Triple conversion in Bernard Lonergan

8 min readJan 15


Dr. Basil Xavier S.J.

When we think of conversion, we cannot but remember Lonergan who wrote extensively on it. Bernard Lonergan (1904–1984) is a Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian. As a profound thinker and prolific writer he has a mountain of works including his two groundbreaking classics Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Insight) and Method in Theology (MT). Lonergan claims that Insight is only a preparation to MT. Lonergan’s movement from Insight to MT is a very beautiful and gradual progress from philosophy to theology. To be very precise, it is development from experiencing, understanding, judging to believing, choosing and loving. This short article is a very brief exposition of his idea of triple conversion namely intellectual, moral and religious conversion.

Conversion in Lonergan

The Lonerganian ‘conversion’ must not be confused with the notion of commonsense use of the term. Conversion for Lonergan is not the transition to a religious denomination, such as conversion to Catholicism. Nor should it be thought of as a mystical prayer. Lonergan is aware that the term conversion exposes its position to misunderstanding. Yet he chooses to use it. As we proceed with his own development of this theme, we would appreciate how he is justified in utilizing this term.

In the tenth chapter of MT, dedicated to the fourth functional specialization, the Dialectic, Lonergan affirms that it concerns the way to overcome conflicts, evident or latent, connected to different epistemological, ethical or religious views. And it is precisely in this methodological context that Lonergan introduces the possibility of overcoming these conflicts only through an intellectual, moral, religious conversion. Authenticity is achieved in self-transcendence and consistent self-transcendence is reached only by conversion. Therefore, as Lonergan himself does, let us briefly present the three individual types or differentiations of conversion and at the end we shall recover their mutual interconnection.

However, contemporary interpreters of Lonergan have added two more dimensions to it. For example, Donald Gelpi introduces ‘affective’ conversion as the fourth one (some say it is a subset of moral conversion) and Robert Doran adds ‘psychic’ conversion as the fifth dimension. Avoiding these debates, this introductory article deals only with the original three types of conversion in Lonergan.

Intellectual Conversion

Intellectual conversion is the overturning of an “intellectual” horizon, the purification from the myth’s view of reality, objectivity, knowledge. This myth consists of the epistemological axiom according to which knowledge is conceived in analogy to looking which reduces the field of knowledge to the mere experience of seeing. In fact, in Insight Lonergan had stated that human knowledge cannot be reduced to the simple metaphor of “taking a look”, rather it is a process linked to the fourfold activity of seeing, understanding, judging, believing. In MT too, he summarizes this whole journey.

Therefore, human knowing is not just the “passive” exercise of taking a look, proper to naive realist or to empiricist because knowledge consists of reasonably expressed judgment, following intelligently asked questions to empirical data. Therefore, with regard to the possibility of knowing reality, Lonergan states that the naive realist assumes to know the world mediated by meaning only through the exercise of sensitive looking; the “idealist” while assuming the importance of the intelligence process together with sensitive data, thinks that the world mediated by meaning is not a real world but an ideal one, because it is not directly subjected to sensitive observation.

The empiricist restricts objective knowledge to sense experience; for her/him, understanding and conceiving, judging and believing are merely subjective activities. This empiricist reductionism of reality is overcome for Lonergan only by the critical realist. Only the critical realist can acknowledge the facts of human knowing and pronounce the world mediated by meaning to be the real world; and s/he can do so only inasmuch as s/he shows that the process of experiencing, understanding, and judging is a process of self-transcendence.

In short, intellectual conversion is the conversion to truth which is achieved either through the overturning of the cognitive myth of naive realism and through cognitive self-transcendence based on the self-appropriation of the intentional dynamism of consciousness.

Moral Conversion

Conversion for Lonergan also has a moral dimension. He takes as a starting point the egoistic dimension of the human being, based on the satisfaction of one’s own contingent needs (drinking, eating) which determines a horizon in which the ultimate goal of an individual is his happiness (egocentrism). This pattern can be reflected in the social group to which one belongs, determining the same pattern of egocentric and hedonistic self-referentiality.

In MT Lonergan defines moral conversion as a process of self-transcendence that leads to the overturning of the criteria that support one’s own selfish decisions and choices. This process of moral conversion leads the subject to exercise vertical freedom, summarized in the Lonerganian expression ‘from satisfactions to values’. This type of conversion occurs when the subject opts for a decentralization of values from the selfish “I” to the community “we”, when s/he chooses what is truly good for the community. Moral conversion consists in opting for the truly good even for value against satisfaction when value and satisfaction conflict.

