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The joy and urgency of Jesuit wisdom

Jesuit religious wisdom, according to Michael Kirwan SJ, can be used to find light in dark times. Addressing the Boards of Management of Irish Jesuit schools in Clongowes, he both drew a grim picture of the breakdown of political culture in today’s world and identified grounds for optimism – an Ignatian way of converting the culture by embracing everything that is good in it.

Looking first at the current age of political and cultural dysfunction, Kirwan noted the “crisis of truth and of liberal democracy” which has brought about a “return of fascism” – “a ‘postmodern’ intellectual culture, with its allergy towards grand explanations; a resistance to the claims of authority; a pessimism, even cynicism, with regard to the possibility of a shared vision for our communities”. We are in an age now of what Charles Taylor has called “the buffered self”, the thoughtless, self-protective individualism of the ‘modern subject’.

In the course of his paper, Kirwan articulates how this modern sensibility has played itself out in western countries, in the US of Trump and the Britain of Brexit. There is in these phenomena, he notes, taking an idea from the British philosopher Gillian Rose, the sense of “a grieving process which is not going well”, grieving out of a “nostalgia for lost certainties”. All the signs of a mismanaged grief are there: “the hatred… the tribalism, the trolling, the name-calling, the fake news…”

In the case of his own native Britain, Kirwan suggests that the matter is complicated further by “a tragically unresolved post-imperial history”. Hence Brexit – a “massive act of self-harm” and “an astounding and frightening expression of collective narcissism and selfishness”.

The marginalisation or outright rejection of religion also forms part of this contemporary sensibility, but Kirwan does not find the fact altogether disquieting. He notes that the Church can survive – even thrive – as a minority, citing for example France’s two centuries of laicité, requiring it to become creative in its life and organisation. He identifies too a shift in the underlying culture, a move towards a post-secularist perspective, a recognition that some “vision of transcendence” is needed if society is not to collapse in upon itself.

Kirwan’s optimism shows more decisively in the last part of his talk, when he considers education. How should Jesuit schools respond to the malaise as he has portrayed it? Essentially, he argues, they can draw on the wisdom of the early Jesuits who had an optimistic vision about human beings and their capabilities and immersed themselves in the study of all the sources of human wisdom made available to them. From their Greek and Roman studies they learned to appreciate the goodness of a civilisation that did not know Christ, so when they then went as missionaries to the East or Africa they showed this same “loving sensitivity toward the human”. They realised that “if they were to thrive they had first to learn the language and the customs, and to respect the traces of God already present there”.

This “umbilical connection” between the work of education and the work of mission gives grounds for optimism. The schools need to cultivate “the whole person” and help to make them into ‘men and women for others’, “conscious of the needs of the poor and the demands of social justice”. It is in this way that the schools can remain “faithful to the vision and legacy of the Jesuits”.

Read Michael Kirwan SJ’s full paper here »