“Theological Reflection and Interdisciplinary Research,” Pedro Arrupe (1972)

In 1972, Pedro Arrupe delivered the following address in Rome. The Jesuits’ superior general points to the way in which knowledge was fragmenting into ever more disciplines. Arrupe pushed scholars within the Society of Jesus to fight this fragmentation by pursuing “interdisciplinary research” accompanied by theological reflection, which the latter “direct object is the study of God and the divine mysteries.” “It would be a sad thing if man had to entrust to a computer machine the profoundest deductions of his progress,” Arrupe concludes. “It is man himself who under the illumination of faith and as a result of a deep and serious study is to work out his self-orientation in life and discover his own answers, the transcendental answers to the modern problems on which the future of mankind depends.”

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I. The Great Priority

1. Theology’s answer to human problems

On various occasions I have referred to “Theological reflection” as one of the great priorities in the present apostolate of the Society. And by theological reflection I mean especially the need and urgency of an in-depth and exhaustive reflection on human problems, whose total solution can not be reached without the intervention of theology and the light of faith.


This does not imply that every theological investigation must have as its objective a mere human problem or one originating in the sciences of man or the natural sciences. We are all aware that the formal object of theology transcends by far this limited range of problems. The point I wish to make is that, given the gravity, the urgency and the multiplicity of the problems that vex mankind today—whether directly theological or ideological, scientific or moral—we cannot escape the recourse to the theological science as one of the aids to solve human problems.


The theological reflection will in its turn help us to delve more deeply into some points of our faith. If we are to offer the suitable answers which the world needs and expects of us today, we cannot be satisfied with a superficial theology or one that deviates into sociology or psychology under the camouflage of theology. It is necessary to penetrate into the depths of revelation and be illumined by the Spirit. We stand in need of theologians and exegetes of the first rank. Who cannot see, for example, the light that the labor of modern exegesis has shed to clarify a variety of modern concepts, and at the same time the light that exegesis itself has received from archeological discoveries and from the findings of the natural and exact sciences?


2. An Attitude and its external manifestations

The concept of theological reflection may be considered in the broad sense of a permanent attitude of life, or in the more restricted aspect of a concrete act or manifestation of an inner disposition that casts light on life as a whole under the influence of faith and according to God’s plan.


The permanent attitude of theological reflection is necessary for all, both for our spiritual life and for our pastoral ministry: this is what constitutes “the contemplative in action.” The acts or external manifestations of theological reflection are manifold: one is the examination of conscience, a reflection on one’s own most intimate feelings and state of mind; another is the spiritual discernment whereby we discover the spirit that moves us in our actions or brings about external events; a third one is the reading of the signs of the times whereby we interpret the phenomena of history and the world; again another is the choice of ministries to analyze the apostolic needs and find the ministry that here and now can render the greatest service to the Church and the greater glory of God.


Thus it becomes clear how useful the theological reflection can be for our work. A profound reflection, for instance, of the pastoral ministry under the light of faith can have a decisive influence on its planning and execution. For such a reflection will ever maintain the right orientation of our apostolic thrust and revitalize our work, will help us to avoid modern activism whilst giving us the depth and measure of our activity. It will also enrich us all the time, offering us new viewpoints and a capacity of adaptation, inspiring derivations and applications of the faith and Gospel, placing us in intimate contact with supernatural realities and with the depths of the problems of human souls whom we are endeavoring to help. This type of reflection leads us to view and interpret worldly and human events in the light of God.


Theological reflection properly so called is that whose direct object is the study of God and the divine mysteries: this constitutes the formal object of theology.


Interdisciplinary theological reflection, on the other hand, endeavors to find a solution to human problems: its object is constituted by concrete facts of life or the fundamental problems of mankind. It seeks to give an answer to problems in the field of human sciences—in various departments, pastoral spiritual, scientific, and at various levels, local and universal.


