The Religious Sense

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Chapter 15: The Hypothesis of Revelation: Conditions for its Acceptability

Inevitably, man is sure to fall into idolatry by substituting something finite for the infinite that he longs for. He is so wearied by the constant search for the ultimate meaning of everything that he projects himself onto God. He claims to understand the Mystery, but by trying to take possession of the great unknown he ends up manipulating other people. "In this way, the human person mutilates himself, others, the things around him" (142).

Centuries before Christ there is written record of a longing for redemption. Plato's Phaedo tells of man's begging for a safe route to knowing the truth of reality and of ourselves. Every person will cry out for liberation from the shackles of oppression and ignorance if he is open to the whole of human experience. What emerges is the hypothesis of revelation.

As Giussani discussed in chapter 11, the world is a sign pointing towards a greater reality. Technically the world is revelation, but now we progress to revelation as a historical fact, rather than man's interpretation. "Revelation means a possibly real fact, an historical event, which the human person may or may not recognize. In fact, neither Judas nor the majority of those who saw it, recognized it" (143).

Here we are talking about God entering human history, not just as an incredible knowledge beyond our reason, but as "a presence within history that speaks as a friend, a father, a mother – Plato's Phaedo aspired to this kind of revelation" (143).

The hypothesis of revelation is first of all possible. Denial of this hypothesis is "the ultimate and extreme form of idolatry... because if God is the mystery how can one dictate to Him what He can and cannot do?" (144).

Secondly, the hypothesis is convenient, because it corresponds to the human heart's desire. Revelation from God does not extinguish man's freedom. On the contrary, revelation liberates man's will, which is tired and stressed from the story seas of idolatry, letting him finally climb onto solid ground.

Lastly, the hypothesis of revelation must satisfy two conditions. First, it must be comprehensible. Revelation that is not understandable through human experience is not revelation for us at all; "it is like ultrasound, as if it did not exist" (144). Secondly, it must not diminish the mystery, for "would it not be idolatry for God to be translated into comprehensible terms? [...] This truth that Christ has revealed does not diminish the Absolute. Rather it deepens the knowledge of the mystery" (144-145). Giussani says that by replacing the enigmatic word "mystery" with Father, we understand God as something comprehensible, something familiar to us. The Father gives me life, the Father guides me, the Father encourages me, the Father guards me. Yet we cannot claim to possess the mystery yet, but "the revealed term carries the mystery further within you, close to your flesh and bones, and you really feel it in a familiar way, as a son or daughter (145).

The religious sense is intrinsically connected to the hypothesis of revelation. It is a factual issue to which the human heart is naturally predisposed, and which "cannot be destroyed by any preconception or option" (145).

Giussani continues the topic of revelation and other ideas in the next book of his existential trilogy, At the Origin of the Christian Claim.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Chapter 14: Reason's Energy Seeks to Penetrate the Unknown

"Reason's highest achievement is the intuition that an explanation exists exceeding the measure of reason itself" (132). This explanation is defined as mystery, an Other which is infinitely greater than I. Even though I can realize this, I still am driven to satisfy my thirst for God, the 'unknowable.' Without this drive, all of life is boredom and meaninglessness.

This paradox, that man is compelled to search for what cannot be known, creates a very precarious situation. On the one hand, if he ignores the questions of destiny that spring out of his heart he will never be satisfied. He would be living a life of quiet desperation, where he shuts out reality and creates a fantasy world of preconception. On the other hand, if he claims to know the mystery, to understand what it is, then he gives in to his impatience and corrupts the religious sense. The infinite knowledge of God, mystery, is exchanged for something fake, an idol. This is idolatry, when man says "This is what history's destiny is..." "The meaning of the world is..." he "inevitably goes on to define what this is: it is the blood of the Aryan race, the struggle of the proletariat, the competition for economic supremacy, etc" (135).

We want quick solutions and easy answers. It is dizzying to keep ourselves suspended at each moment, living in a tension, being pulled in different directions, exhausted and impatient. It would be so easy to latch onto something and substitute the comprehensible (the idol) for the incomprehensible (God). This is why idol worship is vehemently condemned in the Bible, because it is easy for the human being to make himself "the measure of everything, or in other words, it means to claim to be God" (137). Idols, whether they be false gods, pleasurable things, or people, will never satisfy reason's quest for the fullness of truth.

Ideologies that are built upon the idol become all-encompassing. Otherwise, they would not be convincing; ideology is by definition the distortion of one aspect of experience into the totality of experience. When two ideologies come in contact they "cannot avoid generating total conflict. This explains why, for the Bible, the idol is the origin of violence" (138).

To recap:

Man, from time immemorial, as he matures in history, tends to identify god, that is the meaning of the world, based on a particular aspect of his own self. (139)

Reality is a sign of a greater reality. Though unseen, reason can intuit that it exists. Man's intuition is flawed because of a condition that makes his reason impatient and restless, "Our relationship with mystery becomes degraded into presumption" (140).

How can we know the truth? How can we prevent ourselves from falling into the slavery of idols?

St. Thomas Aquinas writes in the beginning of the Summa Theologiae:

The truth concerning God that reason is able to attain is accomplished only by a very few, and this only after much time and not without the inclusion of error. On the other hand, the entire of the human being depends upon the knowledge of this truth, since this salvation is in God. In order to render this salvation more universal and more certain, it would have thus been necessary to teach men this divine truth with a divine revelation.

"The human religious genius has cried out, in so many ways, to be liberated from this inextricable captivity of impotence and error" (140).

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Chapter 13: An Education In Freedom

If we are to realize our destiny then we must be educated in freedom. If we do not know how to respond to the "sign" of the world then we become frustrated and confused about our existence. It would be like a man who lives in a house expecting his friend, and the doorbell rings constantly, driving him mad. Yet, he cannot welcome the guest, because he is blind and does not know how to find the door.

An education in freedom means to be attentive to reality, and unfettered by preconception. This attention must be open to examining every aspect of reality and comparing it with one's elementary experience, not simply what is immediately plausible or in line with the prevailing mentality. Although this sounds simple in theory, it can be very hard to put it into practice.

An education in freedom must also teach a capacity for acceptance of new proposals. My experience is not very free if I have to build walls to ward off novel ideas or feelings. I would be fortifying myself against the entire world.

To summarize, educating one's freedom to attentiveness, that is, to be wide open toward the totality of factors at play, and educating it to acceptance, that is, to the conscious embrace of what it finds before it is the fundamental issue of the human journey. (126)

Skepticism, like stoicism, is often seen as admirable. How strong one must be to be wary of everything! But this attitude is not in accord with how nature places the human being. Our original position pushes us to search for a real, positive answer. Children act this out in their boundless curiosity. They do not look at their surroundings and say, "I don't think this is real," or "But maybe it isn't a horse," or "Perhaps, but, however...." A child has a positive hypothesis about things, and even though he may be mistaken about whether an animal is actually a horse or a cow, they learn to refine their thinking and surge toward a definite answer. If all I do is doubt, then I will never know, because I will never want to know. "If one begins with a negative hypothesis, then even if there is something there to find, it will not be found" (127).

The skeptic is not to be admired, but to be scorned, because instead of being open to reality, to something, he chooses to retreat from life (even his identity) and any affirmative meaning that exists. "There exists nothing more pathological and unproductive than systematic doubt" (127).

The Experience of Risk

Giussani asks why admitting the existence of God can be so difficult, even when reality obviously points to mystery. What is at the root of this problem? The answer has to do with the experience of risk. Risk is not an action taken without adequate reasons. Such an action would be called irrationality or foolishness. Rather, risk is a disconnect between reason and the will. To illustrate this, Giussani tells the story of a particular hike. He and a few other men are connected by ropes. The guide at the front of the line hopped over a gap in the rocks. Beneath was a very deep ravine. Although the gap was only about three feet wide, and even if he did miss the jump the other climbers would have hauled him back up by the ropes, our friend Luigi could not bring himself to make the jump. Instead he grabbed onto the ground and refused to budge.

