Integrating the Inquirer:
A Jesuit Approach to Interdisciplinarity
by Adam D. Hincks, S.J.
Header image created on DreamStudio by Joseph Vukov
New scientific discoveries and technological advances often raise ethical and religious questions, but exploring these disparate realms together is not always straightforward. The Society of Jesus, to which I belong, has a long history of engaging with new ideas in the culture, so the question of whether we can contribute to this inquiry is a natural one. This may seem especially pertinent because Jesuits have made many important contributions to the natural sciences since our founding in the sixteenth century. However, I do not think that our relevance to the question lies in our scientific abilities per se. Even though our commitment to scientific research and education remains very much alive, the reality is that the vast majority of Christian and Catholic scientists today are laypeople. We are not about to dominate the first tier of scientific progress again—and this is right and just.
On the other hand, those of us who are scientists do not just have PhD’s in scientific fields, but also have a substantial philosophical and theological formation. This positions us to navigate interdisciplinary questions, including those that try to make sense of upcoming technological and scientific shifts. A Jesuit could draw upon his knowledge of theological anthropology when considering the existential meaning of artificial intelligence, for instance; his knowledge of ethics could guide reflexions on the exploitation of resources in outer space; and so on.
Still, even this multidisciplinary training is not uniquely Jesuit. There are other clergy, religious and lay people who are professional scientists and also, like us, have completed years of studies in the human and theological sciences. The question is what a uniquely Jesuit contribution to conversations at the intersection of science, technology, ethics and religion would
My proposal is that interiority, a central element of our spirituality, is the key to a Jesuit contribution to these conversations. Figuring out how the strands of science, technology, ethics, and religion are interrelated requires wearing many hats, and it is human subjects who wear those hats. A proper integration of their subjectivity is thus crucial, for it is within the consciousness of the human subject that the fundamentally personal questions of theology and ethics encounter the (seemingly) more impersonal questions of science and technology.
Figuring out how the strands of science, technology, ethics, and religion are interrelated requires wearing many hats, and it is human subjects who wear those hats. A proper integration of their subjectivity is thus crucial…
“Genuine objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity,” according to Bernard Lonergan, the great Jesuit theologian and philosopher of the twentieth century. Drawing upon his thought, let me sketch what I mean by proposing that the integration of one’s subjectivity is vital to the interdisciplinary question at hand, and explain why it would count as a characteristically Jesuit task.
A Subjective, Not a Disciplinary, Integration
The term “integration” is liable to be misunderstood. I must therefore immediately clarify that I do not mean the sort of integration that Ian Barbour identified as a possible model for relating science and faith. Barbour rightly argued that a conflictual relationship—the one popularly believed to be most pertinent, even if infrequent historically—is the not the only possibility for science and faith. They could have a relationship of “independence” (each legitimate but quite unrelated to each other), or of “dialogue” (each legitimate and distinct but capable of mutual, interdisciplinary illumination), or of “integration.” When taken to an extreme, the latter option, which I shall term “disciplinary integration,” consists of the conviction that science and religion ultimately ask the same questions, so that as they progress they are bound to fuse together. Thus, religious questions will be answered by science and scientific questions will become religious in their nature. Unlike the dialogue model in which real distinctions exist between disciplines, here the idea is that any such distinctions are artificial or perspectival and the goal is to remove them. For instance, if we were considering artificial intelligence from within the integration model, the question of what the human soul is could be directly mapped onto questions about how computers mimic human cognition. You would presume that metaphysics can be addressed by computer science and vice versa. Someone using the dialogue model, by contrast, would maintain that the metaphysical question of the soul’s nature provides a basis for interpreting the behaviour of a computer, and that scientific investigation of the computer’s behaviour provides empirical particularity to metaphysical notions of the soul.
Barbour’s dialogue model is the closest to the Catholic tradition. The Church’s most formal teaching on the proper relation of faith and reason was given by Vatican I in 1870, which St. John Paul II called “a standard reference-point for correct and coherent Christian thinking in this regard.” Vatican I codified what Catholic thinkers had, at their best, already been doing down the centuries: namely, drawing upon and contributing to philosophy and the human sciences while respecting their proper methodologies. Hence Vatican II spoke of the “rightful independence of science” from other spheres of knowledge, including that of faith. Different disciplines must first be acknowledged (at least implicitly) as distinct before one can investigate what their relation is, for there can be no relation unless there are terms to be related. Philosophy cannot be theology’s handmaiden unless they are actually different ways of approaching knowledge, nor can science say anything to ethics or theology unless it first stands apart from them. On the other hand, disciplinary integration makes interdisciplinarity impossible, since there can be no “inter”—no “between”—if the disciplines ultimately become one and the same.
