It strikes me as soon as I enter a bookshop here in Dublin: titles about Irish history are claiming my attention … Compared to my experiences in Belgium and Flemish bookshops, I find this refreshing. Here is a people that continues to reflect on its roots and its complex and often painful history. I find this empowering – as I find it empowering to walk through the streets of Leuven with names that refer to inspiring historical persons or to important events from the past … It is as if this past is yelling at us: “Don’t you ever dare give up … We’ve done our share so many years or centuries ago, now it is your turn”. Amidst great societal changes we gain inspiration and strength from people who have gone to that same experience and who have shaped our history. The Irish seem to be masters at this and they also seem to display a great sense of self-humour when telling their stories.
I am at the same time reading Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, a book that Linda Hogan recommended in her final contribution to the Concilium conference in Trinity College. I have still a way to go in this book, but I appreciate the question that inhabits its author. Starting from an attempt to analyse the experience of the Crow Indians at the moment that they become aware of the disappearance or even destruction of their traditional and empowering frames of reference set up by hunting and warfare, the question arises: what do people think, do, hope at a moment that the frames that have structured and given sense to their individual and collective lives, collapse? How can they find, precisely in those ideas and convictions that empowered them but that are now loosing their strength, a renewed way of looking at the world? Can they draw from a force that has become weak?
This is a question that keeps my mind busy when I teach theology. The young students in front of me face a rapidly changing world with challenges as I have never known myself. I had to learn to live through the fear of an all-destructive nuclear war … but in a way that was still under human “control”: someone, somewhere, sometime had to press a button. Today’s young people face, in the global and planetary environmental crisis, a challenge that is out of control: natural processes are re-shaping the planet and will have tremendous consequences for human and other life. Although we, human beings, are part of the causes of these changes, there is no “button” anymore that we can press to avoid them. The classical frames of control, that we have, most certainly in the so-called Western World, got used to appear to be an illusion. How should I, as a “professor”, empower young people in the face of such challenges?
I frame the question in Flemish: how can I “toe-rust-en” (equip, prepare) young people? I like the Flemish verb “toe-rust-en” because it allows me some fuzzy (and incorrect, but suggestive) etymologies. (1) “Toe” refers to the word “toekomst”, future. If we want to prepare ourselves, we have to look towards and from the future … What do our visions and our imagination suggest about the future? Do we have images, such as the “Kingdom of God”, that can attract us and empower us to design them in the present? (2) “Rust” means rest, peace, calmness. How can we prepare ourselves and particularly young people so as to stand with a sense of confidence in the world? How can we provide ourselves with a sense of co-belonging with the planet (and ultimately with the universe) that we can really appreciate by calling this world a “creation”? How can we discern, together, the feelings and emotions that inhabit us in the face of global challenges as the environment, justice, poverty, violence: are we guided by fear, anger, hope, self-preservation at all cost, etc.? (3) The “en” in Flemish indicates a verbal infinitive, but it has also, as a separate word, the meaning of “and”: in my (meager) etymology, therefore, I can emphasize that we will not be able to equip young people if we do not teach them the effort implicit in a verb and the fact that they will have to collaborate and work together, not only amongst human beings, but in harmony with the planet and its living and non-living inhabitants. Moreover, to be well equipped, young people will have to learn some trans-disciplinarity, in going beyond the disciplinary perspectives they will have studied in depth and even beyond the collaboration between these various disciplines, towards new forms of knowledge that will only arise when they start talking to one another in open and creative ways. Knowledge, here, emerges in between the noses. Knowledge, here, emerges when space is given to voices that are not usually taken account of (this includes the voice of nature itself).
I try to teach theology in this way, and I think that theologians may well have an important role to play in these efforts to reframe and reshape in a creative and future-oriented way our perspective and understanding of sustainable and dignified life together for this planet. Theologians may play a role of convenors, may attract the attention to “forgotten” or “smothered” voices, may stimulate visionary thinking, may exemplify interperspectival conversations, etc. But, to do this seriously, we will have to re-learn to tap into our history, not as the description of a bygone world, but as the empowering stories of people and their convictions and faiths in the face of a threatening reality and of what J. Lear calls “cultural devastation”.
My stay in Ireland helps me to better understand this and to tap into these resources. Sean McDonagh, whom I met at COP15 in Copenhagen, continuously introduces me into the Irish sense for a connectedness with nature. He also showed me the neolithic site of Newgrange, where I experienced the claustrophobic fear of being trapped in a dark world ánd the inventiveness of letting in, at the right moment, the creative ray of light. Moreover, he brought me to that sacred site of Tara, where St Patrick at a decisive moment of Irish history, found a way to work on Irish imagination, tipping this world into a new look on reality. He walked me around in Dublin City, to see the book of Kells in Trinity College, and to discover in the Chester-Beatty Library not only the oldest fragment of St John’s Gospel, but also the moving letters from missionary Jesuits. Finbarr Clancy, a fellow Jesuit, today invited me to visit Glendalough, a highpoint of Celtic Christianity, destroyed so many times in the course of its history, and nevertheless a site that breaths resilience, faith, creativity and beauty.
All these are examples of empowering and suggestive historical resources to move into a new world, through shifting grounds and considerable change. Of course, we should avoid getting trapped into the past by merely mimicking it: the power of history does not lie in providing us ready solutions for today’s challenges, but in putting us in touch with people who dared new visions in the face of a changing world.