‘A treasure trove of inspirational stories’ – Religion’s contribution to public debate?

My latest book, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, is an academic publication. But I always write with the hope that my research can have some sort of value in the ‘real world.’

So I am delighted that Fr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ cites Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland in his chapter in the recent book, A Dialogue of Hope: Critical Thinking for Critical Times.

I also am delighted that Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland is currently £22 on amazon – a significant savings from its initial high academic price. I am not sure why, but if you want a (relatively) inexpensive copy, this is your chance!

O’Hanlon is the editor of A Dialogue of Hope and wrote its final chapter, ‘A Challenge to the Churches.’ He spoke about this chapter last week in 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.’

During the workshop, there was much discussion about how secularists and believers could speak with each other in a way that is mutually comprehensible. We talked about the philosopher Jurgen Habermas, who famously argued that people of faith must be able to translate their beliefs and aims into secular language.

Habermas has been criticised for this. Many commentators think it places a burden on believers which is heavier than that on secular citizens. But from a practical standpoint, I agree with Habermas. Religious believers have a better chance of being heard if they try and speak the language of others.

O’Hanlon reproduced a quote from my book which he said nuanced and qualified Habermas assertion. I have to admit that even though I wrote the words (obviously!), I probably hadn’t reflected on them as productively as O’Hanlon.

Below, I reproduce an excerpt from O’Hanlon’s chapter in which he quotes Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, noting that alongside advising believers to use secular language, I urge them not to neglect the stories of their religious traditions. He writes (p. 119-120):

… at this time when, despite the cult of efficiency that surrounds us, we are, if we reflect, only too aware of our own vulnerabilities and failures and rightfully fearful of dystopian social and political futures, cannot other Christian beliefs be of help? Is there not some way to liberate the powerfully symbolic and primordial realities that are spoken of in the Christian tradition in both their personal and social dimensions – grace, sin, salvation, reconciliation, history and eschatology, and so on – in such a way that might give us all, believers and unbelievers, nourishment and hope in looking the reality of our world in the eye, appreciating its beauty and yet grieving for its savagery and suffering victims, and imagining an alternative way forward, together? In this context, Gladys Ganiel, speaking to believers, urges them to cultivate the ability to speak in secular language in the public square in order to work more productively with secular partners. But she also counsels them to use religious language too, since ‘your religious tradition may furnish you with a treasure trove of inspirational stories, language, models and examples that could inspire people of all faiths and none.’ Can secular dialogue partners respond generously to an invitation to conversation along those lines?

Of course, the question O’Hanlon poses at the end of this paragraph is really important. And in his chapter and his presentation, he offered further ideas on how believers might speak more productively in the public sphere. I hope to return to these – and Nicola Brady’s response to his presentation – in future posts.


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