The Religious Sense

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)


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