Tuesday, 27 March 2012

At The Origin Of The Christian Claim: Essay 1

These essays are based on excerpts from the second book of Giussani's trilogy, namely, "At The Origin Of The Christian Claim". In this book, he begins to explore and discuss the idea that is at the centre of the Christian faith: Who is Jesus Christ, and what does He mean to each one of us?

“For the believer, the word ‘God’, then, coincides with that ultimate, total meaning inherent in every aspect of life, that ‘something’ of which all things ultimately are made, to which all things finally tend, in which all things are fulfilled.  In short, it is what makes life ‘worthwhile,’ gives it ‘consistency,’ ‘endurance.’”

In recent times, the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheistic Movement”, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, have, through their books and public appearances, helped spread the ideas that form the basis for much of this movement, which, ironically, is the “evangelisation” of atheism. This raises the interesting question: What would a world without God be like?

To erase God from our minds, first we must wipe all trace of religion from the face of the earth. Where ever would we start?! This means no places of worship (there go some of the most beautiful structures that man has ever built); no Bibles, Qur’ans, Tanakhs or Gitas. No families praying the grace before meals, no Muslims performing the Fajr at the crack of dawn, no baptism for babies, no circumcision of 8-day old male infants. No pilgrimages to the Holy Land, no Hajj, no Christian burial for the dead, no scattering of the ashes on the Ganges; no Christmas! Admittedly, for those to whom these practices and objects hold no meaning, we haven’t done much. However, a world without religion means that we also lose some of our greatest art, most moving literature, and deepest music; this is enough to sting even the most ardent atheist. In fact, the more one thinks about it, the more one realises that the removal of every trace of religion from the world is a task that borders on the impossible. Religion is entrenched so deeply in the past and present, that human history makes no sense without it.
If we find ourselves starting to doubt the premise of this thought experiment, this is a good thing. Let us continue anyway. Say we wake up tomorrow in such a religion-free world (with no recollection of it ever having existed, of course). How long do you think it would take before we started talking about God again? Maybe it would help to look at when talk of Him came up in the first place.

No one really knows how old religion is (animism goes back as far as 60,000 years), but we can hazard a (more than) reasonable guess and say that it’s almost as old as we are; religion has probably existed since we first learnt to think. So in our religion-free world, it would maybe take a couple of weeks for some sort of organised thought about the subject to form, but eventually, someone would say something that would set off a spark, and the cycle of religious discovery would begin anew.
The real question then, appears not to be concerned with the nature of a world without God, but is in fact along the lines of, “Why has talk of Him survived in our world for so long?”

To answer this question, we need to understand what God represents to a believer; the lines that form the subject of this essay completely and eloquently address this:

“For the believer, the word ‘God’, then, coincides with that ultimate, total meaning inherent in every aspect of life, that ‘something’ of which all things ultimately are made, to which all things finally tend, in which all things are fulfilled.  In short, it is what makes life ‘worthwhile,’ gives it ‘consistency,’ ‘endurance.’”

That’s all one needs to know to answer the above question; indeed, it is hard to add anything to these lines without sounding redundant. So to a believer, God is not just as he is often defined, i.e. the most perfect being that our intellect can come up with; His most important quality is that He is the source of life.

As a concept, this is a bit of hard leap for an unbeliever. In the first place, not only is the believer claiming the existence of this “God”, but he is confessing Him to be the essence of all things. In an atheistic framework, a God hypothesis should only be used to explain things that science cannot, like the meaning of life (Giussani notes in the first book that it is reasonable to assume that science cannot, and should not, ever come to a position where it can claim to have found the answer to such questions), or at most, to give believers in Him some semblance of hope in an otherwise meaningless existence. But why would one change the hypothesis from Creator, or even Benefactor, to this Being-that-runs-through-the-fabric-of-everything-and-gives-it-meaning? To which the believer replies, “Because this is the only hypothesis that makes any sense to me!”

