The Prescience of Walter Ong, S.J.

Some years ago, there was a discussion of the dearth of intellectual life among Catholics in the USA. Jesuit priest,  Fr. Walter Ong, who died five years ago this week, was one Catholic who helped change that perception.

Polymath, English professor, writer, he was a scholar’s scholar of international renown who served as  president of the Modern Language Association in 1978. Defying categorization, his work brought together innovative ideas in literature, anthropology, philosophy, theology, psychology and media studies. Indeed he had studied under Marshall McLuhan before his doctoral studies at Harvard.

Advertisement

Ong tried to bridge the gap between the traditional Catholic world view and science’s view of the evolving universe. “God the Son took to himself a human nature in matter that was some 15 billion years old, and in a species likely enough some 150,000 years old. In such real-time perspectives, a Church founded only some 2000 years ago can be only in its infancy.”    

Church leaders and theologians must teach and minister in this evolutionary universe  that God created and scientists now explore. He explains that  “a non-evolutionary secular history is simply false. A non-evolutionary understanding of the world…is theologically fatal.”  To put this positively, Ong writes that we must live and think and believe in this “evolving cosmos being continually created by God.” In this universe, he concludes, “computers were to be a part of God’s creation just as much as dinosaurs were.” Most Christians have a way to go  in capturing that vision!

One personal memory: In the 1960’s  Fr. Ong was a visiting professor at NYU, living at Xavier High School where I was a young scholastic and  teacher. In response to my invitation, he graciously came into my Senior Latin class and gave a scintillating lecture on the development from the Latin language to the various Romance languages. I could see how much enjoyed this role of teacher – sharing his wisdom and interacting with  young minds.  Thanks again, Fr. Ong!

See his essay in America,  February 3, 1996,  “Do We Live in a Post-Christian Age?”

Peter Schineller, S.J.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Lay Catholics are ready to lend their expertise, leadership and prayers to heal the wounds inflicted on children and the church by abusers and the leaders who failed to stop them.
The EditorsMarch 22, 2019
Kickstarter is one of a small but growing number of entities, known as “benefit corporations” or “public benefit corporations,” that are ushering in a new approach to business.
Thomas More GarrettMarch 22, 2019
Magazines like America are not really the first draft of history. But from time to time, when the publishing planets align, we break news as well as analyze it.
Matt Malone, S.J.March 22, 2019
The health of U.S. democracy demands attention to its electoral mechanics. Both candidates and voters should prioritize improving elections.
The EditorsMarch 22, 2019