The ‘full hand of faith’…..

April 13, 2010 in General, News

gohlaunch_02“There’s an urgency about this book, a real concern for justice that has been a central passion of its author for as long as I’ve known him”. So said theologian Jim Corkery SJ at the launch of Gerry O’Hanlon SJ’s book Theology in the Public Square, in Ozanam House, Tuesday 13 April. The event was organised by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, and their theologian, Cathy Molloy, chaired proceedings. Gerry O’Hanlon told those gathered that the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) had not been cherished by the institutional Church, and the challenge today was for Catholics to find their voice and make sure that it was heard and respected in conversation and debate. The book is published by Columba Press, and you can read the full text of Jim Corkery’s analysis of the book below. Also, see photos on Flickr.

Address to launch Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, THEOLOGY IN THE IRISH PUBLIC SQUARE (Dublin: The Columba Press, 2010)

Jim Corkery SJ

There’s an urgency about this book, a real concern for justice that has been a central passion of its author for as long as I’ve known him. This urgency is coupled with a probing inquiry into the role that faith – even the ‘full hand of faith,’ the full Christian story (1) – can play in public discussion and debate about the decisions and actions a society should undertake if it wishes to serve, equitably, the flourishing of all its members. The book is a challenge to everyone who has recognised, with the World Synod of Bishops in 1971 and with the 32nd General Congregation of the Jesuits in 1975, that Christian faith is not only not served – it is indeed travestied – if the promotion of justice, which is intrinsic to it, is neglected. Such neglect is an example of what the prophet Jeremiah highlighted as the hypocrisy of announcing ‘this is the temple of the Lord, this is the temple of the Lord’ while cheating the widow, the orphan and the stranger – society’s most vulnerable groups in his time.

In a biographical snippet – in chapter 12, in an address to Jesuits in Slovakia on the subject of ‘hope’ – we catch a glimpse of Gerry’s justice roots in the dream of “a radically changed world, one of justice and equality” (2) in the late 1960s and later, in a greater concretising of this, in the 32nd Jesuit General Congregation’s articulation of mission “in terms of ‘the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement’ (D4, n2)” and subsequently “in the reception and confirmation of GC 32 in GC 34”, (3) which latter Gerry attended. His ‘urgency’ for a justice inexorably linked to faith has continued beyond these milestones, leading to the production, now, of this book, Theology in the Irish Public Square, in which he makes an original contribution to discussion of how faith and society, theology and social reality, might fruitfully be linked in contemporary post-Celtic Tiger, post-Ryan and post-Murphy Ireland. He does so at a time that is also deemed, somewhat enigmatically, post-modern, a time when the wisdom of the moment might tidily relegate religion to the harmless sidelines of what is private and purely personal,(4) but that could also be viewed, with its claimed openness “to alternative voices,” as potentially offering space “for discreet and appropriate references to the full Christian story,” with its ultimately beneficial consequences for the advancing of social justice. (5) There is a 40-year long ‘fire in O’Hanlon’s belly’ that refuses the sidelining of faith in relation to justice, while at the same time remaining acutely aware of how its role (as theology, as faith reflected upon) in the public square in Ireland today must not be dominating and authoritarian, as it used to be, but rather ‘listening’ and ‘dialogical,’ also well argued, persuasive, and, as such, self-commending.

But how, according to Gerry, is the link between faith and society, between theology and social reality to be envisaged? Not, certainly, along the lines that theology is expected to provide “a blueprint of how society should be ordered.” (6) Rather the link will prove decisive (and effective) mainly at the level of vision:

Postmodernity is comfortable with the notion of story, and the Christian narrative proposes a vision, a horizon, a perspective, a worldview, a foundation, a symbolic discourse and a content which can inspire, motivate, develop and mobilise a moral imagination and sensibility towards a more just world. The significance of vision, with the values that accompany it, is that it may dispose otherwise seemingly neutral or commonsense data towards both a new interpretation and the possibility of a consequent commitment to a transformation that is liberating. (7)

