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.

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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.

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