In Commemoration: Walter Ong and the State of Theology
Soukup, Paul A., Theological Studies
THE YEAR 2012 MARKS THE CENTENARY of the birth of Walter J. Ong, S.J., a long-time professor of literature at Saint Louis University, and a scholar whose wide-ranging studies and essays have profoundly influenced contemporary intellectual life. In a writing career that spanned over 50 years, he published relatively few works on theology--and these more along the lines of devotional or analytic essays on American Catholicism--but his body of work carries huge implications for theology as it moves into the future.
Born in Kansas City, Ong graduated from Rockhurst College with a degree in classics, worked for a year, and then entered the Society of Jesus. During philosophy studies at Saint Louis University, he also completed a MA in English, with a thesis examining the sprung rhythm in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. His thesis director, a young Marshall McLuhan, introduced him to the New Criticism, to the history and role of the trivium in medieval education (the topic of the dissertation that McLuhan worked on during those years), and to "Perry Miller's work on Ramism in The New England Mind: The 17th Century." (1) After ordination, Ong went to Harvard for advanced studies in English with Miller. (2)
During his own dissertation research on Ramus, Ong came to several key insights that he developed over the course of his career. First, in examining how Ramus redefined rhetoric, Ong noticed changes in what today we would call "information handling." (3) Ramus began his educational reform shortly after printed books flooded European universities and booksellers. Adjusting classical rhetoric's ways for finding arguments, retrieving information, storing ideas, and presenting those ideas, Ramus proposed simplified systems based on printed visual diagrams. In other words, Ramus began to see that printed books gave us the technology to store information independently of the age-old systems of oral recall or handwritten manuscripts; and he put this technology to work. Here, Ong noticed how the methods of information handling changed more broadly along with their means of expression--the media used by orators, scribes, scholars, and students. Moreover, he concluded that methods of information handling changed more in the manner of evolution--gradually, incrementally. What Ramus proposed made sense only in the light of a centuries-long rebalancing of rhetoric and grammar that emerged with manuscript culture. (4)
Second, drawing on his theological and biblical studies as well as his philosophy studies, Ong noticed a difference (highlighted in his dissertation) between the Hebrew and the Greek understandings of knowledge, a difference he at first attributed to aural or visual mindsets. (5) For Ong, this insight complemented and illustrated his first insight. The communication patterns changed what Ong came to term "psychodynamics" or noetic patterns. How people (and cultures) communicate and store knowledge changes how people (and cultures) think. Each culture develops a kind of bias for a particular type of knowledge. Greek and Latin culture privileged visual patterns--even in their oral discourses and rhetoric, a bias Ong traces into contemporary Western culture in an essay fittingly titled "I See What You Say: Sense Analogues for Intellect." (6)
Third, Ong followed these insights through 17th- and 18th-century literature, noting evidence of patterns of expression and thinking in the written texts, which he termed "oral residues." In effect, these patterns marked epistemological approaches that resulted from the educational preparation of generations of teachers and students who followed a classical rhetorical training, one designed for oral expression, but one more and more directed to creating written works. From these perspectives he adopted a kind of developmental view of human expression that moved in phases from oral expression, to writing, to what Ong termed "secondary orality" (the oral expression that depends on writing, in the form of scripts performed by actors, for example), to electronic expression. …