This harkens back to the first book in Giussani’s trilogy, and the nature of its subject, “The Religious Sense”. If God merely played the part of The First Cause who set the universe in motion, and has since been on a permanent vacation, why does the religious sense haunt us? On the other hand, how does a God who just “makes the rules and won’t have it any other way” make any sense in our experience? When we come across the religious sense in our lives, we encounter it as something terrifying but beautiful; and the deeper we get to know this experience that is inherently tangled in our very humanity, the more we realise just how overarching, far-reaching and expansive we need “the Answer” to our question to be. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to posit a God who is not only all-powerful, but who is concerned with me in the most intimate sense; indeed, this feature of His nature is what I care about most. God is then the very reason for my existence; the reason that I breathe, and move and am. This is also why I desire to do good things, though I know not whence this desire comes from.

When we realised, however, that God was in us, and that we must hence be inherently good, we made a great mistake: with our own power, we tried to wrest the good part of ourselves away from our sin. So in His infinite goodness, The Mystery had to become incarnate among us, to tell us, in “person”, that we weren’t going to be able to figure it out; we needed Him to save us from ourselves. Enter Jesus Christ. 

Friday, 9 March 2012

What Do We Mean By “Mathematical Genius”?

“The mathematician’s best work is art, a high perfect art, as daring as the most secret dreams of imagination, clear and limpid. Mathematical genius and artistic genius touch one another”
-Gosta Mittag-Leffler 

Consider Arthur Benjamin, a self-described “mathemagician” who can perform extremely complex computations in his head, (he has computed the square of a random 5 digit number to a live audience, for example). While such feats are certainly impressive to behold, most of us would feel slight misgivings attaching the word “genius” to Arthur Benjamin based only on his computational abilities1. What about Daniel Tammet, the gifted savant, who “intuitively ‘sees’ results of calculations as synesthetic landscapes without using conscious mental effort and can ‘sense’ whether a number is prime or composite”2? Among other amazing feats that demonstrated his mathematical and linguistic prowess, he has recited pi to 22,500 decimal places from memory3. We would be tempted to label such savants as mathematical genii were it not for this little snag: when we bestow someone the prestigious title of “genius” we usually require him to achieve an insight; a flash of inspiration born of a creativity that the rest of us don’t have access to. This is why someone who can perform ridiculous calculations in his head isn’t normally called a “genius”; on the flipside, this is also why most people have no trouble calling Einstein a genius.

So what makes a mathematical genius? It would appear that the answer to this question would have something to do with the ability to look at several disconnected bits of information, and having the insight to realise that they somehow all fit together; to see a connection where most of us see nothing. Let us consider an example4:
In a world where people have never heard of chairs, suppose they stumbled across a warehouse full of them, in every conceivable shape, size, colour and make. Most people would be content to just wander around looking at these “things”, entranced by the colours and strange shapes. Now suppose a genius walks into the warehouse; (to make this a little fun) let’s call him “Steve”. As Steve looks at the objects around him, he starts to notice similarities and differences between them, and the wheels in his head start turning. In a flash of insight, he realises that they are all made to sit on. He christens them “chairs”. Immediately, he is a step ahead of everyone else in the warehouse, because now he can not only distinguish between a chair and something that is not made to sit on, but with a little imagination (and some carpentry), he can make basic chairs of his own! More than that, armed with this newfound definition of his, Steve can now start classifying chairs based on several criterions. He may look around and start noticing the differences between barstools, recliners, armchairs, rocking chairs etc. and start segregating them in terms of size, say, or weight, or functionality. Pretty soon, he has moved into quite advanced territory. He can now look at the construction of these chairs, the materials that they are made of, the ergonomics; he is limited only by his imagination and ever-burgeoning knowledge. As he gets deeper into the subject (you would be surprised at how much there is to know about chairs!5), he gets closer and closer to the final frontier; the chair as art. In one sense, Steve has come full circle; the people in the warehouse were pretty blown away by the funny objects around them, just like a casual observer looking at a Rembrandt, but to Steve, just like to someone who has spent years studying art, the chair represents so much more (though I doubt that a chair has ever stirred such emotions in anyone). It is important to note that anyone would have eventually figured out what Steve did.  Given an infinite amount of time, anyone can figure out almost anything, but there is nothing commendable, or special, about that.