The problem with disciplinary integration is not that it seeks for integration but that it locates it in the wrong place. Lonergan’s analysis of “realms of meaning” can illuminate this point. First of all there is a “realm of common sense,” in which meaning seems to be immediate and what you see is what you get. This is the realm in which we navigate everyday living and is therefore of great importance. Doing it well requires a good deal of cleverness and practical wisdom. Second, though, there is a “realm of theory,” in which explanations are sought that penetrate beyond our seemingly immediate encounter with the world. Namely, theory is about the relations of things to each other rather than just their relations to us. Those who have entered the realm of theory—such as scientists—are aware that there is a difference between theoretical, scientific thinking and everyday, common sense thinking. They have, as Lonergan puts it, a certain “differentiation of consciousness.”
An important aspect of scientific thinking involves taking phenomena that are appear diverse within the realm of common sense and explaining how they fit together. For example, in the realm of common sense, solids and liquids and gases are quite different from each other, but in the realm of theory, they are closely related through atomic and thermodynamic theories. The unity of theory also grounds distinctions that are inaccessible to common sense. Common sense concludes that dolphins and sharks must be closely related because they are both aquatic and have fins and are about the same size, but in the scientific realm you can show that dolphins are actually more closely related to people than they are to sharks. In sum, you must move to the realm of theory to figure out how things are related to each other if you wish to avoid the inevitable mistakes of common sense that only considers how things affect our perceptions.
Lonergan argues, however, that the story does not—or ought not—end with just these two realms. If it did, then we would have no way to step back and examine how common sense and theory are related to each other. From within the realm of common sense, theory is high falutin and far removed from reality because it is abstract. From within the realm of theory, on the other hand, common sense is naif and far removed from reality because it cannot progress beyond the fallible immediacy of perception to the deeper intelligibility of the world. Each realm judges the other on its own terms, and you are forced to choose which one is more “real.”
Furthermore—and this is what is relevant to our purposes—from within the realm of theory, one has no firm basis for distinguishing between different types of theory. Theory is just theory, and all that matters is arriving at a theory as little tainted by common sense as possible. In the contemporary West, we usually consider science as the acme of successful theory. According to this way of thinking, philosophy may have held this honour in the past, but it was just precursor to a more exact way of theorising: namely, science. Today, so the argument goes, philosophy must model itself on the modern scientific method if it is to keep up. Along similar lines, one would argue that for moral theory—i.e., ethics—to be truly reliable, it would have to be based on observations and methods that emulate the more “exact” sciences.
If you are operating in the realm of theory, therefore, Barbour’s disciplinary integration is quite natural. Viewed within this realm, religious theory—that is, theology—and scientific theory would be considered theoretical in a univocal sense. The main task would be figuring out how their various questions relate to a single theory of the world, and the default view today would be that just as philosophy needs to catch up to science, so too does theology need to apprentice herself to science. True, theological traditions may provide us with stimulating questions, but reliable answers will come from the scientific method.
If, on the other hand, you were to ask whether theory itself might be multivalent-—whether, for instance, natural science, theology and ethics might actually be autonomous areas of inquiry—you would do well to move outside of common sense and theory, and into a new realm with the proper vantage point. Lonergan calls this the “realm of interiority.” It is here that the proper integration can occur—and where a Jesuit ethos and spirituality are relevant.
An Interior Integration
In the realm of common sense you seek to know how things are related to you, and in the realm of theory you seek to know how things are related to each other. In the realm of interiority you seek to know your own knowing. “What am I doing when I am knowing? Why is doing that knowing? What do I know when I do it?” Lonergan argued that there is a fundamental unity to human knowing that consists of the interlocking mental activities of having experiences, seeking understanding, making rational judgements, and coming to responsible decisions. Common sense and theoretical knowledge both involve these activities. What differentiates them is the precise way in which the activities are deployed and the objects toward which they are deployed. Both realms can generate valid knowledge, but each has a proper method. Moreover, an analysis of these interior acts can reveal distinct methods within the realm of theory itself, each proper to the way we experience, understand and judge and decide about different types of things in different contexts. Ethical method, for instance, differs from natural scientific method in part because the former is about how decisions ought to stem from judgements, understanding and experience. The natural sciences, by contrast, hone in on an understanding of physical things that can be judged adequate to the maximal range of experience.
