That thought experiment was at the center of a Forever Learning Week lecture by Patrick Hornbeck, D. Phil., professor of theology and interim dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Fordham.
“What I want to talk about tonight is what Ignatius of Loyola would have to say about our particular moment, where it often feels like we are talking past each other,” Hornbeck said during the March 28 event, held online and sponsored by the Fordham University Alumni Association. He argued that “the Jesuit tradition equips all of us with skills and tools and opportunities to be human, even when we’re conversing with each other through the technology that we find ourselves with today.”
Hornbeck noted that Ignatius was no stranger to great advancements in communications technology: By the mid-16th century, the printing press had spread throughout Europe, democratizing the sharing of information in a way with parallels to the growth of the internet, he said.
He presented three quotes from Ignatius to help the audience imagine what kind of guidance the Spanish priest and theologian would offer if he were writing today.
‘Be More Ready to Justify Than to Condemn’
The first quote he shared is from The Spiritual Exercises:
“It must be presupposed that any good Christian has to be more ready to justify than to condemn a neighbor’s statement. If no justification can be found, one should ask the neighbor in what sense it is to be taken, and if that sense is wrong, he or she should be corrected lovingly.”
Hornbeck contrasted that idea with a social media environment in which people are quick to try to score points against strangers, often with an assumption that others mean the worst.
“The important thing here is he’s not saying, ‘Don’t judge,’” Hornbeck said. “He’s saying, ‘Don’t judge too quickly.’ He’s saying, ‘Don’t leap to judgment, don’t have a prejudice about what the person you’re speaking with might have to say.’
“And so, part of what Ignatius is inviting us to do is to see the person and to correct or to engage with or to disagree with that person as someone who is fundamentally a bearer of equal dignity as we are,” Hornbeck continued. “I think that what Ignatius is presuming in his presupposition, is this common, shared belief [that we are made] in the image and likeness of God, and if we can’t maintain that, I think that’s something that we all need to think quite a bit about today.”
Avoid ‘Excessive Fervor’
The second quote Hornbeck shared with the attendees is from a letter Ignatius sent to Jesuit scholastics in Coimbra, Portugal, in May 1547:
“Disorders in the life of the spirit arise not only from coldness of heart (ailments like tepidity), but also from overheating as where there is excessive fervour. … The philosophical dictum ‘Nothing in excess’ applies to everything, even justice itself. … When such moderation is absent, good is transformed into bad and virtue into vice, and many problems arise for those taking this path, blocking their basic purpose.”
“What Ignatius is asking us to do is to find something like a middle way or a middle path, not because we shouldn’t believe deeply in the things in which we believe,” Hornbeck said, noting that while sometimes decisive action is needed, it may not be appropriate in every moment. “It’s in this moderation and the pushing against the temptations or instincts that we have that we learn to become more fully ourselves.”
Cultivate Ignatian Indifference
The final quote Hornbeck offered is one from The Spiritual Exercises that speaks to the ways that any created tool—including the internet and social media—can be used for both positive and negative ends:
“The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by so doing to save his or her soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created. It follows from this that one must use other created things in so far as they help towards one’s end, and free oneself from them in so far as they are obstacles to one’s end. To do this we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things.”
This passage describes a form of spirituality that “acknowledges that all that we have on the face of the Earth is neither good nor bad unto itself, but good or bad only as we use those things,” Hornbeck said, clarifying that the indifference Ignatius referred to was not the same as apathy, but “the sense of not being attached to something, not being convinced that a certain career or a certain way of life, or a certain standard of living is in and of itself good.”
“And so Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all of the other tools that we have at our disposal, I think Ignatius would say are neither good nor bad. It’s how we use them. It’s … deciding when to engage [and] in what kind of spirit we should engage.”
Toward the end of the event, moderator and Fordham University Alumni Association board member Jake Braithwaite, S.J., GABELLI ’11, GSAS ’15, raised a question about how Ignatius would handle deep disagreements not only with strangers online but also, say, at the Thanksgiving dinner table with loved ones.
“Ignatius was a man of very strong convictions,” Hornbeck answered. “And so my guess is Ignatius might have been quite feisty at the Thanksgiving dinner table. But I think that what he would encourage us to think about is how [to do] it while doing our very best to maintain our relationships—that we can gently, and without that kind of excessive passion that he was talking about, say, ‘You know, I just don’t see it that way,’ and then explain how it is.”
The quotes from St. Ignatius Loyola used in this article are taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Ignatius’s personal writings.