Here we can finally say what we mean by “mathematical genius”. A genius is someone who can derive connections, definitions even, from a relatively small sample space.  And just like Steve could build his own chairs once he figured out what they were for, a mathematical genius, from his now higher vantage point, can look down and provide new examples of objects that fit his definition that possibly weren’t even in his sample space to begin with; and it only gets better from there. Note that the mathematical genius often regards what he does as art; indeed, this is why the best math looks beautiful even to the untrained eye.

With this definition in hand, the logical next question is: how does one get to this heightened state? The long and short of it is that we don’t conclusively know how to make a genius; indeed, there isn’t even a current scientifically precise definition of the word6. The sobering truth is that the ages old “practice makes perfect” method is what we’re left with (for the most part). On the bright side however, there are principles of smart, focused practice that us 21st century people must adhere to if we are to scale the lofty heights of genius. David Shenk, in his bestselling book “The Genius in All of Us”, makes the compelling argument that we all have the ability to do extraordinary things in any field; it just takes an incredible amount of something he calls deliberate practice7, and just a little bit of luck.

Oftentimes, the words “mathematical genius” border on the mystic in our society. We speak of the mental prowess of Gauss, Euler and Archimedes in almost hushed voices, as though they possessed intellectual gifts that we could not dream of having. In one sense this is true; but the insights that science is gaining every day into the working of our minds, speak of different times to come. Changes in education systems, an ever-increasing literacy rate8, the spread of information technology and increased access to learning resources, mean that we are getting smarter with each passing generation9. It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to envision a world where ground-breaking discoveries are made every day across the wide spectrum of science, technology and even philosophy; this is our world today. If we continue progressing at this rate, there’s no telling where we might go as a race; what frontiers our minds may yet conquer. For now however, we must continue to look to the Giants of Mathematics for inspiration, guidance and strength.


1 I mean to take away nothing from this gentleman’s achievements. He is a distinguished professor who has won many awards, and currently teaches Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College [Source: Wikipedia]. He is also a great entertainer; I recommend watching his Ted talk.

2, 3 The quote, and information about the record was taken from his Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Tammet. He is a truly fascinating, gifted individual.

4 The idea for this example, and the subsequent definition that came from it, was the product of a long discussion with a mathematician and good friend, Stephen J. Cooper. He recently wrote the book “The Mathematical Foundations of the Universe”: http://www.amazon.ca/Mathematical-Foundations-Universe-Topological-Ontology/dp/0773415815

5 I was amazed at the depth of information on the subject. Check out the Wikipedia page on chairs, and this link for an article on the history of chairs (yes, people have actually studied this): http://www.randomhistory.com/2008/11/11_chair.html

6 “There is no scientifically precise definition of genius, and indeed the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate.” [Source: Wikipedia]

7 I highly recommend this book. Here is a well written article about “deliberate practice”: http://artofmanliness.com/2010/11/07/the-secret-of-great-men-deliberate-practice/

8 “The adult literacy rate increased by about 8 percentage points globally over the past 20 years – an increase of 6 percent for men and 10 percent for women. Progress was strong in Eastern and Southern Asia, which saw an increase of 15 percent. Western Asia’s increase was 11 percent, while Southeast Asia saw a 7 percent increase in adult literacy rates since 1990.” [Source: http://www.asianscientist.com/academia/international-literacy-day-september-8-2011-unesco-room-to-read/]

9 One manifestation of this is in “The Flynn Effect”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flynn_effect

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Religious Sense: Essay IV

“Complete self-fulfilment, this is freedom.  Freedom, for the human being, is the possibility, the capacity, the responsibility to be fulfilled, that is to say, to reach and confront one’s destiny: it is the total aspiration for destiny.  Thus freedom is the experience of the truth of ourselves.”

