The Religious Sense

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Chapter 13: An Education In Freedom

If we are to realize our destiny then we must be educated in freedom. If we do not know how to respond to the "sign" of the world then we become frustrated and confused about our existence. It would be like a man who lives in a house expecting his friend, and the doorbell rings constantly, driving him mad. Yet, he cannot welcome the guest, because he is blind and does not know how to find the door.

An education in freedom means to be attentive to reality, and unfettered by preconception. This attention must be open to examining every aspect of reality and comparing it with one's elementary experience, not simply what is immediately plausible or in line with the prevailing mentality. Although this sounds simple in theory, it can be very hard to put it into practice.

An education in freedom must also teach a capacity for acceptance of new proposals. My experience is not very free if I have to build walls to ward off novel ideas or feelings. I would be fortifying myself against the entire world.

To summarize, educating one's freedom to attentiveness, that is, to be wide open toward the totality of factors at play, and educating it to acceptance, that is, to the conscious embrace of what it finds before it is the fundamental issue of the human journey. (126)

Skepticism, like stoicism, is often seen as admirable. How strong one must be to be wary of everything! But this attitude is not in accord with how nature places the human being. Our original position pushes us to search for a real, positive answer. Children act this out in their boundless curiosity. They do not look at their surroundings and say, "I don't think this is real," or "But maybe it isn't a horse," or "Perhaps, but, however...." A child has a positive hypothesis about things, and even though he may be mistaken about whether an animal is actually a horse or a cow, they learn to refine their thinking and surge toward a definite answer. If all I do is doubt, then I will never know, because I will never want to know. "If one begins with a negative hypothesis, then even if there is something there to find, it will not be found" (127).

The skeptic is not to be admired, but to be scorned, because instead of being open to reality, to something, he chooses to retreat from life (even his identity) and any affirmative meaning that exists. "There exists nothing more pathological and unproductive than systematic doubt" (127).

The Experience of Risk

Giussani asks why admitting the existence of God can be so difficult, even when reality obviously points to mystery. What is at the root of this problem? The answer has to do with the experience of risk. Risk is not an action taken without adequate reasons. Such an action would be called irrationality or foolishness. Rather, risk is a disconnect between reason and the will. To illustrate this, Giussani tells the story of a particular hike. He and a few other men are connected by ropes. The guide at the front of the line hopped over a gap in the rocks. Beneath was a very deep ravine. Although the gap was only about three feet wide, and even if he did miss the jump the other climbers would have hauled him back up by the ropes, our friend Luigi could not bring himself to make the jump. Instead he grabbed onto the ground and refused to budge.

Even with plenty of safety precautions and good reason to believe he would make the jump, he could not find the energy to do it. This is risk. It is similar to a situation presented many chapters back, when after a very reasonable and logical presentation a person says "You are right, but I am still not persuaded." Risk is: "a hiatus, an abyss, a void between the intuition of truth... and the will... a break [that] occurs between reason and affectivity" (129). (Note the parallel between this and the idea of original sin).

Only a massive amount of sheer willpower can overcome this gap. In most cases, the energy to do this cannot be mustered by one's self. Thankfully, nature has equipped us with a tool to conquer this strange fear: the communital phenomenon.

A child runs down a hallway, pushes open with his little hands the door, which is always open, to an unlit room. Frightened, he turns back. His mother arrives and leads him by the hand. With his hand in his mother's, the child will go into any room in the world. (130)

By virtue of the special experience of being with another we can overcome the experience of risk. An old adage says 'there is power in numbers.' Just as a seed will not grow unless it is put in fertile ground, being in a community does not replace a person's willpower, but becomes the condition for it bearing fruit. Giussani adds that "the most intelligent persecution is not [Nero's] ampitheatre of wild beasts or the concentration camp," but it is "the modern state's attempt to block the expression of the communital dimension of the religious phenomenon" (131).

The structure of the person and the world as a sign work together to point us towards the infinite, the Other, called God. Even when we are educated in freedom and are open to reality we are still paralyzed by our lack of willpower. When a person lives reality with even one other person it is as if he received not just two times the energy, but a thousand times. The communital phenomenon is so important that the Church says that man needs to live in society. Let us remember the words of Christ, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there also shall I be" (Matthew 18:20).


  • I feel like I'm learning again. I've been in college for 4 years with Philosophy as major and it feels so good reading your blog. Thank you..

    Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro

    By Blogger Khass, at 10:02 PM  

  • I'm an Italian teacher of religion. I'm tryng to explain The Religious Sense to my class, and I'm just arrived at this point, but I had a problem: I've got a student from New Zealand, and I have to try to explain both in English and in Italian. I was getting mad (my English isn't much fluent, as you can see). Well, God bless you!, you've solved my problem, thanks :)

    By Anonymous Leonardo Mucaria, at 3:43 AM  

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