Even with plenty of safety precautions and good reason to believe he would make the jump, he could not find the energy to do it. This is risk. It is similar to a situation presented many chapters back, when after a very reasonable and logical presentation a person says "You are right, but I am still not persuaded." Risk is: "a hiatus, an abyss, a void between the intuition of truth... and the will... a break [that] occurs between reason and affectivity" (129). (Note the parallel between this and the idea of original sin).

Only a massive amount of sheer willpower can overcome this gap. In most cases, the energy to do this cannot be mustered by one's self. Thankfully, nature has equipped us with a tool to conquer this strange fear: the communital phenomenon.

A child runs down a hallway, pushes open with his little hands the door, which is always open, to an unlit room. Frightened, he turns back. His mother arrives and leads him by the hand. With his hand in his mother's, the child will go into any room in the world. (130)

By virtue of the special experience of being with another we can overcome the experience of risk. An old adage says 'there is power in numbers.' Just as a seed will not grow unless it is put in fertile ground, being in a community does not replace a person's willpower, but becomes the condition for it bearing fruit. Giussani adds that "the most intelligent persecution is not [Nero's] ampitheatre of wild beasts or the concentration camp," but it is "the modern state's attempt to block the expression of the communital dimension of the religious phenomenon" (131).

The structure of the person and the world as a sign work together to point us towards the infinite, the Other, called God. Even when we are educated in freedom and are open to reality we are still paralyzed by our lack of willpower. When a person lives reality with even one other person it is as if he received not just two times the energy, but a thousand times. The communital phenomenon is so important that the Church says that man needs to live in society. Let us remember the words of Christ, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there also shall I be" (Matthew 18:20).

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Chapter 12: The Adventure of Interpretation

Most of our analysis so far has focused on reason, but now we approach another aspect of what makes us human: freedom. As described before, freedom is "the capacity to possess one's own meaning" (121). My ultimate destiny, which is connected with the seemingly enigmatic Other, traditionally called God, cannot be my own destiny if I am forced into it. Although freedom is the end and completion of my personal meaning, it is also the path that takes me there; freedom plays a crucial role in the discovery of my meaning.

One of the life lessons taught in grade school is that life is full of choices, and in the end the choice is up to you. Although we are constrained in many situations by limits like money, distance, and time, everyone possesses a will to decide whether they will try or not try, keep going or turn back, face a new day standing up or stay in bed until noon. We all make these fundamental decisions of our own accord every day, and we also have a fundamental choice regarding our ultimate destiny. "The human person is responsible before his destiny; the way he attains it is his responsibility, the fruit of his freedom" (121).

Thus man does not recognize God solely by science or philosophy, but by his free choice. You can choose to not acknowledge God, even though it is an unreasonable decision that contradicts your nature. Louis Althusser, when discussing the existence of God and Marxism, held that "the problem is not one of reason, but option" (122).

Here is the decision before me: I can either face reality as it is, without preconception, and acknowledge that within the structure of my being I have a longing for the infinite and an insatiable question about my meaning. As Giussani says, I can 'call a spade a spade.' I can embrace reality and let myself be drawn to everything that touches me. Or, I can set myself against reality, with "arms flung in front of your eyes to ward off unwelcomed and unexpected blows" (122), and in ignoring the real that is before me I deny the real "I" that is myself.

The World As Parable

"Freedom is exercised in that playing field called sign" (123). The last chapter introduced the way that the world is a sign pointing to a higher reality. This sign is to be interpreted in the proper way, in accordance with one's free choice to be open to reality. Giussani relates Christ's use of parables. Although the crowds would not understand the parables and walk away, the apostles would follow Christ and ask him to explain. He said, "I speak in parables so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not hear." Christ was testing their freedom, drawing out the decisions made in their hearts. Some did not want to know. Some did. The world is a parable.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Chapter 11: Experience of the Sign

It could be said that the tug we feel towards an ultimate destiny is like an invitation, or a word. In Greek, "logos" means word, and "ana" means up, therefore giving us "analogy," or a word that lifts us up, that let us come to know something more than what meets the eye.

Reality is essentially an analogy that points to something higher. We could also call it a sign, because it is a rudimentary expression of a greater meaning. When I drive my car to the store and approach a stop sign, I do not simply regard it as red, octagonal piece of metal. By realizing what it points to I grasp both the sign and the higher reality, that is, I risk crashing my car into oncoming traffic if I don't stop soon. "A sign... is a reality which refers me to something else" (112). The world is also a sign, but not one I can easily ignore because it actually provokes me into a response. Reality invites me to search for something beyond.

I can express this reaction with questions: What is this in front of me? Why this? A kind of strange unknown lies within such questions: the world, the real provokes me towards an other. (111)

Reality's way of orienting me to another unseen reality is something that imposes itself on me. I cannot deny it without being unreasonable and denying my own inner experience. It would be as if I heard a voice call "Help! Help!" in the woods, but then merely thinking, "My, what a strange vibration the air made just now. It sounded like a person yelling 'Help,' but I simply can't deduce that it is really a man in need of assistance." As humans we are attracted by the deeper meanings of things, and by ignoring them we actually become dead to ourselves, others, and to all of reality. "This would be... the positivist position: the total blocking out of the human" (112). We would not follow the footsteps of those "great souls" Giussani mentioned in the last chapter who were truly alive in their search for meaning.

Our impact with reality reveals that experientially life is need. The needs we have can be divided into two categories: the need for truth and justice, along with the corollaries happiness and love. Giussani quickly illustrates each category with a pertinent story or analogy; let it suffice for us to say now that without "a perspective of the beyond," without a reality that points beyond itself, all of these needs are unmet and miserably unfulfilled.

Imagine a baby that is shipwrecked on the proverbial deserted island. Suppose that this baby manages to live off the native fruits and nuts that surround him, and finally upon reaching the age of 14 or 15 he begins to feel a need for something that he cannot imagine. Out of all the beautiful sunrises and tropical fish and stars he sees, he yearns for something greater. But none of these natural events or animals, however beautiful and colorful they may be, cannot seem to satisfy his longing. The boy is entering puberty; even though he has never seen a woman he still has this desire for companionship with an 'other' built into the structure of his being.

He would have to conclude: "There is something in the universe, in reality, that corresponds to this want, my need, and it does not coincide with anything that I can grasp, and I don't know what it is." Why does he know that it exists? Because the existence of that thing is implied in the dynamic of his person. (116)

So too is the existence of God implied by reality, which is a sign that demonstrates "God." Reality points to something else, a you that is never exhaustible or finite.

What value does this have, to know that the world is a sign pointing toward something else? If the Other beyond this visible reality is unseen, undefined by our experience, veiled, how are we to reconcile this with our reason? This is the idea of mystery. "Mystery is not a limit to reason. Rather, it is reason's greatest discovery, the existence of something incommensurate in relation to itself" (117). Mystery is manifested in the human being, not as an obstacle but as "a sign of its infinite openness" (117).

All of civilization's authentic religious traditions describe God in linguistically negative terms: in-finite, im-measurable, unknown, the One whose name cannot be spoken. Although certain terms seem positive, like omnipotent or omnipresent, they are "negative from the standpoint of experience because they do not correspond to anything in our experience" (119). No one has ever been able to know everything or exist everywhere, and so we can only strain to wrap our minds around these concepts. God has also been called truth, love, justice, and so on, but he is not truth and love in the way we know truth and love. "However, these are not meaningless, purely nominalistic terms. Rather, they are expressions that intensify the way we relate to, draw closer to the Mystery. they are the openings to the Mystery" (119).

