In the index of any book by John S. Dunne, CSC, you can find Martin Buber bumping right up against Ray Bradbury, and Sartre all cozy with-well, Satan. Tolkien and Tolstoy must be old friends by now.
“I appreciate that he draws from many kinds of sources, because it helps burst the bubble’’ of academic insulation we wrap around God, and “reminds you what theology is all about,’’ says Emily Stetler, a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame. “It reflects a mode of doing theology that has been lost in the church; I think of St. Augustine talking about secular texts.’’ And in the classroom, “you feel you’re watching him perform a contemplative action almost, and producing something that’s both intellectually intriguing and spiritually insightful.’’
Come September, Dunne will have spent fifty-yes, fifty-years teaching, writing, and befriending students at Notre Dame. Next month, the university will host a conference, Seeking the Heart’s Desire: Celebrating John Dunne’s Half-Century at Notre Dame. “Of all the people who have written about the heart and the heart’s desire,’’ no one has done it better, says Don McNeill, CSC, who has been hoping to gather “all the Dunnian people’’ together in this way for some years now.
When Dunne returned to his alma mater to teach in the fall of 1957, he had just wrapped up his studies in Rome and spent the summer in Paris, where, as the only English speaker in his house, he was frequently called on to show American visitors around: “I’d always end the tour with the Mona Lisa,’’ he recalls, “and somebody would always-well, not always, but a few times, anyway-somebody would accost me and want to discuss the existence of God.’’ (The painting has that effect on people, he claims. But then, so does he.)
In those days, there was no Theology Department at Notre Dame; they called it religion, and no one wanted to study it: “It was not popular; at that time there was kind of the assumption that if one was an ordained priest, one was qualified to teach theology,’’ says Robert Pelton, CSC, who renamed the department and chaired it from 1959 to 1963. Because Dunne was such a favorite with students, Pelton says, “he was the perfect person’’ to help change that.
That first fall, Dunne says, “I think they gave me Morals and Sacraments, with a textbook and everything. But I kind of ignored it from the start.’’ Instead, he began the journey that became his life’s work, which his friend John Chaplin describes as “a commitment to seeking, but with this profound sense of what his heart is made for.’’
In his sixteen books, which include Time and Myth and The Way of All the Earth, “he doesn’t use complicated or academic words unless he has to,’’ says Kenneth Woodward, longtime religion editor at Newsweek, who has drawn on and referenced Dunne’s work repeatedly over the years. “He’s so poetic, and suddenly you are moving into these spaces he’s opened up for you, and that’s what makes him so different from anyone else who does theology.’’ Each day, he writes a new paragraph for his next book, Deep Rhythm and the Riddle of Eternal Life, to be published in 2008.
He still teaches undergraduates the Death and Rebirth class he had been offering long before I sat in on it in 1980. And though his sources for the course-Socrates, Dante, and Kier-ke-gaard-are not what you’d call perishable, it is a spellbinding thing to watch him meet these thinkers as if for the first time in the classroom. When I go back to Notre Dame, I sometimes get to take a morning walk with him around the lake he must have circled so many times you’d think he’d be dizzy by now-but he is the same way on that well-worn path, as if he’d never seen the goslings before.