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Doing Theology in Dangerous Times: Volume 107 | No 426

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In a lecture delivered earlier in the year in the Loyola Institute, Trinity College Dublin, on the basis of a paper written in collaboration with Jessica Hazrati, and reproduced in the present issue of Studies, the British political theologian Michael Kirwan reflected on the task of, as he puts it, ‘Doing theology in dangerous times’. Our troubles, as we move towards the end of the twenty-first century’s second decade, can be conceived of in a variety of ways but who does not ‘feel’, as the paper puts it, that ‘we are in the middle of a major cultural upheaval’? The authors allude to Nicholas Boyle’s suggestion, in his How to Survive the Next World Crisis (2010), that the middle of the second decade of each century is apt to feature ‘a seismic event of political and cultural transformation’. Thus, the nineteenth century had the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which brought a century’s peace after the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars. The twentieth century, as we have been remembering so sombrely in these past few years, saw the outbreak of the so-called ‘Great War’ in 1914, a war which in fact marked the beginning of not one extended global conflict but two, with long years of armed stand-off to follow. Has 2016 been this century’s corresponding watershed moment, the year which featured Britain’s bewildering Brexit vote and the no less bewildering election of Donald Trump in the United States, dystopian events redolent of the disillusionment, rising populism and social and cultural dislocation we see more and more around us in the world at present? Dangerous times, indeed.
There are many different ways of parsing and analysing such a complex situation and identifying its component strands. Kirwan and Azrati’s paper invokes Slavoj Žižek and what the Slovenian philosopher, with intentional apocalyptic resonance, calls ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’: ‘the worldwide ecological crisis, economic imbalances, the biogenetic revolution, and exploding social divisions and ruptures’. The moral and spiritual bankruptcy of liberal capitalism in the face of these and the other challenges we face and the secularism which, implicitly or explicitly, accompanies it, is increasingly apparent. As the paper argues, ‘Our multiple global crises – financial/economic, military/security, environmental, the “horsemen of the apocalypse” – will not easily be resolved by technological and scientific means’. Clearly, as the British referendum – about which the director of the Jacques Delors Institute, Sébastien Maillard, also writes in these pages – and the American election and their various, mostly unhappy, outcomes seem to indicate, ‘We face the dissolution of the post-war democratic consensus, and a resurgence of extremist antagonisms’. More troublingly still and at a rather more profound level, ‘We are in retreat not only from religious transcendence but from thought, and from reasoned argument in public life’. And as events in Britain and the United States have illustrated, ‘We are not simply just “post-Christian”’, so that we have in some measure lost our religious sense and our understanding of what religion properly is, but ‘we have become “post-truth”, living in a world of “alternative facts”’, struggling to achieve any kind of honest rational discourse at all.
All of this, unsurprisingly, has ready application to our experience in Ireland. Two years ago, Jesuit theologian Gerry O’Hanlon, a frequent contributor to Studies, gathered a group of colleagues from different fields of expertise in Irish life to conduct a conversation about how to respond to the ways in which this global crisis manifests itself here. Their efforts issued in a slim but important volume under Dr O’Hanlon’s editorship, A Dialogue of Hope: Critical Thinking for Critical Times, published last year by Messenger Publications. The goal of their discussions was to achieve what they call ‘constructive engagement’ with those with whom they hoped to be able to establish enough common ground to ‘build bridges to hope’ for the future.
For one of the contributors in particular, Dermot Lane, there was a need to go back – and down – to the very foundations of rational argumentation and consider the anthropological dimension of the crisis: what, after all, is a human being, before we try to say anything else? Can we reach some kind of mutual understanding about this? Anthropology, he insists in his own paper in the collected volume, which is republished in slightly modified form here, develops this point. ‘Anthropology’, he writes, ‘is the study of what it means to be a human being, an examination of what is at the core of human identity, an analysis of what promotes human flourishing, an exploration of human nature in the light of the social sciences, history, philosophy and religion’. The rest of his paper is taken up with an exploration of the different dimensions of anthropology in play in the crisis and a search for ways in which believers and unbelievers alike might find a way to build ‘bridges of hope’. ‘The surest sign of a deep crisis in anthropology’, he points out, ‘is our contemporary inability to talk seriously about death in the public forum’. Or, it might be added, with not just Ireland in mind, about religion (and there is, of course, a close connection).
‘The secularist world-view’, Kirwan and Azrati write – and such a world-view is increasingly pervasive in influential circles in this country – ‘has rudely elbowed religion and religious belief to the margins of modern thought and culture’. ‘Those who dislike religion’, the distinguished American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson writes in her just published What Are We Doing Here? (2018), ‘assume that it is primitive, the kind of error or nostalgia that people who are modern and enlightened should be ashamed to persist in. And many don’t persist, a testament to the power of shaming’. Whatever you do, as a figure in Irish public life, it seems, don’t admit to any religious affiliation or even any religious sensibility. Such has been the collapse of the once (all too) dominant Catholic church that, in a culture of such puzzlingly little theological sophistication (but whose fault might that, at least partly, be?), religion as such must be rejected, without further distinction or qualification. At times we seem in Ireland to have fallen from the High Middle Ages, in terms of religious culture, to the smaller horizons of post-Enlightenment in one fell swoop. And, looking through a wider lens, we can be said to live in ‘a world in which’, as the authors of Radical Orthodoxy (1999) put it and whom Kirwan and Azrati quote, ‘the theological is either discredited or turned into a harmless leisure-time activity of private commitment’.
