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Walter J. Ong's Reflections on Being an American (Review)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 19, 2011: Philip Gleason in history at the University of Notre Dame published the book CONTENDING WITH MODERNITY: [AMERICAN] CATHOLIC HIGHER EDUCATION IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (Oxford University Press, 1995). As the main title of his book indicates, American Catholics in the twentieth century did see themselves as contending with modernity. However, I would allow that the American Catholic spirit of contending with modernity was quixotic.

In any event, the American Catholic spirit of contending with modernity can be understood as an example of the spirit of adversativeness, the spirit of being up against something, that Walter J. Ong, S.J., describes as agonistic (i.e., contesting) behavior in his book FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (Cornell University Press, 1981), the published version of Ong's 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University.

But Ong's own agonistic spirit was manifested in the 1950s when he tried single-handedly to turn the American Catholic spirit of contending with modernity toward a deeply different orientation toward modernity. Perhaps Ong's effort was quixotic. In any event, he did not succeed.

Nevertheless, Ong did articulate a positive alternative orientation toward modernity, a positive alternative approach that I would characterize as a kind of sacramental approach toward modernity, or at least toward technology and science in modern life. He sets forth this alternative orientation in his essay "The Faith, the Intellectual, and the Perimeters" in his first book, the short collection of six essays titled FRONTIERS IN AMERICAN CATHOLICISM (Macmillan, 1957, pages 104-125).

If we were to prescind from the context of Ong addressing his fellow American Catholics in the passages quoted below, we might want to consider if any of Ong's reflections and suggestions in the below-quoted passages may be of interest to any Americans today regardless of their religious-faith tradition or their lack of a religious-faith tradition. For example, should more Americans than Sacvan Bercovitch, a secular Jew and Canadian immigrant to the United States, dare to speculate as to the meaning of the American myth in relation to his or her interior life and the life of the human and American spirit, as Ong urges his fellows American Catholics to undertake to do? Should Americans today cultivate an "appreciation of America in its historical setting" because "one's intellectual maturity is tied up with one's insight into and acceptance of one's own history in relation to the whole of history"? Or is Ong wrong in claiming that one's own history is tied up with the whole of history?  

Here are some quotes from Ong's essay:

From pages 120-121: "American Catholic thought need not necessarily concern itself specifically with dinosaurs or pterodactyls, but it seems unlikely that it can mature until it succeeds in dealing with America itself and America's particular place along the irreversible trajectory which history is describing. This is not a call to chauvinism or for a specialization in "Americanology' based on the belief that this country is called by God to lead the rest of a benighted world to salvation. In fact, one of the difficulties facing the Catholic sensibility in the United States is precisely the tendency of many Catholics to let their understanding of the United States be defined by something like jingoism. The need for a Catholic appreciation of America in its historical setting arises not from the demands of patriotism but from the fact that one's intellectual maturity today is tied up with one's insight into and acceptance of one's own history in relation to the whole of history."

COMMENT: Perry Miller's book THE NEW ENGLAND MIND: THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY (Harvard University Press, 1939) is a classic work in American studies. Ong's book RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE: FROM THE ART OF DISCOURSE TO THE ART OF REASON (Harvard University Press, 1958) is a formidable study in the back-story, as it were, of the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572), whose work Perry Miller discusses in his 1939 book.

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From pages 121-122 (with all-caps replacing Ong's italicization of certain words): "If Catholic thought is to move further along these lines of contact with the American reality, what it needs is to envision a real Christian MYSTIQUE of technology and science. That is, it needs to develop a real spiritual insight into technology and science which at least attempts to discover and discuss the philosophical and theological meaning of the technological and scientific trend which marks our age. It is certain that a mature understanding of this trend can never be arrived at until the American sensibility can transcend the impoverished frames of thought which can discern in post-Renaissance, or even in all postmedieval, developments nothing more than progressive secularization and materialization of society."

COMMENT: For a recent example of the old Catholic spirit of delineating in detail the trend toward the secular, see the nearly 900-page book A SECULAR AGE by the Canadian Catholic author Charles Taylor (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).  

From page 122: "[T]his age is the age of victory over the tyranny of matter greater than the world has ever known before. Our present CONCERN over becoming materialistic is something, after all, not only new but long overdue, and in this sense a real spiritual achievement of the twentieth century. In a similar way, this age, so often denounced as impersonal, has paid more explicit attention to the person than any other age in history. The philosophic movement known as personalism is a distinctive twentieth century movement."

COMMENT: Ong regularly characterized his own work as phenomenological and personalist in cast.   Ong's framework here is philosophy. However, in the nineteenth century, certain American Protestant theologians pioneered the theological movement of personalism. See, for example, Rufus Burrow's book PERSONALISM: A CRITICAL INTRODUCTION (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999) and Burrow's book GOD AND HUMAN DIGNITY: THE PERSONALISM, THEOLOGY, AND ETHICS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006). For books of related interest, see Keith D. Miller's book VOICE OF DELIVERANCE: THE LANGUAGE OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND ITS SOURCES (Free Press/Macmillan, 1992) and Miller's new book MARTIN LUTHER KING'S BIBLICAL EPIC: HIS FINAL GREAT SPEECH (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

From pages 123-124: "As a foundation for their own intellectual self-possession, Catholics in the United States need a MYSTIQUE of more than technology and science. They need also a Christian MYSTIQUE of such things as sports and lunch clubs . . . and indeed a MYSTIQUE of the whole social surface which is a property of life in the United States. This social surface is maintained in great part by the arts of communication in the peculiar and highly developed conditions in which these arts exist in the United States. Here what the ancient world knew as "rhetoric' or "oratory' -- the art of swaying other men, conceived as more or less the crown of all education -- long ago migrated from the faculties of languages into the university course in commerce and finance, where it is taught under labels such as "advertising,' or "copy writing,' or "merchandizing' and "marketing' and "salesmanship.' This twentieth century rhetoric, like all rhetoric, has a strong personalist torque -- it has ultimately to face the problem of dealing with the individual as an individual -- and has given rise to the American stress on personal relations and personnel problems and adjustments which has appeared as one of the great, and not entirely unsuccessful, compensatory efforts of a mechanistic civilization, grown self-conscious, to deal with its own peculiar shortcomings. American Catholics need a MYSTIQUE of this peculiar American personalism, too."

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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, see Sacvan Bercovitch's lengthy preface to the 2011 edition of his book THE PURITAN ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN SELF (Yale University Press, 2011, pages ix-xliii).

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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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Today we Americans need to renew our commitment to... by Thomas Farrell on Tuesday, Dec 20, 2011 at 10:05:54 AM