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.

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