The Death and Life of Speculative Theology
A Lonergan Idea
By Ryan Hemmer
Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2023. Pp. 184. $95

Review by Eugene R. Schlesinger

In our context of urgency and uproar, few questions might seem less relevant than the nature of speculative theology, or a theory-laden articulation of a methodological basis for that now mostly defunct enterprise. Desperate times, after all, call for decisive action, do they not? And any theology worth its salt in our present milieux must surely be geared toward such action. Can we really afford to withdraw from practicality when the stakes are so high?

In The Death and Life of Speculative Theology, Ryan Hemmer, the editor in chief at Fortress Press, ventures to suggest that the stakes are so high that we cannot afford not to withdraw from practicality, because only by proceeding on sure, methodical footing will we be able to proceed responsibly and deliberately, rather than in erratic haphazardness. To meet this challenge, Hemmer “provides a retrospective of theology’s regnant past, a diagnosis of its confused present, and a wager on its cosmopolitan future” (p. 2).


Hemmer’s guiding light in this enterprise is the thought of the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan, whose signal contribution was to invite us to attend to, understand, affirm, and take our stand upon those mental operations by which we experience, understand, and reflect upon reality. (The urbanist Jane Jacobs is identified as the book’s “moral and intellectual center” [p. ix].) That this is Lonergan’s principal contribution is vital to recognize, because while much of the material content from Lonergan’s wide-ranging corpus is also well-represented in the book, unless we begin with the recognition that theology is done by theologians (i.e., by persons, not necessarily professionals) we will wind up wide of the mark in understanding what theology has been, is, and can be. It is a human undertaking, to be sure, one informed by our encounter with the gracious God of whom we would speak, but no less human for that. Thus, to understand theology, we must understand not just its content, but what it is that theologians do when they do theology, which is a subset of what any human being does when engaging in any sort of inquiry.

As a result, the price of entry is dear, and may prove a frustration for would-be readers. After all, it is far easier to engage in theological reasoning, or to reach theological conclusions, than it is to grasp what it is that one is doing when one so reasons or so concludes. Yet, while Hemmer puts forth a distinctive material proposal — principally concerning a broad, theorematic application of what Lonergan called the theorem of the supernatural — that material content is not quite the point, but rather a methodological account of what speculative theology has been and can be.

The Death and Life of Speculative Theology’s argument is tightly reasoned and precise, unfolding across five chapters, with each stage of the journey laying the groundwork for the next’s emergence. The first is brief yet programmatic, differentiating Hemmer’s position from those he dubs “revanchists” — who would respond to cultural pluralism and theology’s disenthronement as the queen of sciences by seeking to recover a now-lost past and enforcing a cultural uniformity — and those revolutionaries who “[long] to purify the present by setting the refiner’s fire to the past,” through a wholesale rejection of anything bearing the taint of the past the revanchists would reimpose. Neither position will do. The revanchists, determined to live in a world that no longer exists, misremember the past over which speculative theology reigned as queen. The fire kindled by the revolutionaries “consigns to the conflagration tools and materials with which a better world might be made” (p. 2).

Of the two, the revanchist impulse is far deadlier, for it closes itself off from reality, refusing to pursue relevant questions with a “capacity for curiosity” that is “meager” (p. 160), while the revolutionaries respond to genuine exigences such that “all of us should sit for a while at the business end of [their] suspicions” (p. 2). Still, against both, Hemmer advances a cogent case for liberalism (in its classical sense), noting: “Liberalism is not everything, but hopefully it is enough. Not enough to supply humanity with a destiny, but enough to ensure us all our chance to pursue one” (p. 13).

Chapter two surveys Lonergan’s understanding of speculative theology, which emerged over the course of his study of Thomas Aquinas’s theology of grace. Speculative theology operates in dependence upon doctrine, for “of itself, it neither makes discoveries nor produces knowledge,” (p. 22); rather it endeavors to understand what is already known (doctrines) on the basis of divine revelation. The particular case pursued is Thomas’s resolution of an apparent doctrinal antimony: salvation is entirely by God’s grace, and human freedom is unabridged. Both grace and freedom are givens, because both are revealed by God. How they cohere is the pursuit of speculation. Its questions, then, are questions for understanding, not questions of truth or falsity, which belong to another domain entirely. This lays the groundwork for a major payoff of Hemmer’s proposed retrieval of speculative theology, the recognition that

because such theology is in the order of understanding while doctrine is in the order of existence, speculative failure is not the same as heresy. This principle considerably lowers the stakes concerning the speculative task. To risk speculation need not mean risking salvation. A theorematic and dialectical approach to speculative pluralism can help identify dead ends, promote integral, constructive plurality, and keep always in view the finite, imperfect, fruitful, and ultimately temporary nature of the speculative task. (p. 116)