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Chapter 10: How the Ultimate Questions Arise: The Way of the Religious Sense

We have described and analyzed the ultimate questions of meaning that well up in our being and cannot be denied without dire consequences, but how do these questions arise? How does the actual process take place within the human person?

The first step begins with an awareness of presence. Take for example, a baby that has just been born. As soon as her eyes are open she would realize that there are things! This would be her first reaction. The awe of perceiving these "things" around is the amazing realization that there exists something outside of one's own being. The baby would over time come to see that these things are a presence that she interacts with, but do not emanate from her.

At a very elementary level, I know that everything around me is not me, that this reality imposes itself on me, and that I am dependent upon this reality. I know that I do not make reality; I find it, and it attracts me. Attraction to reality, or 'otherness' is the human being's first reaction, a seeking, invoking, and contemplating of what is 'other.' Man's original structure is not oriented towards skepticism and speculation.

The enlightenment culture claims that religion is based on fear, but fear is only the danger of losing something that is important. We do not fear losing things that have no interest to us. Attraction always comes first, like how babies are enthralled by new and unfamiliar objects.

Religiosity is, first of all, the affirmation and development of the attraction. A true seeker's disposition is laden with a prior evidence and awe: the wonder of the presence attracts me, and that is how the search within me breaks out. (102)

At a certain point in my psychological development I realize that I do not make myself, or hold myself in being. I understand myself as "I" and then come to know that I am distinct from other things. "It is from this that the idea of life as gift originates" (103).

Furthermore, this attraction becomes known to me as beauty, as having some sort of harmony and order that is favorable to me. Throughout time religions have made providence central to our relationship with the divine. The rhythms of night and day, the four seasons, and womanly fertility are signs of rejuvenation, refreshment, and gift.

Man is grateful for the beneficence and providence of this presence. He "becomes aware of himself as I, recovers this original awe with a depth that establishes the measure, the stature of his identity" (105). I realize, if I am mature, that I do not hold myself in being, but rather than I emerge from something else. "I am you-who-make-me — except that this you is absolutely faceless" (105). The pronoun you is the only adequate term for this faceless other, but in the religious tradition we call this you God. Although our dependence on God seems at first like a constraint, it is liberating once we understand that only in existing as God's creations do we have peace.

Similar to how the world is imposed on us in our first moments outside the womb and we come to realize how we are held in existence by an Other, there is another thing which imposes itself on our experience: good and evil. We have an awareness that things are either good or evil, "that certain things must be either approved or rejected" (107). Some schools of thought in sociology and philosophy hold that concepts of good and evil are really just constructs of the mind, but when man makes himself step aside from all his material comforts and barriers of indifference he can see good and evil as plainly as night and day. When you are betrayed by a friend, when those you love are brutally slain for love of power or greed, when bread is stored up in castles as your whole nation dies of starvation outside the walls, then you cannot deny the difference between good and evil. It is set upon the human heart.

The distinction of good and evil is "used by the Creator to draw to itself all of our existence" (107). In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes that there is a law written inside out hearts, and that even the Gentiles testify to it when they keep the law by instinct, even if they do not have the complete, revealed law of the Jews. Along with the realization that we do not hold ourselves in being, this "natural law" is also part of the emergence of the ultimate questions of the religious sense.

Now the question is this: How can this complex, yet simple, this enormously rich experience of the human heart — which is the heart of the human person, and therefore, of nature, the cosmos — how can it become vivid, how can it come alive? How can it become powerful? In the "impact" with the real. The only condition for being truly and faithfully religious, the formula for the journey to the meaning of reality is to live always the real intensely, without preclusion, without negating or forgetting anything... The mark of great souls and persons who are truly alive is an eagerness for this search, carried out through their commitment to the reality of their existence. (108-109)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Chapter 9: Preconception, Ideology, Rationality, and the Religious Sense

We have seen how the elimination or substitution of the questions leads to desperate consequences like the loss of identity, solidarity, and freedom. If these are so contrary to our desires and our nature, then why do we hold these unreasonable positions? Giussani claims there is only one adequate answer: "the domination of preconception, the tyranny of prejudice" (94).

As we have already discussed, preconception can be positive. It allows us to quickly evaluate things and ideas. The problem comes along when we make this initial reaction, or first impression, the final criterion for judging reality. By holding on to preconceptions, we lose the ability to truly analyze something and be open to new possibilities of understanding.

Ideology is the accumulation and synthesis of preconception. It is a "theoretical-practical construction that is based upon an aspect of reality," (95) instead of accounting for all of reality's factors. Ideologies are deceptively destructive because their origins lie in experience but eventually isolate some factor of reality without considering others. One example is that we can theorize about the problem of "poverty" and still forget about the real person who is suffering. Then "poverty" becomes just an issue or marketing tool for a political candidate to use. Rose Luxembourg wrote of the "creeping advance of the theoretician," which Giussani says, "gnaws at the root of and corrupts every authentic impetus and change" (96).

Reason is the antidote for both preconception and ideology. Preconception, at a basic level, holds us back from knowing reality as it truly is. Ideology does the same thing, and allows dangerous philosophies to persuade entire societies and cultures to impose restraints on what reason is capable of, choking our knowledge and understanding. The religious sense "appears as a first and most authentic application of the term reason because it never ceases responding relentlessly to reason's most basic need, for meaning" (99). It lets us be open to what is different, unforeseen, and infinite.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Chapter 8: Consequences of the Unreasonable Positions Before the Ultimate Question

The six positions discussed in the previous two chapters carry with them cultural consequences, three of which are the break with the past, melancholic solitude, and loss of freedom.

The Break With The Past

Without meaning, man is tossed about like a ship in a storm. He becomes paralyzed, unable to understand or use anything, and eventually the past means very little to him. He interacts with the world by sheer reactivity, without aim or purpose. "Reactivity as the criterion for a relationship with reality burns the bridges linking us to the richness of history" (81).

To draw a parallel, let us look at how a baby interacts with the world. Given any object, a baby will play with it, and, even if it is extremely valuable, will throw it on the ground and break it into pieces. A cardboard box and a music box are both as easily destroyed by pure reaction; the baby has no understanding of meaning or value. In the same way, when man has lost his sense of the past, of history, of tradition, he merely 'plays' with things and ends up destroying his surroundings, but "you cannot say that this person is merely playing... because the situation is simply too dramatic and tragic for that" (81). Indeed, lives, civilizations, and relationships are at stake.

Even so, the rejection of the past is viewed as an ideal philosophy today. The further-reaching consequence of this is that the future will be emptied of anything good. The future is constructed by an action in the present, and although the energy for construction is manifested in the present, "the richness of the present comes from the past" (83).

Incommunicativeness And Solitude

Communication and dialogue are also crippled when the past is forgotten, since these are the fruit of experience, of memory. The more experience I have, the more I engage in life, the more I have to share with others, and the better I can relate to and establish a connection with another.

To summarize: we have pointed out that assuming an unreasonable position before the ultimate questions results in a loss of meaning, which concomitantly, blurs, annuls the personality. (84)

If we are unable to communicate with each other, we are isolated. Desperate solitude becomes the overpowering mentality. Man without meaning walks through crowds of people on the street and blabbers on about the 11 o'clock news but feels totally alone. "We live together failing to recognize what unites us... solitude becomes an exasperating social climate, sadly the characteristic face of today's society" (85). The greatest disaster that can befall humanity is not famine or earthquake, but spiritual emptiness, in which man has no taste for life.