In the realm of common sense you seek to know how things are related to you, and in the realm of theory you seek to know how things are related to each other. In the realm of interiority you seek to know your own knowing.
In this brief essay it is impossible to go into more depth about Lonergan’s analysis—he himself took hundreds of pages to do so!—but my main point is that interdisciplinary questions benefit enormously from an explicit consideration of the interior realm. When relating developments in science and technology to religious and ethical questions, you need to constantly check where the boundaries between science, ethics and faith lie in order to speak across them without confusing them. Such a differentiation of consciousness requires an explicit awareness of how one is thinking. And this is what I mean by a “subjective integration”: it obtains in the subject who is aware that in his one subject he validly deploys distinct methods to distinct fields, and who can place these fields in dialogue with each other to grasp the bigger picture.
Fleshing this out in practice would be a characteristically Jesuit task. Much of our spiritual practice emphasises introspection, from the examen prayer (sometimes informally called an “examination of consciousness”) to the intensely imaginative and speculative style of prayer of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. We also place lots of importance on discerning how emotion and affectivity relate to thoughts and choices, and though so far my discussion may give the impression that the pursuit of knowledge is a passionless affair, any thinking person knows that this is far from the case. Knowledge is impelled by and productive of affective responses. Lonergan speaks of the complex of mental acts as “the unfolding of a single thrust, the eros of the human spirit,” and it is no mistake that he sees decision, which is deeply informed by affectivity, as intimately connected to knowledge. Interdisciplinary topics are not merely intellectual in nature but have an important affective dimension, for there are profound desires behind the drive to know how science will inspire new ways of approaching ethics and faith. Having the interior awareness of how well such feelings are integrated with your thinking is far from irrelevant.
So what can specifically could we Jesuits do to facilitate the subjective integration that would promote progress in interdisciplinary questions? I can think of two concrete activities.
First, we could lead further research into Lonergan’s thought in the explicit area of science, because he provides tools for connecting this to ethics and faith. He himself laid the groundwork for an astonishingly rich philosophy of science, but sometimes only implicitly and often in a cursory manner. This work could be further unpacked and better developed. Moreover, despite my focus on Lonergan in this essay, he is not the only thinker whose ideas would benefit from such an exercise: familiar names like Karl Rahner and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin immediately come to mind as other great Jesuit thinkers, each attuned to interiority in his own way, whose work could be further examined along these lines.
Second, we could facilitate conversations—not simply conversations in the ordinary academic sense, but something akin to spiritual conversations: conversations that involve intentionally listening not just to the content of what people are saying but to their thought processes, their motivations and so on. This is a practice that has been gaining currency recently in the Society of Jesus, particularly in my home province of Canada, that brings forth an awareness of different points of view, agendas and desires in order to discern what spiritual movements exist in the group. Perhaps it could be suitably adapted to guide an interdisciplinary academic project by getting everyone on the same page, identifying the relevant disciplinary boundaries and, crucially, figuring out what the most important questions are and why.
A Transcendent Orientation
Interior integration may be an important key for approaching how science, technology, ethics and faith relate to one another, but if I finished here I could give the impression that I am proposing something solipsistic, or, for a group, self-referential. In reality, the interiority of Jesuit spirituality is not a retreat into the self but a means to grow in knowledge, love and obedience to God. One goes inward to open oneself up to God’s will. Analogously, a differentiation of consciousness does not mean finding a balance between science, ethics and faith that feels most “comfortable” to your psyche; it is not an exercise in naif subjectivity. Quite the opposite: the goal is to grow in self-awareness so that the “horizon” of your thought—to coin another of Lonergan’s metaphors —expands. In fact, when you realise that common sense, theory and interiority are distinct realms, you become more aware of what your own true horizon actually is. Knowing how and what you know has the side effect of revealing more starkly that you do not know everything. There always remains a “realm of transcendence,” which, by definition, lies beyond all the other realms.
