I would like to begin with a story. I was at the campus of Notre Dame University; it is a campus I have learned particularly to appreciate after finding medievalist friends there at the Kalamazoo Congress of Medieval Studies, and I tend to visit yearly after the Congress. This past year I had a very interesting conversation with someone involved in the Communion and Liberation group there. The conversation began commonly enough, with a discussion of why on earth Dante keeps bothering about politics when he finds himself surrounded by the Empyrean of heaven. But very soon the conversation got a little personal. It got personal because it suddenly became not just about Dante, but about what we might make of the material world and our experiences in it. And suddenly I found myself in the position of having a cradle Catholic telling me I needed to account for experience in my faith.
This was rather shocking. It was shocking, not because I had not considered experience, but because I had considered altogether too much of it back in my days of being an Evangelical. You see, it is very hard suffering or being depressed as an Evangelical, or even as someone deeply trained in Evangelical tradition, because one feels compelled to have a particular kind of joyful experience that often does not exist for depressed people. It was a mandate I felt to a point of misery – with the expectation of a certain kind of experience that must be had, I was extremely reluctant to believe the Evangelical claim that their conception of faith was “not by works.” Technically speaking, it might be so, but what came to be defined as faith in the place of so-called works was an indeterminate burden far more despair-inducing than the most severe pilgrimage or asceticism. In my movement toward a high-church spirituality, I had come to appreciate the movement away from this particular kind of experientially tyrannical spirituality. So you can imagine my surprise, dismay, and suspicion, when I came across someone – from a Catholic tradition in which I had begun to find solace from such demands – suddenly telling me I should pay attention to my experience.
But there was also something right about what he was suggesting; maybe it was time, after a space of refuge, to begin to open up the experiential side of my spirituality I had so dexterously welded shut. And this of course led me to a summer of reading Luigi Giussani, and, confused, lost, miserable and alone though I otherwise feel in my current no-man’s-land of spirituality, I do think my summer reading has given me particular insight into what Giussani and the Popes influenced by him might be up to, and how it in fact differs from a Protestant language of personal experience.
Basically, it comes down to this: Evangelical tradition, at least as I experienced it, had much to say about personal experience, but it didn’t really have the philosophical chops to define in more than a simplistic way what a person might be or, for that matter, what an experience might be. Put another way, I’m fairly certain that if one were to ask both Thomas Aquinas and a modern Evangelical if they believed that the heart of Christianity is a personal relationship with Christ, both would say yes. The difference is that, where the Evangelical would assume that what is meant by a “personal relationship” is something intuitive that we know by “common sense,” Thomas would preface his affirmation with three books or so defining “person” and “relationship” via an intricate interweaving of Biblical, ecclesial, and Aristotelian texts. It might even be the case that the definitions used by the Evangelical and Thomas are not mutually exclusive; if they were not contradictory, Thomas’s might include the Evangelical definition but go much deeper in a way that an Evangelical “common sense” might not. And I kind of feel like this is what happens with Giussani’s use of the word “experience.”
There is no denying that Giussani speaks a language easily accessible to Protestants and perhaps particularly Evangelicals, but when he speaks of experience it is not in quite the same way Evangelicals do when they talk about experiential faith. For the Evangelical, the spiritual experience is usually set apart in some way from the rest of the world – it is ideally the peak-experience that reorients everything else. But in Giussani, there is no set-apart experience; the experience comes always and everywhere through everything else. Of course the immediate Protestant response to this might be a fear that such experience – not carefully cordoned off from the world of regular experience – might lead to an idolatry of this “everything else.” But Giussani avoids this by insisting that, while we should never bury or ignore particular experiences, we should not take them uncritically either – engaging experiences via reason (shaped by various other things and people we trust) is paramount in determining the appropriate response to a particular experience. In fact, such critical engagement is the moment when we most feel the gift of free will that God has given us; we are not bound to respond reflexively to experiences, but can reflect and choose.
Arguably, Giussani is able to redeem all experience in this way by using Christian tradition as a wedge to split open a language of “personal experience” that has become too minimalist. You see, Christians believed in persons and experiences and relationships long before Evangelical theology came along to talk about them Elihu-like, uttering words without knowledge. And so what Giussani and the Popes influenced by him are doing is not just “turning Protestant” (where Protestant here largely means Evangelical). No, they are redeeming a way of talking about God that has been the birthright of the Church since St. Paul and St. Augustine. Just because words such as “personal,” “relationship,” and “experience” can be used simplistically doesn’t mean they need always be used so, and what this Communion & Liberation way of talking does is pump the throbbing lifeblood of Christian tradition into an Evangelical limb that has withered and atrophied. So no, the last two popes are not Protestant or Evangelical for talking about these things any more than they are for talking about Christ, Who is also common to these traditions. They say that the devil is in the details, but here it is probably more appropriate to say that the ecclesia is in the details – context matters, and people who on the surface may seem to be saying exactly the same things may, on further inspection, be discovered to be saying something exactly opposite. This, I suggest, is why the current and former Pope, and Giussani for that matter, are not quite Protestant in the ways some people seem to fear or hope.