Loss of Freedom

Before talking about freedom, we need to grasp what freedom really is, because the current mentality and culture have certain preconceptions in place which may or may not be true. To have freedom means to be free, so let us begin by describing the experience of feeling free with our elementary experience.

You, an employee of a corporation, are planning to take a 3-day trip to the beach with your family. Your generous boss has always let you miss work on Friday for family vacations, ever since you worked under him when you started ten years ago. But this time, he emphatically says "No, I can't let you go, there is too much to be done!" You would not feel free; "it would be impossible for you not to feel oppressed, imprisoned, suffocated, without freedom" (88). If your boss were to happily grant your request your feeling of freedom would have greater since you greatly desired to take your spouse and your children to the coast.

"Experientially we feel free when we satisfy a desire" (88), which can be in the form of a hope, a dream, or a need. Yet, even if we have moments of being free, we do not have total freedom; there are always desires we cannot seem to satisfy. We are never perfectly fulfilled in what we long to possess and who we want to be. Freedom then, is:

the capacity for the end, totality, for happiness. Complete self-fulfilment, this is freedom. Freedom, for the human being, is the possibility, the capacity, the responsibility to be fulfilled, that is to say to reach and confront one's destiny: it is the total aspiration for destiny. Thus freedom is the experience of the truth of ourselves. (88)

This truth exists in God, the ultimate answer that the heart seeks. The structure of the human person testifies to God's existence through his insatiable longing for the infinite, but since we do not yet have full satisfaction through God our freedom is an ongoing process, "a state of becoming" (89). By faith and prayer we reach out to God, our destiny and freedom.

The next section Giussani describes as "freedom's precarious condition." Let us say that the circle on the left represents all of reality. There is nothing inside the this figure until your existence emerges at some point in time. The point is you, or it could be I. Now reality looks like the circle on the right.

If you exist as only the product of certain material and biological occurrences, a small and temporary protrusion in the enormous flux of the the world and all of history (which is the circle), then why should you have any rights? Who are you to demand any sort of freedom when you are so insignificant? It is like a shrimp asking the entire ocean to agree with its demands.

On a human level these circles also represent humanity, or, in concrete terms, society. Society has order, and it is maintained by those in power. As long as you are simply a fleeting collection of atoms, you have absolutely no rights, because "power is the prevailing expression of a determined instant of historical flux" (90). A government, an army, or a parent needs no justification in using you as a means to an end or even killing you. This is easily seen in various governments throughout time who have arbitrarily decided on who deserves human rights. In Rome it was the Roman citizen. And who decided who was a citizen? Those in power. In Nazi Germany it was the racially-pure Arian, once again defined by the State.

Man can only have innate dignity when there is God, when he has "a direct relationship with the infinite" (91). If man is just a transient blip on the earth, a meaningless point in reality, a consequence of mere biology, then "freedom" and "human rights" are just empty words. Religiosity is the one defense man has against living under domination. It shows man his dependent relationship with God, without which there is only slavery to the ruling powers. Those in power abhor true religiosity because it restricts their dominion over others.

Only this hypothesis [of God] allows me to proclaim that the world can do what it wants with me, but it cannot conquer, possess, grasp on to me, because I am greater than it is. I am free. (91)

The paradox is that we depend on God. Our freedom is intrinsically linked to God, the Other that created us and the structural desire to reach out for the infinite and possess fullness of being, complete happiness.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Chapter 7: Unreasonable Positions Before the Ultimate Question: Reduction of the Question

The last chapter discussed three positions that denied the pressing ultimate question. The next three positions acknowledge the question, but stop short of fully engaging it.

The Aesthetic or Sentimental Evasion

In this position, the individual acknowledges the questions, but does not commit his being to finding answers. Instead, he "finds enjoyment in expressing the emotions stimulated by the questions" (70). Look upon the starlit sky and the wide, blue sea! Is is not grand? Is it not curious? Everything makes sense here. Although emotion is an integral part of our nature, it are not by itself the finality that we seek.

While the practical denial of the questions often takes the form of sensationalism, spectacles, and drugs to tranquilize and distract the self, the sentimental evasion makes the admiration of beauty and happiness a definitive answer, however "this viewpoint cannot satisfy a mother whose son is dying, nor an individual out of work" (71). This 'emotional pampering' eventually leads to disregard for the suffering (who can find beauty there?) and the creation of a false reality focused on aestheticism.

The Desperate Negation

Here the individual feels the immense urgency of the questions, but commits himself to denying that an answer exists. This is different than the positions in the previous chapter, because it seeks to destroy an answer instead of a question. "At a certain point, the difficulty of the answers causes the person to say: 'it is not possible'" (72). We feel such an intense drive for an answer; which is more reasonable response? My entire being searches for an answer and one exists, or my entire being searches for an answer therefore one does not exist? Giussani quotes Cesare Pavese who expresses the sadness of the latter choice: "Has anyone ever promised us anything? Then why should we expect anything?" What he forgets is that we have been promised something, as indicated by the structure of our humanity, the longing we have for the infinite, for fulfillment.

The desperate negation is illustrated by three derivatives that I will briefly mention.

A. The Impotent Hope

There is no hope in finding an answer, and whenever one comes upon reaching a conclusion to even part of the question he pulls himself backward. It is unreasonable. It is believing a wound will never heal, despite the fact that you pick it open everyday.

B. Reality as Illusion

Confronted with the world, we are faced with two options regarding creation. Either it is made by an Other, or else all that we see and hear is an illusion. Choosing the former (and reasonable) option would mean starting the journey towards the ultimate answer, but many prefer to stay in the darkness. The man who chooses illusion "detaches himself from the impulse which shows him that things exist... and abandons himself" (75).

C. Nothingness as Essence

Because "you are," you depend upon something Ultimate, and in order to negate this Ultimate, you must deny this "you" - "You" being the word which emerges most naturally from the very depths of your origins. (75)


Our final unreasonable positions claims that life and the world have a positive meaning, but it is not valuable or true for the person. Life is ordered towards some distant conclusion, the fruit of a collaborative effort towards 'progress.' But this begs the question: whose progress? Is it a vision by the rich and powerful? And why should I contribute to this far off future when I will not be able to be part of it? "This slant on reality considers the fundamental questions of the human being as mere functional stimuli," used as a "deceitful trick which nature plays in order to force us into serving its irreversible project" (76).

In my 400-level class on sexuality and marriage the instructor made both explicit and implicit comments about sexual drives being nature's tool for the continuation of the species; perhaps love is just chemical reactions in the brain? The human person finds no value here - he is just a pawn in some covert scheme. The reduction of humanity into a project leaves out the constitutive dimension of personality.

It is impossible to make the fulfilment of a collectivity in some hypothetical future the answer to those questions without dissolving man's identity or alienating the human being. (76)

In all of these positions, one or more factors of human existence and experience is left unaccounted for, some aspect is given unequal weight compared to the others, and therefore leads to an unsatisfactory understanding of reality and the ultimate question of meaning. Dostoevsky said that the bee knows the secret of his beehive, the ant knows the secret of his anthill, but man does not know his own secret - that his structure is a relationship with the infinite (79).

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Chapter 6: Unreasonable Positions Before the Ultimate Question: Emptying the Question

The three positions in this chapter try to deny, or substitute things for, questions of meaning and destiny. The next chapter will discuss three positions that reduce the question unreasonably.

People take many different positions before the 'ultimate questions' of the religious sense, attitudes that are unreasonable because they fail to address all of the factors of the religious phenomenon.

