The Religious Sense
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Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense, tr.  J.  Zucchi.  Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-7735-1626-3 (paper): CA$17.95.  ISBN 0-7735-1713-8 (cloth): CA$44.95.


            From time to time Catholic and Protestant scholars, from both the theological and philosophical fields, have returned to the question of the nature of religion with new proposals for understanding its basic human essence.  The Religious Sense, the first of three projected volumes by the scholar, Monsignor Luigi Giussani, will no doubt be considered a classic attempt at its exposition from a Catholic theological perspective.  The book offers a distillation of many years of research, teaching and thought on the question of the nature of religion.  As such it is nothing short of a full affirmation of the coinherence and coexistence of reason and religion in somewhat neo-Thomistic terms.

            By “religious sense,” Giussani means that which lies at the very essence and root of human rationality and consciousness.  It is that aspect of the human individual which affords Christianity with a reasonable basis, as an instance of the revelation of God as mystery.  To properly understand and establish the validity of this “religious sense,” three premises need to be put forward and assumed.  The first is that of realism, that is, the urgent necessity not to give a more important role to a scheme already in our minds, but rather to cultivate an “intuitive, passionate, insistent ability to observe the real event, the fact.” The criterion of this method must emerge from “the inherent structure of the human being, the structure at the origin of the person” [p. 7].  This criterion is an objective one “with which nature thrusts man [sic]  into a universal comparison, endowing him [sic]  with that nucleus of original needs, with that elementary experience which mothers in the same way provide to their children” [p. 10].

            The first premise points naturally to a second, namely that of reasonableness, or “the mode of action that expresses and realizes reason, the capacity to become aware of reality” [p. 12].   Reasonableness is part of the universal human experience and points back to realism.   Reality, arrived at through reason, has to come about in a reasonable way.  Life together, (convivenza), leads us to universal intuitions about an “other” beyond our capacity to reason it.  “In this sense, the question of moral certainty is the main problem of life as existence, but, through it, also of life as civilization and culture” [p. 14]. 

            This means a third proposition must be assumed.  If reality is known through a method of reasonableness imposed on the knowing subject by its relationship to the object, then morality will necessarily have an impact on the dynamic of knowing.  This, says Giussani, is the epistemological problem.  Reason is inseparable from the unity of the “I” and as such cannot be seen as some mechanism separated off from the knowing “I”.  Reason is bound to feeling and is indeed “conditioned” by it.   The reality of life, in all its reasonableness, necessarily imposes certain preconceptions of that reality.  The point is to recognize this and strive for “an attitude with which we reflect upon our freedom and use its energy in a way that is true to its purpose” [p. 32].  Of course Giussani does not go on to describe what he thinks this “purpose” to be, nor how one can arrive at the knowledge of it, except to say that it is life lived from a reasonable perspective.

             Giussani now comes to a crucial summary and conclusion upon which the rest of his book rests.  Reality, reasonableness and morality all lead us to the inexorable conclusion that humanity is, in fact, “moved solely by love and affection.  It is primarily the love of ourselves as destiny, the affection for our own destiny, that convinces us to undertake this work, (of knowing through ascesis), to become habitually detached from our own opinions and our own imaginations . . . so that all of our cognitive energy will be focused upon a search for the truth of the object, no matter what it should be” [p. 34].  It is the supreme emotion (feeling) that drives us toward truth.   The starting point is, not surprisingly, the self, the acting I.  It is the place of freedom which manipulates the content of the past (tradition) thereby allowing for responsible creativity for the future.  Within this space and time the human comes into a knowledge of itself, as soul and body, as an irreducible duality in unity.  It is an experience of the present in light of the past without reduction.

            What then is the nature of this religious sense?  It is a product of the spiritual aspect of humanity and lies within us at the level of utmost questions.  “It coincides with the radical engagement of the self with life, an involvement which exemplifies itself in these questions” [p. 55].  Such questions can be illustrated from all quarters of our experience and call for a totalizing answer.  The fact that the answer to such questions eludes us points itself to the “hypothesis of God.” Only the affirmation of the mystery, “as a reality existing beyond our capacity to fathom entirely, “corresponds to the human persons own original structure” [p. 57].   The need for a totalizing answer is the religious sense which reason brings to bear on our experience.

            Giussani spends the next three chapters outlining how attempts to empty, or reduce the question of ultimacy lead to severe and unreasonable positions.  Not only does the reduction and denial of the questions of ultimate concern strip the human person of his/her originality, it is followed by a “concomitant loss of meaning” which carries grave consequences.  Only love can counter such attempts through the affirmation of the human being’s capacity for freedom which is “an irreducible capacity for perfection, for attaining happiness - for meeting the other, God” [p. 93].  The reason why humans abandoned themselves to such positions is because of the “domination of preconceptions” and the “tyranny of prejudice”.  Appeals to ideology on rational grounds lead to determination and manipulation which reduces the religious sense and thus marginalizes the human so much so that it leads to censuring and denying as the “culmination of his [sic] questioning.”  In fact, reason, when it feels “compelled” to seek out other principals of reality, is itself “a constraint implied in experience, a factor of experience itself” [p. 100].   The question is raised willy nilly!

