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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:


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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.

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.



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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?

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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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