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.” [Read more.]

So wrote Peter Schineller, S.J. yesterday in All Things, the blog of America: The National Catholic Weekly. It was on August 12, 2003, five years ago this week, that Walter Ong died. Schineller notes that he met Ong in 1966 when Ong spent a year in New York as the Berg Professor at NYU. With the visiting position came a spacious, beautifully furnished apartment, which Ong turned down. He chose instead to live in the Jesuit community at Xavier High School.

What I find significant in Fr. Schineller’s remembrance is the focus on Ong’s understanding of the world. No, Ong’s understanding of the universe. I’ve argued the importance of Ong’s theology to his scholarship a number of times, such as in the posts “Ong’s Theology” and “Ong’s Theology, Part II.”

I like to say I was introduced to Ong four times. First, I was introduced to him through Orality and Literacy, read on the recommendation of my M.A. advisor Christine Rose. As part of our second quarter of Old English, she had us read a number of articles on oral-formulaic theory and Old English poetry, starting with Magoun’s “The Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry.” (Much later, I would learn that Ong studied Old English with Magoun.) Throughout the two quarters of Old English, another graduate student and I talked about how cool it would be to create student editions of Old English poems using Apple’s HyperCard, where one could set the poem to display as much or as little information as the student wanted. There, in Orality and Literacy, I found Ong running the gamut from oral tradition to computers as one unified discipline. I was hooked.

My second introduction to Ong was through Vincent Casaregola, then Writing Program Director and eventually dissertation committee member and eventual chair. Within the first few weeks of my Ph.D. program, Vince introduced me to Ong as rhetorician and the idea of orality-literacy studies as part of rhetoric and composition. Again, I was hooked. Vince later took me a few other graduate students to visit Ong in Jesuit residence on campus. From then on, I’d try to visit with him, either at a department function or at Jesuit Hall, at once or twice a semester, depending upon his health.

My third introduction to Ong came a few weeks later, at the department picnic. Sometime during the event, I noticed a Jesuit off to one side talking to a couple of people. Not wanting to interrupt, and, I’ll admit, quite timid, I stood a ways off waiting for their discussion to end. Vicki Carlson, Vince’s wife, figured out what was going on and asked if I wanted to meet Fr. Ong. She introduced me. As a Scholastic, Ong had taught at Regis College in Denver. While he didn’t always remember my name, he always remembered I was from Colorado.

My fourth introduction to Ong began in July-2004, when I was hired as the processing archivist of the Walter J. Ong, SJ, Manuscript Collection. It was during that time that I finally came to understand the significance of Ong as Jesuit Priest and how one can not understand Ong until one understands Ong’s theology.

At one point I decided to distance myself from Ong for fear of becoming known as someone whose academic shtick was Ong. For a brief while I thought that’s what I was doing when I turned to memory as my focus. I’d conveniently forgotten Ch. 6 of Orality and Literacy, “Oral Memory, the Story Line, and Characterization,” until I reread the book with my rhetorical theory reading group. It was silly to try to escape him, I realized, and less than a year later I was working in the archive.

It’s been a year since I left the Ong Collection, and on the fifth anniversary of his death, I want to say that I miss him, but the truth is, while I got to visit with him on a number of occasions, I didn’t know him well enough to miss him. At least as a physical presence whose lack I can miss. But I did get to know him, through thousands of letters to friends, family, colleagues, and strangers; through seeing what he kept, from bullets he dug out some trees in Belleau Wood ten years after the famous battle to his mother’s rosary; and through the breadth and depth of his scholarship. As Kenneth Gergan would explain, I am a populated self and in that sense Ong will always be with me.

I had a lot of fun celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Orality and Literacy with sessions at MLA 2006, CCCC 2007, and Computers and Wrting 2007. Ong’s centenary is just four years away. I intend to do something to mark it.