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The Sean McEvenue Interview

Dr. Sean McEvenue was professor of theology at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. He recently retired and now resides in Florida. Dr. McEvenue is a Hebrew Scripture scholar. He has written numerous articles. His most recent is "Scholarship's Impenetrable Wall" which was presented at the Lonergan Workshop in Boston in June, 1999. Dr. McEvenue wrote Literature and Bible: Essays on Truth in Literature and Interpreting the Pentateuch. He was one of four editors of the recently published The International Bible Commentary: A Catholic and Ecumenical Commentary for the Twenty-first Century.

Dr. McEvenue was interviewed by Dr. Christine Jamieson in his office at Concordia University, Montreal, in June, 1999.

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

What were the circumstances around your introduction to Lonergan's work and at what point did you discover the significance of his work for your own?

I was introduced to Lonergan's work when I was a Jesuit student. I had been a scholastic in Montreal at the "Immaculate Conception" and I studied neoThomism (as it is sometimes called) or scholastic philosophy - a conceptualist creation - taught by brilliant people. I believed every word of it. It created a major psychosis for me because to really believe and to have a lot to say about the possibility of deducing everything from being through diverse categories and logics - I mean - I guess it's an achievement - but it is certainly absolute nuts and to live a normal life, with normal things, and normal discussions and to have this other part of your brain . . . I was really absolutely crazy!

I went on to do theology and I ran into Freddie Crowe. With Freddie I read - the most important thing - was Lonergan's De Constitutione Christi ontologica et psychologica because it contains a supplement which is a philosophical tractate. It moves through all that old philosophy I'd learned, but takes it out of the conceptualist neothomist mode and puts it into a realistic mode. That worked miracles for me. And it wasn't just because of my future work but because it made me a person. It gave me a future.

So, that was my contact with Lonergan's work. I also read De Trino with Freddie Crowe and De Verbo Incarnato. I even took a crack at Insight but I didn't have any help with that which I needed because of the scientific components. I guess I was then about 21 years of age.

You hadn't really launched into your own career as a biblical scholar at that point?

No. I wasn't a scholar at that point.

Your most recent work, The International Bible Commentary: A Catholic and Ecumenical Commentary for the Twenty-First Century, is cited in a newspaper article as one of the "crowning achievements" of your career. Is this the achievement you feel most satisfied with or are there other articles or books that are just as important if not more so. I am thinking of your two articles concerning the evidence you uncovered that Second Isaiah was a woman. Perhaps at a different level, this could be called your "crowning achievement?"

I feel that last one is popular and could be important to some people. I don't feel it's an intellectual achievement. It's a relatively easy achievement intellectually. Why others haven't done it before me has to do with changing attitudes in society and I can't take credit for that. I've just gone along with that.

The other one, The International Bible Commentary, is a huge book. I was the Old Testament editor. I had a policy about hermeneutics which became the hermeneutics of the commentary. I did what I could to enforce it. But that book was not written by me. It was written by the 120 authors or so using my format and my questions presented to them but not always answered. It's an achievement again in a different sense. I think my book Interpreting the Bible is probably the crowning achievement intellectually along with an article--a paper--I am going to read next week at Boston College . . . trying to rework the notion of interpretation as applied to the bible within Lonergan's system in Method in Theology. It seems a small point but it is as far as I have ever got.

In a section in The International Bible Commentary entitled "About the Editors" it states that your "main concern has been to exploit the clarity achieved in Lonergan's model of theological method in order to redefine the tasks of biblical interpretation". Could you elaborate bit on this?

Well, academic biblical people need to be very careful to establish the fact that they are using respectable, academic methods in their work when they are teaching the bible. In the university, studying the bible can be easily suspect. They tend, then, to go to academically respectable disciplines. They often go off into archeology and almost forget the bible. Or, they go off into doing history or philology. They overlook the whole reason for reading the bible, that is, its spiritual content, because they can't quite assign it an academic mode. Now, Lonergan by laying out very clearly (with extraordinary clarity) the tasks of theology gives us a very clear target to shoot for. He says if you don't fit into this, then you are not doing anything with the bible that is worth doing. We weren't doing what was required. I taught the bible for a number of years. Twice I almost quit because I thought when I give a good lecture students don't like it and when I give a popular lecture I don't like it. I felt that I didn't know what I was doing and I needed to know what I was doing in order to motivate myself for the immense amount of work required to do biblical studies.

I began, then, working with Lonergan to try to figure out how to get there.

So, you were introduced to Lonergan when you were 21, but you didn't actually begin to incorporate him into your work as a biblical exegete until later.

Much later. About eight years later.

And it seems to me, from what you're saying, it had to do with the ability to communicate, or to do your discipline more effectively.

Yes, to enjoy my discipline. To take it more seriously myself. And therefore, to teach it well.