The Theoretical Denial Of The Questions

Probably the most common error, quantitatively speaking, is in denying that questions of destiny and purpose exist, or can ever have an answer. Giussani relates a story about an Italian literature textbook his high school class used. The author berated a philosopher whose work focused on questions like, what is life?, why is there pain?, what is the purpose of the universe? The true philosopher eschews these questions, said the text, because they are like the "capriciousness of adolescents" which are "absurd" and lacking any real value. Giussani immediately told his class that, if true, Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Dostoyevsky, and Beethoven were all adolescents, since their works were driven by these supposedly absurd questions. Giussani was happy to stand in their company, since "a man who tosses out these questions is not 'human!'" (60).

Popular philosophy today also holds that one should not try and venture into the impossible and the infinite. Man is the final arbiter of his universe; he holds all power and mastery. John Dewey, who shaped several generations of pedagogy in the United States, said "to abandon the pursuit of reality and the search for absolute" lets us form a healthy society. Dewey encourages me to give up these deep, forceful questions within my heart, to ignore my very nature. He proposes a new unity among humanity by putting blinders on, but a "truly constructive collaboration, requires a factor which transcends the human person" (61). As we observed in the last chapter, if we refuse to acknowledge the questions of destiny within human beings we devalue them. A society like Dewey's vision would be frustrated; man desperately wants to seek and to know the answers to the questions gushing from his being, but knows that he is not allowed to acknowledge this existential drive or seek solace in sharing the quest for truth with others.

The Voluntaristic Substitution Of Questions

If you remove the stimulating energy of the 'elementary experience,'... if you take away the dynamic energy which those questions determine, the motion that they give our humanity, if you empty the content of those questions which constitute precisely the essential mechanism, the motor of our personality - if you do this, then where do we find the energy to act? (62)

The answer is only in ourselves. Our questions of meaning are substituted by self-affirmation. There are three fundamental forms of this position.

A. Personal praxis

To illustrate this category Giussani only provides a poem by Yevtushenko. I honestly cannot comprehend its full meaning. It will suffice to say that personal praxis is probably the most basic form of substitution, where one's conscious will is the only source of our driving energy. [If anyone can help me out please comment below.]

B. Utopianism

Here the voluntaristic energy "almost blindly provides the goal and the end itself" (63). Death and suffering are acknowledged, but there is no purpose for them, and no solution to the anxiety they cause. Man's desires are brushed off and replaced with a sentimentalism that says "such is life, oh well." Giussani quotes Bertrand Russell's writings as examples of this irrational response to the questions.

C. The Social Project

Here again we have the soulless society of John Dewey, where the human thirst for justice and the questions that spring up from the heart are replaced by a mere blueprint of rules and constructs. This is similar to the intellectual bigwigs of the age who publish guidelines for ethics and standards of care without any real concern or love for individual people. In his book Back To Virtue, Peter Kreeft is wise to point out that "ethics without virtue is illusion."

The Practical Denial Of The Questions

While the first position claims the questions do not make sense, this unreasonable position is actually lived out. "Because these questions are painful, wrenching, the individual structures his life so they quite simply do not surface" (64). Like many conflicts that we bury instead of confronting, we choose to not think about these questions of meaning. Besides simply telling ourselves to ignore the questions, we tend to more often distract ourselves through various means. Sports, television, alcohol - things that are not necessarily bad in themselves - become fixations through which we tranquilize ourselves. Sensationalism and superficial emotional rushes become our sustenance. As a result, life is so busy that there is no time for silence, no time to collect one's thoughts and examine one's self.

Another alternative to denying the essential questions of existence is stoicism, a life committed to the "ideal of perfect emotional imperturbability" (66). The stoic rejects feeling in its entirety, becoming a veritable fortress, indomitable and steadfast. "No matter what philosophy sustains the conception of the person, as long as it is irreligious, this will be its supreme ideal" (66). The stoic, however, lives an unreasonable life, closing off aspects of one's self yet still trying to live intensely. It is an irreconcilable paradox.

Sooner or later your construction [imperturbability], perhaps the fruit of an ascetic work of many years, a work of relentless philosophic reflection and presumption, will still need only a puff of wind to make it crumble. (68)

Every fortress has its weaknesses. The stoic, for all his work, cannot defend against love, precisely because his desire for it cannot be mastered by himself. It is part of his essence, something he cannot rip out or silence completely. Giussani ends the chapter by telling the story of a deformed man who grew up in monotony and mastery. He created a seemingly disciplined way of life, controlled and channeled by his intellect. Distant from any form of community, the people of his town admired him, but they did not love him. Then, one day, he fell in love. All his self-control "collapsed with a single blow and reduced him to the cold act of suicide" (69). Our nature drives us to embrace all that constitutes our being. In denying the most important questions and the most important experiences we are, in a sense, already dead.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Chapter 5: The Religious Sense: Its Nature

The religious sense has manifested itself through the ages in many specific questions. "Why am I here?" or "What is this world for?" or "Why is there suffering?" Oftentimes in literature they are asked of the great canvas of the starry sky or the daily emergence of the moon, cosmic objects which seem so close and familiar, yet so unknowable and distant. Although the rigors of daily living seem to blunt these questions, they will always spring up from the heart, cutting to the deepest layers of our emotion and our being.

Man seeks out a "total answer" to his problem of meaning. He is constantly asking if there is something more to know, something more to become. In fact, he pleads and begs for greater, even if he cannot comprehend it. The very language, the adjectives and adverbs, of these questions - what is life really about? what is the ultimate meaning of my life? - betrays the fact that they seek completeness. "They require a total answer, an answer which covers the entire horizon of reason, exhausting completely the whole 'category of possibility'" (47).

If life's meaning could be grasped after finding the answers of one thousand questions, man would still be as restless as when he began his search if he had found only up to the nine hundred ninety-ninth answer. Curiously, man's questions only seem to multiply as he struggles to answer them. In the natural sciences we observe things much smaller than us - insects, bacteria, atoms - and now we have even begun to breach the very foundations of subatomic particles. Similarly we have thrust past our humble atmosphere to probe and study the cosmic heavens, full of celestial bodies millions of light-years away. In both great and small we only seem to find new questions as we answer old ones. As one pushes back the unknown, the area of the unexplored grows.

At the same time, man increasingly realizes how disproportionate he is to the universe, "The inexhaustibility of the questions heightens the contradiction between the urgent need for an answer and our human limitations in searching for it" (48). Giussani gives excerpts from many works of literature, one of which is from "On the Portrait of a Beautiful Lady," by Giacomo Leopardi:

If, Human Nature, then,
In all things fallible
You are but dust and shade, whence these high feelings?
In any part if noble,
How is it that your worthiest thoughts and passions
Can be so lightly stirred
And roused and quenched even by such base occasions?

Our inability to answer such great questions and affirm the meaning of the entirety of reality is something that is built into our being. It is a structural disproportion.

Life is hunger, thirst, and passion for an ultimate object, which looms over the horizon, and yet always lies beyond it. When this is recognized, man becomes a tireless searcher. (51)

Consequently, human beings carry a great sadness. We long for finality and the affirmation of our destiny, but they elude us. Our yearning for the ideal, faced with our present "real" situation, creates this sadness. But without hope for the attainment of happiness and fulfillment, we fall into despair. This has been the sentiment of many recent philosophers, in which meaning is an illusion. Yet, deep in our being, we can find aspirations and great desire, repressed, but not destroyed.

Giussani says death is "the origin and the stimulus for all searching" (55). It is "the most powerful and bold contradiction in the face of the unfathomability of the human question" (55), however, it does not remove the question, but rather, amplifies it. If a person could be aware of the death he was to meet, would feel his questions to be exhausted? Or would he feel an incredible urgency for an answer?

