The Religious Sense

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Chapter 11: Experience of the Sign

It could be said that the tug we feel towards an ultimate destiny is like an invitation, or a word. In Greek, "logos" means word, and "ana" means up, therefore giving us "analogy," or a word that lifts us up, that let us come to know something more than what meets the eye.

Reality is essentially an analogy that points to something higher. We could also call it a sign, because it is a rudimentary expression of a greater meaning. When I drive my car to the store and approach a stop sign, I do not simply regard it as red, octagonal piece of metal. By realizing what it points to I grasp both the sign and the higher reality, that is, I risk crashing my car into oncoming traffic if I don't stop soon. "A sign... is a reality which refers me to something else" (112). The world is also a sign, but not one I can easily ignore because it actually provokes me into a response. Reality invites me to search for something beyond.

I can express this reaction with questions: What is this in front of me? Why this? A kind of strange unknown lies within such questions: the world, the real provokes me towards an other. (111)

Reality's way of orienting me to another unseen reality is something that imposes itself on me. I cannot deny it without being unreasonable and denying my own inner experience. It would be as if I heard a voice call "Help! Help!" in the woods, but then merely thinking, "My, what a strange vibration the air made just now. It sounded like a person yelling 'Help,' but I simply can't deduce that it is really a man in need of assistance." As humans we are attracted by the deeper meanings of things, and by ignoring them we actually become dead to ourselves, others, and to all of reality. "This would be... the positivist position: the total blocking out of the human" (112). We would not follow the footsteps of those "great souls" Giussani mentioned in the last chapter who were truly alive in their search for meaning.

Our impact with reality reveals that experientially life is need. The needs we have can be divided into two categories: the need for truth and justice, along with the corollaries happiness and love. Giussani quickly illustrates each category with a pertinent story or analogy; let it suffice for us to say now that without "a perspective of the beyond," without a reality that points beyond itself, all of these needs are unmet and miserably unfulfilled.

Imagine a baby that is shipwrecked on the proverbial deserted island. Suppose that this baby manages to live off the native fruits and nuts that surround him, and finally upon reaching the age of 14 or 15 he begins to feel a need for something that he cannot imagine. Out of all the beautiful sunrises and tropical fish and stars he sees, he yearns for something greater. But none of these natural events or animals, however beautiful and colorful they may be, cannot seem to satisfy his longing. The boy is entering puberty; even though he has never seen a woman he still has this desire for companionship with an 'other' built into the structure of his being.

He would have to conclude: "There is something in the universe, in reality, that corresponds to this want, my need, and it does not coincide with anything that I can grasp, and I don't know what it is." Why does he know that it exists? Because the existence of that thing is implied in the dynamic of his person. (116)

So too is the existence of God implied by reality, which is a sign that demonstrates "God." Reality points to something else, a you that is never exhaustible or finite.

What value does this have, to know that the world is a sign pointing toward something else? If the Other beyond this visible reality is unseen, undefined by our experience, veiled, how are we to reconcile this with our reason? This is the idea of mystery. "Mystery is not a limit to reason. Rather, it is reason's greatest discovery, the existence of something incommensurate in relation to itself" (117). Mystery is manifested in the human being, not as an obstacle but as "a sign of its infinite openness" (117).

All of civilization's authentic religious traditions describe God in linguistically negative terms: in-finite, im-measurable, unknown, the One whose name cannot be spoken. Although certain terms seem positive, like omnipotent or omnipresent, they are "negative from the standpoint of experience because they do not correspond to anything in our experience" (119). No one has ever been able to know everything or exist everywhere, and so we can only strain to wrap our minds around these concepts. God has also been called truth, love, justice, and so on, but he is not truth and love in the way we know truth and love. "However, these are not meaningless, purely nominalistic terms. Rather, they are expressions that intensify the way we relate to, draw closer to the Mystery. they are the openings to the Mystery" (119).


  • For Giussani, what is the difference between a problem and a mystery?

    By Blogger W., at 2:25 AM  

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