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Walter J. Ong's Suggestion for a Spirituality for Our Times

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From page 124: "Catholics in the United States could well do with a mystique, too, of American optimism, which they have by now assimilated perhaps more thoroughly than their Protestant neighbors, the originators of the optimism. This American optimism is psychologically linked with the hopeful facing into the future which so far has marked the American mind."

From page 125: "There was a time at the turn of the [twentieth] century when the Catholic consciousness in America seemed on the point of taking explicit intellectual cognizance of the forward-looking habits endemic in the American state of mind. . . . [T]he American Catholic has lived the myth of America, but he has hardly dared to speculate as to its meaning in relation to his faith, or to the spiritual, interior life which this faith demands of him."

Comment: For an excellent recent account of the American myth, as Ong terms it, see Sacvan Bercovitch's discussion of the American epic, as he terms it, in his lengthy preface to the 2011 edition of his classic 1975 work in American studies The Puritan Origins of the American Self (Yale University Press, pages ix-xliii). As mentioned, Ong's multivariate cultural theory is epic in its sweep and scope, but for understandable scholarly reasons he does not explicitly use imagery from any epics, or imagery from any myths. However, he was an American Catholic. It is hard for me to imagine that somebody other than an American Catholic could have constructed the multivariate cultural theory that Ong constructed.

Ong did not succeed in his efforts to set his fellow American Catholics on fire in the 1950s with his suggestions about a Christian mystique, or spirituality. Even today his suggestions may be too visionary even for American Catholics who are seriously interested in spirituality. Nevertheless, his suggestions for a Christian mystique might serve to provoke further thought about spirituality today about how to find God in all things, which is the goal of Jesuit spirituality. I would point out that two of Ong's fellow Jesuits managed to work out in their own idiosyncratic ways the basic spirit of what Ong styles a Christian mystique, or spirituality: Gerard Manley Hopkins and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Not surprisingly, Ong never tired of referring to Hopkins and Teilhard. Ong brings his long-standing interest in these two fellow Jesuits together with his long-standing interest in Jesuit spirituality in his last book, Hopkins, the Self, and God (1986).

In conclusion, even though Ong explicitly thought that he was suggesting a Christian mystique for his fellow American Catholics, I would like to suggest that the mystique and orientation that Ong suggests could be appropriated today not only by Americans Catholics but also by non-Catholic Americans of religious faith.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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Americans of religious faith today need a mystqiue... by Thomas Farrell on Sunday, Dec 2, 2012 at 3:14:44 PM
But I have printed it to study it further.  I... by Suzana Megles on Monday, Dec 3, 2012 at 10:06:22 AM
are must reads for anyone who wonders where the Ca... by Richard Girard on Monday, Dec 3, 2012 at 3:45:32 PM
I refer to John XXIII, of course.... by Richard Girard on Monday, Dec 3, 2012 at 3:47:38 PM
Yes, Richard, Ong's suggestion for a spirituality ... by Thomas Farrell on Monday, Dec 3, 2012 at 7:07:30 PM