she said was "I think you should have a conversation with my husband." Well, of course, my professor was Margaret O'Gara and her husband was Michael Vertin (who ended up directing my dissertation). I'm not sure that I immediately went and had a conversation with him, but I finally took a course on conversion with Tad Dunne, who was teaching at Regis College. That was really my introduction to Lonergan, under the guise of a course on conversion. It seemed much more palatable to good-old-evangelical-protestant-me, then some high brow philosophical course. I snuck into Lonergan studies with a lot of reflection papers on intellectual conversion, moral conversion, religious conversion, etc.

So there were a lot of players, but certainly the first real introduction was through Tad Dunne. Intellectually, the journey was from this big evangelical protestant question on the truth of scripture to the question of how you know anything is true. I did discover that a lot of the stuff that Lonergan had to say really addressed those questions. One thing lead to another and I started to read Insight. I did my dissertation on Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development, actually on the moral philosophy that underpins it, rather than a sociological or psychological study. It is really a critique of Kohlberg's own moral philosophy, which he tried to generate as a defense of his approach. I use Lonergan to critique the use of the natural science model within the human sciences.

I would like also to mention that I did at one time take some extensive courses with Bob Doran which were a real help. I did a whole year of Insight with him that was eye-openning, as well as a graduate students seminar on human science in which he presented the ideas that he was developing for Theology and the Dialectics of History. So I was very fortunate to have a chance to work through Insight very carefully with Doran and to hear a lot of the material he was developing in his own words.

2. Lonergan is at times dismissed as a Thomist, rationalist, transcendentalist, subjectivist. In terms of your own work, how do you go about introducing Lonergan in the midst of these negative impressions?

There is no question that in some circles Lonergan does generate a negative response. Sometimes I think that people get discouraged because they see Lonergan as hugely complicated, not unlike reading Gadamer or Heidegger. At other times people react negatively to Lonergan because he makes normative claims, which is a controversial thing to do in philosophy and even in theology. Now, being dismissed as a Thomist, rationalist, transcendentalist, subjectivist, are all very different kinds of complaints. I think that everyone who has worked at any length with Lonergan has reconciled these complaints, or has seen that he really does fit a middle ground.

A couple things to highlight. The first concerns "praxis" and the complaint that Lonergan is too abstract or esoteric. In fact, Lonergan insists on attending to what you actually do when you are doing it. Technically, this is what Lonergan calls "self-appropriation." The key is to get people to grasp that the issue in understanding Lonergan is not understanding Lonergan, but understanding yourself-- understanding what it is you are doing when you are doing certain things. Second, there is a need to broaden the context of teaching Lonergan or talking about Lonergan beyond the merely cognitive, to understanding about value, the existential dimensions and the religious dimensions of Lonergan's thought.

Third, one of Lonergan's biggest contributions is epistemological. I think that a lot of controversies that we have at present come down to differing epistemologies underneath the questions that are debated. I do see epistemology as foundational to a lot of issues, but in trying to defend Lonergan, to explain Lonergan, I find it helpful to point out that he really is just talking about people. Even in Method in Theology, with the functional specialities, you must think of them as kinds of tasks that, in fact, people already do. That's the key thing. It is not saying, "Well, this is the way you ought to operate." It is trying to get people to recognize that this what they are already doing. If they are doing a dissertation or if they are doing an article, they had to do some research and they are doing some interpretation, etc.. All these things are already going on. It is just a question of isolating them and naming them.

The other thing that I have found helpful, particularly in teaching, (and I will attribute this advice to Michael Vertin) is that starting with intellectual conversion - reflection on experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding -- can run into problems. The advice from Michael Vertin was to start first with belief and the difference between believing and self-generated knowledge. You begin by acknowledging that the bulk of what we know we know because somebody else told it to us and we trust them as sources or as experts. Then talk about how we generate knowledge in some instances as we figure things out for ourselves. Some times if you start with the latter, then people get all confused because, in fact, there is a lot that people know that didn't come from their own experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding. It actually came from a judgment of value that I am going to trust my car mechanic, for example, when he tells me I need new tires. Sometimes we trust people at great costs. So, the aim is not to confuse students in trying to fit all of their knowledge into the rubric of experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding, which actually only applies to a pretty small, pretty narrow piece of what we actually know.

Does this relate to the distinction between faith and belief?