There are today in the world a number of questions of the greatest gravity and importance. Mankind, despite its technical progress has not succeeded in securing justice, equality and peace. There is a constant increase in the problems raised by the sciences, historical criticism, the rapidity of the means of communication, the phenomenon of the so-called contestation, the structures of the multinational companies and international associations, etc. In a world that grows secular at gigantic steps, God’s absence is felt the more day by day.


These problems and many others of the world of today demand solutions which, on the one hand, rest on fundamental human values that will often have to be rediscovered, and on the other avail themselves of the data supplied by revelation and faith and which may offer very useful help in the very presentation of the problems and the search of reliable and viable criteria. Hence, if a fund of tested knowledge of human sciences is of primary necessity, a solid and inspired theology in the broadest sense of the word will also be indispensable.


A superficial consideration may lead us to think that the variety and extent of the problems is immensely vast. It is so indeed, but a deeper analysis shows that all this problematique converges towards one central focus—man. This anthropological convergence constitutes man as the center, a sort of “problematized king” of the whole universe.


3. Revelation and History

Man cannot be thought of as a merely materialistic immanentism; it is necessary to have recourse to the sense of the transcendent and to the science of the transcendent—theology. This proves that if we wish to reach the required solutions we must recur to a truly interdisciplinary study, taking this term in its broadest sense which includes also theological science. The objective consideration of things opens an avenue towards God, whose light is necessary to know the world, to find a solution to its problems and to discover the true path to progress and peace which many want to discover prescinding of God altogether.


This is the thinking of outstanding scientists today, men like Einstein, Heisenberg, P. Jordan and others. Research institutes as well as prestige universities re-introduce in their programs the theological studies that were eliminated in earlier centuries but are now appreciated once more for what they are and enter the centers of learning “by the main gate.”


The irruption of God into human history is an ongoing event. Without the theology of history the evolutive process in time makes no sense. If we prescind from God and the supernatural order, man and history become two abstractions of suicidal irrealism. In our own days we are witnessing how the world, that boasts of the progress achieved, has become the victim precisely of the tragedy brought about by what it considers progress but is the source of its disarray and slavery with the consequent loss of many specifically human values.


Here lie the roots precisely of human frustration and disorientation with its destructive manifestations. Insistence on the untouchability of human freedom, which is considered as the highest human value, tends to deny every transcendental value: there lurks the fear lest the intervention of a superior Being limit this liberty or the possibilities of progress. Those who act thus are not aware that in trying to do without God, they block the living springs of progress and eliminate the light of the most powerful and indispensable knowledge of man which rests in revelation and faith.


It is sad to see how man today believes that the objectivity and veracity of his planning and the solutions to the problems depend chiefly on the multiplicity and variety of accumulated data and the power to achieve quick results. The human brain can no longer face the multitude of data that have to be gathered or the speed at which information has to be combined, and has to have recourse to the electronic computer. It is an additional humiliation of “the king of creation,” that he needs the machine to tell him the path to the future—the electronic determinism directing human freedom.


This consequence is but the logical result of the premises. If scientific materialism and materialistic dialect are applied to man in all their force, they drag him to self-destruction at the precise moment when he takes pride in his unbounded progress. Man’s fundamental error consists in his dream to set up an earthly paradise, in which, once God is eliminated, there is nothing but fallen man. The solution is to be sought in the opposite pole: the faith in that God, who dying to raise fallen man, becomes through his resurrection the center and goal of history, the indispensable road that leads to the heavenly Paradise after the happy passage through a just and human earthly pilgrimage.



II. An Interdisciplinary Task

4. More and more about less and less

Theology therefore has its proper place and role in interdisciplinary research. There is much talk today of interdisciplinary investigation and activity. The term has become fashionable, but ambiguous. Let us try and clarify the concept.