This conversion is also a process. Lonergan, in fact, specifies that “deciding is one thing, doing is another”, precisely to mark the temporal dimension that involves moral conversion. The moral conversion is to values apprehended, affirmed and realized by a real self-transcendence but its realization lasts a lifetime because it implies a continuous process of discernment and choice of values which go beyond the boundaries of one’s own satisfying horizon and project the choices towards the good, personal and community.

Religious Conversion

In fact, especially in the light of our empiricist culture, theology for Lonergan must be based on the religious experience of being transformed by the love of God, rather than analyzing theological faith starting from written revelation or from the authoritative pronouncements of the Church. Therefore, it is not surprising that for Lonergan the phrase religious conversion does not mean joining a religious denomination or being part of a religious community. This expression concerns the internal experiential dimension of the person rather than external relationships with a group or community.

This approach of introspective analysis of the subject leads Lonergan to treat religious experience in an analogy of falling in love. Religious conversion is to a total being-in-love. In this existential declension, religious conversion is defined in MT as otherworldly falling in love, a dynamic state in total and permanent self-surrender without conditions, qualifications, reservations, to a greater love.

The atheist may pronounce it empty. The agnostic may urge that he finds his investigation has been inconclusive. The contemporary humanist will refuse to allow the question to arise. But their negations presuppose the spark in our clod, our native orientation to the divine. Being-in-love is of different kinds. There is the love of intimacy of husband and wife, of parents and children. There is the love of one’s fellow human persons with its fruit in the achievement of human welfare. There is the love of God with one’s whole heart and whole soul, with all one’s mind and all one’s strength (Mk 12: 30). Lonergan, in regards to religious conversion, focuses on the third level, the love from/of God.

On God’s side, Lonergan assumes that love for human persons is the gift of God’s love, “flooding our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us” (Rom 5:5) and how “nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38). Being in love with God is therefore the experience of a gift of unlimited, unrestricted love, a gift that reaches us and floods us and which is not the product of our knowledge and our choice.

The process that leads one to self-transcendence also becomes the basic fulfillment that opens the conscience to the love of God. In human persons this falling in love is a new horizon in which the love of God will transvalue the values and the knowing. Again, Lonergan argues that, if it is true that the love of something or someone presupposes prior knowledge, but this does not apply to religious falling in love. In fact, the latter represents an exception because the gift that God makes of his love for her/him (Rom 5: 5) is not something that results or is conditioned by our knowledge of God. So, God’s gift of his love is free. It is not conditioned by human knowledge.

This is his theology of grace. For Christians it is God’s love flooding our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us. It is the gift of grace. Therefore, the Lonerganian religious conversion is mainly a gift of grace (operative grace) on the part of God, which takes place when the subject freely accepts this gift (cooperative grace). Furthermore, this religious falling in love also triggers a change of horizon in the moral life, a transformation of the criteria of one’s decisions, from satisfactions to values.

Triple Differentiation and Overcoming

Let us now verify how the triple differentiation of the Lonerganian conversion is presented in the light of unification always connected to the experiential process. For Lonergan, intellectual, moral and religious conversions are all three modality of self-transcendence. If intellectual conversion is to truth attained by cognitional self-transcendence and if moral conversion is to values apprehended, affirmed, and realized by a real self-transcendence, religious conversion represents their overcoming. Indeed, religious conversion is to a total being-in-love as the efficacious ground of all self-transcendence, whether in the pursuit of truth or in the realization of human values.

Lonergan is keen to point out that though religious conversion sublates moral, and moral conversion sublates intellectual, from a causal viewpoint. First there is God’s gift of his love (religious conversion); then, the eye of this love reveals the values and realizes their realization (moral conversion); finally, among the values perceived by the eye of love there is the value of believing in the truths taught by religious tradition (intellectual conversion). Therefore, if moral conversion goes beyond the value of truth, to open up to values in general, religious conversion goes beyond moral conversion, because, by transforming the existential subject into a subject in love, an other-worldly love, offers one a new basis for all valuing and all doing good.

To Conclude

In short, according to Lonergan, intellectual conversion is the option for the position (paradigm shift) of the critical realism epistemologically and metaphysically. Moral conversion is the clear preference for values of the community welfare against personal (I or Ego) satisfactions. Religious conversion is the falling in love with God. Although these three are distinct, yet they are extremely interrelated. Thus, Lonergan offers a complete and comprehensive (philosophical and theological) understanding of conversion.

(Dr. Basil Xavier, SJ was a Lonergan Postdoctoral Fellow at Boston College, USA, last year (2021–2022). He is former principal of Arul Anandar College, Karumathur, Madurai. He has been teaching philosophy there since 1998. He is author of three books including Ethnophilosophising in India and Philosophies of Margin)




Bulletin of the Chennai Jesuit Province