Lonergan usually talks about faith as the knowledge born of religious love. If there is a distinction, then "beliefs" would be the codification of certain truths coming out of faith. I think this is in some ways more salient in Lonergan's discussion of Belief in the chapter on the human good in Method, where he points out the problem of the bifurcation of reason and faith, religion and science. The common presumption is that science has to do with reason and religion is a question of belief. What Lonergan tries to point out is that, in fact, belief has everything to do with science. No scientist reinvents the wheel with every new project. Even in the realm of science or facts we are very dependent on what we believe from others. Then, there is the self-correcting process of learning, so that if something some one else has told us doesn't bear out in further experiment or in the way we live, then it raises new questions; you go back to the drawing board, you examine evidence, etc. So, one of the things Lonergan points out is the role of belief in all knowledge, including scientific knowledge. It is not that on the one side there is the immanently generated knowledge of science, which is real reason, real knowledge. And then there is opinion and belief over on the other side, having to do with religion. In terms of belief, knowledge operates in the same way for both science and religion.

3. In a nutshell, how would describe your attempt at reworking natural law ethics based upon emergent probability?

That's still in the early stages. I wrote one article. There is still lots I would like to do. The notion of natural law is a basis, a foundation of ethics. This is certainly more true in the Catholic tradition then the Protestant tradition. Natural law ethics emerged out of a different world view, a kind of static world view of the Middle Ages. It wasn't that people didn't realize that things changed, but that they assumed things changed according to regularities and according to a clear schema and order. The notion was that God created the world with a certain order. So they attended to that structure of the world in order to form the basis of what ought to be. That God created the world in a certain way tells us something about how things should be used or not.

I think that this all got blown open starting with Galileo, you know, the sun doesn't go around the earth but visa versa, but then, absolutely, with Darwin. Certainly, the notion that we live in an evolving universe and that not only does our knowledge change as it develops, but that people change, even the earth itself changes; What does that do to the notion that God created a certain order as a blue print of how we are to behave? Then, the question becomes, "Is every thing infinitely expandable, changeable, malleable, such that natural law is no longer useful to us?" So, what I tried to do was to say, "What would natural law look like in light of emergent probability?"

In some ways, the clearest way to ask that question -- one illustration of where this came into trouble -- is around the Roman Catholic teaching over artificial contraception. It is very much based on the notion of natural law as a single causality; that A causes B--basically that sexual intercourse causes conception and anything that interrupts that is, therefore, wrong, intrinsically evil. The problem is that that whole notion of causality--that A causes B--is based upon a classicist model of the world. Once that shifts to emergent probability, in fact, we understand conception to take place in a very different way--it is a matter of statistics. So, you now have the whole realm of statistical law rather than just the classical law of causality. In fact, the conception of children falls into the former category; it's a matter of statistics. The more often you have intercourse, the more likely you are to get pregnant. If you abstain all together you are not likely to get pregnant. So, part of the problem is that our biology shifted, but our theology and ethics didn't.

Given this shift in our biology, the ethical question changes to "How can one shift the probabilities?" "Are there ways of shifting the probabilities, either of getting pregnant or of not getting pregnant, which are not to be sanctioned, which are not acceptable?" Surely there are; for example, coercion, forced sterilization. So, it's not that there aren't ethical limits. It is just that now the question has to be posed in terms of affecting probability rather than in terms of interrupting a sacred single causality between A and B. That's a simple example, but there are a lot more, like the ecological crisis, that are much more complex. Even now, many people who fight ecological and environmental battles still tend to think of humans over here and the environment over there, and that humans shouldn't interrupt what's going on over there. It is not just a Catholic thing. Many people still have this conception of not bothering the environment, but in fact we are all part of a very complex web of relationships and causalities and emergent probabilities. So, the question is one of likelihood; for example, with genetic technologies, "Can we, or ought we not, affect the gene pool in terms of what is available for further possible emergences?"

Where I'm not clear is in the notion of horizontal finality. Are there limits? Do certain species, certain organisms, or certain actions have a horizontal finality of their own that ought not to be interrupted in light of vertical finality? I don't know. I still haven't understood those concepts well enough to see how they fit. Somehow in terms of the environment and in terms of genetics, it seems to me that we can't say that the sky is the limit. We have to say that there are certain inherent finalities. But what is the relationship between the horizontal finality and vertical finality? In terms of the human species, can the horizontal finality be sacrificed in the service of vertical finality? I have a long way to go on that one.

4. In your article "Horizons that Differ: Women and Men and the Flight from Understanding" you write in footnote number 20, "The fact that authentic openness can and does lead to further vulnerability and oppression introduces the law of the cross and the fact that suffering may be the only authentic persuasive tactic at some point." Can you elaborate on this point? In terms of radical conversion, is there not more that can be done?