The tendency of scientific specialization is to create separate fields or compartments, smaller day by day and limited, with the purpose of going deeper and deeper in each discipline. This carries the danger of an atomization of science and of limiting our mental horizon to a bare minimum. The remedy against this fragmentation consists in creating a new category of researchers whose task is to offer a synthesis by developing interdisciplinary comprehension and creativity: “The unity of the science of man will be for them a state of mind and an orientation of the will, even before establishing themselves in the acquired knowledge.”


It is a matter, therefore, not of merely juxtaposed monologues of various specialists but of collaboration of the different branches of knowledge. The “interdisciplinary space” is made up of the sum total of the various specialties, it is the unified field of knowledge, the negation of intellectual frontiers.


No attempt is made at excluding the existence of true specialists in a very reduced field; these are more necessary today than ever before: but they alone do not suffice; we need besides men capable of selecting and utilizing the mass of knowledge contributed by the various disciplines and relating one with the others. The study that this requires surpasses by far any sort of universal encyclopedic knowledge, which is for the most part shallow and superficial. And the reason is that what is intended is not to sacrifice depth but to gain in interrelation and to broaden the horizons. The creation of this type of research workers, who without losing in depth may be able to correlate the various branches of knowledge, is one of the greatest services we can render to mankind today.


5. Need of teamwork

Certainly it is no easy matter to reach this goal without lapsing into superficial mediocrity. Teamwork is essential among the best specialists in the subjects connected with the matter in question. Others must also collaborate whose task will be to interrelate the findings of the various disciplines to reach the conclusions which exceed the ambit of any single one of them, thus a constructive synthesis emerging through the previous analytical break up.


This method is especially applicable when the point in question is man, that unit metaphysical, psychological, sociological and personal, which on being subjected to the analysis of various sciences is liable to become reduced to a mere conglomerate of parts not integrated.


Human reintegration must in its turn be the task of a man, who aided by a working group, prepares the reflection and then effects the synthesis of all the elements. Those who contribute the initial material will be many, fewer will work out the synthetic presentation, whereas just a few will formulate the final grand synthesis. This will take the form of guiding principles and orientations which are to direct all the activities of man as a unit and individual.


The integrating total synthesis of the human problems acquires special and highly complex characteristics. It is an effort, in fact, to combine and relate elements so disparate in nature that their harmonization supposes the knowledge of God through revelation. The natural and supernatural, the immanent and the transcendent, body and soul, time and eternity, freedom and providence, the individual and the ecclesial society or mystical body—all these are so many elements whose reality, and even at times apparent incompatibility clamor imperiously for theology to supply the true solutions of the most profound and characteristically human problems of the contemporary world.


6. Priority and urgency of this attitude and ministry

The requisites for this type of reflection and its very complexity increase the difficulty and diminish the number of those who may become capable of affecting this synthesis in all its depth and requirements. This explains why such a ministry is at once highly necessary and extremely difficult.


Another aspect which we cannot afford to forget is the priority for a solution which these problems demand, since they are the fundamental issues and exert such an influence on the rest that, if left unresolved, the others cannot be faced without the risk of the most serious errors.


The world moves at a dizzy velocity and the question on everybody’s lips is: whither, to progress or to destruction? Who can give an unerring answer to this question; who can offer sure directives leading with certitude to the goal intended by man?


This ministry is besides highly proper of the Society, not only because it is attuned to its spirit but also because of its exceptional importance and the dearth of men capable of developing it in all its extent and diversity. If we apply to it the criteria for the choice of ministries bequeathed to us by St. Ignatius, we shall see clearly the preeminent priority it holds.


7. Objections and Possibilities

True, the problem thus presented may appear utopian, or at least reserved for a few and extraordinary men. In the foregoing exposition I have tried only to describe an ideal, or at least a concrete field of action, the highest and most arduous. But what is important and must be common to all Jesuits, especially in our days, is the permanent attitude of reflection in the light of faith. All our works are again to be submitted to evaluation in the realism of faith and the present order of things: education, social works, our pastoral enterprises, retreats, etc. Each one must cultivate this habit, so typically Ignatian, of remaining in a constant examination or discernment and choice of ministries, thus making concrete the original idea of St. Ignatius who considered this ongoing reflection so important in the Society that he priced it more highly than mental prayer itself.