For all our virtues as a culture and as a people, founded as these virtues are on our native gifts and a rich inheritance from the past, and the salutary opening to wider horizons which are such a refreshing feature of contemporary Ireland, there are also signs of the kind of dislocation and loss of direction at a deep level to which allusion has already been made. Dermot Lane quotes President Michael D Higgins’s remarks in late 2015 about the rise of ‘extreme individualism, grounded in a hegemonic version of the market without limit’. Further, he argues that the failure to ‘question the concept of individualism and insatiable consumption’ has been a contributing factor to our recent economic crisis. What, we might ask against this unhelpful background, are we able to pass on to our children in terms of deeper values and ultimate vision about human purpose and ‘what we are doing here’, as Marilynne Robinson asks? What, crucially, is our educational system aspiring to achieve?
President Higgins speaks of a failure to question. Questioning requires a degree of thoughtfulness and a habit of reflection which are in short supply among us in this era of what has been called ‘continuous partial attention’, ‘the age of noise’, as the title of Erling Kagge’s recent book, Silence in the Age of Noise (2017), pithily has it. Once upon a time the Catholic bishops in Ireland had something worthwhile to say on some of the questions that trouble us; now, if they speak at all, they must not be given a hearing. That, we are apparently to understand, would be to bring ourselves back to a demeaning, servile past, when politicians kissed episcopal rings – and all the rest of it. The presidency, as instanced above, can have thoughtful contributions to make, as this and recent holders of the office have shown, but, however eloquent, the president’s is a relatively weak voice in the national discourse. The loudest and most pervasive and best-funded voices often seem to trumpet commercialism, self-interest and crude disparagement. Marilynne Robinson’s remark about what Friedrich Schleiermacher long ago called ‘religion’s cultured despisers’ has much resonance in our country just now. Misplaced shame is far too prevalent among those who should have more courage and more integrity. We are being short-changed.
Even twenty years ago, the authors of Radical Orthodoxy sensed that ‘the logic of secularism’ may have been beginning to implode, on foot of ‘its own lack of values and lack of meaning. In its cyberspaces and theme-parks it promotes a materialism which is soulless, aggressive, nonchalant and nihilistic’. In what is effectively the same vein, Dermot Lane cites Jeffrey Sachs, US economist and UN adviser, addressing the London School of Economics in December 2016, where he reflected on how economics had gone ‘wildly off-track by a profoundly flawed model of human nature and a flawed model of human purpose’. It is not clear that enough of this kind of reflection is happening here.
John Redmond, one of the great Irish political leaders from our past, who possessed so many of the qualities harder to find among us now, died a hundred years ago in March 1918. It is poignant and somewhat painful to read what John Bruton writes, in his recent Wesminster address published in this issue of Studies to mark this largely neglected centenary. One of the points he makes concerns how ‘Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party played a role in preserving state support for Catholic, and Church of England, schools in England, when the Liberal government, with whom the Irish Parliamentary Party normally allied itself, wanted to do away with this after the 1906 Election’ – and then to reflect on what an apparently anti-religious, theologically illiterate and ultimately unreflective Department of Education and Science is doing to such schools in Ireland now.
Far from ‘suffocating’ theology, as Michael Kirwan and Jessica Azrati’s paper puts it, and reinforcing the consumerist doctrines of short term self-interest and narrow vision, even in – of all places – our schools (why, after all, have students waste time studying something as useless and unproductive as religion, when they could be giving extra time to practical points-earners?), it should surely be the policy of a more enlightened Minister for Education to facilitate the opening of young minds and hearts to larger horizons and a degree of religious self-understanding, and push back against the barren philosophy of the market place which has, in too many respects, brought us to where we are. But, despite all our history and the present state of the world, we apparently think it’s quite alright to graduate young people with little or no understanding of religion or religious questions at all, to say nothing of the philosophical equipment even to begin grappling with and become self-critical about the large cultural and anthropological questions under discussion here.
Kirwan and Azrati’s’s profound reflections, inspired by the French cultural theorist René Girard and the less known English philosopher Gillian Rose, lead them, in Girard’s footsteps, to invoke the need for nothing less than ‘apocalyptic imagination’ and to accept a call to conversion which ‘will require us to override, even reverse, our evolutionary programming’. In the face of ‘the systemic patterning of human violence’, the heartbreaking divisions (especially the economic ones) which set us one against the other, and are to such a degree at the source of our troubles, we need to be confronted by ‘the absolute non-violence of God’, revealed on Good Friday. This brings us, shockingly, to the very heart of the Christian mystery – a call to reflection to all of us, inside and outside the church, about the world we have created and which we need to recognise for what it is. This is a world – and here the authors of the paper draw on the provocative thought of Giorgio Agamben – in which the refugee and the innocent victim may need to be recognised as not so much ‘marginal to our societies’ but ‘in fact the central figure of our current political history’. That is a thought to conjure with, as European countries, very much including Ireland (as a forthcoming paper, Sharing Responsibility, Saving Lives: Reforming Ireland’s Response to the EU Refugee Crisis, from the Irish branch of the Jesuit Refugee Service, points out), continue to drag their feet in the face of what is a huge human tragedy just off our shores.