Generally speaking, the focus of much of your work is linking the ancient Hebrew scriptures with contemporary experience. You appear to stress the importance of tradition yet, at the same time, not allowing tradition to tie your creative imagination. Would you say this is an accurate assessment of your work? How much was Lonergan influential here? I am thinking of Lonergan's comments about the "not too numerous center" between positions which lean heavily to the "right" or to the "left."

Lonergan said it doesn't matter where you get into theology. You have to start at some point and at that point go as deeply as you can. So, you take any point on the tradition, or the bible, or something on the contemporary world, it doesn't matter. Whoever it is, you are going to be studying "what do we know about God?" and you are going to go into the depth you can within these limits about what you can know about the depth of God. So, I don't look upon tradition in any sense as constraining or limiting. Tradition is the deposit of the growth of knowledge about God. It's not a constraint of any kind. The business of left and right, I mean, they are such big words in our civilization. I think of the right as being the search for truth based on anxiety and the left as the search for truth based on anger or resentment. And both of them are pathelogical. There has to be something inbetween those. The honest appropriation of what you are doing is neither one of those two things.

For many people, the connection between Lonergan and literature is not obvious or even likely. What led you into making this connection?

What led me to make it is that when I'm reading the bible I am reading literature. I'm not reading philosophy. And so, what I needed to do - and I became aware of this gradually - I needed to understand what it means to read literature, or what it means to have truth in literature. In many places, Lonergan shows his understanding of the artistic activity. In particular, his discussion of elemental meaning, which is always by the side, or by the way a little bit. But it is extremely important because Lonergan was acutely conscious, with a different sensitivity than anybody else in the world, of what you are doing when you are thinking and he sometimes did think artistically. In fact, he loved music, for example, and knew it extremely well. He loved films. He understood a lot of things. It was inevitable, I guess, that somewhere, in some places he wrote about it. They are not all over the place. You have to go looking for them and pick them out.

You actually met Lonergan. What was your impression of him? What you can say about your experience of actually being face-to-face with him?

Well, when you are talking to Lonergan you are aware of a light all the time. He was extremely lucid. Not only just clear but its an active light. It was a powerful beam of light directed at whatever you are discussing. With a terrific desire to come into contact with reality. So, anything you really know, he really wanted to hear. And any kind of nonsense that you are saying, he really hated. And any evasion of the truth, he got almost violent about. He was not an easy going person and many people disliked him. Because he was so sort of gruff. But I found him just a pure joy all the time to be with.

In an essay in Interpretation and Bible, you take on the work of Northrop Frye. What led you to undertake this critical analysis? Was it based in the fact that Frye is so revered in literary circles? Indeed, how do we account for the positive reception of his theories of interpretation in literary culture?

Well, I guess the positive reception is not limited to Toronto, but it is more positive in Toronto then anywhere else. You can go to other places that never have heard of him. And of course, I was from Toronto. I was aware, for example, that when The Great Code first came out, Coles' bookstore on Yonge street in all of its windows had nothing but this book for I think about a month or two months maybe. That was quite an honour. I had heard him lecture in Toronto. People I knew thought very highly of him. He is extraordinarily brilliant and he's got some wonderful analysis of various texts and so forth. And most of the things he says are quite great. So he was important. He is the only great literary critic I ever met or heard or knew about so that's why I took him on. I'd also read his four essays, his original, most important book on literary criticism many years ago. And that is a wonderful book on literary criticism. It was my introduction, really, to thinking about literature as a topic. I just don't like his treatment of the bible, that's all. So, when I read that I was both disappointed and angry. Because I thought he said very bad things. And, of course, everybody was praising this guy and citing him as an expert on the Bible.

After 25 years teaching at Concordia University, you will be retiring at the end of June. Would you talk about your teaching career? What has Lonergan taught you in terms of pedagogy and how is it manifested in your teaching?

I think the most important thing is the powerful cutting open of the possibility of truth. And truth is something that you can get to and it is worth getting to. Most of our civilization doesn't really think it is possible to get to truth. Therefore, that creates a whole different atmosphere. Education is mostly about competition, success. It's mostly about convincing other people, winning arguments, things like that. Which isn't worth anything at all. And what I learned from Lonergan was to identify the very powerful appetite, well it's more than an appetite, the very basic drive toward truth, and then toward the good, and then toward decisions about the good. But that beginning with the drive toward truth, to identify that as the real dynamism, just as powerful as sex or hunger. It is basic, it is constant, it is powerful and it goes without limit in its own direction. To identify that and to become aware that that is the core of everybody that I am teaching in the classroom . . . well it has formed my approach to teaching, I'll put it that way. How that works out in details, it is hard to say. But, in every sense, I say that is part of what I am doing, in my approach to exams, in my approach to papers, in my approach to research, everything. I operate on that basis and I thank God for that.

And just from your experience, students are receptive to that approach?

