Recap: We have finally worked our way through the three premises -- realism, reasonableness and the need for a love of truth more than yourself -- that Fr. Giussani finds critical to understanding any element of human experience. Fr. Giussani summarizes this all by saying, "one must be open to the demands imposed by the question [the thing being studied] itself."
Intro: Now we will begin to look at the phenomenon of religious experience, or the "religious sense", as Fr. Giussani likes to refer to it. This chapter presents us an introductory look at this phenomenon.
How to Proceed: The first question that Fr. Giussani asks is how do we begin to take a look at the religious experience. As we talked about in earlier chapters, Fr. Giussani identifies the religious experience as one about the human person, and thus requiring existential inquiry. (The method is determined by the object.) So we must look at our own experience, in all its factors, and see it for what it is.
But what does it mean to start "with ourselves"? Who is me? And how do I avoid defining "me" as some mere abstract thing, that falls short of all of who I am? Fr. Giussani suggests that it is by examining ourselves in action, by looking at our experiences. So to start with ourselves is to
"observe one's own movements ... within his or her daily experience. Hence the 'material' of our starting point will not be any sort of preconception about or artificial image of oneself, or even a definition of oneself, perhaps borrowed from current ideas and the dominant ideology.
Involvement With Life: But this suggests that involvement with life is necessary to discovering its factors.
"Life, then, is a series of problems, its fabric made up of reactions to encounters that are provocative to a greater or lesser extent. Discovering the meaning of life -- or the most pertinent and important things in life -- is a goal which is possible only for the individual who is involved with life seriously, its events, encounters, and problems."
But by this Fr. Giussani doesn't mean to become obsessed with the study of religion:
"Rather, one must live one's engagement with life's various facets as a consequence of a global involvement with life itself. Otherwise, one's engagemetns risk being partial, without equilibrium, existence possibly becoming a fixation or an hysteria. To paraphrase a saying of Chesterton, 'Error is a truth gone mad.' ... In order for us to be able to discover within ourselves the existence and nature of such a crucial and decisive a factor as the religious sense, we must commit ourselves to our whole life. This includes everything -- love, study, politics, money, even food and rest, excluding nothing, neither friendship, nor hope, nor pardon, nor anger, nor patience. Within every gesture lies a step towards our own destiny."
It is worth pausing here for a moment. Some might think of this as a bit of a cop-out, a proverbial, to figure out religion you have to become religious. But if you consider your own experience, I think you can begin to see the essence of what Fr. Giussani is saying. How many of us have wanted to master something (e.g., playing guitar, painting), dreamed of it, but committed none of our actual energy to the hard work of learning the skill? If we are honest, we should admit to not being surprised that it remains a dream and hasn't become something real. The same goes for religion. For example, I remember a friend from law school who could quote you more passages of the bible than the most fervent of street preachers. But in his entire study of the bible, he refused to be open to the possibility that there was something for his life in there. So his quoting of scripture was just the uttering of words, meaningless ones to him, even less so than his quotations of great literature, because in those he at least found something of value. I was often amazed by what he knew, and yet shocked by his incredible lack of understanding.
This is what I think Fr. Giussani is getting at. The person who approaches the big questions of life seriously, lives seriously in that way, is the person prepared to examine the religious sense with some awareness and ability to learn the meaning of things. And it requires a serious living of all the dimensions of life, because the religious sense, fundamentally, involves the questions of the meaning of it all.
Aspects Of the Involvement: So what does this involvement with life look like? Fr. Giussani next explores some of its manifestations.
First, he looks at tradition. As Fr. Giussani notes, "this essential component of our existence is normally overlooked, forgotten, at least on a conscious level, and its value is even denigrated and disfigured." But tradition is important to the religious experience, because religion -- at its fundamental level and its involvement with the nature of being human -- "unifies the past, present and future."
So what is tradition? Fr. Giussani argues that it is "that complex endowment with which nature arms us". We each are born into a family, a community, an environment. We've been given something, which we face the reality that is before us. It is natural to the human experience. Now, for many, tradition is a swear word, because they conceive of it, as Fr. Giussani says, as a "fossil" that imprisons us. No, instead, he argues that we possess tradition precisely "to develop it, even to the point of profoundly changing it."
"But in order to transform it, we must first of all act 'with' what has been given to us; we must use it."
This is a point I think many people fail to recognize. How many dismiss tradition without ever examining it? Fr. Giussani argues that such a behavior reflects a fundamental disorder in how one is approaching life and will reveal itself in other areas of one's life. Set aside "religious tradition" for a moment. Just think of what things from your own family life and tradition you might have thrown to the side without looking at its merit, maybe to later in life discover something of value in what you cast aside.
To this Fr. Giussani says, use tradition. But use it critically. Compare it to that "elementary experience" we spoke of before and see if you can verify in experience what the tradition asserts.
