On Friday I had the opportunity to respond to the opening chapter in a new book edited by Fr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, A Dialogue of Hope: Critical Thinking for Critical Times (Messenger Publications, 2017). There was a discussion workshop about the book at Queen’s University called, ‘Hope in Turbulent Times,’ the aim of which was to promote ‘constructive engagement and dialogue between secularists and religious believers, in order to imagine an alternative narrative for our day.’
David Begg, Chairman of the Pensions Authority and a former General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, outlined the first chapter, which is in many ways the summary of an agenda for citizens to move forward together to address issues of the common good. You can read my full response below.
Response to ‘The Signs of Our Times’, the opening chapter in A Dialogue of Hope: Critical Thinking for Critical Times
First, I want to thank the organisers for the invitation to respond to A Dialogue of Hope and to join in this conversation about ‘the signs of our times.’ Those who produced this book and convened this event refer to themselves as ‘a coalition of hope.’ The uncertainty and anxiety about politics on the island of Ireland has resigned many people to a sort of everyday hopelessness. I commend this ‘coalition of hope’ for urging people to ask more of themselves – for asking us to resist hopelessness and commit ourselves to contributing to this island’s future.
At heart, I think that’s what this dialogue is about – convincing people that they really can make a difference and mobilising them to that end.
David Begg has already ably outlined the main points of the chapter titled, ‘The Signs of Our Times.’ This chapter is, in many ways, a manifesto for action. It is calling ‘secularists’ and ‘religious believers’ to work together for the common good. It is in this chapter that the group analyses ‘the crisis of faith’ and ‘the crisis of hope’ that has brought our island to this point.
It is interesting that the group has chosen the title ‘the signs of our times’. I would wager that even many so-called ‘secularists’ living on this island will recognise the biblical connotations of this phrase. Indeed, I would question whether this group has in some way exaggerated the presence of ‘secularists’. Though a handful of secularists may be publicly prominent, I think that there are few hard-core secularists in Ireland, who would refuse to work with people of faith. The island is experiencing increasing secularisation and the clerical sexual abuse scandals have provoked well-justified hostility towards religious institutions. But religion here retains a higher public profile and more residual respect than in most parts of Europe.
Having said that, I think we are living through a relatively brief period of time in which what Christian believers do now will determine their future role on this island.
They may condemn themselves to irrelevance with a narrow focus on certain so-called moral issues like abortion and LGBT rights; or they may engage more broadly, seeking to shine the light of Christ’s example on a range of social and political issues. It is my hope that Christians continue to be active citizens not so they retain some sort of power and prestige, but rather because their tradition has something constructive to say about hope and a better future for all.
So back to ‘the signs of our times.’ In Matthew 16, Jesus dismisses the learned Pharisees and Sadducees who ask him for a sign from heaven with a scathing put-down: ‘you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’ In short, Jesus is telling them that they don’t understand the context in which they are living. They want a sign of deliverance from heaven, but I think what Jesus wants them to do is put their faith into action here on earth.
The Christians who are involved with this coalition of hope have rightly realised that if they want to put their faith into action in 21st century Ireland, they need to work with people within and without traditional religious institutions.
For too long Christians have seen those who are outside their fold as enemies to be triumphed over or subdued. But surely what the gospels teach is that Christ saw those who were not like him not as enemies, but as friends. I was heartened by these words: ‘What would characterise this new approach would be a conscious placing of the resources of the Churches at the service of society, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, rather than promoting their own interests or advancement’ (p. 30).
One of the strengths of this book is that it alerts us that Christianity and civic republicanism share many of the same ideals. Perhaps ‘the signs of our times’ could be better described as a dialogue among Christians and civic republicans – recognising that people can be both Christians and civic republicans, even at the same time!
Of course, Christianity is suffering from the damage done to its reputation through the abuse scandals and other abuses of power; and republicanism is suffering from the damage done to its reputation through the use of armed force. Indeed, in many ways this book is a call for both the Christian and republican traditions on this island to be redeemed and reformed.
Because of the prominence of armed-force republicanism on this island, some people may struggle to understand the civic republican tradition. For an introductory primer, I direct you to Iseult Honohan’s 2001 paper for The Ireland Institute, ‘Freedom as Citizenship: The Republican Tradition in Political Theory.’ I offer a brief quote from her description of civic republicanism, and invite you to reflect on how this vision dovetails with Christian traditions that emphasise freedom of conscience and developing virtue (emphases mine):
… All republican arguments seem to spring from a sense of the ineluctable interdependence of human beings, whose survival and flourishing depends on the kinds of social frameworks they inhabit, and who have common, as well as separate and conflicting, interests. The political question with which republicans are concerned is what kind of freedom is possible in the light of this interdependence, and how it may be realised.
… Freedom requires political equality and rests on two dimensions of active citizenship—civic virtue and political participation. Citizenship entails responsibilities as well as rights; self-governing citizens achieve the chance to exercise some collective direction over their lives, rather than complete self-sufficiency.
‘The signs of our times’ recommends the creation of a ‘new civic public square’ in which all citizens participate in deliberation and debate. Here, both the Christian and civic republican traditions focus on cultivating virtue as a point of entry into debate about a better future. And of course, what one means by virtue is also a point of contestation and debate! One point that is mentioned briefly in ‘the signs of our times,’ but not developed as thoroughly as it might have been in the subsequent chapters, is that the ‘development of the interior life’ is vitally important for developing virtue. Virtue, it seems, is a demanding task – requiring hard work inside and out. And this book asserts that the island’s social, political and religious institutions have in many senses failed to develop citizens who are up to this task.
But crucially, the ‘coalition of hope’ that is inviting us to dialogue does not believe that a better future is beyond us. Perhaps the most important question that remains is: ‘how do we get started?’
For me – and this is something that Fr Gerry O’Hanlon seems to advocate in his chapter – we are better to start outside our existing social, political and religious institutions. I have to admit that I often despair of our institutions, and am anxious that they may be incapable of any meaningful change. But this is a dialogue about hope, not despair. So if we start outside, we also should remain somehow engaged with those larger institutions. The character and extent of engagement will vary over time. And we must remember that despite their failings and limitations, these institutions harbour within them people who may themselves create new ways of thinking about our future together on this island – and whose perspectives should be as welcome as our own.
 Available at http://theirelandinstitute.com/republic/02/pdf/honohan002.pdf. See also Honohan’s 2002 book, Civic Republicanism, Psychology Press.