“Without a vision the people perish” (thus Proverbs 29:18). Gerry goes on to say that a vision has liberating power: it nudges people’s response to data that could be variously interpreted in one particular direction, making breakthroughs possible on the levels of analysis and sensibility and galvanising action for change in the face of “seemingly permanent and intractable situations of injustice (‘for nothing is impossible to God’).” (8) A vision gives life; and I found, as I reflected on the nature of the vision that Gerry spelt out in the book, that it was life-giving. Furthermore, although, as is to be expected, he draws repeatedly on the tradition of CST to name aspects of the vision, highlighting its usefulness as a resource which, “based at its most accessible on reason and natural law,” (9) can potentially draw on the agreement of all kinds of people, he creatively exceeds the more conventional use of CST by asking whether a presentation of the ‘full hand’ of faith might not have a key role to play in theology’s entry into the public square to dialogue with social reality today. (10) Thus he widens the traditional vision of what can be done, pushing towards a ‘new paradigm’ that is more attuned to the sensibilities of postmodern times. This is where I find the originality that I mentioned a few moments ago, for it draws on – yet pushes beyond – the more familiar approach taken by CST.

The tradition of CST, for which Gerry shows the deepest respect, (11) exhibits a ‘bi-linguality’ that, “while appealing to the inspiration of the Bible as a kind of deep background,” presents “its applied analysis in terms which are accessible to the ordinary canons of human reason.” (12) Its heard language is widely understand-able, although its sotto voce speech remains more particular and Christian-specific. But the challenge arises, in the context of postmodernity’s openness to ‘otherness’ – and not least in the growing presence of Islam and of our Muslim fellow-citizens in Ireland today – to look afresh at the relevance of religion for public life. (13) Is the ‘bilingual’ approach of CST, “in which secular language finds a home,” (14) the only avenue open to us, even if we shall continue to avail of “the measured way” (15) that characterises it? Gerry believes not; and so he proposes

a plausibility structure for the consideration that God is intimately and indispensably involved in our present situation, as a stimulus to questioning Christians and as a challenge to non-believers to think again, at least in the sense of thinking more positively about the religious contribution to difficult social issues. (16)

This contribution is what is meant by the ‘full hand’ approach (that exceeds the more measured one of CST). At its core lies the argument that the hypothesis of God actually “makes more sense and gives more meaning to the data before us” (17) and that not only Christianity but also Islam – since each is a ‘total religion’ claiming that God “is involved in every part of our lives” (18) – would do well to seek ways to show the significance of their vision for shedding light on social problems today and animating men and women’s commitment to solving them justly. He argues, further, that the mentality of postmodernity is welcoming of such inspiring religious narratives that can help us to articulate a vision of how people might live together in society in a more just and responsible manner.

Such a (for Gerry Christian) proposed ‘full hand’ approach to dialogue with society finds him articulating a vision quite beyond the ‘anonymous Christianity, implicit faith’ pathway for which Karl Rahner is remembered, but that forgets how Rahner also contended “that explicit faith maintains its importance and is in fact a higher stage of development, demanded by ‘the incarnational and social structure of grace and of Christianity’.” (19) His vision is Trinitarian, is centered on the Spirit indwelling the world, and calls for a response that refuses ‘reductions’ (be they to doctrine or to morality), insisting instead that encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ stand at the heart of everything and pummel us outwards to involvement in the world, involvement, indeed, after the pattern of God’s own involvement in it through the ‘vulnerable love’ of Jesus. (20) This ‘vulnerable love’ is but one recurrent phrase in the vocabulary of O’Hanlon as he seeks to put flesh on his ‘full hand’ approach to the dialogue between faith and secular reality. And by ‘dialogue’ he does not mean just ‘being nice,’ but taking the other seriously in a robust exchange (be it between the sacred and the secular, the Muslim and the Christian, or the believer and the non-believer). He achieves, in his attempt to articulate a space for theology (reflection on faith) in the public sphere, a form of speech that maintains apparent contraries in rich tension: economic matters and ‘God matters’, (21) the “omnipresence of Jesus Christ in our world, even where not explicitly recognised or acknowledged;” (22) the Holy Spirit “at work in our world bringing the look of love from God;” (23) the life of grace proving victorious over sin and evil; (24) and the triumph of eschatological hope – not cheap optimism – in a world where progress towards the Kingdom of God seems unlikely and perhaps even unattainable. (25) Gerry’s finding of vocabulary for this ‘full hand’ vision of the Christian story in novel and arresting ‘juxtaposings’ is creative – and consciously offered not only to believers but to all searchers for meaning, from human rights activists to atheists:

