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Explaining the Present: Essays on Then and Now

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In his remarkable lead-essay in this issue of Studies, ‘How did we get here? Reflections towards a philosophy of the present’, Philipp Rosemann espouses the ambitious project of, as he puts it, ‘shedding light upon the intellectual substructure (one could say) of Irish life in the 2020s’. It is arguable that few things are more to be desired in the present culture of this country in particular, not least its religious culture, or more germane to the purposes of this journal, than such an undertaking.

In this connection, mention should be made in passing of Derek Scally’s recent book, The Best Catholics in the World: The Irish, the Church and the End of a Special Relationship (2021), an intriguing treatment of the important subject described in his sub-title. The Dublin-born author has lived in Berlin for the past twenty years, working as the Irish Times German correspondent, and he brings to his study the perspective of a thoughtful cultural émigré. Describing himself as ‘a grappling Catholic’, he seeks to apply ‘to our Irish Catholic story some principles of German Vergangenheitsbewältigung – the process of coming to terms with the past’. The perspective he brings on both counts – his continuing desire to make sense of, rather than excoriate and reject, his Catholic background and his instinct to apply the German principles he refers to – make this an unusually valuable (and very readable) study. If Germany’s relatively recent past is a complex inheritance for later generations in that country, the twists and turns of Ireland’s colonised, newly independent and now post-Catholic history is hardly less complex.

Scally’s book and his preoccupations will merit further, fuller exploration in these pages in due course. They are not, however, what Dr Rosemann has undertaken in his essay here. As he makes clear at the outset, he ‘will not talk about the state of the Irish Church, at least not centrally’. Much, as he says, has been written – in Studies and elsewhere – on this undoubtedly important topic. He is concerned, rather, to ‘elucidate what the fundamental challenges are that the Christian faith faces in the intellectual constellation of our day’. The latter phrase is deeply suggestive. It is no disrespect to Derek Scally’s book to say that this is not quite the level at which he is operating. His categories are political and cultural, rather than philosophical or theological.

Writing in La Croix International in August, the religious commentator Massimo Faggioli (whose recent book, Joe Biden and Catholicism in the Editorial: Autumn 2021

United States, is reviewed in these pages) notes how politics currently ‘dominate … the very process of forming ideas, worldviews and opinions’. As he puts it, ‘the political order comes first as key to all other questions: ecclesial, theological and spiritual’. This has been strikingly true in Ireland, where virtually all the attention paid to the church is in terms of its political and historical superstructure and the external features of piety, devotionalism, moral instruction and clerical domination that are seen to have characterised Irish Catholicism in the modern era. The hermeneutic presumed to be appropriate is that of power, not of wisdom or truth. Derek Scally’s book, valuable as it unquestionably is, essentially works within the same limitations. ‘The State’, as Professor Rosemann will argue, ‘becomes the ultimate horizon of our lives’.

His own concern, by contrast, is, as noted, with Ireland’s ‘intellectual substructure’ and the question: ‘how did we get here?’ Philosophical and theological categories, so neglected elsewhere, are precisely what he brings to his own enquiry. Without them, there is no possibility of properly raising the fundamental question of what religion is, in Ireland or anywhere else, what it purports to be for in human lives, and, by way of application of the fruits of this enquiry, how it is functioning – or failing to function – in the lives of Irish people, believers and unbelievers alike, at a level of depth in our day.

When he begins to explore Christianity’s intrinsic ‘temporal structure’ and explains in theological terms that ‘the Christian present … combines the realization of a past promise – God’s covenant with the people of Israel – with the expectation of an even more glorious future’, he is opening up horizons of Christian self-understanding that will be at best only vaguely familiar and, for many, even the explicitly religious, largely unexplored and inaccessible. And yet they are foundational. This, it can be interjected, is to the shame of so much of our preaching and catechesis over very many decades. He goes on: ‘… the Christian future, properly understood, reaches into the present, but does not coincide with it’. He quotes St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:20–31, where the apostle speaks of how ‘the present form of this world is passing away’, so that we must live in it on that understanding. And so it becomes ‘possible to live in this world while participating in the incipient Kingdom’. ‘Without this distinction’, as he points out, ‘the future collapses into the present. This world is all that remains. No room is left for Christian hope; indeed, no room is left for God, if we assume that God is not simply of this world’.

