Teacher Feature: Bob O’Toole, SJ

With almost as many siblings as academic degrees, it may come as no surprise to students that Dr. Bob O’Toole is both kind and knowledgeable. O’Toole comes from a family of 9 brothers and 5 sisters, and his academic degrees include a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Master of Arts (MA), Licentiate of Philosophy (PhL), Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL), Licentiate of Sacred Scripture (SSL), and a Doctor of Sacred Scripture (SSD). His bachelor’s is in philosophy, and his master’s is in Greek and Latin with licentiates in philosophy, theology, and sacred scripture, and doctorate in scripture, too.

O’Toole’s last teaching post was in Rome at the Vatican’s Pontifical Biblical Institute. Not one to put his feet up for too long, O’Toole has worked as a professor, administrator and fundraiser, but confesses that his greatest joy and inspiration is in meeting people who live good lives and take seriously questions of God.

While O’Toole’s specialty is the New Testament, teaching two sections of Intro to New Testament next semester, it is the whole university’s task of forming the whole person and helping students develop the skills of critical thinking that motivate him.  Having entered the Jesuits immediately after high school, O’Toole points to his experience at SLUH as perhaps the most formative time in his life. His mother went to confession to Jesuits — one of which worked at SLUH — so when O’Toole became high-school aged, the decision of where to go to high school was an easy one.

No stranger to SLU, O’Toole taught in the Department of Theological Studies for 17 years before teaching in Rome. Although he has only been back on campus for about one year, when asked what he would change about SLU, O’Toole recalled the words of a visiting professor years ago, “Be who you are.”

For SLU, this means keeping its identity and brand of a place that is not necessarily radically Jesuit or Catholic —although it is that—but a place with a radical openness to others.

Noting an increasing religious indifference among contemporary students, O’Toole is mindful of how today’s culture does not necessarily promote religious beliefs.

All the more important, then, are theology classes or the University project of open dialogue and inquiry. For O’Toole, given that the Bible is God’s word, what else could be of more interest to a person, or a better use of a student’s time than coming to know the New Testament and the original meaning of what the sacred writers wrote? At the end of the day, that is O’Toole’s vocation as an exegete.

When asked to give advice for students interested in becoming professors, O’Toole urged finding a field that means something to you and gives you joy — mentioning history, social work, and medicine as possibilities among many.

Having studied languages for years—including Greek, Latin, French, Hebrew, German, and Italian—O’Toole is quick to share insights that one language can offer to another, or to Biblical interpretation.

When pressed for an example, O’Toole mentioned that the word for “to know” in the Gospel of John is sometimes thought to be some sort of agnosticism. A better interpretation is actually “faith” meaning that only Jesus can reveal the Father. With four books and some 50 articles published, O’Toole is working on his next book, on the Gospel of John.

At 79 years, O’Toole may very well be the oldest working professor at SLU, and most likely holds the record for family size. O’Toole invites appointments by email from interested students willing to talk about God and the Bible, but students may just as easily find him on his morning stroll across campus.

He is the guy with a gentle smile, but to really test whether or not you have come across O’Toole, ask him a question about classical music or art; those are interests of his, too.