This beautiful excerpt from the text arrives as a breath of fresh air towards the end of an otherwise joyless chapter in Giussani’s book, namely, “Consequences of the Unreasonable Positions”. To be fair, the chapter was intended to be about the repercussions of irrational positions before the ultimate question; it was a chapter that needed to be written and Giussani outlines these repercussions in vivid detail. These are listed out as: a break with the past, incommunicativeness and solitude, and a loss of freedom. They are all just as dreary as they sound. However, I’d like to focus on the latter part of the chapter, which I thought was extremely thought-provoking.

He begins his paragraph entitled “Loss of Freedom” by pointing out that our perceptions of most things are shaped by the common mentality of the time. Words like love, fatherhood, obedience, freedom, all these acquire meaning that is “taken from a power”, as he puts it. So we must discard this definition of what it means to be free; we have seen in earlier chapters that it is no use trying to fit our experiences into another’s mould. Where then must we start? He provides the example of the girl who in spite of not expecting it was given permission to go out with her friends; she experiences a greater freedom then, than if she knew she was going to go out anyway. Freedom therefore, is the satisfaction of a desire. Now, he says, imagine experiencing this freedom not just on week-ends or while doing our own thing, but always, wouldn’t this be a good definition for freedom? This leads us into the excerpt that is the topic of this essay. This definition of freedom as being “the capacity to reach and confront our destinies” is probably one that should feel right to most of us; after all, thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) would not have died over the course of human history to defend the cheap thrill of fulfilling a desire. I use the word “cheap” here in the sense that Giussani does; the pleasure of doing what we want is only a means to an end, a pleasure that once fulfilled, fills us with disgust because it does not last. Then, circling back to the idea of freedom being a right that is granted by the state, he shows how that is also a flawed, misleading concept that reduces freedom to something that you had to be born into (as in the time of the Romans), as opposed to the noble concept of the right to achieve your full potential.

So where does this freedom, and our burning desire for it, come from? It cannot just be from the biological make-up of a man; this would lay waste to any attempts by us to define any of the words that we associate with our humanness; “freedom”, “rights”, the very word “person”. Thus we must assume that we are not just the fruit of the biology of our mother and father; we possess a direct relationship with the infinite, the source of all things. In not so many words, Giussani is laying the foundations for the argument for the existence of “the soul”. And when we look at things this way, it makes sense that the Church “in its tradition, defends the absolute value of the person, from the first instant of conception to the last moment of old age, however decrepit and useless the individual may be”. The Church is acknowledging the fact that we are not just the stuff we’re made of, we’re much more, and we know this because we feel it inside of us every time we try to put a finger on the meaning of the above words. Without the soul hypothesis, what basis do any of have for claiming to have rights? (As an aside, this is an excellent starting point into the “argument from morality” as proof for the existence of God.)

Then Giussani says the most beautiful thing I have heard in a long time, “Freedom is dependence on God.” What a lovely paradox to arrive at after all of our speculation on what freedom could be! In the same way that we are content with “receiving” our freedom from the state, when we accept that God is the source of our freedom, the natural response that we should have is to depend on him for everything! This is not slavery; this is a recognised, loving relationship with the One who moves all, who gives all. It is akin to the relationship that a small child has with his father. He depends on him for everything, but he does not see it as such. No, this dependence arises naturally, instinctively, because in the child knows that his father gives him everything. More than that, the child knows that his Dad’s primary concern is his happiness and well-being. In much the same way, if God is the source of our soul, isn’t it the most natural thing in the world to define freedom as dependence on Him?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Matthew 6:29-34
This verse from the Bible sums up what is probably the best part about dependence on God; your life is now not yours, it is His, and hence worry cannot come into the equation. And if there is no worry, then we can be truly free to be the best person that we can be every day, every instant, of our lives; for we are now not just living for ourselves, but for each other, and for Him. Then, “reaching and confronting our destiny” is not just a nice phrase, or wishful thinking, it is something we have been charged with. This is true freedom. This is the joy that only dependence on God can bring.

Monday, 5 March 2012

The Religious Sense: Essay III (The Argument from Desire)

“Only the existence of the mystery suits the structure of the human person, which is mendicity, insatiable begging, and what corresponds to him is neither he himself nor something he gives to himself, measures, or possesses.”