            In fact, ultimate questions arise with our attraction to the other.   The religious sense is the affirmation and development of this attraction.  The cosmos , as providential reality, points to this religious sense in terms of our dependence on a transcendent other.  This is, as with Schleiermacher, an intuition of a mysterious presence which “endows the instant” in which the “I” is given substance.  This “I” carries with it a consciousness of good and evil that I derive out of my experience with the world.  The world then is a word, a Logos “which sends you further, calls you on to another, beyond itself, further up.” That is, by analogy, one is drawn towards a meaning beyond itself [p. 110].  This analogy is protested within me and issues in the sign which attempts to see and touch it.  The you, over against the I, is the supreme, inexhaustible sign, evident but not demonstrable, that “fulfills me more than any experience of possession, domination, or assimilation” [p. 116].  This is openness and freedom to be the self.  It constitutes this very self.  The self is openness to the mysterious you which I am.  The world is the parable which interprets this openness.   It is the playing field where this freedom is exercised.  It both veils and unveils in that it points to this other but in terms which make the other evident yet unknowable.  It is this that accords the human with a religious sense.  It is precisely here that Giussani’s sympathies are finally, and fully revealed.  Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas he calls for a necessary revelation in order to “render this salvation more universal and more certain” [Sum Th.   1, q 1.1]. 

            The last chapter then raises the hypothesis of revelation and the conditions for its acceptability.  Our nature as creatures of need, combined with reason, intuits an answer to our fundamental questions in terms of a mysterious other.  This is reasons pinnacle and vertigo.  We are dependent upon this unreachable, unknowable mystery.  This is our religious sense.  Against this we are pushed back, in fear and terror, into reflection on an expanse.  Subsequently, we tend to identify one or other aspect(s) of this experience with the absolute as a means and way of redemption.  Appeals are made to a word from the divine other that comes out of this experience.  Revelation is the entry of the divine into history through mundane human experience, as in the case of Christianity.  This hypothesis is first of all possible because the God who constitutes this mystery is free to act in this way.  It is, secondly, a convenient hypothesis in that it corresponds to human need.  It is convenience in the sense that God has accommodated God’s self to this human need.  As God acts, he makes human action (or reaction), possible and significant.

            Such an hypothesis, however, must respect two criteria.  This word must be comprehensible to humanity and it must, so to speak, intensify the mystery in proportion to its comprehensibility.  It does not merely aim at the satisfaction of human understanding, it must “deepen” it.  Thus, to replace the word “mystery” with the word “Father” in relation to God renders an extremely comprehensible term which at the same time identifies God’s uniqueness and intensifies the mystery.  The religious sense prepares us for such a revelation but revelation intensifies the depth of this religious sense.



            To say the least, Giussani’s appeal to the religious sense constitutes a tour-de-force justification of the basic religious essence of the human individual which will demand the attention of detractors from his position.  He has succeeded in offering a tight, cohesive argument which is not only intellectually challenging but both well illustrated and very readable.   It is also innovative in its descriptions of such concepts as reason, reasonableness, intuition and feeling, providing new ways of understanding concepts which have fueled philosophical and theological debate for centuries.  Certainly, he may not necessarily provide definitive, ultimate or even provisional solutions to these problems, but he does offer a fresh approach.  This book is a must read for any theologian, philosopher, or for that matter, social theorist.  It will no doubt claim its place as a classic treatment of the subject, at least in Catholic circles.   It should certainly gain the attention of those Protestant theologians engaged in dialogue with Catholics.  For this reviewer, however, some crucial questions remain.  Is the somewhat appended appeal to revelation at the close of the book indicative of a certain attitude toward the various roles allotted to reason and revelation as the appeal to Thomas Aquinas [p. 140] would seem to indicate?  Given the human existential propensity to interpret the religious sense, and the world as its sign, in a negative direction, can we really say that the religious sense has any value at all in terms of a preparation for revelation?  Would not the proposed revelation itself fall under this criticism?  Has Giussani adequately taken into account the post-modern critique of the power of signification so that the post modern reader would be able to lay aside his/her concerns about the ability of the sign to refer to anything of sign-ify-cance?

Dr.  Archie J.  Spencer is pastor at Port Colborne Baptist Church.  He recently completed his ThD at the Toronto School of Theology.  His thesis on Karl Barth’s early anthropology is due to appear in print shortly.