The religious sense is reason's capacity to express its own profound nature in the ultimate question; it is the "locus" of consciousness that a human being has regarding existence. Such an inevitable question is in every individual, in the way he looks at everything. (56)

The philosopher Alfred N. Whitehead said that religion is "what the individual does with his own solitariness." This is partly true, because it concerns my self as a person, but this evaluation leaves me totally alone. And, if I were to interact with another person, a man, a woman, a friend, and not value the same question of destiny within the other, I would degrade them. The ultimate question unites us at the deepest level. "Before solitude there is companionship, which embraces my solitude. Because of this, solitude is no longer true solitude, but a crying out to that hidden companionship" (56).

By our reason, we can see how the human person has a structure that is oriented towards the infinite and the unfathomable. We have questions about our ultimate destiny that throughout history have not been fulfilled by our own means.

Our whole being corresponds to the existence of God. Without God, life is tortuous and full of violence. No hope can be found without God. I will let Giussani speak without my own interruption of his eloquence:

Only the hypothesis of God, only the affirmation of the mystery as a reality existing beyond our capacity to fathom entirely, only this hypothesis corresponds to the human person's original structure. If it is human nature to indomitably search for an answer, if the structure of a human being is, then, this irresistible and inexhaustible question, plea - then one suppresses the question if one does not admit to the existence of an answer. But this answer cannot be anything but unfathomable. Only the existence of the mystery suits the structure of the human person, which is mendicity, insatiable begging, and what corresponds to him is neither he himself nor something he gives to himself, measures, or possesses.

By the very fact that a man lives, he poses this question, because this question is at the root of his consciousness of what is real, and not only does he pose the question, he also responds to it, affirming the reality of an "ultimate." For by the very fact that he lives five minutes he affirms the existence of a "something" which deep down makes living those five minute worthwhile. This is the structural mechanism, an inevitable implication of our reason. (57)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Chapter 4: The Religious Sense: The Starting Point

The past three chapters have been an intense investigation into how we come to know things. We must use our reason, keeping in mind all of its methods, to observe reality. We have also seen how feeling and emotion are meant to aid us in becoming aware of reality. Consequently, the problem that plagues our understanding of things is usually not an inability of our methods, but an apathy towards the truth. It is often more convenient to hold onto our attachments and preconceptions than to work and struggle to break free of the darkness.

From here we will begin to study all that makes up the religious sense. As the previous chapters have emphasized, the religious sense must be understood from our perspective as humans. We cannot eliminate any part of our identities - physical, cognitive, emotional - or else we are denying ourselves. Keeping with this existential viewpoint, I must "start with myself" since the religious experience is really an experience. A question comes up already: How do I define myself? Starting with myself means running the risk of defining myself by assumptions and abstract preconceptions. The solution is in viewing myself in action.

Starting with oneself means to observe one's own movements, taken off guard, with his or her daily experience. Hence the "material" of our starting point will not be any sort of preconception... or definition of oneself, perhaps borrowed from current ideas and the dominant ideology. (35)

Through one's actions one can see what qualities he possesses and grasp his existence. Giussani uses the example of a boy who does not like math and therefore has not studied it. Because he has never applied himself to this discipline he does not know whether he has a natural skill for it. If the boy does begin to do his homework he may discover that he is able to outperform all of his classmates. In other words, it was in action that he found his talent, one of his many human factors.

Like children, adults often make judgments about ourselves without being reasonable. People brush off the religious question with the attitude of, "I don't feel God, and I have no need to confront this problem" (36). These adults are making excuses for themselves based on conditionings rather than making commitments to explore something that concerns their destiny. For the person who ignores this part of their life, it is like the religious sense does not exist for him, even though he never "brought into the horizon of his... reason the elements necessary to make a judgment" (36).

To be really alive is to be involved in all of life - the problems, the people, the questions, the ups, the downs. As we become more involved with any one aspect we encounter the others more clearly. This does not mean we should be fixated on any one thing, but we should commit ourselves to all of life. By embracing this wholeness we can uncover such a fundamental factor of our humanity like the religious sense.

One aspect of life is tradition, "that complex endowment with which nature arms us" (37), and which we are born into. Everyone is given tradition as a gift and a project. Through it we inherit knowledge and values from the past, however we are not meant to become stagnant in it. Rather, we can develop it ourselves and use our creativity to make tradition a launching pad. Rejecting this gift of tradition uncritically would be rejecting a part of ourselves.

Another aspect of life that pertains to our whole existence is the value of the present. So often in life we try to live in the mistakes or glories of the past, a recipe for despair or pride. Or, we try to live in the future so much that we forget our present obligations to people and become irresponsible and unrealistic. With the current discussion of the religious sense, man must start with himself (as we have already noted), and he must start in the present, because that is where he is. If I would uncritically make a philosopher's opinion my own I would alienate myself. Similarly, I would also betray my experience if I projected the past onto myself. "Once I have used the present as a starting point to discover the values that constitute the human experience in its essential elements, then the study of the past will only illuminate ever more the way I look upon myself" (40).

One of the central concepts in The Religious Sense is that humans have an essential unity. Each person is made up of a physical body, the ability to reason, and an elementary experience. With the denial of even one of these facets of humanity, we become less human, we are longing to be integrated. It is interesting that death, when mentioned in the Bible, is often associated with the word corruption. Examined by its Latin parts, corruption literally means to fragment, for each part to break apart and separate. This decomposition can only occur as far as "nature can be segmented, measured, modified" (41). But what if there are parts of me that are not divisible, that cannot be broken up? If in some way there exists in me an unbreakable unity, then "the idea of death, as experience demonstrates, is not applicable to me" (41). Does this sound a little bizarre? Perhaps, but entertain this thought for a while as we conclude this chapter.

The materialist claims that all of our experience can be essentially reduced to a material starting point. Anything that seems to be a unique element, like spirit or thought, is actually a different manifestation of our physical existence. Followed through to its end, this philosophy makes humanity devoid of excitement, passion, and love. It is frustrating dullness, and "the entire phenomenon of love is reduced, with bitter ease, to a biological fact" (42).

Our experience shows that we have two realities - the measurable (things of the material world) and the unmeasurable (ideas, decisions, and judgments; when I decide to love my friend, I cannot quantify this decision). In common language we usually coin these two parts 'body and soul,' or 'material and spiritual.' These realities are not reducible into each other.

To refute the materialist position, it must be made clear that the expression of the spiritual part of a person develops out of the material part. It is like a musician and his instrument, which unite to create music. The instrument (the material) in itself is lifeless to express sound by itself, but provides the channel through which the musician (the spiritual) injects his masterpiece. Both are essential. Let us keep this in mind as we further investigate the religious sense.

A unity composed of two irreducible factors, where the emergence of the second is conditioned by a certain development of the first, is perfectly within our grasp, and thus rationally plausible. Thus the human body has to evolve to a certain point in order to be suitably tuned for the genial expression of the human spirit. (44)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Chapter 3: The Impact of Morality on the Dynamic of Knowing

A certain young woman is very good at math. One day she has a test in class. She has a bad stomachache and, on that morning, she does not do well on the exam. Has she suddenly become ignorant? No, she simply has a stomachache. (23)

Reason is inescapably linked with all the aspects of our humanity, including the mental and the emotional, or affective, parts. Reason is wrapped up in the unity of the human person, it cannot be disconnected like some mechanical component. Therefore, our ability to reason can be impaired by the distress of illness, intimidation, a broken friendship, and so on. Reason can also be heightened and clarified through our feelings too, as we shall see later.

The next section starts off with a few illustrations: A man awakes inside a hospital to the horrible pain of a broken bone; an author with writer's block suddenly begins to scribble away after an idea pops into his head; someone tries to get a woman's attention by hissing "psst, psst!" behind her, making her feel annoyed or worried since she has an idea of who it might be.

