The Religious Sense

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Chapter 7: Unreasonable Positions Before the Ultimate Question: Reduction of the Question

The last chapter discussed three positions that denied the pressing ultimate question. The next three positions acknowledge the question, but stop short of fully engaging it.

The Aesthetic or Sentimental Evasion

In this position, the individual acknowledges the questions, but does not commit his being to finding answers. Instead, he "finds enjoyment in expressing the emotions stimulated by the questions" (70). Look upon the starlit sky and the wide, blue sea! Is is not grand? Is it not curious? Everything makes sense here. Although emotion is an integral part of our nature, it are not by itself the finality that we seek.

While the practical denial of the questions often takes the form of sensationalism, spectacles, and drugs to tranquilize and distract the self, the sentimental evasion makes the admiration of beauty and happiness a definitive answer, however "this viewpoint cannot satisfy a mother whose son is dying, nor an individual out of work" (71). This 'emotional pampering' eventually leads to disregard for the suffering (who can find beauty there?) and the creation of a false reality focused on aestheticism.

The Desperate Negation

Here the individual feels the immense urgency of the questions, but commits himself to denying that an answer exists. This is different than the positions in the previous chapter, because it seeks to destroy an answer instead of a question. "At a certain point, the difficulty of the answers causes the person to say: 'it is not possible'" (72). We feel such an intense drive for an answer; which is more reasonable response? My entire being searches for an answer and one exists, or my entire being searches for an answer therefore one does not exist? Giussani quotes Cesare Pavese who expresses the sadness of the latter choice: "Has anyone ever promised us anything? Then why should we expect anything?" What he forgets is that we have been promised something, as indicated by the structure of our humanity, the longing we have for the infinite, for fulfillment.

The desperate negation is illustrated by three derivatives that I will briefly mention.

A. The Impotent Hope

There is no hope in finding an answer, and whenever one comes upon reaching a conclusion to even part of the question he pulls himself backward. It is unreasonable. It is believing a wound will never heal, despite the fact that you pick it open everyday.

B. Reality as Illusion

Confronted with the world, we are faced with two options regarding creation. Either it is made by an Other, or else all that we see and hear is an illusion. Choosing the former (and reasonable) option would mean starting the journey towards the ultimate answer, but many prefer to stay in the darkness. The man who chooses illusion "detaches himself from the impulse which shows him that things exist... and abandons himself" (75).

C. Nothingness as Essence

Because "you are," you depend upon something Ultimate, and in order to negate this Ultimate, you must deny this "you" - "You" being the word which emerges most naturally from the very depths of your origins. (75)


Our final unreasonable positions claims that life and the world have a positive meaning, but it is not valuable or true for the person. Life is ordered towards some distant conclusion, the fruit of a collaborative effort towards 'progress.' But this begs the question: whose progress? Is it a vision by the rich and powerful? And why should I contribute to this far off future when I will not be able to be part of it? "This slant on reality considers the fundamental questions of the human being as mere functional stimuli," used as a "deceitful trick which nature plays in order to force us into serving its irreversible project" (76).

In my 400-level class on sexuality and marriage the instructor made both explicit and implicit comments about sexual drives being nature's tool for the continuation of the species; perhaps love is just chemical reactions in the brain? The human person finds no value here - he is just a pawn in some covert scheme. The reduction of humanity into a project leaves out the constitutive dimension of personality.

It is impossible to make the fulfilment of a collectivity in some hypothetical future the answer to those questions without dissolving man's identity or alienating the human being. (76)

In all of these positions, one or more factors of human existence and experience is left unaccounted for, some aspect is given unequal weight compared to the others, and therefore leads to an unsatisfactory understanding of reality and the ultimate question of meaning. Dostoevsky said that the bee knows the secret of his beehive, the ant knows the secret of his anthill, but man does not know his own secret - that his structure is a relationship with the infinite (79).


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