The Religious Sense

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.


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