Studies: Explaining the present

September 15, 2021 in Featured News, News

The lead article in the Autumn 2021 issue of Studies approaches a ‘philosophy of the present’ by examining the shift over many centuries from one understanding of the ‘now’ to another. What is the relationship between the present and both the past and the future? What does it mean to remember? What does it mean to hope? Philipp Rosemann, professor of philosophy at Maynooth University, proposes that for us to gain an understanding of many aspects of contemporary life – specifically, of the ends of political states, of the meaning of the body in culture and politics, of the rationale behind a culture of consumption, and of our expectations and aspirations in respect to the future – we need to see how the common understanding of the structure of temporality was fundamentally altered and why this is so significant.

According to Dr Rosemann, the structure of Christian temporality, for long the vision that underpinned the western world, has undergone substantial distortions. In the first millennium, the “Christian present” was lodged between a past in which the divine promise was realised – the Messiah had come, God’s people were saved – and a future which promised an even more glorious full communion with God in paradise. The past, then, is remembered and repeated, especially in eucharistic celebration; and in the present we inhabit a blessed time – “the Kingdom is already here” – but only as a foretaste of the fullness of the Kingdom in the eschaton, the future eternal fulfillment of the divine promise. And central to this structure, Dr Rosemann insists, is the reality of ‘the Kingdom’, the sacred order that encompasses both the fulfilled promise of redemption and the glorious destiny after time.

Yet even as early as the twelfth century a new understanding of history and of the human place within it began to take shape. The three-part reference of temporality, past, present and future, came to be conceived as modes of immanence only. The connections to the ‘better world’ were severed. Of particular concern to Dr Rosemann here is the damage done by the “immanentising of the eschaton”, a phrase coined by Eric Voegelin in his critique of efforts to imagine perfection in the immanent rather than in the transcendental sphere – to seek heaven on earth, in other words. This phrase was employed a great deal in the 1960s by the newly-mobilised political right in their attacks on the utopian visions of the left – the left seeking social perfection in the here-and-now, instead of realising that perfection was only possible in the Kingdom to come.

What is apparent in Rosemann’s exposition, however, is that this ‘immanentising of the eschaton’, in which “all future and hope have become inner-worldly”, is just as much a trait of neoliberal conservatism. He identifies a number of features of this way of conceiving the present and its relation to the future. The secular state is divinised; our hope for salvation relates to the processes, procedures and supports of the administrative body that looks over us. Progress becomes an end in itself, and hence “the boundaries of what is ethically acceptable keep being pushed outward”. The state manages its citizens increasingly through their bodies; yet those bodies become increasingly de-materialised and our lives increasingly ‘disincarnate’. And the future becomes nothing more than a mere extension of the present; in the earthly Kingdom we live on credit in a culture of “rapacious consumption”, so that the promise of the future is imagined in terms of clearing a debt which never ceases to grow.

Dr Rosemann’s overall purpose in this essay is to “help elucidate what the fundamental challenges are that the Christian faith faces in the intellectual constellation of our day”. His most pithy summary conclusion comes near the beginning: “Christianity has undermined itself from within”. Echoing the refrain of the exponents of Radical Orthodoxy, he continues: “The present is, in essence, a Christian heresy”.

Even though he doesn’t intend to address the state of the Church in Ireland, Dr Rosemann expressly sets out to shed light upon “the intellectual substructure… of Irish life in the 2020s”. In the editorial, Bruce Bradley SJ, who is stepping down as editor after this issue, takes this intention of Dr Rosemann and deftly connects it with the more concrete investigation of Irish Catholic life undertaken by Derek Scally in his recent book, The Best Catholics in the World: The Irish, the Church and the End of a Special Relationship. Scally too is concerned with a kind of origin story – how Irish Catholicism went from its longstanding pervasive presence to its astonishing vanishing act of recent decades. Where Rosemann attends mostly to our understanding of future and hope, Scally’s explorations are mostly concerned with the past and guilt. He seeks to apply some of the German experience of coming to terms with the past. “If Germany’s relatively recent past is a complex inheritance for later generations in that country,” Fr Bradley writes, “the twists and turns of Ireland’s colonised, newly independent and now post-Catholic history is hardly less complex.”

Other essays in the Autumn 2021 issue include architect Padraig Murray’s biographical account of his father’s involvement with the Irish Volunteers and on the anti-Treaty side after the Civil War, and (also with a centenary resonance) an essay by John Bruton on the need for careful thought before taking any action on Irish border polls (“People come before territory”, he wisely concludes). There are also two pieces on contemporary Irish literature. Romy Dawson traces the theme of ‘home’ in Seamus Heaney’s poetry; and Brian Arkins examines Roman history in the work of Hewitt, McGuinness, Friel and Heaney.

Bruce Bradley SJ will be succeeded as editor by Dermot Roantree, who has been working in communications in the Irish Jesuit Province for twenty years.