The “Argument from Desire”; this is the theme running through chapter five, which is titled, “The Nature of the Religious Sense”. Starting from chapter four, Giussani has been quietly building up to this, his first big argument for the religious sense, as it were. The following excerpt is from Wikipedia’s page on the subject:

“Expressed as a syllogism, the argument for desire can be stated as:
Major premise: All innate human desires have objects that exist. By "innate" we mean those desires that are universal. The desire for food, the desire for companionship, the desire to enjoy beauty are innate desires in this sense…We feel hunger; there is such a thing as eating. We feel sexual desire; there is such a thing as sex. It would be unlikely for a race of individuals to exist who reported feeling hungry yet but did not possess food, mouths nor stomachs. For every such innate desire in human experience (save one) we can identify the object.
Minor premise: There is a desire for "we know not what" whose object cannot be identified. We are never truly satisfied…The second premise aims to articulate and appeal to the concept of "longing" as expressed by the German term “Sehnsucht”
Conclusion: If the object of this desire does not exist in this world, it must exist in another.”
Many things can be said about that excerpt. First, consider the word “Sehnsucht”. In our human experience, we come across feelings that can almost in and of themselves be called religious; in my opinion, this “Sehnsucht”, this “longing in one’s heart for one knows not what”, is right up there, eclipsed perhaps only by that mystical experience that we refer to as “love”.  We see the essence of this feeling captured in Walt Whitman's closing lines to "Song of the Universal":

Is it a dream?
Nay but the lack of it the dream,
And failing it life's lore and wealth a dream
And all the world a dream.

We will return to this in a moment, for now, we turn to another aspect of the “argument from desire”: both the premises and the conclusion can be not just merely understood but “seen”, felt and experienced in a much more direct way than similar arguments for or against the religious experience. This why the argument is so appealing. This is also why Giussani chooses this argument as his starting point, and after reading his views on realism, reasonableness, and morality in the first four chapters, I can’t help but agree with him. Let me explain why.

For the moment, let us cast aside the fact that neither this, nor any of the arguments for, or against, God, has ever been proven (or disproven). Now imagine that one day, someone finally manages to construct a bullet-proof argument for God, one that establishes once and for all that He’s out there. What we want this argument to read like? Personally, I find religious debates interesting only to the point where I can internalise them and make sense of them in my daily experience; analogously, I would have trouble accepting any argument that didn’t strike me to the heart, that didn’t resonate with every fibre of my being, that didn’t move me. If we managed to reduce the unknowable, the unfathomable mystery that has haunted us since the beginning of time to a bunch of words on page, then we would be, as Giussani observes, “finished as race, with nothing left to do but kill ourselves.” It is here in the book that the idea that has been lurking in the background of all the arguments he has made thus far, finally comes to forefront. The argument is simple; the religious sense is an experience that we’re after, not some perfect proof that’s waiting to be discovered. So for me, the vivid picture that he paints of man as a beggar makes sense because it’s something I can relate to, it’s an experience that I’ve had. Maybe an illustration will help.

Recently, while listening to a beautiful song (Giussani mentions in a later chapter, “The greater the art, the more it flings wide open, does not confine desire. It is a sign of something else.”) by the Australian band “Youth Group” entitled “Forever Young”, I closed my eyes, and really tried to be transported by the music. The song is about the transience of youth, and the sorrow of growing older. As I listened to the words, I found myself reminiscing about the years gone by, the friends I hadn’t seen in ages, the moments I’d shared with loved ones, the amazing experiences that life had sent my way. The good times and the bad; the ecstasy of being in love, the pain of having my heart ripped out of my chest, the joy of reaping the fruits of my hard labour, the crushing feeling that came with knowing that there were some dreams that were never going to be mine. The impermanence of everything that I had ever done, or ever would do, dawned on me. Through it all, I found that a profound feeling of sadness was ever-present, almost overwhelming But it was a sadness tinged with hope. As the song says,

“Can you imagine when this race is run,
Turn our golden faces into the sun…”

I wanted to go home. I yearned for another place, another time, another world, and the sadness came from knowing that I wasn’t going there for a while. Long after the last strains of the music had faded, the emotions that it had stirred within me remained, and I found myself asking, begging for more. I never wanted that feeling to end; it was beautiful pain, and if that was the only way that I could feel connected to my true home, whatever or wherever that may be, then I wanted to feel that pain again.

