The Religious Sense

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)


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