These reflections are of the first importance in understanding contemporary Ireland. In an interview given some years before his death in 2013, Seamus Heaney spoke of how he believed that ‘the condition into which I was born and in which my generation in Ireland was born involved the moment of transition from sacred to profane … the transition from a condition where your space, the space of the world, had a determined meaning and a sacred possibility, to a condition where space was a neuter geometrical disposition without any emotional or inherited meaning’. ‘[The] biggest shift in my lifetime’, he said in memorable words, ‘has been the evaporation of the transcendent from all our discourse and our sense of human destiny’. ‘Evaporation’ is a powerfully evocative description of the surreptitious process that has been taking place among us. The ‘bewildering’ concomitant of such a process ‘is exile into a universe with no up or down, no internalized system of moral longitude or latitude, no sense of a metaphysical roof over our heads’. That surely is the ‘world’ very many Irish people, religious and secular alike, inhabit, however unconsciously, now. T S Eliot’s words in his 1943 Four Quartets, ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’, resonate quietly here. Our world is tending to be more and more the world of the ‘buffered’ self explored by Charles Taylor in his magisterial A Secular Age (2007). A ready reflection of what is happening is to be found in the growing frequency in Ireland not only of civil, rather than religious, wedding ceremonies but also, even more strikingly, of secular humanist funerals. Such funerals are typically characterised by much dignified reminiscence and worthy celebration – but, noticeably and crucially, there is no reference to the future and, in the words of St Paul, they ‘have no hope’ (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Philipp Rosemann examines how the transformations ‘that generated the modern understanding of history, and of ourselves in it … came about’. He tracks back to the twelfth century and the thinking of Joachim of Fiore and St Bonaventure, who developed Joachim’s ideas ‘into a fully orthodox dynamic theology of history, in which God is understood as revealing himself progressively in time’, a revelation which ‘in one sense, never closes until the end of the world’. The idea that Christian hope of a world beyond this one ‘either was going to be, or in fact was already being realized in this world’, gradually ‘prepared the ground for what, famously, Eric Voegelin termed “an immanentization of the eschaton”; in other words, the reduction of otherworldly hope to expectations of worldly perfection’. This process, Rosemann argues, becomes pervasive not just in Marx’s idea of eschatological hope, in other terms heaven, which for Marx is ‘mere “opium” for oppressed people who need hope to sustain them in their bleak lives of exploitation’. It also marks the different forms of capitalism, duly examined in the essay.

The writer looks at some of the ramifications of this ‘immanentisation’ of eschatological hope. Most fundamentally, it entails the death of God. He enlists Nietzsche in aid of understanding the implications, and quotes him in terms that remind us of how Heaney described his own experience. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche asks: ‘What were we doing when we unchained the earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? … Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing? Isn’t empty space breathing at us’? In summary, Rosemann says, ‘there is only complete disorientation’. ‘Is there’, he asks tellingly, ‘a more apt description of the existential confusion of our times?’

He proceeds to tease out some of ‘the principal features’ of the transition we have made, in which ‘the distinction between God and non-God, between the sacred and the profane, between heaven and earth, founds all other distinctions, creating the ultimate horizon of our understanding’. ‘The state’, as noted earlier, ‘becomes the ultimate horizon of our lives’. The heteronomy, according to which we do not live our lives with absolute autonomy but in response, rather, to the heavenly Father’s will (so beautifully described by the Augustinian scholar Maria Boulding OSB in her Marked for Life (1979) as ‘not consenting to some requirement outside ourselves, but going with the pull of a life and love in our own deepest centre’), is to be rejected. ‘Hence’, Rosemann writes, ‘in the immanetised Kingdom, the boundaries of what is ethically acceptable keep being pushed outward’, something very evident in Ireland ‘in discussions regarding topics like stem-cell research and euthanasia’.