So does the “Argument from Desire” have its flaws? Sure, but in a weird way that seems to be the point. Logic can be cold and distant sometimes, but this; this is something organic, something that we can all relate to. Giussani points out that anyone who claims to have never had a religious experience is, in not so many words, lying, and I agree. We’ve all been moved by art, be it music, literature or paintings, and the greatest art that mankind has ever produced is the kind that seems to be reaching out to something higher, something that it is aware it will never attain, but it tries nonetheless. We are pained by true beauty because it its ever-reaching nature resonates with us and reminds us of ourselves. We feel in our hearts that we are not made for this world, so isn’t it therefore “rational” to consider the existence of the religious sense, of the great mystery?

 “In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like “Nostalgia” and “Romanticism” and “Adolescence”; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. But all this is a cheat…These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
- C.S. Lewis

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Religious Sense: Essay II

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 pardon, nor anger, nor patience.  Within every single gesture lies a step toward our own destiny.”

"This force, which is the best thing in you, your highest self, will never respond to any ordinary half-hearted call, or any milk-and-water endeavor, it can only be reached by your supremest call, your supremest effort. It will respond only to the call that is backed up by the whole of you, not part of you; you must be all there in what you are trying to do. You must bring every particle of your energy, unanswerable resolution, your best efforts, your persistent industry to your task, or the best will not come out of you. You must back up your ambition by your whole nature, by unbounded enthusiasm and a determination to win which knows no failure... Only a masterly call, a masterly will, a supreme effort, intense and persistent application, can unlock the door to your inner treasure and release your highest powers." - Orison Swett Marden

Commitment. This is the challenge that Giussani lays down before us. In our search for the religious sense, surely commitment is one of the most important attributes that we must possess. And not just the commitment to finding the answers to life’s big questions, but the commitment to living out every minute with the awareness that an existential inquiry into the religious sense requires. This seems like a pretty obvious, reasonable thing to expect from someone on such a mission, but Giussani is not one to bandy words about. Maybe putting it in the context of the chapter and the book might help us better understand his motives for making such a statement.

This chapter, the fourth in the book is entitled “The Religious Sense: The Starting Point”, and it follows the first three chapters entitled “Realism”, “Reasonableness” and “The Impact of Morality” respectively. In the first three chapters, Giussani sets out to define the main tools with which a man should explore the world around him. Quoting directly from the book, “Realism…(determines that) the method by which something is approached is determined largely by the object, and is not imagined at the subjects will…”.“Reasonableness” shifted focus to the subject and his reasoning faculties, and the question of rationality. The third chapter is best summarised by the moral rule, which Giussani states as: “Love the truth of an object more than your attachments to the opinions you have already formed about it”. This completed the discussion of the initial premises. In the fourth chapter, we have our first direct brush with "the religious sense”, as it were.

The starting point is to recognise that the religious experience is just that: an experience. Hence, we must begin with ourselves in order to take in all of its essential aspects.  But what exactly does “begin with ourselves” mean? We must not fall into the trap of trying to define ourselves with our own self-images and preconceptions, which may be abstract, and “slightly” biased. Instead, we must observe ourselves in action vis-à-vis the first, second and third premises; becoming the subject and the object, fully taking in who we are from our individual daily experiences, while calling into action our reason and moral sense. This has serious implications though, he points out. Someone who claims to have never felt God is not operating using his reason; the question of God cannot be swept aside so lightly. In contrast, the man who has had no commitment to the religious dimension of his life is right in saying that it does not affect him, because after a certain point of non-involvement, it is as though it never existed for him at all. In other words, there is no middle ground when it comes to finding the truth. This brings us finally, to the paragraph in which he places the sentences that we started with. It is titled “Involvement with Life”, and he opens it with a beautiful sentence, “…the more one is involved with life, the more one also, even within a single experience, comes to know the very factors of life itself”. In today’s world, this is a message that needs to be proclaimed from the rooftops.

