They had Christ right there – with them – and they missed it. How could they not see? Why were they so blind? How could they not recognize him? It is typical in Christian circles to ask such questions, with the implied assumption that we, had we been there, would have recognized him right away. We, the good Christians of the twenty second century, would have flocked to him, praised him, where the stupid people in the Bible – the Pharisees, the Romans, the keepers of the law – failed.
But I have always wondered about this. Of course, we hope that our place in the story is with the disciples, those who recognized Him, but how can we know? When I look in my heart – and see the piles and piles of problems there – I certainly want to be one of those who would have recognized him, but find myself fearing; what if, instead of one of the “good guys,” I would have been one of the bad guys? I would after all make an excellent Pharisee, fastidious and proud as I am. I also see in myself the figure of Pilate, agnosticism hiding behind a sensible-looking but false neutrality. Moreover, even when one doesn’t account for these proclivities to evil, there are still questions. From the perspective of hindsight, we feel we can of course “see” the outcome – Jesus was of course the messiah – but one wonders if it can have been at all clear at the time. There were after all all kinds of pretenders to messianic claims around Christ’s time, and the correlation of the Old Testament prophecies with Christ’s life – while certainly not false – nevertheless often require a somewhat counter intuitive interpretation of such prophecies. Put another way, there was, I think, another reason besides hardheartedness that people expected a military messiah – left with just the prophecies, it would be very difficult to hypothesize without divine guidance a messiah that takes the form Christ takes.
I preface my reflection on Luigi Giussani’s At the Origin of the Christian Claim with these matters because it is exactly such questions Giussani deals with in his second book. What kind of encounter would it take to convince an ordinary person, with all his/her virtues and flaws, of the divinity and messianic function of someone one initially mistook for just another generally wise man? Put another way, what kind of encounter had to happen for those curious – encountering Christ in all his curiously simple complexity – to transform from ambivalent onlookers to disciples of Christ? This question – what Giussani describes as Christ’s pedagogy – is the matter of the second book, which seeks to demonstrate that Christ is a concrete answer to the questions and problems raised by the human religious sense, outlined in his prior book.
Anticipating critics who suggest that Christ’s incarnation hardly accords with the kind of tough questioning and seeking involved in pursuing the religious sense, Giussani suggests that no seriously proposed hypothesis should be dismissed as out of hand before it is considered. The problem that the religious sense will have with the Christian incarnation is that it is not something one can figure out or hypothesize on one’s own; the path of such searching, left to its own devices, leads perhaps to Socratic irony at best and sophistry at worst. But, as Giussani points out, that the Incarnation cannot have been “figured out” by human searching alone does not necessarily indicate its falsehood – it is after all unreasonable to exclude out of hand the possibility that God could take initiative and propose an answer to the religious sense that humans could not have come up with on their own. But in opening ourselves to this possibility, one raises the difficult question of determining how one might verify it – what rubric do we use to verify the claims of someone who claims in fact to be the source of any and every such rubric? Hypothetically speaking, if one were to appear on earth from a realm beyond worldly experience, this person would presumably defy what we consider reasonable in many ways. Yet how does one tell if this person is telling the truth – if their claims of beyondness are actually real – or if their incoherence is in fact something that should be judged false when gauged by human experience?
For Giussani, we are left with a problem. If Christ is the messiah – God-made-man – then his very confusion of our sense of rationality and common experience will in fact constitute part of the proof that he is Other to us. Yet such confusion might equally suggest that he is a pretender using obfuscation as a cloak to conceal a scam. Is he hard to grasp because he is beyond us, or because he is simply incoherent?
This for Giussani is where the issue of method becomes important, that is, the issue of determining means of gauging a phenomenon appropriate to that phenomenon. This may sound complicated, but it is really a very fancy way of saying something that Christians have always insisted upon – that the whole person matters, as does the entire capacity of his/her judgement, and the most fitting answer to the problems raised by human existence is not that which simply answers a single niche problem confined to a single experience or criterion. Rather, the answer will be that which holistically answers in a way that does not do violence to the understanding of human nature as a whole, defined as generously as possible to include reason, emotion, psychology, relationships etc. – in short, all that constitutes human experience.
Turning to the gospels, then, Giussani discusses the way we see Christ encountering humans such that these humans are brought to a point of crisis where they either must acknowledge Christ as who he is and trust him – even beyond their understanding at times – or must decide against him and turn away. For Giussani, it is of the utmost importance that Christ’s appearance is never coercive; there is enough about him to invite further those who are curious and freely choose to explore, yet belief in him is never absolutely compelled or completely incontrovertible, as might be the case, say, in a mathematical equation. Giussani sees this as God’s way of honoring the free will he has given humans. There is enough evidence to go on for those who seek truth. But God will not compel anyone to follow him by the violence of a too narrow syllogism – those who wish to reject him can, and do. God will not compel stubborn hearts.
The shape of Christ’s answer to human experience – what is invoked in humans by the religious sense – is thus the matter of the book, and the book’s burden is defining and nuancing this answer such that it is mistaken neither as simplistic or completely incomprehensible. In my prior post, I described Giussani’s conception of human existence as a great riddle to be solved by as many legitimate means as are available to us. Conversely, Christ, for him, is a divine riddle posed as an answer to the human riddle. As such a riddle, Christ gives his followers just enough of himself to keep them following him – just enough of himself that they can know he is trustworthy – but there is always a part of Him beyond the bit of Him they see and measure, the part that continually challenges them to open themselves to the mystery of heaven beyond themselves, toward which He is the way.
The rest of the book is a sketch of how this Divine Riddle that answers the human riddle interacts with those he meets in the gospel accounts. I say “sketch” because the intention is hardly to exhaust what could be said on this matter, but rather to offer tantalizing glimpses of this interaction and so invite readers to further consider these gospel accounts for themselves – an intention in which (I feel) the book succeeds admirably.
But the series does not end here, and this in itself is a significant thing. I could list off any number of authors who might have ended here; the first book introduces the human need, and the second book shows how Christ answers that human need. What more can remain? What in fact remains is the question of how Christ’s life- a life lived historically two thousand years ago – is mediated to us in the present. It is, after all, one thing to say that Christ was such that he was sufficient as an answering riddle to those in the first century, but their experiences are not ours – say what we will about our personal relationships with Christ, we cannot say – at least in the strictly literal sense – that we have put our fingers in the holes in his hands, or that our hearts burned within us while he talked to us on the road. But if we have not done these things, how can we in fact evaluate Christ’s answer, if that very answer is a person – in flesh and blood – rather than a proposition? How can we encounter One who has not been present – at least in the full physical manifestation described in the gospels – for the last two thousand years? Is there another way that we might encounter Christ, not as a detached idea or historical artifact, but as His full Person, the very Person proposed as the answer to the religious sense? Is there a way of encountering this Person, not secondhand through accounts written thousands of years ago, but in such a way that we can evaluate him via our own experiences and judgements? This question – whether Christ can be encountered in the present as in the past – will be the matter of my third review, dealing with Giussani’s Why the Church?