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

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