They say change is the only constant. I think noise should be on that list too. It is ever present, and does nothing but fill us with emptiness. We read and talk and watch and listen, but still don’t know enough. We have social media that is supposed to bring us together, yet we seem to be missing out on the human experience in a big way. How can we possibly get in touch with our inner selves in the chaos that we have allowed our days to become? Our lives are passing us by, and we’re letting the most important things slip through our fingers. There’s a quote from the movie “Fight Club” that says it best, “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” 

Giussani’s message is simple. We need to watch us, to know us; to have any hope of finding the truth from the inside out. We need to be involved actively in our own lives for them to have any meaning, for us to be able to “give a ‘ten performance’”. Giussani makes it clear that discovering the meaning of life is a goal which is possible only for the individual who is involved with life seriously. This comes with a warning though. Maybe two. As humans, we have a tendency to get caught up in the minutia; becoming “overinvolved” in certain aspects, while missing out on the big picture. That sort of partial focus will drive anyone insane. Second, when Giusanni says “everything”, he means everything. If the religious sense is a fundamental experience, then it must permeate every sphere of our lives. We must commit all, and exclude nothing, if we have to discover it in its entirety. And this makes sense if you look at the flipside. If the religious sense only added and gave meaning to some areas of our lives, but didn’t completely extend to others, what sort of all-encompassing truth would that be?

So this is the balancing act we have to commit to. We must be aware of our complete daily experience in all its complexity, and from it, to try and find answers to the kind of questions that an inquiry into the religious sense poses. It is a difficult task to be sure, but what more important task could a man have than to live his life to its fullest, striving for a higher purpose at every moment? “Know thyself” said the ancient Greeks. Thousands of years later, Giussani echoes their words, urging us onwards to a life bursting with meaning and promise.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Religious Sense: Essay I

I'm currently enrolled in the first year seminar called "Christianity: A Religion?", here at UofT. We meet once a week to discuss the first two books of Luigi Giussani's [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luigi_Giussani] acclaimed trilogy on Christianity. The first of these books deals with the phenomenon he refers to as "The Religious Sense"; this is also the title of the book. He argues, beautifully, if I may add, that the religious sense is something that haunts each one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. I highly recommend this trilogy to anyone who is interested in reading an intellectual discussion about the phenomenon that is Christianity. A word of advice though: Giussani's books are heavy. Initially, I had to take my time to digest the ideas that he presented for them to make sense. I slowly found that as I got more familiar with his thought process, the reading becomes an enjoyable exercise in self-reflection. 
As part of the course, we are required to write eight essays, and here I present to you the first one that I wrote. The excerpt that the essay is based on is from the first book. I hope you have as much fun reading this as I had writing it.

“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.  The sane man, instead, wants to know the fact, to know what it is, and only then can he also think it.”

In the year 1925, modern quantum mechanics was born when Heisenberg and Schrodinger formulated the underlying mathematics and mechanics that would change our view of the universe. It is a bizarre branch of physics that has ludicrously strange consequences if one if willing to “open one’s mind”. This experiment, described in Amit Goswami’s book, “God Is Not Dead” (pages 103-104), will probably shed some light on what the mind might have to do with quantum mechanics:

In 1993, a physicist/parapsychologist by the name of Helmut Schmidt carried out an ingenious experiment to confirm the concept of “delayed choice”, which is one of the aforementioned strange consequences of quantum mechanics. [In essence, what it states is that, “nothing exists until a consciousness observes it”. This succinct definition hardly does justice to the complexity involved in such an interaction, but it should suffice for the purpose of describing this experiment.]

