Creighton Connections: Theology professor John O'Keefe, PhD
Creighton Connections: Theology professor John O'Keefe, PhD

In Creighton Connections, we speak with students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends about their experiences living in the new normal. 

Check out the Creighton Connections archive to see how other Bluejays are adapting.

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John O’Keefe

John O’Keefe, PhD, is a professor of theology and journalism at Creighton. He is also a documentary filmmaker and co-founder of the Backpack Journalism project, a social justice filmmaking initiative. In the fall of 2019, John won the inaugural Kingfisher Award.

How has this semester’s transition to online instruction worked out for you?

I had taught online for a long time, so I knew how to do it. But it’s a lot different when the classes aren’t designed to be taught online and you have to switch over right away. The classes are kind of jerry-rigged. I was telling a friend that it’s like trying to sail across the ocean when you break your mast and have to make a new one to get home. It’s not ideal. 

How have your students been? 

Most of the students have rallied to the challenge. A few went AWOL, but most are weathering it OK, I think.

What’s your day-to-day like?

I’m locked in like everybody else. But there’s a small circle of people I’m still interacting with. 

I get out and exercise most days. Thank goodness it’s getting warmer. I get up each morning and act like it’s a normal day. It hasn’t been terribly disruptive in many ways. The technology is a lot more robust than I thought it would be. I thought it would break under all this stress, but it’s been really good. 

Otherwise I’ve been reading novels. I was planning a bike trip this summer, and I’m starting to train. We’ll see if that still happens.

I’ve also discovered the TV show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” 

And you’ve been working on your new documentary project, “The Last Prairie,” correct?

Yes, I don’t know what’s going to happen to that. Everything I had planned with that has been canceled for now. I’m going to wait and see if there’s something else I can put in its place.

One of your areas of speciality is environmental theology. What does that entail?

It’s a subfield in theology, relatively new. If you were thinking about where to put it, it would mostly be dealing with theology in creation, and thinking about the relationship between humans and the rest of the world.  

Since Pope John Paul II, it’s been a growing field, and it’s gained momentum across the spectrum of theologians. 

What can we learn about our relationship to the planet in the wake of the virus?

Ideally, something like this should be a wake up call. I don’t know if it will be. But this is a virus that crossed from the animal world into humans and totally disrupted our economic and social orders. 

If you start thinking about the possible impacts of climate change, on the migrations of people, on the flooding of cities, the economic catastrophe of climate change could be way worse than what we’re seeing from this. This has exposed that we are actually far more fragile than we think we are. 

What’s the value of a Jesuit education, especially right now?

It will always be valuable to train your mind to navigate the complexities of the world. 

It’s never been just about career prep. We still have to think about practical matters, but there’s a religious and spiritual dimension to a Jesuit institution that makes it really valuable. You can actually talk with your students about things you might not be able to in a more secular context. 

The ability to talk about discernment and bring into the classroom these conversations that the Jesuits have honed over many years, that’s been really helpful in my experience. 

There’s the whole Jesuit, Catholic intellectual tradition of talking about the unity of faith and reason in a meaningful way. And that’s the most distinctive thing we have. 

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