by Gordon Nary
Gordon: What was the most challenging theology course that you took, and why was it challenging?
Doctor Admirand: The course I am most grateful for and treasure is the one I had with Elie Wiesel (at Boston University) while I was studying for my MA in Theology at BostonCollege.
My experience was just like the ones described in Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom and in Elie Wiesel: Teacher, Mentor, and Friend. Professor Wiesel was such an illuminating, gracious, and wise teacher, and so, if there was ever a class I’d sign-up again to do in heaven, it would be that one!
In terms of challenging me, the course focused on the literature of hope and despair and engaged with witnessing and trauma. You couldn’t help but think about Professor Wiesel’s experiences in the Shoah. It was also the first time I really grappled with questions of Christology, horrific suffering, and the non-Christian. In simple terms: Could I say to Professor Wiesel—to his face!—that Jesus was with him in Auschwitz? Staring at his arm tattooed with his camp number from Auschwitz, the question seemed sacrilegious and dishonourable. It was one of many insights and challenges I worked through as a young postgrad.
Gordon: What courses do you currently teach at DublinCity University?
Doctor Admirand: I teach a range of undergrad and postgrad courses (some I teach every other year) including: Literature & World Religions; Christology; World Religions; Judaism and Jewish-Christian Encounters; Ethics in the World Religions; and Gender and Religion. I also coordinate the Fourth Year Research Paper in Religious Studies and contribute to our postgrad course, The Holocaust and Modern Culture. I’m lucky to teach what I want and do so through deeply interdisciplinary and interreligious perspectives.
Gordon: What are your responsibilities as Coordinator, Centre for Interreligious Dialogue at Dublin CityUniversity?
Doctor Admirand: My main responsibility, tied in with our mission, is to “promote research, teaching, and public engagement in the area of interreligious dialogue in Ireland and beyond, including the religious-secular dialogue today.” Most importantly, I want to bring individuals and groups together from different faiths and ideologies, and especially give my students the opportunity to meet and encounter those from different faith backgrounds. For example, to celebrate the 500th birthday of Guru Nanak, we partnered with the local Sikh community in Ireland, and especially Dr. Puri, for a day of talks and discussion with our students and faculty on Guru Nanak and the Sikh faith. As many of my undergraduate students will be post-primary teachers in religion, deeper engagement with other faiths is essential.
Gordon: What impact has the Covid-10 pandemic had upon classes at DublinCity University?
Doctor Admirand: Outside science modules that have lab requirements or person-to-person sessions needed in areas like Jazz Performance, the rest of us have been teaching our classes on ZOOM. The same, of course, for all other events: meetings, public events and lectures, graduations, and so on. While the students have the ultimate say on whether we did a solid job, I feel as a staff we met the obstacles with foresight and consistency, and feedback has been positive.
Personally, I think I’ve been to my office twice in the last year and a half—so have been managing teaching in the car or an unoccupied kids’ room at home—wherever there was momentarily quiet, which could be challenging in a house of five kids and two pointers (and two cats!).
But this was nothing compared to those who were caring for a sick family member, had no free space to teach or take classes, or had challenging childcare scenarios.
My only complaint—and this shows how blessed I am—is that a conference I was looking forward to in Jerusalem was canceled and not rescheduled because of COVID. I still have not been to Jerusalem, which is embarrassing at this point, considering my work, but with 5 kids I can’t afford to travel places unless fees are covered!
Gordon: Has there been any resistance to getting Covid-19 vaccinations by your students?
Doctor Admirand: I won’t find out until the fall as Ireland only recently opened up opportunities for those 18 and over to register for the vaccine. My oldest son, who is 18, just received a notice for his 1st vaccine, which will be in early August.
Gordon: What was the inspiration for writing Amidst Mass Atrocity and the Rubble of Theology?
Doctor Admirand: During a silent retreat while I was in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I felt a calling to become a theologian. I had been leaning towards English or even human rights law before that. Once my path to study theology was chosen, I felt I had to immerse myself not only in the problem of evil, but in the stories and narratives of those who have endured or witnessed mass atrocities. If I was ever going to say anything about faith and God, I felt I needed to start there—consider, for example, Irving Greenberg’s “working principle”: “no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”
Unlike the usual focus in theodicy, I was not interested in justifying evil and useless suffering (to take Charlotte Delbo’s phrase) but also believed (contra Levinas) that the theodicy question could not be rebuked, ignored, or minimized by those seeking or wanting a relationship with God. By turning to the voices and victims of horrific suffering, I also anticipated severe challenges and consequences to elements of religious faith—or faith itself.
