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The Charles C. Hefling Interview

Conducted by Paul Allen and Peter Monette for The Lonergan Web Site.

© The Lonergan Web Site 1997 All Rights Reserved.


The following interview with Charles Hefling was done in June 1997 during the Lonergan Workshop at Boston College. Hefling is the author of Why Doctrines? (1984), Jacob's Ladder: Theology and Spirituality of Austin Farrer (1979) and the editor of Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies: Sexuality and the Household of God (1996), Charles Williams: Essential Writings in Spirituality and Theology (1993) all published by Cowley Publishers, Cambridge Mass.. He is an Episcopalian priest and an Associate Professor of Theology at Boston College. The Lonergan Web Site is pleased to present the following interview with Charles Hefling.


When were you first introduced to Bernard Lonergan's work and at what point did you find his work significant for your own thoughts?

Sheer happenstance. There use to be, in Cambridge Massachusetts, a very good religious book store. It is no longer. You could keep up with the current literature, because they had everything. I knew from teachers I had studied with that theological method was important; that there is a question on the board about just what is the discipline that I was trying to study. And I walked into this bookshop and there on the table was a book with a blue dust jacket and the title Method in Theology. (I'll date myself and say that it cost $7.50 hardbound!) I had no idea who Bernard Lonergan was, but it was a reputable press with good things to say on the back of the book.

What happened after that--actually a few years later--was that there was a dearth of theology courses, but a visiting theology professor, Edward Braxton (who had just finished his dissertation with David Tracy) came to Harvard. Braxton gave a course "Method in Theology". I had looked at Lonergan's book enough to know that I didn't understand it. And I thought, "All right this might be worth a semester studying". That was the same year that Lonergan came to Boston College. There were a couple of us in the class who were more interested in the book than others. Braxton said, "You know Lonergan is at Boston College. We should go over". Actually it was Lonergan and Fred Lawrence--the one-two punch! I can't remember what the course was called, but we sat in on it at the back of the class. Afterwards, I thought, "Well I can cross-register between Harvard Divinity and Boston College". The next semester I took the course offered by Lonergan. Eventually, I became a doctoral student at Boston College and was Lonergan's teaching assistant for two years. He died not long after that.

So, I got into Lonergan studies from Method in Theology. All Lonergan people can probably be divided into two categories; there are those who read Insight first and try to fold Method into it and there are those who read Method first and view Insight as a very long preface. The only one who doesn't fit into these categories is Fred Lawrence. All the other Boston College people are Insight people and that's partly because of the philosophy.

Can you tell us about your book Charles Williams: Essential Writings in Spirituality and Theology Cambridge, MA:Cowley Press, 1993) and its significance for your theology?

It's another person. Humanly speaking, the reason why I got into theology at all, why I thought that this was a good thing to do, was Charles P. Price. His title was Preacher to the University at Harvard, what boils down to head chaplain. He is a marvelous person, still alive, who studied with Tillich and was an Episcopalian. He had an interest in--partly from that Tillich connection--theology and the arts. He happened to mention to me once, "You should really read Charles Williams". Now Williams is not a household word. He was most known for five or six really unique novels--sort of supernatural thrillers. One of which I started--All Hallows Eve. I started that novel, got through 10 pages, and I thought, "What have I been recommended?". But it was one of those books that stuck with me. On the third try I was hooked.

Williams is an acquired taste. He's not to everybody's liking by any means. He was a good friend of C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. Williams was basically a poet, worked as an editor, and wrote these novels. He also had a certain number of theological essays. Other books that have been written on Williams, and there are many, concentrate on what he called "the theology of romantic love" (He was a Dante scholar. He has a book on Dante.) But that topic covers only half of William's theological essays. The other half are about forgiveness. The book that I edited put these back in press.

These essays are significant for the book I'm writing on Christology. The Christology proper I think that I have figured out; the constitution of Christ, what you do with Chalcedon and the objections to it, figuring out personhood, subject, and the metaphysics of that, and the psychology of Jesus Christ. In a way that's the easy part. The hard part, at least for me, has been--Why talk about that stuff in the first place? It's not just a metaphysical conundrum. There's a question--the traditional division is to talk about the person of Christ and the work of Christ. The work of Christ, which is soteriology, is what I've been reading for the last five years. You have these New Testament statements that connect the crucifixion with the forgiveness of sins. This is weird in a modern context. It's something that is hard to explain partly because there is a surd involved. Sin is absurd.