Sébastien Maillard, in his paper ‘Brexit and Europe: a Political and Spiritual Challenge’, another Loyola Institute lecture reproduced here, finds himself arguing against some of the same ‘anthropological reductionism’ to which Dr Lane’s essay refers at one point, when he considers fault-lines in the European project Brexit has arguably uncovered and the deep moral and spiritual values which lie at the foundation of that project and which the advocates of Brexit, among others, have so signally and regrettably disregarded. The real challenge to the EU, he insists, is not Brexit, but migration and inequality: ‘… at the root of these issues lies a deeper one, important for Christians, about our readiness to share. How much of my national identity can I share with strangers and how much of my wealth can I share with the most deprived, without fearing losing one or the other, or both?’ When he writes of how democracy ‘may be under threat in Europe today’ and that ‘it’s an issue for Christians’, it is dismaying that he must add: ‘some of whom support far-right nationalism’. The distortions of Christianity, whatever forms they may take, are a very great disservice to the world.
The Reformation has sometimes been, more or less whimsically, characterised as ‘Brexit avant la lettre’. Dr Henry Jefferies, in his contribution to this edition of Studies, which focuses on what happened in Ireland in the sixteenth century, is concerned to contest a quite different idea: that sense can be made of that event as it affected Ireland, leaving the religious factor out and explaining the failure of the reform to ‘take’ in Ireland in terms of issues to do with taxation. Here he has his fellow- historian of the period, Nicholas Canny, particularly in his sights. He remarks, interestingly in light of the foregoing discussion in these pages, that ‘Canny’s interpretation of the Reformation in Ireland “with the religion left out” … reflected the Zeitgeist of a time when the onset of the secularisation of Irish society was contentious, and a growing number of intellectuals were keen to exorcise Catholicism as a powerful force from Ireland’s past as well as its present’. His speculation ‘that the Reformation did not resonate in Ireland because there was no university to provide a receptive audience for new theological thinking’ is suggestive in light of the present Irish situation.
The Loyola Institute in Trinity College (founded in its day to promote the Reformation in Ireland) exists, in part, as a response to the same lacuna, in Catholic circles at least, even today, and despite John Henry Newman’s eloquent insistence on the importance of theology in the university in famous lectures he delivered in Dublin more than 150 years ago. The present archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has often lamented the lack of a properly educated and articulate laity in Ireland. This is very much part of the challenge the Loyola Institute was established to address, even in a modest way.
Other contributions to this issue of Studies include Desmond Gibney’s interesting account of the Macardle brothers, members of a wealthy Dundalk family, one of whom was a follower of John Redmond, while the other became a Jesuit and, among other things, was destined to supervise the early growing pains in Clongowes of the Irish Jesuits’ most famous pupil, James Joyce. (Mr Andrew Macardle SJ, as he then was, appears as ‘Mr McGlade’ in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – the portrayal of him is not unkind). William Kingston writes a note to offer salutary advice to any overseas applicant for the troubled post of Garda Commissioner in Ireland, now waiting to be filled. And James McElroy, in his ‘Eco-Criticism and Derek Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”’, provides a strikingly careful reading of this outstanding contemporary Irish poet, while making intriguing connections with ecology, one of the strands, as noted above, in the current global crisis.
But, even – and perhaps precisely – in the face of the challenges discussed in some of the keynote contributions to this issue of Studies, hope, not despair, remains the critical Christian response. Dermot Lane writes that, as ‘faith was the big question of the twentieth century: the possibility of faith in God in the face of so much suffering, tragedy and war’, in our century ‘it is hope that is the big question in the face of so much apathy and indifference, so much cynicism and scepticism, so much failure and uncertainty’. Appealing across the border between faith and secular unbelief, he quotes the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes: ‘The future of humanity rests with people who are capable of providing the generations to come with reasons for living and for hope’. Christian believers live in the conviction that the Risen Christ has finally conquered death in all its forms and all its effects and the evil which so palpably suffuses the crises under discussion here shall never prevail. ‘To Christians’, as Pope Francis, the great apostle and embodiment of hope in our presently troubled world, said in an address last year, ‘the future does have a name, and its name is Hope’. Michael Kirwan and Jessica Hazrati conclude their powerfully suggestive paper with ‘an “apocalyptic” scenario’, drawing on Giorgio Agamben: ‘the New Jerusalem, with the Lamb of God enthroned at its centre: slain since the foundation of the world but now triumphant’.

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