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‘Stand upright. Raise your head. Do theology.’

Nearly one hundred people turned out for a lecture by Michael Kirwan SJ in the Loyola Institute TCD, on Wednesday 31 January. Michael, a British Jesuit now living in Ireland as a visiting Professor of Theology in the Loyola Institute, spoke to the title ‘“Stand Upright and Raise your Head!”: Doing Theology in Troubled Times’.

Before his lecture he spoke to Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications about this topic which has been occupying his thoughts of late, and causing him to return to books he read over twenty years ago, and which now appear more relevant than ever. He speaks about the Jewish philosopher Gillian Rose who wrote about the 21st century being in a state of ‘grieving’, not knowing exactly what loss was being grieved, and doing the grieving badly.

Michael Kirwan himself believes we are living in deeply troubled times marked globally by a rise in fascist and nationalistic ideologies. The attendant intolerance, exclusion and racism which those ideologies engender, has left the world feeling increasingly unstable, ‘the centre cannot hold’ as the extremists seek to pull it apart, he says.

The ‘secularist’ word-view which has elbowed religion and religious belief to the margins has dominated western societies for several decades. However, it is is now widely seen to be seriously deficient as a description of our modern world, says Kirwan. “It is nearly twenty years since a group of British theologians, under the banner of “Radical Orthodoxy”, declared that ‘the logic of secularism is imploding’. Secularism is reduced to promoting a materialism which is ‘soulless, aggressive, nonchalant and nihilistic.’”

According to Michael Kirwan, these words ring even more true today. “We struggle with ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’, with a retreat from thought and reasoned argument in public life, with the collapse of the post-war democratic consensus, and with the resurgence of extremisms. Our multiple global crises – financial/economic, military/security, environmental – will not easily be solved by technological and scientific means,”he adds.

Kirwan points our however that if we examine our language, it is striking how laden it is with religious meaning. “Our situation is often labelled ‘apocalyptic’, he notes, adding, “Discordant social interactions are described as ‘witch-hunts’ and ‘scapegoating’. Warfare is still understood in terms of ‘sacrifice’. It simply not true that we have moved away from religious ways of thinking and feeling, as the secularist tries to claim.”

In his interview he also references another contemporary philosopher, Slavoj Zizek – a Marxist atheist – who insists that the Christian legacy is simply too important to be left to evangelical fundamentalists. For Zizek, the world is faced with an unsavoury choice between two false ‘religions’- either the self-massaging narcissism of late-capitalist ‘spirituality’, or the herd-like transcendence of fascistic nationalism, he says. “These are two sides of a coin, as each betrays the same disastrous crisis of identity. In which case, says Zizek, perhaps it is wiser to stay with the Judaeo-Christian tradition.”

Michael Kirwan explores ways in which the voice of theology, Christian religious wisdom, is making itself heard again. He agrees that there are challenges for theologians, including the clerical child abuse scandals and the Church’s handling of it, and the fact that “Christians have a weird way of speaking about God”. Theologians today, he contends, have to know how to speak accurately, in a Christian way, about God.  When they do, Kirwan believes they can, “offer a way beyond the grim alternatives of total self-absorption, or systematic hatred of the other.” Christian wisdom, as we find it in key passages in the gospels, and in the Book of Revelation, requires us to ‘stand upright and raise our heads’, he says. “It give us hints of what it means to flourish in troubled times without being overwhelmed by fear, insecurity and resentment.”