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 [] 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.

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