The Problem of Liberation: Lonergan and the Use of Force

Bernard Lonergan describes our unique human curiosity and wonder about the world as a detached, disinterested desire to know. But due to our moral impotence, we often restrict one another’s freedom to pursue this pure desire to know. He calls this the ‘problem of liberation’. In searching for a solution to this problem, he states, “The problem is not met by setting up a benevolent despotism to enforce a correct philosophy, ethics or human science.”[ref]Lonergan, The Lonergan Reader, 288[/ref] When we have discovered a cohesive philosophy or a proper code of ethics, we desire others to agree with us and live according to our principles. We naturally want to be part of a community united under a common set of philosophic and ethical principles. But, in order to create this unity, we may appeal to the use of force in order to insure that everyone follows these principles. While it is better to have force from benevolence, than from malevolence, “the appeal to force is a counsel of despair.”[ref]Lonergan, The Lonergan Reader, 288[/ref] The solution to the problem of liberation, according to Lonergan, is not found in forcing humans to follow a certain philosophy. For, as he ironically puts it, “Is everyone to use force against everyone to convince everyone that force is beside the point?”[ref]Lonergan, The Lonergan Reader, 289[/ref]

Sadly, we have seen the principle of force used in order to give power to certain idealistic governments. Some political ideologies have good aspects to them but they are implanted through the use of force causing many violations of human rights. For example, some of the Marxist ideals behind communism aim at promoting freedom, equality and human rights. The idea of shared property and communal living can even be found in the early church where the believers lived under a certain type of pure communism: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:44). The generosity and communal ownership of the early believers sprang from a free and willing spirit in the individuals; it was not a policy enacted by the church leaders.[ref]In fact, the church leaders did not expect people to give up all their property as we can see in the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). Their deaths were due to their pretended generosity though they were under no obligation to give their money away.[/ref] Apparently, Marx desired communist ideals to be implemented among freely associated individuals as well. However, communism usually has an additional element from Leninism requiring an armed Vanguard party which uses force to put these ideals in place and keep the order. The result, as we have seen in history, is that the communist nations have had one of the highest records for the violation of human rights and mass murders. During the Great Purge of Stalin (1937-1938), conservative estimates for the death rate are about 1000 people per day. According to one scholar, Stephane Courtois, author of The Black Book of Communism, the death count for mass killings in communist countries in the 20th century is just under 100 million.

The point is that using force to push certain ideals is not the way to allow for the freedom of knowledge. So, what is the solution? Lonergan states that the solution to the problem of liberation is a need for a higher integration of human living. The solution needs to take people “just as they are” and point them toward a higher level.[ref]Lonergan, The Lonergan Reader, 289[/ref] It is built on an acknowledgement and respect for our human intelligence, reasonableness and freedom. From this starting place, we will search for a universal view point which will raise the question of transcendent knowledge. Lonergan suggests that exploration into transcendent knowledge will provide the basis for the freedom of the detached, disinterested desire to know.

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