The Religious Sense - OTHER DOCUMENTS

The Religious Sense

Giancarlo Cesana

11/13/2001 - Intervention of Giancarlo Cesana, Dublin November 13th 2001

It certainly feels a bit strange to present a book in English, particularly one on issues which are not my area of speciality. I am a layman speaking about theology, or something along those lines. The first question I want to answer is why I was invited. It could be because I am the leader of a catholic movement, although I am not a priest. I have not studied what I am going to say; I have lived it. My contribution is the witness that the religious sense concerns the life of every man and woman in their search for meaning, for the common denominator of meaning, which is God. Man is so eager to find meaning that if he does not find it, he invents it. This is how religions came into being, and in this sense, every religion is “right”. Christianity, however, is not actually a religion, but a faith. We are believers and followers of an historical event.

In one of his books, Fr Giussani says that the Christian proposal should not just address an ethical or philosophical need, but an innate, biological urgency, i.e. a need that has to be answered to live. In other words, it should address the religious sense, which gives meaning to the perception of all the other senses.
Meaning is, in fact, the link between one thing, fact, or experience and the rest of the existing universe (including this mike…). Without meaning all human events would be without scope or rationality.

I am a Christian because Christianity addresses the search for meaning, which is fundamental in my life. Otherwise, being a Christian is useless. I think that Giussani’s aim in writing the “Religious sense” is fully expressed in the three premises at the beginning of the book.

The first is Realism. The problem of God concerns the very relation of man and woman with reality. This relation is only suggested, not solved by reality: only God solves it. Otherwise, what is God for?
In any case, if there is a solution, it must be experienced when facing reality.

Giussani accepts this challenge, saying that faith does not evade reality but rather improves man’s relation with it. This does not mean that for Christians everything is always OK, that they do not suffer illnesses, contradictions, misfortune and so on. What it does mean is that they can live all this without desperation.

A few months ago I was talking with father Giussani about personal matters (my wife died in a car accident one year ago) and he said “life is a mystery, a great confusion”. I asked: “if life is confusion for me, a Christian, and for others too, what is the difference ?”. He promptly answered, “the self”.
The most important difference between us and others (non Christians, non believers) is not in what we can explain to them about God, because we don’t know very much about God, the mystery, but in what we can demonstrate about ourselves. Indeed, the real help we can give to others is our lives.
The only difference between us and the others is our awareness that we must be saved, the fact that we have seen who can save us, and the novelty that has come from him, in terms of human experience.

I re-converted to the Christian faith (which I’d abandoned in my teens) because by pure chance I pushed play on a tape recorder, and heard a recording of Giussani speaking to a group of students. He asked them, “What were the first words that Jesus said when he started to speak to people?”. Nobody answered. He repeated his question. Then one of the students said “Love each other”. Giussani said, “No, and what’s more, love is ambiguous. To get you to understand what Jesus said to John and Andrew, who became the first two disciples, I’ll ask you another question: how can you tell a good wine from a bad wine?”. Immediate answer: “you taste it”. And Giussani said: “Exactly, so when John and Andrew asked Jesus “who are you?”, he didn’t answer “I am the son of God, my mother is a virgin” and so on. He said “come and see”, and they went with him and stayed with him until late in the afternoon”.

Man can recognize the truth because it corresponds to his desire (adequatio rei et intellectus, said St. Thomas). Recognising this is an experience, and Giussani explains that experience does not mean just trying something out, but rather judging whatever you try.
Giussani challenges modern subjectivism, asserting that in subjective perception you can understand the true nature of yourself and of reality. This is a hope for everybody. In our elementary experience, there is a guide to the truth, to happiness. Giussani explains elementary experience with an example: if you were born now at the age that you are and you opened your eyes and saw reality in front of you, you would understand that it is for you. That is our elementary experience.


Faith cannot go against what makes a man a man, which is reason. Giussani defines man as the level of nature where nature acquires the awareness of itself. One of the reasons why I left Christianity as a young man was that I was required to accept and adhere to affirmations I did not understand (dogmas) and practice a way of life that was difficult and boring. In the previously mentioned episode of the tape recorder, Giussani went on to say “many of you left the faith because you did not understand it. On the other hand, if you are interested in truth, how can you recognize it? By studying Buddhism, Islam, and all the various Christian options? Life is too short to do that and you will probably just end up confused. You should start by understanding your own tradition. If you are not satisfied with it, you will change”.

So Giussani bets on the fact that his proposal is reasonable. But he also specifies what reason is. It is not simply a kind of biological computer, not simply an abstract and intellectual activity. It cannot be reduced to what we can measure (according to the modern scientific paradigm). It is the capacity to grasp the meaning of reality, and the most important meaning we are looking for is love. If, for example, you go home and do not suspect that your wife has poisoned the dinner she has cooked, you are not crazy but perfectly reasonable. So reason is also made of an affective energy, in addition to cerebral power. Moreover it is born of affection. If a baby is not loved by his mother, it’s quite likely that he will go mad. Through faith, man reaches what his reason is made for, ie, meaning, and meaning is not inside reason but in God (we did not create the world, ourselves and all that exists).

The third premise is morality. This is a consequence of what I’ve tried to say about reason so far. Morality is not a special kind of behaviour. Morality is not not making mistakes, because we all make mistakes. Morality is love.
The self is fundamentally united. You cannot know anything without affection, and you cannot love without knowledge. Feelings are like lenses: if they are used in the proper way they make objects closer and understandable; if they are used wrongly they make objects far off and blurred. I would need a lot of time to explain this, but I’ll just give an example. Love is not only sex. Each one of us understands that to love a person is to search for his or her happiness, not ours. And that is true feeling.

Now, we have the capacity, the natural gift to be struck by the truth. Once struck, our judgment and affection should be naturally drawn into this event.

“Love the truth more than yourself” is the invitation that Giussani makes to his readers. He does not want to convince us of what he says, first of all, but he wants to give us a method with which we can verify if what he says is true or not.

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