The point to these vignettes is that in all of them there is a reaction to something that enters our perception. Whether the reaction is physical, cognitive, or emotional, a "state of soul" (25) or feeling is stirred up within us.

Depending upon the measure of the individual's human vivacity, anything whatsoever that enters his personal horizon (even a single blade of grass, or a pebble that you kick with your foot) moves him, touches him, provokes a reaction: this reaction can differ in its nature of type, but it is always a certain specific feeling. (25)

Everything we perceive or come into contact with touches us somehow. The person who is insular, tough, and mean still has reactions to the world around him, but finds much less value in it. It does not interest him very much, compared to the man who is aware and alive - powerfully human as Giussani might say - who finds value in things both great and small. Value then is "known reality in as much as it interests us, as it has worth" (25). The more value something has the more intense the feeling or "state of soul" is, which affects how we know it.

The philosophies of the enlightenment that subtly underpin much of our current culture, the same philosophies that have constrained reason to mean only logical or scientific studies, claim that nothing should interfere with reason's study of objective knowledge. Feeling is treated as an obstacle that distorts unbiased knowledge.

Rationalism says:

Objective certainty cannot be reached when dealing with these types of phenomena because the factor of feeling plays too large a role. All questions concerning destiny, love, social, and political life and its ideals are a matter of opinion because one's personal position... and feeling plays too large a role. (26)

The problem with this statement is that only in science and mathematics can we eliminate feeling from reason. In our quest to know things that concern the meaning of things this concept, when taken to its logical conclusion, says that the more I want to know something the more I am prevented from knowing it. Instead of trying to suppress feeling from the ways in which we reason, would it not be better to integrate reason, feeling, and objectivity? Perhaps there is a way that does not require us to sacrifice part of our humanity to the Enlightenment.

Let us consider, for a moment, that our beloved Luigi is hiking in the Alps. He lifts his binoculars to his eyes to survey the gorgeous peaks and valleys, but all he sees are fuzzy blobs of green and brown. Luigi focuses the lens and now can make out the finest details of his surroundings, even individual skiers far off. The lenses of the binoculars, when properly focused, are not obstacles to seeing, but actually aid visual perception. The lenses in our eyes perform the same task.

Similarly, the feeling we have when something enters our plane of perception is not automatically an obstacle, but can act as a lens so we can know that thing more easily and more completely. "Feeling is an essential factor for seeing" (28). By incorporating feeling with reason and value we accept the reality that all these things are present and interconnected in ourselves. Feeling can impair our ability to reason, as we saw in the example of the woman with the stomachache, however I doubt the woman would decide to have her stomach removed. To go back to the lens analogy:

If an individual has a cataract in his eye... or if the lens of the eye is too flat or too convex and no longer sees properly... the point is not to rip the lens from the eye but for the lens to be focused! Feeling, then, must not be eliminated, but it must be in its proper place. (28)

How do we ensure our feelings are appropriate and properly ordered? Finally our answer brings us to the title of this chapter. Morality is "the sincere desire to know the object in question in a true way, beyond our attachment to our own opinions or those inculcated upon us" (31). In so many ways we cling to our preconceived notions rather than strive for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The problem is not so much because we lack adequate means to find the truth, but because we simply do not care enough to detach ourselves from our comfortable castles of preconceptions.

Giussani says that this is one of the main reasons why many people err when facing problems of faith and religion. Everyone has an opinion on these matters but few people value the issues enough to make an informed judgment in full command of their reason. We have all been in a conversation where you are fully engaged about a topic at hand and the other person is listening half-heartedly, obviously distracted and occasionally verbalizing a "mm-hmm" or "yea" in order to keep you talking. Your friend responds at the end of your dissertation, "Yea, well, I still disagree," all the while staring into the sky. The frustration you feel probably does not stem from your own shortcomings of persuasion, but rather from the futility of speaking to someone who has no desire to accompany you in the journey towards knowledge.

We are inclined to remain bound to the opinions we already have about the meaning of things and to attempt to justify our attachment to them. (31)

It takes hard work to break away from old ways of thinking. It is strenuous to hold the attitude that truth is more important than oneself. Giussani points out that we all have preconceptions in life by nature of being impressed upon by friends, family, school, and media. The goal is not to rid ourselves of every preconception, but to understand that we should strive for a clarity of attitude (morality) that allows us to have knowledge in the full light of truth.

In order to love the truth more than we love ourselves, in order to love the truth of the objet more than the image that we have formed of it, to acquire a poverty of spirit, to have eyes that confront reality and truth wide open, like the eyes of children, there must be a process and work. (33)

This work is termed ascesis. What can motivate us to engage in this process?

Man is, in fact, moved solely by love and affection... the love of ourselves as destiny... can convince us to undertake this work to become habitually detached from our own opinions and our own imaginations... so that all of our cognitive energy will be focused upon a search for the truth of the object, no matter what it should be. This love is the ultimate inner movement, the supreme emotion that persuades us to seek true virtue. (33)

Friday, April 21, 2006

Chapter 2: The Second Premise: Reasonableness

How do we know if something is reasonable? Say I go to a party wearing a flak jacket and a helmet. In response to my strange attire my friends ask why I am dressed like a soldier. If I reply that it is for my safety, in case anyone at the party should shoot me with a rifle, I would be called either a silly jester or a lunatic. My attitude would be unreasonable.

The second premise for understanding the religious sense is reasonableness, "the capacity to become aware of reality" (12). Reality, as described in Chapter 1, must be imposed by the object onto man. Reason, continuing with reality hand and hand, is man's unique capability to take in reality and find certainty.

We must beware, however, because like many other seemingly straightforward words, the definition of reason has been constricted and devalued from its real meaning. Reason is often thought to be synonymous with demonstrable. If I can show through an experiment, through a demonstration, that adding nutrients to soil makes plants grow taller, then I am said to have reasoned it. Surely, this process of scientific inquiry and demonstration is part of reason, but it does not encompass all of it.

Much of reality cannot be known by demonstration. For example, I can prove that the desk I work at is made of wood, but I could never go back and show all of the steps that brought this table into existence. Even if I could demonstrate the very beginnings of my desk, from its construction by the carpenter back to the development of the tree it came from, I would eventually come to a point where I could not demonstrate how matter came into existence at some point.

Another way reason is constrained is to equate it with logic. Logic is concerned with consistency; I can develop a logical outcome given any set of assumptions. If I assume that the strongest houses are built with straw, then it is logical to conclude that houses should be built from straw as much as possible. When the wind blows and knocks the roof onto my head it becomes apparent that when "the premises are wrong, perfect logic will produce an erroneous result" (14).

Reason contains different methods for knowing different types of things. It is flexible and agile. For things that can be demonstrated, scientific and empirical analysis are great tools of reason. To reach a rational conclusion for a set of givens, logic is another fine tool of reason. But there is another facet of reason, one which tells us about human behavior, about moral certainties. It is hardwired into our nature as humans; it lets us be certain about the most important things around us - our relationships with others. Does he care about me? Can I trust him? Am I intruding?

To arrive at certainties about relationships we have been given the fastest of methods almost more like an intuition than a process... man needs it to live in the instant. (19)

I cannot demonstrate that my mother loves me, but I can intuit it through many signs that converge on only one reasonable answer: my mother indeed loves me.

Giussani makes two interesting points about this existential human certainty. First, the more I share someone's life, the more I am certain about him and his identity. Secondly, the more "powerfully one is human" (20), the more he can be certain about another person based only a few signs or indications. People who are alive and aware in their humanity can trust others because they understand "the reasons for believing in another" (20).