And there is more. ‘ … in the immanentised Kingdom, the state governs its citizens through their bodies’, interested not in the salvation of souls but ‘in the well-being… of bodies’. And again, ‘Since this worldly Kingdom no longer possesses any measure that transcends it, there is no longer a telos, understood in both senses of the word “end”: there is no longer a goal which, when reached would indicate definite completion … The earthly Kingdom is open-ended; its horizon keeps receding’. Yet, the same time ‘an endless multiplication of desires’ and an insatiable economy notwithstanding, ‘the future, despite an ever-accelerating rhythm of innovation, becomes a mere extension of the present’. And this, in the midst of what we now know with increasing clarity are in fact finite global resources and a condition which ‘may, in the end, not be sustainable at all’. Last not least, the Kingdom Jesus preached ‘cannot be conveyed in the univocal language of scientific facts’, the predominant idiom of the earthly Kingdom. The kind of metaphorical and parabolic language and story-telling Jesus employed as the only means to convey a reality not of this world becomes ‘relegated to the realm of entertainment’. This is more than an impoverishment of language. It is ‘paralleled … by a sense that the world around us has lost its depth – one could say, its sacramental character’. And the culture lacks the vocabulary to say anything about this.

Even philosophically, Rosemann concludes at the end of his essay, ‘We are called to a future not of our own making’. We need ‘a renewed awareness of human finitude and receptivity in relation to something greater than us’, which ‘will be able to point us to a better way’.

Anyone living in Ireland and aware of the trends will recognise the very great pertinence of what the author is suggesting. His essay is dense and likely to repay close reading. As remarked at the outset, few discussions better exemplify the reasons why Studies has been claiming a voice in public discourse in this country since its foundation in 1912.


Other diverse contributions in this issue of Studies include Padraig Murray’s memories of his father’s ‘active service’ during Ireland’s troubled decades in the early twentieth century, a period currently in focus as the country at large seeks to mark the ‘decade of centenaries’. Former Taoiseach John Bruton responds to the present threatening troubles in Northern Ireland, which are the painful legacy of what happened and failed to happen a hundred years ago and since. He warns of the need for ‘careful thought’ on the matter of any future border poll, such as the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 envisages. Brian Arkins, Professor Emeritus of Classics in National University Galway, discusses some of the imperial echoes of Roman history in contemporary Irish writers John Hewitt, Frank McGuinness, Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney. ‘The past’, as he writes, ‘has an impact on the present in an active rather than a passive way’. He is interested in ‘the links, real and imagined, between the Roman and the British empires with Ireland subject to Britain’. In her meticulous literary essay, Romy Dawson examines the treatment of ‘home’ in the last-named poet’s work, where it ‘has always been more than mere domestic setting’. William Kingston excavates the origins of the concept of limited liability and Ireland’s pioneering role and consequent global legacy. It was, as he points out, ‘Ireland’s eighteenth-century parliament … who started it all with their far-seeing Anonymous Investors Act’ in 1782. Finola Kennedy remembers former Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, fated by history to deal with the global financial crash of 2008 as best he could and who died, long before his time, ten years ago. Finally, art historian Caoimhín de Bhailís , a familiar contributor to these columns, examines Alfred Elmore’s nineteenth century picture, ‘Religious Controversy in the Time of Louis XIV’, and seeks to explain its contemporary relevance in Ireland when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849.


A final note: a new editor will take the helm at Studies from the winter issue of 2021. Dermot Roantree has already been working in the field of communications with the Irish Jesuits for some twenty years. He previously had extensive teaching experience, including the initiation and development of e-learning projects for second-level students. He holds a doctorate in history from University College Dublin. The subject of his research was an aspect of Catholicism and church-state relations in post-emancipation Britain and Ireland, with a focus on the influence of John Henry Newman. Dr Roantree is the tenth editor of Studies since the journal’s foundation in 1912.

