The Religious Sense

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).


  • You beat me to it. I only recently became interested in Communion and Liberation, and the work of Msgr. Guissani. I am now part of a newly formed "School of Community" and we are reading "Why the Church?" which is the last book of Msgr. Guissani's trilogy. I did listen to a set of lectures on the Religious Sense (the transcripts are available at the Crossroads-NY Cultural Center's webpage) that summarizes all three books. I was hoping to start to do what you are doing, writing brief summaries of each chapter and inviting people to discuss them. I will just join your online discussion, and let you write the summary. Maybe I will post summaries of "Why the Church?" on my blog, Fr JC Maximilian. Thanks for starting this.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:33 PM  

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