Ignatian Humanism: A Dynamic Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century (Book review)

Reflection and Retreat in Isolation
April 6, 2020
April 27, 2020

Ignatian Humanism: A Dynamic Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century (Book review)

I have just finished reading this book and found it really increased my appreciation and fondness for our Ignatian heritage.

What caught my eye was this intriguing sentence on the back cover:

At its heart, Ignatian spirituality is a humanism that defends human rights, prizes learning from other cultures, seeks common ground between science and religion, struggles for justice, and honors a God who is actively at work in creation.

How true! These have been hallmarks of the Jesuits and other members of the Ignatian family that I’ve known and encountered. Time and again I find people striving for social justice, interfaith understanding or ecological conversion. Why? The author, Ronald Modras (a scholar from the Jesuit Saint Louis University in the U.S. Midwest) argues that these hallmarks flow from the humanist current of Ignatius’ time, were incorporated into the Spiritual Exercises and have thus become part of the ‘DNA’ of Ignatian spirituality.

Humanism today is often taken to mean secular humanism, but Modras uses it in a neutral sense to mean a particular movement of optimism about human beings, which contrasted with the pessimism that prevailed in the medieval Church at the time it arose. The umanisti advocated the study of the humanities, starting with the Greek and Latin classics and, for a long time, all humanists were Christian.

Characteristics of humanism left their impression on Ignatius, particularly during his time at the Universities of Alcala and Paris, and consequently flowed into Ignatian spirituality. These include an aptitude for accommodation, educating the whole person, the notion of civic virtue, a belief that truth is truth and can be discovered by anyone, and a greater emphasis on individual identity and on human dignity and freedom.

As well as Ignatius himself, Modras uses the stories of five famous Jesuits as exemplars of Ignatian humanism:

  1. Matteo Ricci who encountered and dialogued with the Chinese.
  2. Friedrich Spee who argued against the witchcraft hysteria of his time and fought for fair trial processes for unjustly accused. Frustrated at his inability to publish under his own name, he was forced to publish his withering critique of witch trials anonymously.
  3. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who sought to reconcile Christian theology with the findings of 20th Century science. His ideas, too, were considered dangerously radical and most were only published after his death.
  4. Karl Rahner who had an enormous influence on theology, his biggest legacy perhaps being the Vatican II declarations on interfaith understanding, which laid the groundwork for the Church to become global rather than culturally European.
  5. Pedro Arrupe who reoriented (or, as he saw it, returned) the Jesuit order towards a focus on justice in the years following Vatican II.

There is also a nice circularity to these vignettes which begin with the very first Jesuits travelling to the Far East and finishing with Arrupe working in one of the very missions established by Xavier, four hundred years later.

As Modras is clearly aware, stories are what people remember best and these inspiring stories are presented with great vividness. The issues each of these figures grappled with are very relatable. They don’t seem to be from the distant past and that is his point: Ignatian spirituality is a spirituality for today.

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