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. 

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