“…Schmidt used the decay of a radioactive element to generate a random sequence of numbers using a computer. These number sequences were then recorded on floppy discs. All this was carried out unseen by human eyes, months ahead of time that the psychics (conscious observers) came into the experiment. The computer even made a printout of these number sequences and with such utmost care that no observer so it, the printout was sealed and sent to an independent researcher, who left the seals intact. A few months later, the independent researcher instructed the psychics to try and influence the random numbers generated in a specific direction, to produce either more zeroes or ones. The psychics tried to influence the numbers in the direction proposed by the independent researcher. Only after they had completed this stage did the independent researcher open the sealed envelope to check the printout to see if there was a deviation in the direction instructed. A statistically significant difference was found.  Somehow the psychics were able to influence even a macroscopic printout of data that, according to conventional wisdom, had been taken months ago. The conclusion is inescapable. “There ain’t nothing till an observer sees it”. All objects remain in possibility, even macroscopic objects, until consciousness chooses from the possibilities and an event of collapse occurs. Then it all manifests, even retroactively (backwards in time)...”

In the two short sentences that this essay analyses, Giussani has alluded to a truth that is a fundamental property of the universe itself. Our thoughts have powerful consequences on the things that we think about, and beyond. In thinking (of) something, we “attach weight to it” on a level that even science does not fully understand. Let us dig a little deeper.

These sentences appear on just the second page of the book. Why?                                                     
In these initial paragraphs of his trilogy, Giussani is establishing a framework with which we will explore the “big questions”, and the nature of human thought is not something that most people consider when they first approach these questions. He feels that it is important for his readers to understand that most of the time, when we are engaged in the discussion or contemplation of ideas that have religious implications, we are carrying a lot of baggage that may not be conducive to the success of our endeavours. We are influenced by all that we have seen, read, and experienced, and there is no dearth of opinions in the world around us. The question of the religious sense is one that has tormented humanity for millennia, and it would seem that all that can be said about it has been said a thousand times over. There are countless writings from countless philosophers, dissecting the question “What is the meaning of everything?” from every conceivable angle. However, Giussani argues that for a religious sense to have any meaning for each of us, we cannot look for answers in another’s findings. The road that we must take is the one that only we can take. This path is unique to every individual, and this is where we must begin our examination of the religious sense. This angle, this worldview that each of us has, doesn’t have to be a completely neutral one; Giussani recognises that this is an impossible asking. We are the sum total of our ideologies and experiences, so how can we expect to separate our inquiry into such fundamental questions from the very things that make us who we are? In between trying to let go of our own predispositions regarding the religious sense, we must also not forget that the object, to a large extent, decides how we are to regard it, research it, understand it. To balance this out, Guissani proposes what he calls an existential inquiry for exploring the world around us. He says it beautifully, “…Since we are dealing with something that occurs within me, that has to do with my conscience, my “I” as a person, it is on myself that I must reflect; I must inquire into myself…” On Wikipedia, the following sentences can be found on “Existentialism and Christianity”:

“An existentialist reading of the Bible would demand that the reader recognize that he is an existing subject studying the words more as a recollection of possible events. This is in contrast to looking at a collection of "truths" which are outside and unrelated to the reader, but may develop a sense of reality/God. Such a reader is not obligated to follow the commandments as if an external agent is forcing them upon him, but as though they are inside him and guiding him from inside. This is the task Kierkegaard (the father of existentialism) takes up when he asks: “Who has the more difficult task: the teacher who lectures on earnest things a meteor's distance from everyday life-or the learner who should put it to use?” From an existentialist perspective, the Bible would not become an authority in an individual's life until that individual authorizes the Bible to be such.”
This passage stirred within me the feeling that this was a truth that I had always known, but somehow forgotten. That somehow, inside of each one of us, are all the tools we will ever need to answer the questions that give meaning to our lives. We just need to begin our quest armed with new paradigms of realism, reasonableness and morality (the first three chapters respectively). It is pleasing to note that an existential inquiry is perfectly compatible with Christianity right at the outset, which is exactly how it should be. However, the existential inquiry requires of us to cast aside our predispositions (even toward and for, Christianity) and regard the religious sense with a fresh perspective, keeping an open mind, while constantly looking inwards for reassurance that we are on the right track. And so begins our individual journeys. I eagerly wait to see where mine takes me.