A consideration of today’s secularizing world brings out how necessary it is that we should maintain ourselves in this attitude of illumining the whole of our life with the theological reflection.


On the other hand, this ministry, and much more such an attitude, far from devaluating other apostolates, animates and strengthens them. For it imparts to them a profound meaning by directing and inspiring them and by contributing to the genuine renewal and necessary adaptation based on the ideas of modern theology and pastoral.


Everyone has a place in this activity; not all can do everything but all of us can contribute to the enrichment of the reflection. Science and experience, difficulties and problems, viewpoints and practical solutions that have produced good results: all these are of great value for the reflection and may offer a concrete modality for its “incarnation” and the necessary base of realism.


Nor need we put off the exercise of the planning of these ministries until such time as this reflection has produced its fruit. For action ought to accompany reflection, and reflection ought to vitalize action. Hence it is not a matter of a paralyzing abstract study but, on the contrary, we are intent on discovering how the most abstract and theoretical investigation can be enfleshed without falling into the trap of an enervating irrealism, precisely at a time when the world stands in urgent need of immediate solutions to its most anguishing problems.


On the other hand, the Society is particularly well equipped for this task. First comes its spirit and the training of its men, who acquire an inclination to this continuous reflection and discernment, for which they were prepared in the school of the Exercises.


At the research level as a ministry, the Society is endowed also with the proper elements. There are the numerous Faculties of theology, the various centers of higher studies and research (universities, institutes, social centers, reviews, etc.), and the Society’s presence in so many and diverse countries of the world with its activities in a variety of works and ministries. In order to utilize all these factors effectively it is necessary to create an attitude of interdisciplinary work and reflection with cooperation at all levels.


Fortunately, today’s situation is very favorable to convert this ideal into a reality: the new generations are better disposed for this type of intercommunication and possibilities of communication are also on the increase.


8. Some difficulties

There is no doubt that a work so vast and complex is bound to encounter not a few difficulties. The first hurdle to clear consists in the change of attitude required in the persons who have to carry it out, particularly at the highest levels. Often the planning of theological reflection does not attack human problems, and most research workers in the human and natural sciences are content with delving into their specific problems and seek solutions within the framework of their specialty, without attempting problems posed by philosophy and less theology. This change of attitude, which is so necessary, is not an easy one.


Another serious obstacle, and looking towards the future the greatest difficulty, is the scarcity of men capable of making a synthesis so complex in this field of investigation. Given the anti-intellectual and utilitarian trends noticeable among today’s youth, if we are to attain the desired results, we require a comparatively large number of men who study these disciplines in depth and are possessed of the mentality demanded by the interdisciplinary work—men capable of achieving a comprehensive synthesis, as far as it is possible, without degenerating into a superficial dilettantism that deforms and falsifies. This labor requires that one keep pace with the latest scientific discoveries and developments, and then effect a synthesis which be at the same time an expression of the situation and offer a solution to the problems of man and society, according to the findings of the various disciplines.


What is needed is a new category of synthetic investigators, who, based on pluridisciplinary study at the highest level, be able to make the synthesis and infer the consequences that are to illumine the man of today in the orientation of his life. This kind of men hardly exists, but we should start training them. On the other hand, the few existing men of this caliber are generally so overburdened with other work, that they find it impossible to devote themselves to what is today still considered a marginal occupation.


It would be a sad thing if man had to entrust to a computer machine the profoundest deductions of his progress. It is man himself who under the illumination of faith and as a result of a deep and serious study, is to work out his self-orientation in life and discover his own answers, the transcendental answers to the modern problems on which the future of mankind depends.




Original Source:

Other Apostolates Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—III, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1981, “Theological Reflection and Interdisciplinary Research,” pg. 33–42.

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