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

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 2, 2012: In the 1950s, Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), urged his fellow American Catholics to develop a mystique, or spirituality, a way of being people of religious faith in the modern world. However, it strikes me that all Americans of religious faith today could consider the mystique, or spirituality, that Ong suggests.

The Development of Ong's Thought in the 1950s

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In the early 1950s, Ong was doing library research in Continental Europe for his Harvard University doctoral dissertation about the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572). Ong was based in Paris, where he had a room in the Jesuit residence there where the French Jesuit paleontologist and religious writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1885-1955) also had a room. At that time Ong became familiar with Teilhard's thought. Ong then became one of the first American authors to write about Teilhard's thought for an American audience. Over Ong's long and productive life, he never tired of referring to Teilhard.

   From Paris, Ong dispatched a lengthy review essay about Marshall McLuhan's 1951 book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man that was published in the new journal Social Order, volume 2, number 2 (February 1952): pages 79-85, published out of Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri, from which Ong had received three graduate degrees before he had gone to Harvard University for his doctoral studies in English and at which he later taught English from 1954 to 1984, when he retired. In one subsection of his review essay captioned "Three Spheres of Being" (page 84), Ong calls attention to Teilhard's thought:

For some time now in France, a favorite way of conceiving the earth engages it in spheres once more [echoing the ancient harmony of the spheres that Ong has discussed earlier]. There was first the earth's surface, a "cosmosphere," a surface devoid of life, unified by mere continuity. Then this was slowly infiltrated by a self-perpetuating network of living organisms, with an interlaced dependence on one another, to form a more highly unified surface than before, the "biosphere." In a third stage, slowly, man, with human intelligence, has made his way over the surface of the earth into all its parts, and now in our own day -- with the whole world alerted simultaneously every day to goings-on in Washington, Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, and (with reservations) Moscow -- human consciousness has succeeded in enveloping the entire globe in a third and still more perfect kind of sphere, the sphere of intelligence, the "noosphere," as it has been styled by Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. Begun in the noosphere before it was the complete envelope it is today, the work of Redemption continues in this same noosphere[,] through it involving all lower creation, for the "spheres" interpenetrate and react on one another.

Through this passage Ong became one of the first American writers to write about Teilhard's thought and call Teilhard's thought to the attention of American Catholics.

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In Ong's first book, Frontiers in American Catholicism: Essays on Ideology and Culture (Macmillan, 1957), Ong mentions Teilhard on pages 1, 37, and 92. Over his lifetime, as mentioned, Ong never tired of referring to Teilhard.

The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community

John A. Grim of Yale University, the president of the American Teilhard Association, has devoted his scholarly life to studying indigenous traditions in the world. For example, Grim has edited and contributed to the 750-page collection Indigenous Traditions and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community (Harvard Divinity School Center for the Study of World Religions, 2001; distributed by Harvard University Press). In Ong's terminology, indigenous cultures are oral cultures. In connection with studying indigenous traditions, I would like to mention Ong's thought-provoking essay "World as View, World as Event" in the American Anthropologist, volume 71, number 4 (August 1969): pages 634-647. Indigenous traditions exemplify the world-as-event sense of life. So the interbeing of cosmology and community is an expression of the world-as-event sense of life. But can Teilhard fans today recover the sense of the interbeing of cosmology and community the indigenous traditions expressed? If not, why not?

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.

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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."

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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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