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Doing theology in dangerous times

The Summer 2018 issue of Studies leads with a powerful and challenging analysis of the cultural upheaval besetting much of the world at present. In the light of these “dangerous times”, signalled by such phenomena as the election of Donald Trump, the vote for Brexit, the dissolution of democratic consensus, the rise of political extremism, and the growing chasm between the rich and the poor, Michael Kirwan judges that:

We are not simply just ‘post-Christian’ – we have become ‘post-truth’, living in a world of ‘alternative facts’. We are in retreat not only from religious transcendence but from thought, and from reasoned argument in public life.

This article is the text of a lecture which Kirwan, a political theologian and a Jesuit, prepared from a paper he wrote in collaboration with Jessica Hazrati and delivered at a Loyola Institute conference earlier this year. He draws heavily on the great 20th century cultural theorist René Girard. In Girard’s view it is necessary to employ an “apocalyptic imagination”, one which forbids us to exonerate ourselves as we expose the multitude of ways in which our culture reduces everything crudely to ‘us and them’, to ‘darkness and light’, ‘good and evil’, or ‘angels and demons’.

A responsible apocalyptic imagination is only possible, as Kirwan summarises Girard, “if we recognise the fundamental truth [of]… the systemic pattern of human violence, which is in stark contrast to the absolute nonviolence of God”. Then, in a spirit of conversion, we need to be quick to identify this reductionist tendency in ourselves as well.

What this apocalyptic imagination uncovers is the poverty of the dominant secularist narrative. This story which governs how so many people interpret the world may indeed promote “a materialism which is soulless, aggressive, nonchalant and nihilistic”, but it still suffers anxiety over its own lack of foundation”. And for good reason. In spite of its overt detatchment from a religious way of thinking, it still calls on religious categories and explanatory terminology in evaluating, say, social upheaval or war.

Kirwan considers three protests against the failure of contemporary secularity to acknowledge its transcendental underpinning. There is the judgement of Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian Marxist atheist, who argues that Judaeo-Christian spirituality, for all its defects, is preferable to the narcissistic ‘spirituality’ and the fascism of late-capitalism. Then there is the bid of the Radical Orthodoxy movement to “reclaim the world” by resituating all human activities and concerns within a theological framework. And lastly Kirwan describes the ‘apocalyptic’ response of British philosopher Gillian Rose, who urged that social theory needed to turn toward political theology and make appeals to transcendence explicit.

In a final ‘coda’, Kirwan identifies one sinister interaction between the dominant secular capitalist view and the religious sphere, namely the replacement of religious with consumerist cult.

As [Walter] Benjamin points out, capitalism insists on an evacuation of holy seasons – think of the commercial co-option of the sabbath, of Advent, of Christmas, St Patrick’s Day. Why? Because these seasons should be precious moments of reflexivity and recuperation, and therefore of potential resistance to capitalism’s smooth, total functioning.

In particular Kirwan considers the interruptive value of Good Friday, once but no longer honoured in Ireland by the suspension of most commercial activity. It is a day for “honest, painful reflection” as we “look upon the one we have pierced”. As such it has the power to be politically relevant – a day, perhaps, of “humanistic generosity, when the death of an innocent victim at the hands of the political and religious powers (and representing all such victims) could be acknowledged and respected by all citizens”.

“But it is so hard for us,” Kirwan concludes, “to look on the one whom we have pierced: to ‘behold the man’, stripped and tortured by our blindness. Better by far to keep the pubs open and evade this moment of searing recognition.”

This issue of Studies also includes a reflection by Sébastien Maillard, in the light of Brexit, on European integration as more of a political and spiritual project than the usual concentration on technical, legal or economic challenges suggests. Europe, he says, is firstly about reconciliation. It began as a process between two former enemies, France and Germany, whereby one sought to “give a helping hand to the defeated, so that they could stand up, live on and go in peace, instead of being the victims of revenge”. As it expanded it incorporated more situations of reconciliation, including between Britain and Ireland, Germany and Poland, the former Balkan states, and more generally between the old East and West. It is for this reason that the Church has consistently encouraged European integration.

Dermot Lane writes on Christian hope and how it might be grounded in a reconstruction of anthropology – the interdisciplinary examination of human identity – which is currently in crisis. He concludes that “there is enough common ground between human hopes and Christian hope to initiate a new national conversation, and at the same time acknowledge there are differences which are perhaps more complementary than contradictory”.

Other articles include John Bruton’s study of the family of John Redmond and their involvement in Irish parliamentary politics, Henry Jefferies’s account of the current state of Irish Reformation history (noting particularly the failure of the revisionist model of leaving religion out of the reckoning), and Desmond Gibney’s research into the lives of the Macardle brothers, sons of the Dundalk brewing family. This last article was reviewed earlier on this website. The current issue of Studies may be purchased here.