Background: Before I dive into the review of The Religious Sense, it makes some sense to set the stage. As I mentioned in my first post, Fr. Giussani is tracing out a long path. This first book of his Trilogy focuses on the human experience. Fr. Giussani is convinced, much in the same way that St. Augustine suggests in his famous line, "Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in you," that our very humanity points the way to Christ. So in this work, Fr. Giussani focuses on what it is to be human and a recovery of a full sense of what is meant by reason (far broader than modern reductions to that which can be shown with the methods of science). In that way, until we reach the point of the Incarnation (something which will come when we look at At The Origin of the Christian Claim), the question of God will be approached in a very natural way. It may feel weird for a time, to speak of "Mystery", "Another", "the Infinite", but its purpose, again, is to recognize what is revealed by human experience -- and at this stage, prior to Revelation, particularly the event of the Incarnation and the encounter with Christ. So with that, let's look at Chapter 1.
The Need For Realism: In the first chapter of The Religious Sense, Fr. Giussani's emphasis is on the need for realism. Starting with a quote from the Nobel winner Alexis Carrel -- who said, in reference to science, that "few observations and much discussion are conducive to error: much observation and little discussion to the truth" -- Fr. Giussani argues that any serious inquiry into something requires realism:
"By realism I refer to the urgent necessity not to give a more important role to a scheme already in our minds, but rather to cultivate an entire, passionate, insistent ability to observe the real event, the fact."
This emphasis of the inquiry on observing the fact is further highlighted in a distinction that Fr. Giussani makes between knowing and thinking, inspired by a quotation of St. Augustine. For he says:
"To think something is an intellectual, ideal and imaginative activity regarding the object and often, in giving too much weight to thought, without even realizing it -- or, in reality, even justifying it -- we project what we think onto the fact."
Fr. Giussani begins with all of this because he insists that we look at the religious experience for what it is: a fact. It is seen throughout human history and in all cultures. And it provokes the question, "What is the meaning of everything?" I find this particularly provocative. Because how often is religion approached in a dismissive way, the researcher comes with the box under his arm into which he's predetermined that he will shove this phenomenon?
But if we are to approach it seriously, we are confronted with the following question: how? What method should we use? Fr. Giussani argues that realism requires that we use the method that the object of study imposes. He gives an example of a white object (a notebook) sitting on a table. If I were to catch it out of the corner of my eye and wonder what it is, to learn the answer, I cannot look to the back of the room or at another object. I must turn and examine this white item. The object itself suggests the method. And what method is implied by the fact of religious experience? Fr. Giussani says that the first thing we should recognize when we look at the religious experience is that it concerns the human person. As such, he argues, the method it demands is first and foremost existential inquiry (and then the results can be compared to the views of others on the matter). We will look more at this aspect in Chapter 2.
The Meaning of Experience: But mere examination is not experience. For Fr. Giussani, experience must also involve judgment. It involves "trying something", but does not stop there:
"What defines experience is understanding something, discovering its meaning. Thus experience implies understanding the meaning of things."
It is the difference between age and wisdom. One denotes that time has elapsed. The other indicates something has been learned over the course of time. Those wanting to learn more about what Fr. Giussani means by experience may want to consider this post below ("On The Importance of Experience").
The Need for a Criterion: But to reach a judgment we need a basis for judging, a criterion. So like for every other aspect of study, we must ask, Fr. Giussani says, with respect to the religious experience and its focus on the human person, "Where do we find the criterion that permits us to judge what we see happening in ourselves?" He posits two choices: a criterion from within ourselves or one from outside. Looking at the possibility of an outside criterion, Fr. Giussani argues that it would be alienating, having made this existential investigation, to ultimately have the meaning determined by something outside of us. This is quite provocative, but it is important to state that Fr. Giussani isn't arguing for relativism.
"[T]o state that this criterion is inherent within us is not to argue that we alone provide it. Rather, it is to assert that it is drawn from our nature, it is given to us as part of our very nature."
But if the criterion is something within us, what is it? Fr. Giussani argues that it is the "elementary experience" -- a set of original needs and evidences that we don't generate for ourselves but with which we inherently compare our experiences. He argues that this is precisely what the Bible dubs "the heart". This is one of the most difficult concepts of Fr. Giussani and worth spending some time on. First, how can a criterion be given? Well, consider a sick person. If he goes to a doctor and the doctor gives him a course of treatment to remedy his illness, the criterion for if that treatment works is if he gets better. If it doesn't, no level of insistence by the doctor that it should have worked or by the individual denying that it hasn't ("I'm fine, really, really...") is going to change the fact that the treatment didn't correspond to the illness. The criterion was given and either the treatment corresponds or it doesn't. Another classic example is that of someone wanting to buy a pair of well-fitting shoes. The criterion is given by the nature of his foot. One can squeeze and squeeze all you want, but either the shoe fits or it doesn't.