And do we not owe this narrative and witness to atheists who protest the existence of injustice, to human rights activists who, inspired often by now long-forgotten religious roots, may not easily sustain their activity onto succeeding generations without the foundations and roots which nourished it? (26)

So that’s something of Gerry O’Hanlon’s new paradigm, offered in different contexts throughout this most reflective, committed book, for bringing the voice of faith to the table of public discussion. Is it too ‘religious’? Does it leave justice in the background? Will it struggle, as faith emerges from exile in the private sphere to which it has been relegated, to accord that autonomy to the secular sphere that is still its proper due and that Islam, so aware of its responsibility to public life, finds difficulty in accommodating? (27) I don’t think so! Gerry’s surfacing of the religious roots of the work for justice gives life to that work, prevents discouragement in it, also burn-out, and – because it occurs in awareness of God’s love for all – ensures a space in the dialogue for people who are ‘other’, different, even in disagreement with one another. (28) In his move beyond the bilinguality of CST, methodologically speaking, I detect the influence on Gerry of liberation theology, which has always recognised that how we think of God is vital for how we think of everyone else. (29) If God is triune, a community of loving equals leaning out towards the world in love, then as God’s image human beings cannot be otherwise. If God’s flesh-taking in Jesus grounds the equality of all men and women, then being brothers and sisters of one another is the only way to live. If the Spirit of God is active in history and in the non-Christian religions too, then we belong to one another in seeking to bear responsibility for this world and its history and must exclude nobody, above all those who are poor and on the margins. If the life of grace can overcome the disasters of sin, if fragile history is promised redemptive hope all the same, then it is impossible to sit back; you have to bring faith and theology to the public table; and, in doing so robustly, yet dialogically, persuasively, yet conversationally, you will further justice and put flesh on God’s preferential love for the poor. That is a core argument of this book. So buy it; read it! It is now launched and available!


(1) See p. 170 itself; see also p. 170, note 6

(2) Page 200

(3) Page 201

(4) See O’Hanlon’s interesting remarks on such relegation, on pp. 39-40, before he launches an alternative to it
(5) See p. 170
(6) Page 161
(7) Page 160
(8) Ibid
(9) Page 167
(10) On his notion of the ‘full hand’ approach to dialogue with society, see esp., ch. 9 (pp. p. 152-164), in particular pp. 154, 161, 162; also pp. 170, 186, 194f

(11) See, for example, pp. 19-26 and 67-75, with further specklings of appreciative mention throughout the book

(12) Page 25

(13) See page 122, also pp. 143, 152, and 162-164

(14) Page 61

(15) Page 170

(16) Page 40

(17) Page 43

(18) Page 163, in relation to Islam, but the Christian God is spoken of as one who is ‘involved’ throughout the book

(19) Page 193

(20) See pp. 195-196, which capture the dynamism inherent in the recognition of what the love of God is doing in Jesus and that sends his followers hurtling towards the world in creativity, commitment, action and responsibility

(21) See chapter 1, especially pp. 39-61

(22) Page 52

(23) Page 54. On the presence of the Spirit in the other religions, see p. 60

(24) See pp. 51-52

(25) See pp. 56f

(26) Page 196

(27) See page 163

(28) See page 162

(29) See page 159 (and elsewhere too!)