One of the ways that this chapter of my book-in-process on Christology is working out is through the philosophy of punishment. This is a difficult topic--lots of debate in it. The other part of it was trying to find something worth reading on forgiveness. There's a prima facie either/or; punishment-or-forgiveness. Turns out it's not so clear as that. But you need to know what you mean by punishment and what you mean by forgiveness. It's easier to find good solid philosophical discussion of punishment (even though they are wrong, they are trying hard) than to find people who talk meaningfully about forgiveness. There are a couple of good works. But all along what's been tickling in the back on my mind is a scene in the first novel I read of Williams-- All Hallows Eve. There's a scene of reconciliation and forgiveness between two women. It is the most harrowing thing. Of course, it's glorious. But whatever forgiveness is in that scene, it's not cheap, or trivial, or automatic, or the fluffy stuff of a lot of therapeutic material. The problem is that talk about forgiveness often doesn't go deep enough to take into consideration the crucifixion of the Son of God.

Can you talk a little about your article "On the Difficulties of Dialogue between Natural Science and Christian Theology" in Michael J. Hines and Stephen Pope eds., Finding God in All Things: Essays in Honour of Michael J. Buckley, S.J. (New York:Crossroads, 1996) pp. 105-124.?

My undergraduate work was in biochemistry. Charlie Price had been a summa cum laude graduate in mathematics--that was part of the affinity between us. His question was, "Can you be a Christian and an intelligent human being?". In our context, what it means to be an intelligent human being is to take the natural sciences seriously. Lonergan does take modern science seriously. So I'm one of those persons who is not spooked by the beginning of Insight. Although I don't have it as well as Pat Byrne or Philip McShane, it isn't as off-putting as it is for most people. (Oh, I ended up writing a honours thesis on Teilhard de Chardin. He was someone who was trying, though I think that it finally doesn't work, to take biology seriously as a Christian.) The essay, "On the Difficulties of Dialogue between Natural Science and Christian Theology", came about because there's been this really neat thing at Boston College: a group of faculty--someone from all the science departments (we don't have someone from mathematics, which I regret) plus philosophy and theology--got together every three weeks or so, with no agenda, to talk about interfaith issues. We called it the "God and Science group". Steve Pope, one of the editors of Finding God in All Things, knew that I was the coordinator of that group (he was in it) and asked me to write for the book honouring Michael Buckley. But generally, faith and science issues are on the back burner for me now until the Christology book is done.

What do you think will be the significance of Lonergan's work for the next century?

That's a question we've been batting around at Boston College. It's hard to answer partly because there are so many possibilities. We have finally finished the economics manuscripts, Macroeconomic Dynamics: An Essay in Circulation Analysis Collected Works Volume 15, edited by Frederick Lawrence, Patrick Byrne and Charles Hefling and For a New Political Economy Collected Works Volume 21, edited by Philip McShane (both published by University of Toronto Press; forthcoming 1998). I think I'm prepared to say about the economics--let me exaggerate--either this text is crazy or it's the most important thing Lonergan wrote. Why? Because if you go back to the beginning of Insight--the way it draws on physics, but only a little on chemistry, not much on biology (though there's the chapter on genetic method)--there's a reason for this. Physics has turned the corner into theory. With chemistry, one is not quite sure. The moving principle has been made in biology--it's the introduction of the idea of the relevant intelligible as statistical. Human sciences? Are there any human sciences that truly have managed to get beyond common sense? Although fantastic work has been done in human sciences, there have been little forays. If Lonergan is right then, there is nothing like his attempt to put economics on a really genuinely theoretical basis (if one means by theory what he means by theory). This sounds exaggerated. It is possible that the book Macroeconomic Dynamics is, in some sense, the first human science that is science. I think that's possible. Whether anyone will take this seriously is a real question, because the book is just another universe from current economics--even what passes for economic theory nowadays.

One would hope that Lonergan's significance for the next century is that he gave us the understanding of history as the mirror of intelligent thought about the human good. Religion has a part in this. It happens in the Lonergan Workshop that there is often a split between the philosophers and the theologians. But Lonergan never made that distinction. There isn't any razor's edge of the human race being just human. As he says in the end of Insight, we have a choice--we can be more or less. Just being simply human is not of the concrete universe that actually exists. There's both sin and grace as components in our world. Being human, NEITHER more or less, is not an option. For that reason theology is relevant for understanding the universe as it really is. Theologians haven't done a good job saying what that relevance is. And Lonergan scholars haven't done as good a job as they might have done in showing how this is the case. It would be great if this could happen.

Thank you Charles for taking the time to speak with us today.

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Allen, Paul and Monette, Peter. The Charles Hefling Interview for The Lonergan Web Site. 14 Nov. 1997. < http://www.lonergan.on.ca/hefling.htm > (Your access date).