Absolutely! Absolutely! I'm always surprised at the end of a course about, on the one hand, how little students have learned from all the brilliant things I have said and, on the other hand, how much they have learned just the same. At how hard they have worked - I have often not seen that to be the case during the span of the course, but when I read their papers I realize that drive has been released. They are proud, in fact, of the progress that they have made.

Do you prefer teaching or research? Or do you feel they are both equally important for you?

Both. The teaching is stimulation to me. I'm not just intellectual enough, I guess, to sit all by myself in a room and write for somebody who is in Germany. What is also true, is that when I am doing research my own brain evokes stuff I learned 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Dealing with students is a constant evocation of what is going on right now. It's a richer atmosphere I think. I depend on students for that.

What area of Lonergan's work is yet to be developed? You mentioned in a recent presentation at the Lonergan Workshop in Boston that "it is hard to find a practicing exegete who has seriously read Lonergan's work." Would you say that this area is perhaps the most undeveloped?

It's hard to answer that question. The definition of Lonergan's work - it's hard to know what would be meant by that. I think that what is more important than Lonergan is the reality that contemporary experience has shifted so rapidly and is continuing to shift so rapidly that we can't understand it and we are constantly blurred in our understanding of the world and of the questions we are trying to ask and of what is important now and what will be important five years from now. I would suggest that contemporary experience and religious experience - first of all is rich, you meet very fresh and rich interest in religion on the part of your students whether or not they have ever been near a church. But that it has not yet identified its theological questions. So, it's hard to say. Where Lonergan is going to be richly exploited will be wherever "the question" is because he has provided a way of dealing with the question. What Lonergan has given us is that he has validated, vindicated, the possibility of truth. And the continuity between academic truth, as it were, any kind of disciplined truth, and the transcendent truth. So, he's made the continuity between the discourses, the human discourses, including the religious discourses. He's made that absolutely firm and strong. He has made it possible to answer whatever questions emerge in contemporary experience. He has redefined the human project in a sense. Theology is no longer just being true to the past or something - or recovering the past always, to huddle together in the past. Theology is a central responsibility to the human being--the human being who is very confused right now, very frightened--running around trying to understand where he or she could ask even about the love of God or his or her own value.

So, in the next fifty years . . . I mean, first of all, there is now in existence a generation of theologians for whom Lonergan is basic to their thinking process. So that generation, not my generation at all, will quickly forget anything that I can ever say now because it will be out of that generation that the question or direction will come. It will be out of that generation or out of their progeny. I think there is a major new definition of salvation occurring because the human being doesn't live a short and brutal existence of 30 years as we used to very recently. We now expect that after all our continuing of the race through sex and our contributing to humanity through work is really over, we will have another 30 years to go on living. We can no longer overlook that. It has become part of the definition of what it is to be human. I don't think we have begun to manage that. I guess I can only say . . . well the whole world of communication is beyond anybody's grasp right now. Simulated reality is another form of sacramental life and it's growing in importance. It's getting to be more important that real life. We call them couch potatoes and we laugh at it. But, apart from the couch potatoes, simulated reality is more dynamic, more available, more revealing, more challenging than real reality. Real reality may be no more than preparing your meals everyday or whatever.

Concerning the notion of progress and decline, do you have a sense that the decline that is obviously a part of our culture is stronger than the possibility or the notion of progress? Do you have a general feeling of optimism toward the future and the development of humanity?

I do with a certain fear. That is, many of our present institutions of religion, in which I feel are absolutely essential for maintaining the health of the civilization, are not about to survive. Younger people - I don't necessarily mean 15 years of age, but up to 40 as far as I'm concerned - are often filled with interest in the love of God and so forth. But there is no institution for all these people and they are not apparently looking to form institutions either. So, I don't know . . . without an institution is Christianity just going to whimper out? I believe that salvation is from Christ and isn't from somewhere else. I don't think that just massive intelligence or massive good will or anything is going to do it. It has got to be the Christians, it has got to be the belief in Christ, the presence in Christ. Without that nothing is going to happen. So, to me, that sounds like institutions and then people are going to have to want to build them. I'm nervous not seeing that happen. On the other hand, I am not nervous seeing the amount of good will and intelligence and curiosity and courage that is going on.

What about the future directions of your own work. Now that you are retiring, do you have plans to tackle a new project or publication?

I've got an immediate project of translating a book and that will keep me busy. What I want to do is teach what I have achieved about interpretation theory. Not by teaching interpretation theory but by applying it. So, for that, I have to find a readership and a format and then publish it. Both of those are hard steps. I will have to do that. I will have to get in contact with a publisher who knows more about readerships and try to work that out. That will be worked out in the next couple of years. It has to do with the presence of the bible and the presence of the tradition in the current world.

Thank you, Sean, for taking time from your busy schedule for this interview.

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