Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Went through a box of prayer books, rules of the Society of Jesus, books on spiritual exercises (basic rules, theory, and practice), books on pastoral care, handbooks on ceremonies, etc.

I'm setting these aside for the moment because the Jesuits have requested that materials related to Fr. Ong's personal spiritual life be returned. There are some non-personal spiritual material mixed in, such as a travel guide to Cairo (Ong was in Egypt in 1969) and a History of the Society of Jesus.

Of late, I've been thinking about Ong's identity as a Jesuit priest, and I've begun to wonder how many people do take note of this fact when they read his work. For myself, as a non-Catholic, the answer's always been not much and even not at all. I've come to the conclusion, however, that ignoring this fact is a mistake. While I should leave the larger discussion to someone much more versed in Catholicism and the Society of Jesus, I do want to suggest a few points for thought:

A study of Ong's scholarship in the 1950 is quite revealing. At least it was for me. Reading such pieces as "Knowledge in Time" in Knowledge and the Future of Man, "Evolution and Cyclicism in Our Time" in Darwin's Vision and Christian Perspectives, and "Secular Knowledge and Revealed Religion" in American Catholic Crossroads indicate that Ong regarded discoveries of "secular knowledge" (my quotes) to be our discovery of God's creation, which we learned through time (my emphasis).

Consider, for example, the first four paragraphs of "Secular Knowledge and Revealed Religion":

"An understanding of the kind of presence which the Church exercises in the world demands some sense of relationships between divine revelations and natural knowledge. Studies in history of ideas, that is to say the history of the concepts and judgments which man has learned to form through his life of the human race, have made it impossible to retain some of the earlier nations of this relationship. Earlier, we might have been tempted to think of natural knowledge as existing, more or less preformed, by themselves and of divine revelation as superimposed on these knowledges from without.

"Such a picture will never do. When public divine revelation destined for all mankind was begun, it was only after mankind had been developing its store of knowledge for thousands upon thousands of years. Initially, this revelation was given in a definite culture, that of the Hebrews. Now, in any culture knowledge is possessed by a network of concepts and judgments which are intricately related to one another and dependent upon one another. Each culture has its own network of concepts which register in the particular development of language concomitant with the culture and which is in part determined by this development.

"A single individual could not begin to elaborate for himself the concepts which it has taken the branch of human culture into which he is born thousands upon thousands of years to elaborate and which he learns through this culture as he matures. For knowledge is not something accumulated in the human mind by a kind of addition or accretion comparable to the hooking of additional freight cars onto a train. Real increase in knowledge involves learning how to form new concepts and thus new judgments capable of establishing the knowledge of one's mind. One's ability to form new concepts is dependent in turn upon the culture or cultures with which one is in contact. Not that they will not depend on "things" or on "reality." But one cannot simply take in "things" or reality in one fell swoop. One must be taught within a linguistic and cultural context the places where it is possible to take hold of reality. The child must be coached in forming concepts. The number of concepts — to speak somewhat analogously, for it is not quite possible to count concepts — which can be formed vis-à-vis reality is potentially infinite. Each culture narrows the field by specializing in certain types of awareness and neglecting others" (67-68).

And then from the end of this same article:

"Since it is this developing world in which the various disciplines are playing a greater and greater role that the Church is called on to bring Christ, she has no choice about relating secular knowledge to theology. Thinkers in the Church must relate secular knowledges to theology and to her teaching, and this is not mearly to "reinterpret" her teaching for the age but also to possess it themselves in its fullness. For example, were theologians not to take advantage of the tremendess new insights into the meaning of person and personality developed through phenomenological and existentialist philosophy and thorugh depth psychology, their very knowlege of Catholic doctrine concerning the Blessed Trinity, the Three Divine Persons in One Divine Nature, would exist at a subnormal level, below what is par for twentieth century thinking concerned with the question of person. Where theologians not to try to understand evolution, they would be failing to understand the world, part of which Christ took Himself as His own body, really is, and to this extent failing to understand as fully as they might the meaning of the Incarnation. Were they to fail to appreciate the technological age as an age which, like th age of the reptiles or the Pleistocene Epoch, forms a definate part of the mysterious evolution of the universe devised by God, they would be failing to develop decently the fuller meaning of the Incarnation as this can be developed today" (89-80).

It has become quite clear to me that this has always been Ong's attitude towards knowledge. We learn, over time, how God's creation works. Occasionally, a scholar will point to the work of Scribner and Cole, Eisenstein, Schmandt-Besserat, and Heath as scholarship that undermines Ong's own work. In reality, you'll find that Ong either addressed the issue much earlier in his career (which spanned 60 years) or he incorporated the ideas into his own thinking later. For him, new knowledge wasn't something to be scared of, something that could derail his own thinking, because he saw himself describing the world as we understand it. New knowledge is assimilated into what is already known. He fully believed his (our) understanding of the world is always provisional and always changing. Consider, for instance, these two passages (paragraphs 2 and 8 of 10) taken from a letter Ong had published in the Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology Bulletin 27.1 91996): 12-13:

"When God created the universe, he did not just set out in three-dimensional space the things we readily and directly sense — the seas, mountains, sun, moon, and stars and all the rest which our unenhanced senses reveal to us as constitutive of our environment. Our unaided senses and common sense reveal only an utterly infinitesimal notion and in fact inaccurate sense of where and what we are. Coming generations of humans will grow up with a sense of the universe from the one found in the scientific and theological world of earlier generations" (12).

and

"Perhaps I should style what we already know, namely, that our present knowledge of the evolution of the universe and human society recommends the Scotist view of creation rather than the competing view that God's first intention was to create the universe and that his intention to become incarnate was simply consequent on the occurrence of human sin. In the Scotist view, God determined first to identify with his creatures in becoming himself a human being. He thus created the universe, whereupon, when human sin came into his creations he gave himself (the Son) to be crucified for our redemption. In the first view, Christ is in the universe. In the second view, the universe is in Christ" (13).

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