You're quoting me back to myself and, of course, I don't remember exactly the context, except that that article was about different kinds of differences and exploring complementary differences, genetic differences, and dialectical differences (those are Lonergan's terms) and the ways in which those differences are overcome. Overcoming developmental difference, in theory, is a matter of time and growth and education. Complementary differences are perspectival. A lot of the feminist literature points to the different perspectives that people bring from different horizons, different worlds, the social locations that they live in. In theory, those are complementary--some of them are complementary--although it is very hard work to discover what the commonalities are. Of course, there are a lot of post-moderns who question whether these differences are complementary or, rather, just so distinctive that there is no commonality.

I think that this particular footnote you quote probability had to do with dialectical differences, in which there is diametrical opposition. If nothing else, in any study, or negotiation, or mediation, it is very helpful if you can at least isolate just what the rub is; What are the points on which we simply don't agree? To simply state those is going a long way. The thing is that the nature of dialectical differences is that they cannot be reconciled without one person being converted to the other person's position. In some ways, this is where Lonergan's analysis cuts deeper than many who seem to be doing radical critiques. Some don't recognize the depths of dialectical differences. So, it is not a matter of everyone just agreeing to get along. Some procedures for communication and for living together are certainly important. But when there really are differences at root the only way to reconcile--or to bring two parties or two groups together--is for one group to be converted to the other's position. Now, it may be that there are aspects of both people or both groups that need some kind of conversion towards authenticity. It may not be clearly that one group is right and the other is wrong. The issue becomes a matter of persuasion. It is a question of persuading the other person to change his or her position.

How do you do that? One option is coercion. You give incentives or you provide threats. Then, you get into power tactics; who has more power and how can you use that power to persuade some one else? Now, normally coercion can have a quick and useful instant effect, but it does not necessarily convert the person over the long haul. I would say that coercion, certainly in the Christian tradition, is a method of persuasion that God rejected and that Jesus rejected. Basically, Jesus opted instead to say that it is better to suffering evil than do evil. Thus, your better means of persuasion is love and whatever sacrifices or sufferings that that love entails. Many people would say that coercion is much more efficacious, that it produces results. But it doesn't really change people. Given the option between coercion and non-violent resistance, suffering may be more authentic and, in fact, more persuasive. This is the way in the Christian tradition that martyrdom has, in fact, been a very persuasive strategy and tactic. It is a method against the powers that be. I'm thinking of Archbishop Romero who becomes even more of a hero after his death. Even Nelson Mandela, who wasn't killed, but by his imprisonment then becomes an icon or symbol that manages to gather everyone's energies; psychic and social energies around other persuasive tactics. I'm thinking now of Mandela, having read his autobiography. The ANC did embrace violence though he would say they weren't terrorist tactics. So, then, the question becomes whether the use of violence ever becomes a legitimate persuasive tactic.

5. What are you working on now?

I have a book that just came out in May 1999 called Embracing Travail:Retrieving the Cross Today. It is around the issue of suffering. There has been good feminist critique of the theology of suffering throughout the Christian tradition. This tradition has at times valorized suffering, valorized pain, either as deserved or as meritorious. This I think is a very distorted view of suffering. I am not saying that the entire history of Atonement Theory is a lost cause. But the way in which it has been used in the tradition, particularly against women and anyone on the underside of power and minorities, is not adequate. There is a chapter in the book that also tells the horrible story of the ways in which missions took place in the last 200 or 300 years, with the assumption that people of other cultures were barbarians and that they needed to suffer more because they were more sinful. The cross was very much emphasized as a means of salvation.

There is also a feminist critique of the fact that sin usually has been understood as pride in the Christian tradition and that the antidote to sin is therefore repentance and self-negation. The feminist critique is that, for women, that's a double whammy. Many women have already experienced themselves as oppressed or as denigrated. So, to tell them that their problem is pride and they have to go humble themselves is simply fuel for the fire; it just makes things worse. I have tried to retrieve a notion of redemption that looks at both sides; not only perpetrators of sin who need forgiveness, but the victims of sin who need some kind of healing. I try to re-appropriate a theology of redemption in terms of victims and perpetrators. I hate to use that language because it bifurcates everything as if the whole world is made up of perpetrators over here and victims over there. One of the things that I say in the book is that everyone--this is perhaps the most controversial thing -- is both a victim and a perpetrator. The true redemptive process won't meet its complete fulfilment unless we come to terms with both. That's not to say that there are no power differentials in the world and that those who are victimized do not need to be heard. It's not that you do not want to give equal time, but that at some point just blaming perpetrators is not adequate. Unless they can come to terms with their own victimization, they are never going to be able to ask for forgiveness. As important as naming victimization is, it alone won't bring about a redemptive, transformative process.