Theology is obviously concerned with the transcendent realm, for it is a reflexion on the Word that has arrived from “beyond” in the maximal sense. But even if the subject matter of the natural sciences and technology and ethics falls within the realms attainable by human reason, they are are also oriented towards the transcendent realm. For while they pursue what is intelligible and what is true and what is good, none of them exhausts what is intelligible or true or good. They have their own horizons. An integrated interiority discerns where those horizons are, how a dialogue between them can expand these horizons, and how science, technology, ethics might prompt us to await, to welcome, to understand, to respond to God’s Word.
In that vein, an authentically Jesuit contribution to the interdisciplinary exercise would look to the transcendent realm for its ultimate end. Although scientific progress and technological developments can, and should, be used to promote the good within humanity’s existing horizon, the story cannot ultimately end there. Nature without grace atrophies. Our goal should be in line with St. Ignatius of Loyola’s “First Principle and Foundation,” in which the created order is in service of our divine calling: “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.” Every inquiry has an end that it aims towards, whether explicitly adverted to or not. New developments in science and technology are certainly for something, and exploring their implications for ethics and faith can show us how to put them at the service of the Christian vocation that places the glory of God above all else.
1 Obviously the reasons for this are principally sociological, but it is perfectly aligned with the Church’s understanding of the lay vocation: “It is true that those in holy orders can at times be engaged in secular activities, and even have a secular profession,” the Second Vatican Council taught, but stressed that these activities are most proper to the lay charism (Lumen Gentium 31). Scientific research would fall under this category in my view.
2 E.g., Guy Consolmagno, “Exploiting Solar System Resources: Opportunities and Issues,” in Science and Sustainability: Impacts of Scientific Knowledge and Technology on Human Society and Its Environment, ed. Werner Arber, Joachim Von Braun, and Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo (Vatican City: The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 2020), 89–100.
3 Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, ed. Robert M. Doran and John D. Dadosky, Second ed., revised and augmented, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, Volume 14 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 273.
4 Ian G. Barbour, When Science Meets Religion (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), 7ff.
5 This is probably closest to Barbour’s subcategory of “systematic synthesis” within the integration model. See ibid., 34–6.
6 Dei Filius, 1870, Chapter 4.
7 Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998), 52.
8 Gaudium et Spes, 1965, par. 36.
9 In the following I summarise Lonergan, Method in Theology, 78ff.
10 Here, emphasis should placed on the word “seems.” As Lonergan is at pains to illustrate, common sense knowledge can be as rigorous and reliable as other forms of knowledge. See Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, Volume 3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), Chapters 6–7 (196–269).
11 Lonergan, Method in Theology, 79, 242, 258, etc.; see also, e.g., Lonergan, Insight, 61–2.
12 Lonergan, Method in Theology, 90f, 255ff.
13 In reality, though, abstraction is “enriching,” as is more clearly appreciated from within the realm of theory: see Lonergan, Insight, 111ff. Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, Volume 3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), Chapters 6–7 (196–269).
14 Lonergan, Method in Theology, 90f, 255ff.
15 C.f., ibid., 91.
16 Ibid., 91–3, 242–3.
17 E.g., ibid., 255, but see also 80–1.
18 Ibid., 80.
19 E.g., ibid., 13.
20 For the notion of “method,” see ibid., 8–10.
21 Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Based on Studies in the Language of the Autograph, trans. Louis J. Puhl (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1952). See par. 24–30, 46–54, 102–109, 149–157, etc.
22 Longeran, Method in Theology, 16.
23 See especially Lonergan, Insight, Chapters 3–5.
24 C.f., Lonergan, Method in Theology, 81.
25 Ibid., 221ff.
26 Ibid., 110 (emphasis mine); see also 111–14, 248–9.
27 C.f., ibid., 15.
28 Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, par. 23.
Adam D. Hincks, S.J.
Adam D. Hincks, S.J., is a Jesuit priest and an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, where he holds the Sutton Family Chair in Science, Christianity and Cultures. Within the university he has a joint appointment to the Department of Astronomy of Astrophysics and to St. Michael’s College. His research is focussed on physical cosmology. He collaborates with international research teams that develop new observatories for studying the origins and history of the Universe, and his research group uses their data for novel cosmological and astrophysical studies. He also has a research interest in interdisciplinary approaches to the notion of creation from theological, philosophical and scientific perspectives.