The Presence of the Word

by Walter J. Ong

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Christian Themes

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Ong’s account of the sensory shifts in human media must be viewed against the background of his Christian evolutionary optimism. Influenced in part by the cosmological speculations of Teilhard de Chardin, Ong insisted (in American Catholic Crossroads: Religious-Secular Encounters in the Modern World, 1959) that “once the fact of evolution (of the cosmos, of life, and of our knowledge) is known, the Christian must recognize as God’s work this upward movement in the universe, from brute matter to inorganic matter to man, and in human society from disjointed, less self-aware forms of social consciousness to a global awareness.” In his collection In the Human Grain: Further Explorations of Contemporary Culture (1967), published just before The Presence of the Word, Ong assertedIn the past it was easy to identify God with what man did not know of the universe. . . . Such a concept of God . . . makes God only a substitute for physical science, with the result that, as our knowledge grows, God becomes less and less necessary. . . . The God of Judeo-Christian revelation manifests himself in what men know of the universe, not in what they do not know. . . . Early man’s ignorance deformed his religious sensibility and . . . predisposed his religion to superstition. . . . The Christian dispensation is closely tied to the evolution of the material world, and to its very materiality. For the Christian, matter, changing in time, is a positive good, and the future is colored with hope.

This positive view of matter imports an enthusiasm for science and for secular knowledge generally. Ong is concerned with what is lost, as well as what is gained, in cultural change, with modes of deference and self-assertion, impulses of conflict and forms of cooperation. Ong’s account of the sensory dynamics of human communication also has implications for the mystery of incarnation and the understanding of divine communication. Just as the word is both interior and exterior, so Jesus is both divine incarnation and human transcendence.

According to Ong, the word as sound is living presence, existing only in its own perishing. The voice expresses the innerness of the self and speaks to the innerness of the other. The shift from sound and person to sight and object—from “I” and “Thou” to “It,” in the terms popularized by philospher Martin Buber—has involved a silencing of the human life-world, and that in turn has led to “a certain silence of God” in the modern world. (At one point, Ong reluctantly acknowledges a connection between his views and those of the philospher Martin Heidegger.) The “visualist” tendencies Ong critiques, he believes, have encouraged us to try to understand others, and ultimately ourselves, as externalities, as “surfaces.” However, that is a doomed project, as our presence to ourselves, and to each other, involves interiors, which cannot be reduced to surfaces; interiors can be sounded, but not seen. Invisible, God speaks—or would, if we but knew how to listen.

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