Next Monday Morning and Ignatian Attitudes
By Dorian Llywelyn, SJ
President of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California
Driving through an eerily uncongested San Francisco on a Friday afternoon in early April 2020, I had two thoughts: Everything is the same. Everything is different. The map of the city is etched deeply into my mind. But as the semanticist Alfred Korzybski famously pointed out, map is not territory. Our world occupies the same physical location, but in our epidemical moment, it is a protean place where sometimes the only thing that can feel stable is instability itself.
For “San Francisco” we might easily substitute so many of the things that furnish our biological lives with human meaning. The constellation of friends and family, work, daily and weekly routines, pastimes, and banal chores together provide us with our sense of belonging. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard points out that “all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home,” which is to say all domains in which the physical, spiritual, and psychological meet and intermingle. Over the past few months, much of the world’s population has spent significant time at home without feeling at home. The whole world finds itself disoriented and disassociated from things previously thought to be written in granite.
Disruption, that 1990’s Silicon Valley buzzword, has turned truly global. We are called to hold our certainties far more lightly than we did in what I have heard referred as “the Before Times.” Even the comfortable world now experiences life more as contingency— something our ancestors knew far better, as do refugees, the homeless, migrants, and the victims of war. Ways of living, working, and thinking that we took for granted turn out to have been dependent on a whole set of circumstances that may no longer exist in a future with no discernible blueprint. But for the moment, we are still faced with the “so what do we do next Monday morning?” question; the messy, creative, and always fractious business of just getting on with life the best we can. A properly Ignatian response to this question hinges on doing so for the greater benefit of all.
Tech and the Human Spirit
Three years ago, in conversations with colleagues, I became increasingly aware that as the Jesuit university in Silicon Valley, SCU is uniquely placed for a deep consideration of information technology—not only because of our zip code, but also because the University is rooted in a distinctive, Jesuit intellectual tradition. The personal impulse for “tech and the human spirit” was my growing alarm at what I saw as the negative effects of technology on public life and civic discourse. It is hard to deny that the ubiquitous influence of communications technology is at least correlated to (if not also directly contributing to) the unhappy superficiality of our national discourse, which I wrote about in the Spring 2019 issue of Santa Clara Magazine. Rhetoric and rational, dispassionate debate too often get replaced by drive-by invective— and shrill, virtue-signaling self-righteousness acts as a cheap substitute for objective analysis and moral rectitude. “Virtual communities,” I worried, were weakening the already fragile fabric of a society that seems less and less able to embrace differences of opinion and hold meaningful conversations. Technology seems to cripple our capacity to overcome impasses and too easily makes us into our own worst selves. More worryingly, if historian Niall Ferguson is right, our culture is now at a moment resembling the Protestant Reformation and the resulting European wars of religion. Printing presses then and social media now move people into isolated constituencies of the like-minded, a sort of antisocial distancing.
At a distance now of several months, I am no longer sure that the same premises hold water. In the absence of face-to-face encounters even screento- screen communication has been providing a modicum of community—Zoom fatigue and other technogenic pathologies notwithstanding. In a rush, older generations in particular have been thrust into the technological world that their children or grandchildren inhabit. My own 96-year-old mother, a technological autodidact and Messenger maven keeps far more in touch with her great-grandchildren than she did before lockdown.
Currently we are learning to navigate a world that oscillates between virtuality and physicality, distance and closeness, difference and sameness. This journey can be rendered easier by that prime Jesuit value: adaptability. St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises are peppered with phrases such as “or whatever seems more suitable,” signaling a pragmatic awareness of the real contexts of people, times, and places. Human relationships are crucial to education itself, and it has been deeply heartening to witness the generous flexibility and forbearance of SCU students, faculty, and staff all together learning to sail the digital oceans better and create as much continuity as possible under very trying circumstances.
However, the speed at which we have been plunged into change and the concomitant need to make rapid decisions makes good discernment even more important than ever, collectively as well as individually. In laying out his processes of discernment, Ignatius advocates for differentiating painstakingly between means and ends, lest we make what should be only a means into an end. In local terms: COVID-19 is making us consider the ends of our university work: what a 21st-century Jesuit university is called to be, what we are called to do in the mission of Jesuit higher education, and whether we are willing to uncouple those ultimate goals from the ways we have previously used to attain them.
What Are Our Jesuit Values?
As investigators, writers, innovators, creators, and above all teachers, we academics are more than half in love with easeful theory. We are often faultlessly generous in sharing our opinions when the world around us does not operate the way we passionately believe it should. But as functional purebreds, we are vulnerableto an inherited disorder: identifying our neat theories and crisply articulated terms with reality.