"Using tradition critically doesn't mean doubting its value. ... Rather, it means using this incredibly rich working hypothesis by filtering it through this critical principle which is inherent within us: the elementary experience."
Tradition is not something to replace the work of living; it is given as a guide, but one we must verify.
Second, Fr. Giussani examines "the value of the present". He argues that this must be the starting point.
"In order to deepen our outlook of the past -- whether it be the near or distant past -- from which point do we start? From the present. In order to venture into risky visions of the future, what is the starting point? The present. ... [W]hen you look at [the present], it appears so full and brimming with all that has proceeded us! In the measure in which I am myself, I am replete with all that has preceded me. ... The more that one is a person -- a human -- the more he embraces and lives in the present instant all that has preceded and surrounds that instant."
We will examine more this question of presence, the present, in future chapters. But the key point, I think, at this stage is that Fr. Giussani suggests that to figure out what is the elemental nature of the religious sense, we must begin from the present. The risk, in his eyes, of doing it the other way -- studying the past and then looking at the present -- is that we might construct "a 'present' image of the past itself, and [run] the risk of identifying the past with a conception fabricated in the present."
A Double Reality: Fr. Giussani suggests that one of the first things you learn from reflecting on your experience is that there are two types of reality: the measurable and the immeasurable.
The measurable are things that can be described quantitatively and can be broken into its parts and components. Materiality.
But there are also immeasurable and immutable things in our experience, such as "idea, judgment and decision". As Fr. Giussani explores, saying, "he is good", or "this is a piece of paper", or "I am fond of this person", are things that do not change (on their own) with time or measure. The judgment endures. (It may be wrong (e.g., it may not be true that it is a piece of paper), but it endures, nonetheless.) And they are impossible to really divide and break down.
The point of all of that is to recognize that both aspects are part of the experience of our "I". And we shouldn't reduce our experience to one or the other of these two realities.
Corrollary: Fr. Giussani takes this to a spot that might leave you uncomfortable at first. He argues that these two realities give us an indication that the "I" transcends death. Death, Fr. Giussani, notes, is primarily identified with corruption and de-composition. But if there is a reality within me, my "I", that is "not divisible, not measurable," then death is not wholly applicable to my "I". Fr. Giussani suggests that the reason that this is not more obvious to most of us is not because it isn't true, but that we suffer from a tendency to "reduce the totality of our lives to what can be visibly and materially experienced."
The Materialistic Reduction: In fact, Fr. Giussani considers this "materialist objection" important enough to devote a whole section to examining it. He argues, that the materialist view point takes a look at human life and sees how in its earliest development there is not much that distinguishes itself from the animal. It further posits that all that we later identify as differentiating the human from the animal (spiritual from the material) as being nothing more than a label we apply to it. It all has the same source: the material.
Fr. Giussani objects to this on two bases. First, he argues, it is a reduction presented as an explanation. It fails to account for both the measurable and immeasurable aspects of our experience. Instead, it defines away the difference between those two facets so as to not have to explain the existence of both. Second, Fr. Giussani argues, is that it is based on a methodological error. The materialist looks to the past, and failing to see clear evidence of both factors, it then proceeds to say that the present, with its experience of both factors, must be a lie. But it doesn't consider an alternative, that the immeasurable (the spiritual) might require a certain level of development of the measurable (the material) for it to be visible. "What a man is can only be apparent in an actual mature development of the factors which constitute him." Fr. Giussani gives the example of the seed and the tree. It is only in the study of the tree that we truly come to know what the seed is.
All of this may seem like a bit of a tangent from our examination of the religious experience. But I think Fr. Giussani is trying to prepare us to recognize some temptations that we will likely face as we explore the religious sense. Religion is fundamentally the search for an answer to the meaning of everything and it will be very tempting to find an answer that comforts us, that we can get our hands around. But Fr. Giussani wants to warn us not to settle for something less than an explanation that embraces the totality of the factors of our experience. Let us not make the materialist's mistake. Let us not deny the existence of a factor of our experience, reducing our experience to something less than it is, so as to fit some ready-made explanation. Let us not start with the past, and assume that the failure to recognize something there of our present experience as a reason for denying the fullness of our present experience. Like the seed becoming the tree, somethings will only become apparent after we have truly involved ourselves with living and let things develop.
Next time: Chapter 5 - The Religious Sense, Its Nature.
Post Script: We have only begun to dip our toe into the water of exploring the religious experience. But I think there are some important lessons to take from this chapter, nonetheless: (1) given that religion is a human experience, it demands existential inquiry; (2) to make any progress in our existential inquiry, there must be a seriousness to the way we live life; (3) a reflection on our experience reveals that it has two facets, the measurable and the immeasurable; and (4) the explanation that we seek must account for all of the factors of our experience. Now that we have felt the temperature of the water and have let our body adjust to it a bit, next time we will jump into the pool.