The Religious Sense

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)


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