Fr. Tibor Horvath led the Ultimate Reality and Meaning Society. At its height, the URAM society was a loose network of about 1,000 professors, experts and freelance scholars. Photo from the Jesuit Archives

Life's ultimate meaning: Fr. Tibor Horvath’s scholarly movement left lasting impression

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  • March 5, 2018
When it comes to higher learning, you can’t get higher than the ultimate.

The search for the ultimate has been going on for 40 years, thanks to a Hungarian refugee Jesuit who taught fundamental theology at Toronto’s Regis College in the 1960s through the ’80s. It has resulted in 37 volumes of essays, studies and arguments from every discipline, from physics to theology to economics, contributed by scholars from every continent on Earth. The ultimate in intellectual pursuits has been the special charge of the International Society for the Study of Ultimate Reality and Meaning since 1978.

At its height, the URAM society was a loose network of about 1,000 professors, experts and freelance scholars. They held international conferences in Toronto every two years, pursuing the dream of producing an encyclopedia of Ultimate Reality and Meaning.

URAM was never for amateur thinkers. It was where serious thinkers with big ideas went to test out theories that wouldn’t easily fit in the narrow confines of their own discipline or university faculty. In the journal and at conferences, URAM contributors were wrestling with the limits of knowledge and how it can be represented in mere words.  

As of the end of this year the URAM journal will no longer be published. The International Society has no plans for another conference. The accumulated volumes of the journal don’t really amount to an encyclopedia and there’s no prospect of reprinting and indexing all those hundreds of articles. But there’s a good chance the entire thing could end up online in a searchable database.

Some scholars are certainly sad to see URAM go, not just as an outlet for their biggest ideas but as a kind of last stand for absolute, eternal values and ideas.

The problem is that the ultimate has fallen out of fashion, said Fr. John Perry, Jesuit senior scholar at the University of Manitoba’s St. Paul’s College.

“The latest thinking of philosophers on these questions is that there is no such thing as ultimacy of any kind. Everything is relative,” Perry said.

When Fr. Tibor Horvath launched the URAM project in 1978 the everything-is-relative view was marginal. Throughout the Cold War intellectual life was all about competing views of the ultimate. Marxist atheists, Buddhists, Christians, existentialists, Ayn Rand “rational individualists” and their capitalist followers were all competing with their own understandings of ultimate reality.

At the urging of Pope Paul VI, Horvath thought he could get past these various schools of thought shouting at each other and substitute dialogue and mutual understanding for polemical warfare on university campuses.

“The society isn’t designed to convert or convince,” Horvath told The Financial Times of Canada in 1989. “But to gather those with these inclinations and to give them a chance to know they aren’t alone.”

In 1974 Pope Paul VI rather unexpectedly gave the Catholic Church’s largest order of priests a new job. With all their intellectual resources spread across dozens of Jesuit universities all over the globe, they were to begin a dialogue with atheism. 

“Tibor had to ask himself, ‘How would I contribute to this effort to deal with atheism?’ ” said Perry, a former editor of the URAM journal.

Instead of trying to talk to atheists about God or entering into endless, fruitless arguments that always result when people clash over their basic understanding of the universe, Horvath sought neutral language to frame the discussion.

“When that person articulates his or her ultimate, we’re now in the realm of talking about God. But not talking about God in a theological sense, but in a different kind of way,” Perry said.

Horvath would ask Marxist philosophers, physics professors, even literary critics what value or reality they felt was necessary for their very being — for what would they sacrifice everything? He didn’t judge the answers as either correct or incorrect, but instead encouraged those answers to be as complete, deep and searching as they could be.

“He let people write things from their own viewpoint,” said Jesuit philosopher and former president of Regis College Fr. Jack Costello. “He never dictated what your work had to be. I think there was a real sense of inclusion… Tibor avoided the box, I think. I thought he was crazy when he decided to have an institute called Ultimate Reality and Meaning.”

Crazy like a Jesuit fox, maybe. It turns out that URAM in Hungarian means Lord.

Horvath was born into an uncertain world. In 1927 the Kingdom of Hungary was no longer part of the great Austro-Hungarian empire, but it had not yet settled into a comfortable existence as a mere nation-state. It was paying war reparations to its neighbours in the aftermath of the First World War and longing to reunite with Hungarians who had been left outside its new borders.

Come the Second World War Hungary was all thrown further into doubt. Economically tied to the fascist powers in Italy and Germany, Hungary ended up part of the Axis. The 19-year-old Horvath sought certainty and solidity in 1946 by entering the Jesuits. But by 1948 he and the other Jesuits were on the run from Hungary’s imposed Communist government and he was studying philosophy in Innsbruck, Austria. He was ordained in Spain in 1957 and then joined other Hungarian Jesuits in Guelph, Ont.

With final vows in 1963 came an assignment to teach basic theology, ecclesiology, grace and eschatology at Regis College in Toronto.

Out of the uncertainty of his life, Horvath built up an intellectual fascination with the certainty of his faith and a curiosity about the certainties of other lives around him.

“If you don’t explore and imagine and create new aspects of understanding, you don’t, in a way, have a chance of creating new practical encounters with one another,” said Costello. “That connection, of seeing differently and understanding differently, both arises out of fresh, experimental stuff and practical stuff — and it adds to them.”

“Horvath admitted that the project (the Encyclopedia of Ultimate Reality and Meaning) would take decades to complete, which turned out to be an understatement,” Jesuit University of Seattle English professor Fr. David Leigh wrote in a brief summation of Horvath’s intellectual life. “In 1999, Horvath called his project ‘an intellectual democracy.’”

Horvath’s Catholic impulse was to resist the fragmentation of knowledge.

“Since we think that ideas do not exist but that people with ideas do, we are interested in people and their ideas of URAM,” Horvath wrote in 1990. “An adequate understanding of an authentic idea of ultimate reality and meaning of human existence is not attainable without the co-operation of as many people as possible.”

Horvath died in 2008, but his journal and his international society of scholars have outlived him by at least a decade. Many of those scholars are now looking for ways to reimagine the project, said Perry.

“There are people who are quite committed to the effort to work on ultimate reality and meaning,” he said. “And they’re quite unhappy with the demise of the journal.”

URAM as a journal or as an international society may cease to exist. But as an ideal for Catholic intellectual life and higher education, Horvath’s ideas will live on.

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