transformation of a caterpillar

There is a growing understanding of formation as transformation of the whole person. Conversion could be considered as the biblical term for transformation. Jesus began his ministry with a call to conversion in order to receive the Good News (Mk. 1.15). We have presented distinct dimensions of a missionary’s life in this webpage on formation to emphasize the importance of integrating all dimensions in order to achieve a holistic transformation in the formee, centered on Christ. As the spiritual dimension is central to all other dimensions, transformation is essentially spiritual. The insights of Lonergan on self-transcendence and conversion are very enlightening to understand the dynamics of formation as transformation. Here is an outline of the three conversions explained by Lonergan in his Method in Theology. The three conversions are Religious, Moral and Intellectual conversion. These conversions are the result of the unlimited quest of the human person to transcend himself and can render one an authentic human person.

 The thrust for Self-transcendence

The vocational journey which a candidates embarks upon in his life flows from his deepest human thrust of self-transcendence. There is in every human being a quest to go beyond himself which is present in the unrestricted questioning. There are questions of intelligence-what, why, how and what for – and the person transcends himself in asking them and coming to knowledge. Human beings spontaneously ask questions and want to know what leads them beyond themselves. Then there are questions for critical reflection – whether something known is real and/or good. At this level one asks if what is understood is real and if it is truly good. There is the appropriation of value independent of the subject. From the level of knowledge one moves to the moral level. Moral transcendence involves not only knowing what is good and true, but opting for it. The recognition that man’s choices and actions make him authentic or unauthentic affirms the role of freedom and personal responsibility in shaping one’s destiny.

As Lonergan states, “self transcendence is the achievement of conscious intentionality” (Method in Theology, p.35). No one becomes a saint unconsciously. Virtues and self-giving love which characterize an authentic missionary are consequences of a deliberate choice. To be authentic requires that one be attentive to the data presented, be intelligent to understand the data, be reasonable in judging them, and be responsible in one’s stand towards what is judged. The final level of transcendence is that of love where self-giving and self surrender becomes possible out of love.

A formative journey, in spite of academic qualifications and vast amount of knowledge on various topics, may stop short of being authentic, if the formees do not reach a level of personal responsibility and capacity for transcendence in love.

Conversions and Horizons

We need to look into the concept of horizons in order to understand what Lonergan means by conversions. A horizon is the limit of one’s field of vision. You cannot see what lies beyond the limit of your horizon. As you move your stand point, you can see what could not be seen otherwise. A horizon has a subjective pole (where you stand) as well as an objective pole (what is available for seeing from there). A horizon can be said as the limit of what one knows and is interested in. What is beyond my horizon are also those I don’t care about knowing, or what I disregard when they are presented to me.

There are complementary horizons such as that of the different disciplines and professions which mutually enrich and complement one another. For example, a priest can benefit from managerial discipline and enlarge his vision. This kind of a horizontal movement is not called conversion. Conversion is a vertical movement, a kind of about-face movement which moves from self-absorption or self enclosure to self-transcendence in a particular domain of one’s operation as a human being. There is a movement away from self as center and a movement towards what is beyond the very source of all – God. This is a progressive process of self-effacing movement towards self-transcendence, unless sabotaged by “breakdowns” expressed in various types of ?

The three conversions

Conversion takes place in three forms: Religious, Moral and Intellectual. It is interesting to note that the order of conversion usually follows this sequence. A formative itinerary needs to attend to all the three forms of self transcendence in a formee.

Religious conversion

Religious conversion is “being grasped by the ultimate concern” or the “other worldly falling in love”, a fundamental attitude of “self surrender without conditions, qualifications and reservations”. Normally we come to love what we know. But there are two exceptions. One is the experience of falling in love between two persons. The other is faith experience in which the Holy Spirit floods the human heart with love. Blaise Pascal explains it well when he says, “the heart has reasons which reason does not know.” Religious conversion is a movement from self enclosure or radical lovelessness to the process of being loved unconditionally and responding to that radical gift in the process whereby one’s own loving becomes unconditional”? Religious authenticity is the self-transcendence of unqualified loving made possible by the gift of God’s unconditional love. Religious conversion leads to moral conversion.

The “from” of religious conversion is lovelessness. God is love and so being without God is being without love. Similarly being without love is being without God. Love takes three forms: love in the family, love in the human community and the love of God. These three are distinct, but not separate. It is possible that one is in love with God without knowing that he is in love with God. It is also possible that one belongs to a religious community and uses all kinds of God language without being in love with God. Being in love with God is being in love without qualifications, reservations, limitations.

For most people the conscious dynamic state of being in love with God is awakened because of a word that comes from God. A Christian conversion is to the Word made flesh in the event of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit floods the heart with love resulting in Faith when the gift is accepted. Faith is not just the knowledge of doctrines of the Church, but rather a state of being in love in which one knows that God is the supreme good to which everything else is a shadow. Faith enables one to live that higher authenticity which overcomes evil with good. When a formee progressively surrenders to the action of the Holy Spirit within him, he grows into that higher authenticity.