Chapter three makes a central contribution, tracing “why speculative theology failed,” through an interrogation of the breakdown of what Lonergan called the classical notion of culture. For the classicist, “culture” is one thing (typically, the values, assumptions and social arrangements of straight white men, though the mindset is portable), and exists along a spectrum. One can be more or less “cultured” depending on how closely one hews to the mores and outlooks of whomever is defining culture. Such an understanding of culture persists, but should be supplanted with what Lonergan called an empirical view of culture or historical mindedness, which recognizes that there are as many different cultures as there are ways of arranging shared meanings. There is no one way of being human.

Within this context of recognized plurality, the task is for a post-classicist speculative theology, one that operates within the dizzying array of cultural matrices by which human beings order their shared lives. Cultural plurality ought to lead to speculative plurality, one that proceeds from the diverse cultural material, and culturally distinct questions and concerns of the speculating theologians and the theolegoumena that they produce. Gestures toward such luminaries as M. Shawn Copeland, Bryan Massingale, and Elizabeth Johnson pepper this section.

Crucial to this task is a reliable means of relating these diverse theologies, of adjudicating their differences, and of fostering their collaboration, which is the task of chapter four, which turns to the theorem of the supernatural as the dialectical basis for this task. Appropriately, it was this theorem — first proposed by Philip the Chancellor — of an order of being beyond the proportion of any finite nature (i.e., God and the grace by which God raises us to share in the divine life) — that provided the conceptual ballast for Thomas Aquinas’s speculative breakthrough on grace and freedom.

Hemmer summarizes the development of this idea, and demonstrates through recourse to the doctrines of creation and of the incarnation, that the supernatural pervades and makes possible the theological task. In particular, the theorem of the supernatural provides for the possibility of structurally similar analogies to be drawn from either the natural or supernatural order.

The final chapter presents “proof of concept” for this vision of speculative plurality by a coordination of two disparate theologies of the Trinity: the psychological analogy, particularly as articulated by Aquinas, refined by Lonergan, and transposed by Robert Doran (among the leading interpreters of Lonergan’s thought and Hemmer’s own mentor); and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s kenotic analogy of the Trinity. Dialectical recourse to the theorem of the supernatural shows how, beyond the apparently incommensurate material details, there is a deep compatibility between these trinitarian proposals.

On this basis, Hemmer invites his readers to venture more widely than these two theologians, and into “less familiar, less conventional — to be frank, less white — theologies of the future” (p. 161). And with this we hit paydirt. The argument has been leading here, and has commended itself through incisive analysis and clarification of long-neglected, frequently apprehended theological resources, but the point has been this: A methodological basis for the collaboration of diverse theologies. In this way, Hemmer moves beyond the impasse of recognizing that all theology is contextual, which is true enough, but which doesn’t give us any way of relating these contextual theologies to one another. We have here, at least for any with ears to hear, a basis for collaboration across a wide range of interests, horizons, and commitments, one which advances what is salutary in these differing visions, while also reversing their inadequacies, and especially any harms that they carry.

It is a compelling vision, meticulously argued and engaging — at times the prose fairly sings — and yet it makes high demands of its readers, for it expects them to do the hard work of attending to their attention, understanding their understanding, affirming themselves as knowers, and then taking responsibility for it all. The argument is limpid, but to follow it, one must keep track of precisely defined terminology, and abstract from the concrete examples given to the fundamental insights that they are deployed to provoke. This is the hazard of any book organized by the theology of Lonergan. Those with some facility with the Canadian Jesuit will be at a distinct advantage when they undertake the journey. Those who are less familiar with him, or who find it difficult to connect with his particular idiom, undoubtedly find themselves challenged. But theology finds itself challenged on all sides (by its own internal contradictions, by those who would weaponize it for political ends, for those who are set on demolishing the master’s house and who are convinced that theology represents the master’s tools and so unsuited to the task, and by a well-earned and growing cultural apathy and antipathy). That being the case, if we would take up Hemmer’s challenge, we would find ourselves in a far better position to meet these others.

About The Author

Eugene R. Schlesinger, Ph.D., is lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the editor of Covenant.

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