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Religious Imagination and Public Life

Edmond Grace SJ gave a lecture on ‘Religious imagination and public life’ at St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, Dublin, on Thursday 15 February. A large crowd turned out on a cold night to hear him arguing that the current orthodoxy in public life – that there should be no explicit use of religious discourse – was giving free rein to fundamentalism and populist movements. He argued that the purpose of public life was to provide an alternative to violence amidst the conflicts and ambivalent motivations which are always prone to break through a fragile surface.

He referred to American Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, who says that society is made up of warring ‘conspiracies’. Courtney Murray uses this term in the positive sense, intended by the original Latin term ‘conspiratio’ which means ‘breathing together.’ In this sense ‘conspiracy’ means a form of solidarity. The American Jesuit theologian lists the major ‘conspiracies’ of 1960 in the U.S. as Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and secular. Public life needs a secular space which provides a kind of life raft of reasonableness in this conflict but what is reasonable changes with changing times and is defined by the consensus agreed on by the warring groups.

According to Edmond, the prevailing view of public life which excludes religious discourse fails to take into account that public life is not just about the exchange of ideas. It is also a drama in which both the telling and the acting out of narratives play a crucial role. The narrative of populism, which often goes hand in hand with religious fundamentalism, are both inimical to the democratic process because they are both inclined to condemn opposition instead of engaging in debate. These movements can only be challenged by alternative narratives of identity, and a purely secular narrative will only confirm their view that those who oppose them are opposed to all traditional values of religion and nationhood.

Fr Grace believes that we need to make room in public life for religious reality which is not the exclusive preserve of religious fundamentalists. The German theologian Rudolf Otto’s definition of religious experience as ‘fearful and fascinating mystery’ has light to shed on human reality; it is unreasonable to ignore this experience or its capacity to result in positive as well as negative outcomes. It is better to explore this reality in both its positive and negative manifestations than to leave its public expression unchallenged in the hands of people for whom religion is a platform from which to condemn others and nationhood is a shield against an unknown future. Narratives of fear need to be countered by alternative narratives and, down through history, religious discourse has been a valuable source of such narratives. While it makes no sense for religious discourse to determine the course of public life, equally it makes no sense for it to be excluded.