I have often paused to wonder about the substance behind many of the standard catchphrases used to encapsulate contemporary Jesuit higher education in this country. There is for example no commonly agreed list of “Jesuit values”—those which are sometimes cited offer little that is uniquely, specifically, or even characteristically Jesuit. At the same time, however, the fact that we cannot explain where a phrase is grounded in reality does not mean that it is necessarily only words. When we start looking at the connection between a lexical map and the bootson-
the-ground territory, between ideals and everyday questions, matters can get more confounding and complicated. People—especially educated, articulate people—easily understand the same words in very different ways. That issue becomes painfully pressing at a time of crisis.
Yet in this crisis, the 500-year-old tradition of Jesuit higher education can come into its own. It consists of valuable resources—language, practice, concepts, perspectives, motivations—which are no less than the shared experiences and honed wisdom of countless educators across the world and down through the centuries. A traditio is, in Latin, literally a “handing on”—something received from others, for us to hand on to yet more people. I find the image of tradition as a kind of river useful. The Nile is equally the Nile at its modest sub-Saharan headwaters as when it empties out expansively into the Mediterranean. It remains the same, even though the waters are different, second by second. Both water and watercourse, it is always in dynamic response to climate and weather. It is contained by its banks, but the flow itself can shift those courses subtly over decades and centuries, or dramatically when the river floods. In similar ways, SCU is a thriving traditio ongoing process and content inherited from the past. As a set of human relationships, it will necessarily change when circumstances change.
All of the most essential elements of Jesuit education derive from the vision of the human person that underpins the Spiritual Exercises. Among these many elements are the praesuppositio (an existential tendency to assume good intention on the part of the other, rather than, say, a thirst for dominance) and the more familiar magis, the determination to live one’s own humanity more authentically and integrally as loved and reconciled sinner. Among the signs of our times is increased anxiety and polarization. Universities are not immune from communal and personal anxieties, but we who teach, study, and otherwise work at Jesuit universities can at least strive to be better than our worst selves. Praesuppositio and magis are good to have in our tool belts, for the sake of society as a whole.
Writing about the virtue of solidarity, the philosopher Charles Taylor noted that modern democratic societies “in our tremendous diversity, are powered by a great many different engines of commitment to our common ethic, and we cannot afford to switch off any of these engines.” Jesuit mission has to be carried out in the variegated world of strongly held and divergent opinion. Making myself comfortable by associating only with people who will affirm my own convictions is understandable, but hardly my most exemplary or mature attribute. That strong impulse to stay within one’s own ideological tribe threatens to take away internal freedom, because it moves decisively away from presuming goodwill on the part of the other. To overcome this self-imposed reduction in who we are—not only as individuals in Jesuit universities, but also departments, schools, and universities—we can make use of another Ignatian insight: agere contra (working against)—or decisively opting for things diametrically opposed to our most energetic and holistic efforts to self-sabotage. In the 2020 U.S. university setting, agere contra will necessary involve cultivating something beautiful, which goes by the ugly name of “intentional viewpoint diversity.” Fr. O’Brien’s call for the Jesuit university to be “a place of generous encounter” is timely. Perhaps the limitations imposed by technology—the nanosecond delays of Zoom, the fact that an online conversation requires more intentional listening— can teach us to have more generous conversations.
Another key characteristic of the style and substance of Jesuit mission is striving to bring together rather than divide or polarize—an effort needed now more than ever under the pressure cooker of an election season during a time of virus. Most of us would vastly prefer to live in agreement, or at least consensus. The question is which bus route will get us to that particular destination. Agreement is not achieved by silencing or ignoring difference, but by something harder, more rewarding and long-lasting, i.e., acknowledging real difference and seeing it as the prerequisite for agreement, in life as well as in the classroom. Living in solidarity means then intentionally keeping all of Taylor’s “engines” running—especially the ones that are hard to reconcile, and those we personally do not espouse. That kind of analogical inclusivity is capacious. It welcomes diversities of opinion not as something to be abolished, but rather as potential driver of unity.
What Is Our Ignatian Mission?
Mission (like retreat) is a religious word now widely used in secular contexts. This linguistic turn renders talking about Jesuit mission more difficult, especially when it is conflated with the corporate phrase “mission statement.” Given the secular adoption of such terms, originally Ignatian concepts can rescue us from blandly generic thinking around mission. Ignatius’ own phrase, nuestro modo de proceder corresponds loosely to modern uses of “culture” or “the way that we do things.” Understood this way, our Jesuit higher education mission is far more of a dynamic ethos than an exhaustive, closed checklist of must-haves. It is a way of being that is transmitted by long-term exposure in the context of relationships. Yet it is not only style and process: Jesuit mission in the context of higher education also has definite and concrete parameters. Its substance—what powers its contemporary commitments to social justice, sustainability, diversity, and equality derives from a hope-filled vision of human potential, one rooted in Christian (and specifically Catholic) faith. This foundation is world-embracing, but there are things it does not and cannot do without yielding up its soul. Such is the nature of identity: Being something means not being everything, just as a being someone means being not just anyone.
