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Walter J. Ong, S.J.

Christianity and Literature, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Autumn 1996), 105-7.

At the CCL luncheon on 29 December 1996, held during the MIA Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., Anthony Low read the following citation accompanying conferral of the organization's Life-time Achievement Award.

 

Walter J. Ong, S.J.

This year the Board of Directors has voted to present the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Conference on Christianity and Literature to Walter J. Ong, SJ. Because of health problems, Father Ong was unable to attend today, so we must honor him in absentia. If he were here, he would need no introduction. Among his ground-breaking books is Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982). A major trilogy of earlier theoretical studies includes The Presence of the Word (1967), Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology (1971), and Interfaces of the Word (1977). Among his other books are Hopkins, the Self and God; Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness; In the Human Grain; The Barbarian Within; and Why Talk? Amazingly, he wrote still other books. My own favorite is his first: Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue. I cannot resist quoting the epigraph to that book, taken from the great scholar Justus Lipsius: "Young man, listen to me: You will never be a great man if you think that Ramus was a great man."

I first heard the name Walter Ong around 1963, when I approached Herschel Baker at Harvard to ask him to act as second reader of my proposed dissertation on Augustine Baker, directed by Douglas Bush. When Baker heard that my subject was a Catholic mystic, a Benedictine, at first he demurred. Then he said something like, "Ah, there's a young fellow—a Jesuit, named Walter Ong—who's doing some really fine work in the Renaissance." With that in mind, he decided that a Catholic topic was acceptable after all. So at the very start of his career, Father Ong demanded universal respect.

Although he was unable to be here with us, Father Ong has sent me a letter dated 18 November 1996, which he requests that I read.

 



 
Letter from Walter J. Ong, S.J.

I am deeply honored to receive from the Conference on Christianity and Literature its Lifetime Achievement Award and sincerely regret that I shall have to receive it in absentia because the state of my health at present rules out a trip to Washington, D.C., for your December meeting. The state of my health is not seriously threatening but is tied to the length of a lifetime to which the Award graciously refers. I trust that this response can be read at the Conference meeting.

We must all be aware that now is the most propitious era that the Conference on Christianity and Literature has ever seen. For today Christianity and literature are interacting as never before. Never has Christianity been so great in the number of its believers and so wide-spread through the variety of the world's cultures as it is now. The age in which we live is no post-Christian age at all, as it is often erroneously made out to be, but utterly the opposite. According to the 1996 World Almanac, of the slightly more than 5 1/2 billion human beings in the world today almost 2 billion (1,900,174,000)—that is, over one out of every three—is a Christian. Nothing remotely like this was known until recent years.

Ours is not a post-Christian but a post-Christendom age. Christendom was Christianity built into—or "inculturated"—in European psychological and social and political structures. Today we are acutely aware that Christians are called on to "inculturate" the Good News in other, non-European psychological and social and political structures as well. "Christendom" referred to European-embedded Christianity. Operating out of a Roman Catholic, or Orthodox, or Protestant, or other framework, this European Christendom of the past rendered Christianity great service—not always economically disinterested or unambiguous, as we are all acutely conscious today, but often at the same time profound in Christian faith and generously motivated. However, the European captivity of Christianity is over with. Hilaire Belloc's statement that "the Church is Europe: and Europe is the Church" sounds today not only chauvinistic but also quaint. Jesuit Hall at Saint Louis University, where I live, has among its hundreds of visitors each year Melanesian, African, Korean, Indian, and other Christians—mostly Roman Catholic but by no means exclusively so. And American Jesuits and many other American Christians of countless denominations are living as permanent members of dioceses or other ecclesial groups far beyond the United States and across the world. The term "Catholic," already featured in the very early Church's creeds, today can refer more to present actuality and less to a promising future than it used to. Today Christianity is discernibly "through-the-whole"—a better definition of "Catholic" than "universal" is.

Also today, together with the globalization of Christianity, we find a global enlargement of literature and of scholarship relevant to literature. Today's multicultural study of verbalization through orality into literacy, typography, and now electronic culture opens ways for dealing with a far greater spread of various kinds of verbalization in worldwide cultures than was possible in the past, when we were more at ease with the seemingly simple term "literature" than we can be today. Of its very nature, Christianity engages verbal art forms of all sorts in all these cultures—oral, literate, partly oral and partly literate, typographical, and electronic. We do not know how to describe and discuss such varied engagement perfectly or even adequately although we have better physical and noetic equipment for trying to do so than ever before.

One of our problems is the dismaying overabundance of information here as elsewhere in our electronic information age. However, if today we feel oppressed with our pullulating information overload we can turn from scholarship to the Bible itself. The human authors of the Bible did not have at all very circumstantial concepts of what God's creation as a physical whole added up to. But they did proclaim and still do proclaim clearly that everything in creation, however vast creation turns out to be, comes ultimately from God. God's creation, we are aware today, of course includes computers, which are not phenomena tacked onto God's creation, to be identified as something extraneous, gingerly labeled "the marvels of modern science." Computers are as much a part of God's time-extended universe as the dinosaurs were or we ourselves are. The World Wide Web is a late-developing part of the universe created by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Interest in the study of Christianity and literature proceeds with a new and awesome particularity into a future which is still God's own. The future is present only to God.

Thank you for your generosity and for your patience.

Walter J. Ong, SJ. 
Saint Louis University