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

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In connection with the interbeing of cosmology and community, I would like to discuss Ong's culminating essay in Frontiers in American Catholicism (1957): "The Faith, the Intellectual, and the Perimeters" (pages 104-125). In it Ong sets forth certain observations and outlines certain suggestions for a Christian mystique, or spirituality.

From pages 120-121: "American Catholic thought need not necessarily concern itself specifically with dinosaurs or pterodactyls [in the history of evolution], 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."

From pages 121-122: "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" (Ong's emphasis).

Comment: In the nearly 900-page book A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), the Canadian Catholic author Charles Taylor has delineated in detail the trend toward the secular. But Ong's proposed Christian mystique, or spirituality, is designed to be the antidote to the secularization trends that Taylor details. Taylor uses the term that Max Weber helped popularize: the disenchantment of the world. In effect, Ong is exhorting American Catholics as individual persons to re-enchant the world, as it were, by sacramentalizing the world through their individual personal spirituality and by finding God in all things.

From page 122: "[T]his age," Ong writes in 1957, "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" (Ong's emphasis).

Comment: Ong regularly characterized his own work as phenomenological and personalist in cast.   Ong's framework here is philosophy. However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, certain American Protestant theologians pioneered the theological movement of personalism. See, for example, Rufus Burrow's Personalism: A Critical Introduction (Chalice Press, 1999) and Burrow's God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006). Dr. King's personalist spirituality is the kind of personalist spirituality that Ong urges his fellow American Catholics to cultivate.

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."

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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