Lonergan affirms, “religious love is the basic fulfillment of our conscious intentionality, of our questions for intelligence, for reflection, for deliberation. It is the fulfillment that brings a deep-set joy that can remain despite humiliation, failure, privation, pain, betrayal, and desertion. That fulfillment brings radical peace, the peace that the world cannot give”. The life of the missionary as defined by Claret is impossible without religious love.

Moral conversion

It is the transformation of the criteria of one’s decisions from satisfaction to values. Self-enclosure and radical lovelessness tie one to the satisfaction of one’s own cravings and needs as the criteria of decision. What is good then becomes what satisfies me.

The “from” of moral conversion is oneself as the criteria of what is right and good, a move from self-centered decisions. I do things for the sake of me. I eat for the sake of me; I study for the sake of me, I do good for the sake of merit, for rewards. The other then becomes a means to my end. I may extend “my interest” to that of “my group”, but basically remaining in the same self-enclosure.

The transcendental leap begins when I am moved by “the good in itself” rather than what is “good for me”. It is to be in tune with the natural desire of the human being for what is truly good, unless interfered by other desires. The inner capacity in the person is freed to ask and find the answer to the question, “Is this really good, or only apparently good?”.

With the flooding of love in one’s heart a person apprehends what is really good and makes it the criteria of decision. He is now willing to do what otherwise he was unwilling to do. Forgiving a person of a past offence rather than revenging is a clear example of a new criterion of action.

In the formative journey towards moral self-transcendence a formee finds a hierarchy of values in which moral and religious values have top priority in his list and they become criteria for his decisions. Moral conversion leads him to an ever deeper fidelity the full dimensions of the scale of values, to aligning his own scale of values to this normative scale.

Intellectual conversion

Here there is a shift in the criterion of truth. Often we think that what is real is already out there and it is known by taking a good look. It is from this sort of inclination that one transcends to the position that knowing is a matter of raising questions for intelligence (what is it?) and for reflection (is that so?) and the real is known only by true judgments of the question, is that so? Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.

It is by attending to the subjective processes of knowing (experience of data, their understanding and judgment) that one can arrive at reasonable objectivity. In other words, the more we are objective in our subjectivity, the greater will be our capacity to know objectively what is out there without being biased by subjective interests.

Psychic conversion

Some authors add one more dimension to conversion which is not explicitly present in the writings of Lonergan (cf. Robert M. Doran). Psychic conversion refers to the sensitive stream of consciousness to the images, sensations, emotions, desires which exert great impact on our understanding, judgments, deliberations and decisions. For example, think of a person who is depressed and the negative stream of consciousness affect ones mode of thinking and acting. Psychic conversion establishes the connection with the process of self-transcendence so that distortions at the levels of understanding, judgment, and decision do not sabotage the journey towards greater authenticity as a human person.

Education of emotions and desires, and attention to the psychic formation of formees is equally important as other dimensions of formation. Overlooking any of the dimensions of formation would be failing to note that after years of formation, the formee has not moved out of his self-enclosure, the point of departure in the journey of self-transcendence.

The ongoing struggle in the journey

The vocational journey on the road of self-transcendence is ridden with many roadblocks and pitfalls. Experience shows us that we are not always being grasped by love in an unrestricted manner. Our understanding is clouded by errors and mistakes. Our judgments are often far from objective. Human growth is marked by a fundamental dialectic involving a basic tension between the thrust towards self-transcendence and limitations that keep one enclosed, a dialectical opposition between authenticity and inauthenticity. It is in an through this drama of dialectics that man advances in understanding by eliminating misperceptions, appropriates truth by correcting mistakes, and grows in holiness by repenting his sins. It is faith, love and hope that ushers man to authentic existence.

Formative programs need to take the basic human dialectics seriously and offer opportunities to confront the distortions and forms of un-authenticity where one may tend to pitch his tent. On the part of the student the opening to authenticity is admitting the tension and become conscious of the struggle itself. Consciousness of one’s un-authenticity triggers the desire to further grow. The formators who are in touch their own fragility as humans need to offer the necessary accompaniment in their growth process. Only a person with a heart flooded with God’s love and has experienced the joy of having walked on the path can point the route towards authenticity.

Ask yourself

Looking at your own process of personal growth, what are the things that helped you in the four dimensions of transformation- religious, intellectual, moral and psychic?

What are the practical means do you have at your disposal as a formator to facilitate religious, moral and intellectual and psychic conversions in a formee?




Lonergan Bernard, Method in Theology, London, Longman& Todd, 1972.

Lonergan Bernard, Insight, A study of human understanding, New York, Philosophical Library, 1958.

Healy Tim, “The Challenge of Self-Tanscendence” in A Journey to Freedom, An inter-disciplinary Approach to the Anthropology of Formation (ed), Peeters, 2000.

Moran Robert M. “What does Bernard Lonergan mean by Conversion?”