6. You mentioned once your work with a group of women in Minnesota, what has happened with this group?

I was on sabbatical at the Ecumenical Institute at St. John's University in Collegeville a couple of years ago, when seven out of the nine scholars there were women. We discovered that, in our attempts to write, there was a question of voice--how to bring our own voices to the fore and not just do reportage of other people's ideas--to have the confidence to speak in our own voices. As well, there's also the issue of the personal, spiritual aspects of our lives and how these affect our academic work, and the courage to bring that into our academic work rather than separating our lives from our theologizing; separating our thinking from the rest of ourselves. We got together a year later with some other women and this year I got a grant from the Wabash Centre for Teaching and Learning to have an official event. In March of 1999 I got seventeen women together--three from Canada--the rest were quite a mix of denominations and geography and social locations. All had degrees in theology or experience teaching theology. The name of the gathering was "Voice and Vocation: Women Finding a Middle Way in Theology." It was very successful in terms of discovering that a lot of the questions that we had had two years previously met a common chord on the issue of integration-- thinking of our work as a vocation and the integration of our spiritual lives with our theological work without apology. The other thing was the issue of being a feminist and finding that in some circles in the academy we weren't considered real feminists because we still had religious commitments; and that there is really an anti-religious movement even with women studying religion. But, on the other hand, in certain church contexts or religious contexts we were considered radicals because we were feminists. This was just a beginning to find a middle way. I hope to pursue this. Certainly, the women in this group were very enthusiastic in terms of, perhaps, a book or a further gathering. My guess is that there are a number of women and not just women but men as well-- to not make it just a gender thing--who are struggling with their personal integration and their scholarship. As I read it, our theological institutions are not doing a very good job at this integration. Many of these institutions remain hostile to the whole person as scholar. On the other hand, many people have discovered a great energy in allowing their personal questions, agendas, struggles, journeys, to drive their academic work. In fact, that goes back to a medieval idea where prayer and theology went together.

7. Where do you see Lonergan scholarship going in the future?

My immediate thought is that there are two avenues or two ways that the Lonergan thing has emerged. One is what I would call Lonergan exegesis--the study of Lonergan's work itself. It is trying to understand exactly what he meant by certain things. This can be seen with the work in Toronto of the Lonergan Research Institute. I know that this is one of Fred Crowe's personal objectives; to get as much of Lonergan as possible in the public eye and to be as accurate as possible about what Lonergan said. It is simply to make the data available. This is the work of research, interpretation, history, dialectics within Lonergan's thought itself. There is also a lot of this that goes on at Boston College. For my own work, there are certain people that I appeal to--Ken Melchin and Michael Vertin--when I want to make sure that I have a piece of Lonergan straight. Now, this is still emerging; people are stilling trying to figure out just what Lonergan meant by, say, conversion or the mediation of meaning or whatever. There are also instances in which Lonergan gave hints but did not himself expand on, for example, the role of feelings in decision making. The "apprehension of values by feeling" is already an expression that has had a lot of ink split over it. In general, the whole level of moral deliberation is still something that people are trying to unpack, because it is more complicated than judgements of fact, yet quite similar.

Second, there is the development of Lonergan in relation to other topics that Lonergan himself did not confront, such as the environment. I have just finished directing a dissertation by Ted Nunez, who compares the work of Homes Rolston and Lonergan. Anne Marie Dalton has done a dissertation which is now in book form the University of Ottawa Press on Tomas Berry and Lonergan. Some of this is a critique of Lonergan, for example, that he didn't recognize the anthropocentric focus of Western Christian philosophy. Lonergan dealt with a lot, but that just was not one of the questions that was salient. The further we get, time-wise, from his life, the more we are going to end up with issues that never confronted Lonergan, such as some feminist questions and some economic questions like the Third World debt. That's to say that, we're going to be confronted with new questions to which Lonergan must be applied.

The nature of Lonergan's work is that he provides a heuristic. A key aspect that one must point out in teaching Lonergan is the heuristic structure of his work. In theory, it will endure in its applicability. But, that's a different kind of work; an upper blade and lower blade distinction. So, there is Lonergan exegesis and interpretation and there is the development and application of his thought. There are different people doing both and both are pretty important.

Thank you Cynthia for talking with us this evening!

Top of Page

The Lonergan Website. The Cynthia Crysdale Interview for The Lonergan Web Site. 22 Oct. 1999. < > (Your access date).