One who has a "knack" for a certain subject needs only a clue to intuit the solution to the problem, while everyone else has to work labouriously through every step. The knack for being human entails possessing much humanity. (20)

We speak about the same thing in my therapy classes here at University; therapists who have a great awareness of every part of their identity and who have plumbed the depths of their unconscious can more easily detect subtle signals in other people. There is the nervous smile that betrays a hidden fear, there is the word choice that shows a denial: "I guess I'm worried a little bit," there is the darting of the eye which manifests a deep emotion. We all have the ability to sense these things through our elementary experience, but it takes refinement and practice to have a deeper perception.

One application of reason's method of moral certainty is faith. Faith is "an adhesion to what another affirms" (21):

If I have reached the certainty that another person knows what he says and does not mislead me, then to repeat with certainty what he has affirmed with certainty, is to be consistent with myself. (21)

The Christian has faith, but so does the atheist scientist. The experiment he performs is grounded in past research and in principles that are assumed to be true. To go back and sequentially verify everything that his predecessors have concluded would be tedious and unreasonable. If we acted like this in our use of reason we would be forever stuck in the stone age.

To return to the fundamental discussion of the premises regarding how we know the religious sense, or any object, let us remember that the object of study dictates the method for how it is known (I need to look at something on my desk to know it, I cannot know it by "thinking" up its existence). Intertwined with this notion is the fact that reasonableness is essential for applying our method of gaining knowledge, about either scientific fact or human moral certainties; reasonableness is our ability to become aware of reality.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Chapter 1: The First Premise: Realism

To examine what the religious sense is there must first be a proper method to use. This method is based on three premises: Realism, reasonableness, and the impact of morality on the dynamic of knowing. Chapter 1 deals with realism.

What is realism? It is not simply having a practical outlook on day to day live. Instead, it is the ability to observe a real event or thing, without surrendering my own experience of it to pre-formulated schemes or theories in my mind. Modern man is often trapped in unrealism, where he projects what he thinks is true onto an object. His ideas about the object and the object itself are entangled, thereby distorting reality.

Realism is essential for knowing anything, including the religious sense. The religious experience is the most universal human activity. It is present in all times and ages, across the continents, the lifespan, and civilization as a whole. Essentially the religious sense asks the question, "What is the meaning of everything?", a question which has pervaded history.

What makes up this religious sense? How do we know it, and know it well? The method with which we investigate it is crucial. Empirical research studies can yield fascinating results, but they are ultimately useless if the methodology is flawed.

One method to studying the religious sense would be to subscribe to the opinions of prestigious or widely-published people, such as Plato, Marx, Nietzsche, or Kant. Although this may seem academic and scholarly at first, this method is incorrect; the fundamental question of the religious sense, the meaning of everything and man's existence, is too important to "abandon ourselves to the opinions of others" (5).

Realism, and the method of knowing what something is, cannot come from the subject; it must be imposed by the object. Giussani uses this example:

Suppose I were to find myself before an audience with my notebook on a table and, if while speaking, I were to notice it out of the corner of my eye and were to wonder what that white object might be. I could think of many possibilities: ice cream spread out over the table, or even a rag. But the method for knowing what it truly is, is imposed by the object itself; I cannot contemplate a red object at the back of the room or a person's eyes in the front row in order to know the white object. if I wish to truly know it, I have no choice but to look down and fix my eyes on the object itself. (5)

But the religious sense is not observable in the same way that a mountain or a stream is. Since it occurs inside of me and pertains to my self, I must engage in existential inquiry. I am required to inquire into my self and my consciousness. Only after this can I compare my findings to other thinkers and philosophers. If I were to blindly make someone else's opinion my own beforehand I would be inauthentic and would "be uncritically adopting from others a conception regarding a problem important for my life and my destiny" (6).

After my self-examination I still need to judge the results. It is in judging and evaluation that man really lives out his experience. Experience is this context does not refer to simply a series of accumulated sensations and events; experience is understanding the meaning of things. The criterion for judging could come from outside or from inside myself, however the former criterion again falls into the trap of placing external methods and ideas before our own experience. The latter criterion, the one that lay inside me, does not alienate me. "The criterion for judging this reflection on our own humanity must emerge from within the inherent structure of the human being, the structure at the origin of the person" (7).

This inner criterion is what Giussani, and probably others, calls the elementary experience, which is a universally-present part of each person's identity. Through it my experiences of humanity and of reality are filtered. It is how I face the world and how I evaluate every proposal and idea. This original, or elementary, experience is made up of "needs" and "evidences." Needs are things like the need for happiness or the need for justice or the need for truth. They are the driving force of our existence, without which man has "no movement or human dynamism" (7). Evidences are a bit harder to describe. They seem to concern a level of understanding that we share about reality. For example, if you were sitting on a chair, and a man approached you and asked if you were sitting on a chair, you might chuckle and say yes, of course. If the man continued to say "and what if it is not a chair? are you sure?" you may grow worried for his sanity. Giussani remarks that no one can level sanely at the level of these questions, and that Aristotle "used to remark acutely that it is foolish to seek the reason for what evidence shows to be a fact" (7). These universal needs and evidences, apparent in our day to day living, show that we have an elementary experience. From it we can draw our criterion for judging our self-inquiry.

But, if this criterion comes from within me, if it is to be deeply personal, then how can I avoid endorsing anarchy? Would not everything turn into subjectivism? Does every individual hold the definition of his own meaning and exist as his own judge? Anarchy, although an attractive fascination, ultimately limits man. The anarchist affirms his existence by asserting his self against everything and anything. He will forever be frustrated in his struggle against reality, and let us not forget that one day he will die, proving that he, in fact, is unable to fight all he faces in life. "Man truly affirms himself only by accepting reality" (10). In accepting reality he accepts himself and his existence. He is more whole, not less, because he actually gains a reality that otherwise he would have to struggle against at least in part.

So, the criterion for judging things is an objective one, where the universal traits are the needs and evidences we all share. "The need for goodness, justice, truth, and happiness constitutes man's ultimate identity, the profound energy with which men in all ages and of all races approach everything" (10). Even if the elementary experience is lived uniquely in each person, it is still essentially the same for every individual. Elementary experience spans the centuries, connecting the feelings and longings of ancient peoples to modern ones. This is why we can read ancient poems that are thousands of years old and still feel a deep connection to the past and an application to the present.

The chapter closes by concluding that to truly know things is to use reason based on our elementary experience. This is very difficult in an age and culture that prefers to compare experience on the basis of knee-jerk reactions and pre-formulated opinions and doctrines about man and the world. "It is necessary... to come down and grasp our own original needs and "evidences" and to judge and evaluate accordingly every proposal, every existential suggestion" (11).

"Let us begin to judge. This is the beginning of liberation" (11).

Friday, March 31, 2006


Monsignor J. Francis Stafford, in writing the introduction, says that Guissani explains how every individual has a 'religious sense' which contains "the very essence of rationality" (xiii). Because of this, each one of us has the tools required to experience reality as it truly is.

"Modern mentality reduces reason to a series of categories into which reality is forced to enter" (xii).

In the ages after the Enlightenment, anything that cannot be fitted into nice and neat categories is defined as irrational. Although reason, which is fundamental to our humanity, cannot reveal the mystery of God by itself, it can open the door to experiencing God. The "possibility of a relationship with the Infinite" (xiii) is today quarantined from reason, as if it would taint or destroy it. But instead of elevating reason, this dishonors it, ruling out a category of knowing a priori. Reason, if true to its purpose, recognizes that life is not a world of organisms scurrying about, the result of predetermined causes, but is often mysterious and transcendent, carrying man beyond himself and the visible.