For the early Jesuits, mission meant “being sent abroad.” Missio, from the Latin verb mittere (to send) was the practical result of the Jesuit “fourth vow” that expressed a radical, unconditional willingness to help meet the most pressing needs of the Society of Jesus, the Church, and the world. But the deepest etymological substrate of “mission” is an ancient proto-Indo-European root meaning “to remove or exchange.” In the sense of being removed from the familiar, exchanging what was comfortable for the sake of a greater good, Jesuits did not (and still do not) define or choose their mission. They were given it. Freedom came in accepting a mission and then making it their own.
Jesuit mission has long involved collaboration in matters of shared concern with people of differing creeds, convictions, and ways of life. U.S. Jesuit higher education has for almost two generations been in the hands of lay people, many of them not Catholic or Christian. It continues to bear the same genetic signature. However, its transmission depends on people experiencing it, engaging in it, and appropriating it personally and professionally. The way and the degree to which a mission is shaped and transmitted by its carriers evidently varies from circumstance to circumstance. Generally, authentic experience and engagement demand time, but freedom is an essential ingredient too, for mission comes by way of relationships. The more we consciously choose to find our place in the ongoing story of the Jesuit mission of higher education, the more active and effective we will be as partners in passing it on. And I would argue, the more varied the people involved, the richer the experience.
The Canadian Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan investigated and delineated a framework to avoid false perception (seeing things which are not there, and not seeing things which are) with the aim of helping people find common ground with others. Lonergan’s four “transcendental precepts”—be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible—are operating norms that allow people to transcend the limits of their own viewpoints and live in the untidy complexities of real life. Based on his understanding of the workings of human cognition, Lonergan sees them as transcending particularities such as culture. As such, these precepts provide inclusive ways of thinking and acting. They seek ongoing transformation and liberation, freeing mind and spirit from the inauthenticity that inhibits solidarity. They can be comprehensively applied to many situations, but they are especially useful in formulating a response to our current disruption.
At a university such as SCU, “being attentive” involves our core activities of research and discovery. Applying our God-given intelligence to our findings means making sense of our best and most objective efforts to ascertain the bare facts. Responsibly interpreting those facts through the lens of history and geography rescues us from the parochial myopia of the immediate and the present. Yet for the greater good to be achieved, understanding needs to become incarnate in action. The more we have relevant research data at hand, smart and thoughtful evaluation of that data, and a healthy sense of wide context, the more responsible our actions are likely to be. Being responsible will require of us rational policies, which will then need intelligent strategies. As we communicate and implement those plans, we begin the cycle anew, all the while paying attention.
So far, these principles and steps would be effective for any university mission. But bringing them to their full potential in Jesuit higher education requires a fifth and complementary precept: Be loving. In the ancient Eastern Mediterranean crucible that produced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, what “love” was held to consist of was very different from our 21st-century Western notions. To love someone was to perceive them as being part of one’s own kingroup, and to treat them accordingly. The more our educational mission is rooted in love and built up onthe love in the Ancient Mediterranean tradition, the more authentically Jesuit it will be. We will know our academic enterprise is succeeding if it builds a more authentically human community in which love liberates, fosters gratitude, brings hope, diminishes resentment—and all with an adamantine commitment to seeking reconciliation as well as justice. Ignatius counseled the early Jesuits to make ample use of discreta caritas, a balanced and disinterested love that can prudently discern between the good and the better. Nothing suggests that discreta caritas applies only to individuals. Among groups, within institutions, and in public life, discreta caritas has an place. As a moral muscle, it grows with use.
It is only recently that students in Jesuit universities stopped the centennial practice of writing the Jesuit motto AMDG (Ad maiorem Dei gloriam—“for the greater glory of God”) at the top of their papers. At SCU, with its wide religious diversity, AMDG might read like an exclusive relic of a more triumphalist age, more confident in the veracity of its missio. But there are humbler arguments for maintaining and promoting the phrase “for God’s greater glory.” The maiorem points to the truth that as ethical and humane individuals and communities we are always in progress,
and that the complexities of life are rarely susceptible to simple binaries of good vs. bad—Ignatian discernment is always a matter of good vs. better. In classical Latin, gloria referred to public renown, gained often through bravery on the battlefield. The one phrase of St. Irenaeus, second-century bishop of Lyon, that gets quoted more than any other is “the glory of God is the living person,” meaning that all human lives carry within themselves the imprint of the creator of life. If our personal, collective, and institutional responses to current circumstances are indeed, in this sense, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, then the waters of our Jesuit educational tradition are flowing freely. And if technology can help us maintain our course, then we should make use of it as much as it helps us to realize our deepest purpose, and reach our safe haven.
DORIAN LLYWELYN S.J., served as the executive director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, 2016–20, and is now president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California. His publications include religion and national identity, popular religiosity, and Mariology.