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I do not want to call this a review of Luigi Giussani’s trilogy (The Religious Sense, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, and Why the Church?), because the term “review” seems to imply some kind of comprehensiveness. There is a lot to say about these books, and I am not even going to pretend to do them justice. What I will do, though, is relay some of my impressions from them, particularly those that struck me, challenged me, and reoriented my thinking. I will begin at the beginning, with The Religious Sense.

For those unfamiliar with the book, The Religious Sense deals with the innate human search for spiritual truth; at this point in the book, Giussani does not so much deal with specific theologies and religions as with what he conceives of as a drive, in all humans, to discover their destinies as humans. For Giussani, the world – existence itself – is a large riddle that humans have been left with, and it is in our hearts to decipher it. Even as I describe this I can think of two points that many of my secular colleagues would raise about this, and I want to deal with them briefly, as I don’t think they should be insurmountable barriers to appreciating this book.

First, a discussion of destinies – ultimate happiness, final truth, and all that – sticks a bit in our postmodern throats. Didn’t we leave all that behind with our abandonment of metaphysics and metanarrative? Can we actually use the word destiny seriously without evoking a cheap knock-off adventure movie with a title like “H. Ford and the Stone of Destiny”? To suggest an answer to the first question, I would say that we tried, but weren’t quite successful. We tried, allegedly because we outgrew these things as humans, but in fact because people without a metanarrative are remarkably pliable and easy to manipulate socially and economically. It is a political disaster when people start taking stories seriously, as if they might actually matter in real life; people might actually start thinking for themselves, and so it is always safer to stick with the wonderful liberal lie that poetry makes nothing happen – and if the readers believe it, nothing will happen. So, yes, there has been the suggestion that we are moving away from metaphysics and metanarrative, but it seems to me hardly a settled matter, and perhaps it is in fact a propaganda that pairs well with the convenience of nation states in helping people forget they have free will.

Second, many of my colleagues will worry about problems with positing anything innately human, including a common religious sense. On the more extreme end are the post-humanists, who believe that the idea of the human itself is completely a social invention; more moderately, there are those – say from a postcolonial perspective – who worry that speaking about something innately human in fact leaves out various cultures because those humans taken as models of typical humanity are racially and socially inflected such that humanism reifies culturally specific particulars rather than universals. To the post-humanists, I can’t say much, and in some ways I mean this very literally – what can we say to each other? – everything we think we have in common (even language) must be illusory and arbitrary. It is hard to talk to someone person to person when we begin by denying the hypothesis of persons. A face to face conversation is hard when there are no faces.

I am though more sympathetic to the post-colonial side of things, and I do think Giussani is particularly adept in this regard, and this can be seen through comparison to an author such as Chesterton. My own read on Chesterton follows that of Ralph Wood (The Nightmare Goodness of God), who argues that there are some problems in Chesterton – that in fact demand a critique via nouvelle theologie – and also some wonderful and necessary truths, which can be better appreciated once we have addressed the problems. And one of these problems I think is that, when Chesterton talks about the common man, or the common Christian, he is usually using a fairly narrow rubric for gauging this – he is in fact very often talking about a man (rather than a woman), and this man is very often quite British (though with some beautiful exceptions, like the childlike monastic hero of The Ball and The Cross). There is of course nothing wrong with appreciating either the British or men (though I personally often have trouble appreciating the latter), but when Chesterton speaks in his aphoristic way, the effect can seem totalizing – the only way to be a Christian is to be a British or at least Anglophilic male. This in turn makes things problematic when one wants to consider being a Christian when one is of other another culture, a woman, or a man whose masculinity does not always quite resonate with a Chestertonian spirit of warlikeness.

Here particularly is where Giussani’s approach shows its strength, for one of his prime emphases is experience. For Giussani, all our experience – all the things that have shaped our understanding of realiy, our emotions, our passion, our reason etc. – must be brought into play when looking for our destinies. The point for Giussani is achieving the greatest possible honesty when it comes to experience – to look it in the face, so to speak, and not cut corners in anything. A less confident apologist would probably omit this emphasis as a dangerous cipher that could blow up in one’s face at any moment – after all, what if one encourages others to engage their experiences only to find that these experiences lead these others elsewhere? I think Giussani might answer this in a twofold way, first that if we do not trust our faith to stand up to the measure of our experiences as humans, we probably do not in fact trust our faith. Second, he insists often on the role of free will – God will never impress himself so totally on a person that that person cannot choose otherwise, and so simply turning a person on to experience is not a mechanical guarantee of making that person a Christian.

To return to the main point, though, this emphasis on the discovery of what it means to be human by experience rather than by preset assumptions makes Giussani’s approach much more amenable for any culture or sex than Chesterton’s approach. We do not come in from a place of Archimedean detachment and just displace a culture’s understanding of humanity with our own. No, we listen to where that culture is also catching glimpses of what it means to be human and begin there.

Most surprising for me though was the way this applies to one’s own self. I am a historicist-type, particularly annoyed with most modern things, and particularly annoyed with myself for being one of these modern things. I do not care very much if something is relevant to me – when the modern “me” is so undeniably shallow, what can be the use of catering to it?  It is a bit like translating the gospel into a language called “Stupid.” This is perhaps exaggeration, but you will get the point – I am one of those who think that instead of speaking in simple ways that a person with a lobotomy can understand, we should maybe stop lobotomizing people. And so I find most of my kinship in the past, or with those who love old things, or at the very least embody old values.

But Giussani insists that I do the opposite. Rather than situating my heart in a distant historical time capsule and vacating the present as far as possible, my duty must always be to the present, and must begin with my immediate experience. Giussani does not of course say that it should stop there, but the way he begins here is remarkably different from the way I begin – I fancy a historicism that will squelch the modern self. Giussani, I will here add, is right where I am wrong, because what he is saying is more in accord with the Christian vision of incarnation – we always deal first with what our eyes see and our hands touch rather than some distant idea or concept. Not that such ideas or concepts are for Giussani innately bad, but it is our business to begin with experience – understood in the broadest possible sense – and build bridges toward such prospective answers. In Giussani’s read, the most sensible of these prospective answers to build toward is Christ and His Church. But that must await my discussion of the second and third books.