The National Catholic Review
William J. Collinge
Next year will mark 50 years since John S. Dunne, C.S.C., fresh from writing a dissertation on Thomas Aquinas under the direction of Bernard Lonergan, S.J., at the Gregorian University in Rome, joined the theology faculty at the University of Notre Dame. In those five decades he has published 16 books. The first two of them, The City of the Gods (1965) and A Search for God in Time and Memory (1969), led Newsweek to call him the only foreseeable successor to the late Paul Tillich in the field of systematic theology. But as Dunne continued to write, journey replaced system, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings replaced Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae as his intellectual template.

His books have come to take the form of meditations on the great themes of life understood as a journey with God in time, a phrase that became the title of a memoir he published in 2003. Favorite quotations and echoes of quotations recur again and again within an individual book and from one book to another, like formulaic phrases in a Homeric epic. During the past 15 years, music has joined the words, as Dunne returned to musical composition and performance, an avocation that he had abandoned in early adulthood. Each book since 1993 has concluded with a song cycle (modeled on the song cycle by Tolkien and Donald Swann, The Road Goes Ever On), and mostincluding this onehave incorporated a page or two of music.

As the titles of his first two books show, Dunne has been much influenced by Augustine. The memoir, Dunne says, could be likened to the first nine books of the Confessions, where Augustine tells his life story, while the present book corresponds to his vision quest in books 10-13 on memory and time and the beginning of time.

Augustine’s vision is a Christian version of the great Neoplatonic vision of the emanation of all things from the One and the return of all things to the One. Such a vision also gives structure to Aquinas’s Summa. It is Dunne’s vision too; he puts it in terms of a great circle that he likes to describe through words quoted by T. E. Lawrence, The love is from God and of God and towards God. This circle, in a human life, takes the form of the emergence of the individual into autonomy and loneliness and the return to union with others and with God. In the story of humankind, it takes the form of the emergence of humans from the other species and of the modern individual from humanity in general, then a return to a differentiated unity that is foreshadowed in our songs and stories.

The theme of the great circle of love has governed Dunne’s writing since The Reasons of the Heart (1978); what is new in A Vision Quest is an attempt to integrate the modern vision of evolution into it. This book represents Dunne’s most sustained engagement with modern scientific materialism, especially of the neuroscientific and evolutionary variety. As a graduate student, Dunne worked out a theory of matter as a dimension, but he shelved it after receiving a one-sentence response from the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger, Matter is not a dimension. Still, it never entirely lost its attraction, and in The Mystic Road of Love (1999) he worked it out mathematically. We usually think of matter as that which is situated in the three spatial dimensions and time, but if matter is a dimension, it also situatessituates events, perhaps situates spirit. The brain, then, is not the mind but situates the mind. Moreover, Dunne says in the present work, If we see matter not only as having a passive but also an active role, not only as situated but also as situating, we can see evolution as purposive.

In A Vision Quest, Dunne does not develop these themes as physics or metaphysics but as images into which we can gain insight. His calling, he believes, is to wisdom not to science, and to poetic wisdom at that. As a motto, he takes Cirdan’s words to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: Take this ring...the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill. The modern world especially, Dunne thinks, has grown chill; it is difficult to see God in the violent events of the past century or to find room for God in modern ideologies, such as scientific materialism. But when we gain insight into the events of time and experience the kindling of inspiration, we can glimpse eternal life and experience the working of God. The story of God, he says, is not the story of what happens but quite a different one, a story of the illumining of minds and the kindling of hearts, of rekindling hearts in a world that grows chill through sin and lovelessness. It is the story of a great circle of life and light and love.

People sometimes think that Dunne turned from theology to spiritual writing, focusing on individual experience rather than the great questions of the meaning of the words and symbols of Christian tradition in the modern world. It is true that Dunne abandoned the outward forms of systematic theology, but his work is more like Tillich’s (or Lonergan’s) than one might suppose, in that he never turns away from the question of the presence of God in our times as well as in our lives. He engages the great figures of modern philosophy (next to Augustine and Tolkien, the author cited most often in A Vision Quest is Ludwig Wittgenstein), science, literature, art and music, not by direct argumentation but by gleaning insights or, when he finds an inadequate vision, proposing an alternative way of seeing things. Dunne’s quest does not yield the certainty that older systems sought to attain but an assurance that grows stronger as he trusts God to lead him from insight to insight, inspiration to inspiration. Already on this side of death, Dunne says, we experience eternal life when we experience life as a journey with God in time. But the assurance that this inner life can survive the death of our outer life comes only from relying on God, relying on the God of Jesus.

The book concludes with the lyrics to a song and dance cycle also titled A Vision Quest. The lyrics provide a succinct statement of the book’s main themes, but I find that I can hear the music in Dunne’s songs only when I actually listen to them being played and sung. I gather that I am not alone in this. The University of Notre Dame Press should be encouraged to bring out an edition of one of Dunne’s books that has an enclosed CD, perhaps even a DVD of a dance performance. A theological music video! That would be a most fitting honor for a theologian who is both traditional and very much a man of his times.

William J. Collinge is the Knott Professor of Theology at Mount Saint Mary's University, Emmitsburg, Md., and the author of The A to Z of Catholicism (2001).