Briefly, I wrote my honors thesis on theistic faith in the context of wars and the Shoah while at the Catholic University of America; and had learned many real-life lessons on structural poverty and injustice while serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (also previously while coaching CYO soccer and basketball for a group of at-risk African American kids in Washington, DC). A course on Women’s Testimonial Literature at Georgetown University (where I got an MA in British and American Literature); exposure to liberation theology; and Elie Wiesel’s course (mentioned above) were some of the main catalysts for my theodicy work.
Gordon: What was the inspiration for writing Humbling Faith: Brokenness, Doubt, Dialogue—What Unites Atheists, Theists, and Nontheists?
Doctor Admirand: While Humbling Faith ultimately has a positive message in a robust humility that unites us, it is rooted in a profound sadness at the moral failures plaguing my identity as an American-born Catholic and the periods of hubris or utter disregard for the Other that has soiled much of both American history and the life of the Church. Again, this does not mean there aren’t moments, individuals, documents, and ideals that aren’t praiseworthy—because, of course, there are, but I felt turning the lens on areas that humble faiths—mine in particular as an example and mirror—could also be done by others as a means for deeper partnership. Again, the point was not to say: “Catholicism (or Islam or whatever faith or ethically humanist ideology one professes) is evil, bad, corrupt,” but to face and examine moral failures contributed by or through those faiths and ideologies, recognize our mutual brokenness, and so our need for one another (and consciously for theists, of God). From witness testimony to history and interreligious dialogue, the book looks at what can humble any faith position. I don’t think anyone or any faith or ideology is exempt from this humbling—but that is an encouraging, not depressing, insight.
My next book, co-written with philosopher and humanist Andrew Fiala, is a dialogue on seven shared virtues by atheists (me) and an atheist (Andy) called Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue. In each chapter, one of us reflects on a virtue (like courage, humility, or compassion, for example), and the other writes a response. I think it’s a great testament to how, despite some profound differences, a Catholic and atheist can learn from one another and recognize many shared moral positions and hopes. The book will be published in the early Autumn of 2021 by Cascade Books.
Gordon: AntiSemitism is on the rise in the United States and in many European countries. How common is it in Ireland?
Doctor Admirand: In Ireland, I serve as the Christian Co-Chair of the Irish Council of Christians and Jews, which was established in 1983. The Irish CCJ constitution, for example, states that our aims include: “To oppose anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism and all racist and religious prejudice in Ireland by means of education, dialogue and (if necessary) legislation.” Most of our work is in setting up public talks to bring the Christian and Jewish communities together. Ireland has a small but active and committed Irish Jewish community. Our Jewish members have a deep love for Ireland and are proud of their history and contributions as both Jewish and Irish individuals. While my Jewish friends and colleagues rarely testify to overt antisemitism here, it does happen. While criticisms of the State of Israel may not necessarily signify anti-Judaism, the tenor and extent of such criticism can certainly make many Jews here uncomfortable and under threat.
Ireland likes to fashion itself as a land of a hundred thousand welcomes, and while many immigrants from Africa and Asia have had positive experiences, racism and ethnic slurs are too frequent, and for far too long were unaddressed or individuals felt uncomfortable to speak out. Fortunately, a range of groups, like the Dublin City Interfaith Forum (where I am an external stakeholder), are working to set positive models for integration and dialogue.
Gordon: Is there any possibility that abortion may eventually be forbidden in Ireland?
Doctor Admirand: The short answer is, unlikely. As many of your readers know, in May of 2018, Ireland held a referendum on repealing the 8th amendment, which stated the life of a mother and of an unborn child were equal. Nearly 67% of the votes were in favour of abolishing the amendment, and abortion (from September 2018, and with some restrictions and criteria) was made legal in Ireland. The vote was also an indictment of the moral failures of the Catholic Church here, especially in regards to the various child abuse scandals and cover-ups, the Magdalene Laundry cases, and so on. Many celebrated the appeal, seemingly meant as a show of overcoming and defeating the unhealthy control the institutional Church held here in Ireland. The idea of celebrating the possibility of an abortion, which at a minimum level, should always be deemed tragic, was deeply saddening.
A related but deeper issue, beyond the clearly stifling and unresponsive patriarchal tendencies of the Church (and most world religions), is society’s deep failures to honor all lives born and failure to enable and fashion the economic, health, and spiritual conditions that make raising a child viable, especially outside a two-adult family context. This is such a deeper, interwoven problem, but first, there must be a consistent, all-pervasive culture of life position: you can’t be anti-abortion but care less about people who are homeless, shrug at the death of immigrants trying to enter your country, support capital punishment (especially in contexts where restorative justice is feasible), or in the case of my other home country (the US), fail to face our wars of conquest, history of slavery and racism, and so on. You also need to provide a sustainable family living wage, affordable housing and healthcare, and so on. Myopic focus on abortion rarely addresses deeper societal gaps and injustice.
Gordon: Thank you for this exceptional and enlightening interview.