As I leave the editor’s desk myself for the last time, I want to thank most sincerely the many people and institutions who have supported or contributed to Studies in any way over the past ten years that I have been editor, or encouraged me and helped me in the work: readers, subscribers and patrons; writers and reviewers; all the board members during my time (not least Bryan Fanning, for his generous help when I was getting started); Messenger Publications and my friends and colleagues on the staff; Jesuit provincials and other Jesuit friends in Ireland and further afield; the Leeson St Jesuit community for their hospitality. I end with a special word of tribute to the late Margaret Dixon, who did so much for the well-being of the journal, serving three different editors, from 1990 until she fell ill and died in July 2014.


  • Alfred Elmore’s Religious Controversy and the Fr Thomas Maguire Debates

    Caoimhín de Bhairís

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    Religious Controversy in the Time of Louis XIV (location now unknown) was painted by the Clonakilty born artist Alfred Elmore and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849.1 Alfred Elmore was also a shareholder in Daniel O’Connell’s National Bank from as early as 1836 and his father was a close associate of O’Connell and an ardent supporter of Catholic Emancipation.2 In 1840 Elmore exhibited a painting at the Royal Academy exhibition in London that was commissioned by O’Connell and which would eventually be hung in St Andrew’s church, Westland Row, in Dublin, where it remains to this day.

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  • Brian Lenihan (1959-2011): A Note

    Finola Kennedy

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    It is just over ten years since the then Irish Minister of Finance, Brian Lenihan Jnr, died on 10 June 2011, at the early age of fifty-two. He belonged to a gifted, politically engaged family.

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  • Careful Thought Needed on Border Polls

    John Bruton

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    The history of Northern Ireland since 1920 demonstrates the danger of attempting to impose, by a simple majority, a constitutional settlement and an identity on a minority, who feel they have been overruled. Those pressing for an early border poll on Irish unity, which would have to take place in both parts of Ireland, should reflect on this. Such a poll could repeat the error of 1920 and add to divisions, rather than diminish them.

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  • How Did We Get Here? Reflections towards a Philosophy of the Present

    Philipp W Rosemann

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    Explaining the present has always been one of the preoccupations of philosophy, and of modern philosophy in particular. Kant, in his celebrated essay, ‘What is Enlightenment?’; Hegel in his speculative metaphysics of history; Nietzsche in his declaration that ‘God is dead’; Heidegger in his reflections on ‘the end of philosophy and the task of thinking’ – all these philosophers, and others, have attempted to offer an account of their present conditions. This essay takes up the same task, but with the precise goal of shedding light upon the intellectual substructure (one could say) of Irish life in the 2020s.

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  • Limited Liability: Ireland’s Global Legacy

    William Kingston

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    Limited liability allows sharing in ownership of a business without any responsibility for debts which that business may incur. The most that the investor can lose if it fails is the amount that the share in it has cost. Although the modern corporation depends absolutely upon it for its existence, this legal privilege is taken for granted, like the expectation that the sun will rise to-morrow.

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  • On Active Service in Ireland in a Troubled Decade 1915-25

    Padraig Murray

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    My father Pa Murray was a quiet man, and as we grew up he rarely spoke in detail of his experiences. However, my parents kept an open house, and our visitors were many and varied, mostly relatives from Derry and Cork, and also many names from the past as well. I first became conscious of this during the war years and afterwards when in winter months all activity was confined to a single room because of fuel shortages.

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  • Roman History in Hewitt, McGuinness, Friel, Heaney

    Brian Arkins

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    Reception Studies is a major growth area in Classics. The past has an impact on the present in an active rather than a passive way. T S Eliot explains: ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different’. Marina Carr cites the example of Shakespeare: ‘he took from everywhere but look what he did with his plunder’.

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  • The Significance of ‘Home’ in Séamus Heaney

    Romy Dawson

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    Home has always been more than mere domestic setting in Seamus Heaney’s work. The people, traditions, values, sounds, noises, and smells that emerged from his Ulster farmstead and surrounding landscape have been not only central to his identity as a Northern Irish poet, but absolutely integral to his creative well-spring.

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