Giussani argues that our very humanity contains such things, what he refers to as the "elementary experience". He identifies some names for the needs. Truth. Justice. Happiness. I think this, if reflected on, become fairly recognizable. But there's another dimension -- the "evidences" -- that is not as immediately intuitive. Giussani argues that there are certain things that are so obvious that is foolish to question them. To make his point, he returns to the example of the white notebook and posits a hypothetical of three teachers (an idealist, a skeptic and a realist) looking at the question of what the notebook is. All three agree on the first observation: the notebook is outside of ourselves. But the idealist continues looking at the question by considering what if he didn't know the object, and argues that it would be as if it did not exist and thus the object's existence is dependent on man's knowledge of it. The skeptic continues by challenging the observation itself in a hyper-accentuated way: "prove to me irrefutably that it exists as an object outside of ourselves." The realist, however, he argues, recognizes the same primary evidence -- that the object is outside of ourselves -- and even would affirm that if he did not know the object it would be similar to as if it did not exist. But he affirms from that that knowledge comes then from the "encounter of human energy and a presence" and that further exploration is needed. I must admit I find the example a bit contrived and difficult to follow -- and Giussani admits as much that the example is ridiculous on some level -- but his point is this: which approach do you find corresponds? He argues that it is the approach of the realist, not because the other approaches don't have a degree of attractiveness, but because the realist's approach doesn't rely on a denial of a factor that our elementary experience recognizes: the white notebook exists independent and outside of ourselves.
The Problem of Subjectivism: Giussani fully recognizes the concern that can come from his proposal. Namely, that if we are to judge, using criterion generated from within, don't we risk
"subjectivizing everything to the point where the individual would have all the power to determine his ultimate meaning as well as any action directed toward it? Would this not be an exaltation of anarchy, understood as an idealization of man as the ultimate judge?"
Giussani argues that, in fact, this is a natural reaction. He sees anarchy and the religious man as the only two reactions that capture "entirely the grandeur of the human being". "By nature, man is relation to the infinite: on the one hand, the anarchist affirms himself to an infinite degree, while, on the other, the authentically religious man accepts the infinite as his meaning." Anarchy is appealing, but is leads to denial of an essential fact: man is made. He did not exist, then he is born, then he dies. The religious man is able to respond in acceptance of this fact. It is precisely the fact that the "elementary experience" is a common and an objective thing that gives us a basis to avoid slipping into anarchy.
"The need for goodness, justice, truth and happiness constitutes man's ultimate identity, the profound energy with which men in all ages and of all races approach everything, enabling them to an exchange of not only things, but also ideas, and transmit riches to each other over the distance of centuries. We are stirred as we read passages written thousands of years ago by ancient poets, and we sense that their works apply to the present in a way that our day-to-day relations do not. If there is an experience of human maturity, it is precisely this possibility of placing ourselves in the past, of approaching the past as if it were near, a part of ourselves. Why is this possible? Because this elementary experience, as we stated, is substantially the same in everyone, even if it will then be determined, translated and realized in very different ways -- so different, in fact, that they may seem opposed."
The Path to Liberation: This emphasis on comparing everything to our elementary experience, Fr. Giussani, argues becomes the path to liberation. For it frees us from just taking what the dominant culture says is the proper mentality. It gives us a path to react to what comes before us and reach judgment.
Next Time -- Chapter 2: The Need for Reasonableness.
Post Script: I know that that is a lot to digest and probably, for those being first exposed to this material, quite dense. First, stick with it. We will be exploring these themes in greater detail (and with more clarity) as we proceed. I'll try to recap and summarize as we go where that's helpful. This is material that needs to be examined and mulled over. Because what is being proposed is a method for facing reality. Thus, it's value can only come if we recognize the merits of the method through verification of what is said and then see what we can learn by actually employing the method. All that said, I think there are three or so key premises to consider from this first chapter: (1) the importance of facing reality as it is; (2) the fact that the method for discovering truth depends on what is being studied; and (3) the possibility that existential inquiry can reveal objective truths.