At The Origin Of The Christian Claim

Monday, August 06, 2007

Chapter 4: How the Problem Arose in History

The recorded data we have about the person of Jesus is contained in the Gospels. First off, let us define what the Gospels are not. They are not minute by minute descriptions of events. They are not intended to be precise word for word transcriptions of dialog. They are not news stories or police reports.

The evangelists wanted to pass on the most important things they had seen and heard about Jesus, and so the Gospels tell of significant events in Jesus' life that are exemplary. Giussani uses the following analogy: Say my new and expensive car had just been stolen. I could find out about its whereabouts via two ways. First, I might be called by the police and read a report about an abandoned car with no tires or registration, but whose description fitted my vehicle. Or, my friend might call me and exclaim that he saw my car on a side street as he was taking a bus downtown. He can't remember the exact street, but he is sure he could find it again, and he is sure it is my car. "I have, therefore, heard the news in two reasonably reliable ways. Only the methods of verification differ" (37).

The Gospel writer's intent is to pass on the memory of Jesus, meaning that the facts and jottings in the text automatically suppose that the reader will fill in the gaps. Our memory of our childhood upbringings is not a perfect chronology of events, times, and conversations; instead we recall crucial facts, words, and images that make sense when put together. So too the Gospels contain scenes and excerpts that, when assembled, form a whole picture.

Our next question is, "Is it convincing?" Giussani is insistent that the method of knowing is contingent on the object at hand. In this case, the object is a person, Jesus. To know a person one must spend time with him. In the case of the apostles, they not only spent time with him, but lived with him for three years. "Living with, that is 'investing time,' is a necessary condition that enables an individual to obtain that qualitative skill which produces certainty [about anything, be it a person, or art, music, etc.]" (41).

Certainty about another person is solidified when there is adequate reason for believing in another. And the more "powerfully human" the observer is, the more he can make a correct evaluation of another based on only a few indications. To make an analogy, consider two doctors. One has vigorously studied medicine and has worked with thousands of patients over the past 30 years. The other has only been an M.D. for one year. The more experienced doctor will be able to diagnose, to connect the dots, about the source of illness much faster and with much less information than the inexperienced doctor. In the same way Jesus praises those who believe based on just a tiny clue over those who need to see wonders and miracles. "Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe" (Jn 20:29). But let us remember than the believer still has reasons, for without reasons one would be alienating himself from reality. The mind's assent to the truth that is proposed to us, which is reasonable, even without full comprehension, is faith, which is in no way opposed to reason.

The rest of Chapter 4 illuminates the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Like a notebook in which each sentence and phrase begs to be expanded and explained, "Every blank space must be filled in with developments that the writer takes for granted" (45). After John the Baptist cries, "Behold the Lamb of God!" two fishermen follow Jesus to his home, and stay with him until evening, even forgetting to go to work with their partners. One of the two, Andrew, tells his brother Simon, "We have found the Messiah."

There is an incredible spontaneity to this account. They remained there long enough to forget that it was the evening... They stayed there and attained that certainty, which they communicated to others. What happened in between is not explained. Yet they must have done something - they would have heard him speak, asked him questions, seen him move about the house doing things... [and the next day] The first thing one of the two men says to his brother who is on the boat is: "We have found the Messiah." (46)

The next day Philip meets Jesus and quickly afterward tells Nathanael, who is incredulous that the Messiah could come from Nazareth. Yet after a few exchanges of words Nathanael cries, "You are the Son of God. You are the Messiah." So many things are assumed in the text, but the message would not be the same if only the sterilized details of what, where, and when, were recorded. This first chapter is a testimony of those who "were left with such an impression that they reported as the truth an affirmation that perhaps he himself made, which satisfied all the expectations of their time" (47). Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Nathanael have found someone different from all others. They have a certainty about him, which would be confirmed later, but for now it gives witness to Jesus' distinct quality. This is only the beginning of the certainty. The next chapter will show how the certainty evolves.

Chapter 3: Enigma as a Fact

Imagining God is the most noble of all human attempts, but if the mystery has penetrated man's existence then the religious method is overturned. The stretching of the imagination and the striving of the intelligence is superseded by a simple acceptance or rejection of the mystery. This new method favors the ordinary, poor man, rather than the learned, rich, and wise man.

The coming of Christ is like a man who walks into a frenzied construction site, where all kinds of engineers, architects, and laborers are trying to build a bridge toward the stars, to their destiny. The man shouts, "Stop! This is a noble effort, but you will never be able to reach destiny. Let me build the bridge, for I am your destiny." Everyone would say he is crazy except for perhaps a very few who would approach and follow him.

The problem of Christianity begins not with whether it is correct or reasonable. The first
question is historical, factual, "Did it happen or not? Did God intervene in history?" This question then becomes, "Who is Jesus?"

"That Christianity has been announced to you means that you must assume a position in Christ's regard... Man is forced to answer yes or no... That one man said: 'I am God,' and that this is passed on as a present fact, forcefully demands a personal stance" (33-34).

Two millenia later the world is still confronted with this fact. It is an historical issue that is recorded in the Gospels and continues to be the "greatest decision of our existence" (34).

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Chapter 2: The Need for Revelation

Man, realizing his utter inability to comprehend the meaning of everything, will eventually consider the possibility of revelation, of divinity manifesting itself directly to him. This hypothesis is reasonable, for reason seeks a way to know the mystery and "cannot define what the mystery can or cannot do" (21). Throughout human history divine revelation comes up again and again as a topic of art, religion, literature, theatre, and every expression of the mind and soul.

How has man looked for revelation within religious history? Giussani highlights several observations documented by scholars regarding revelation.

1. A hierophany is "a manifestation of the sacred" (22), which must always involve the supernaturalization of a natural object. "In manifesting itself, it confers on this being or object a sacred dimension which permits it to fulfil a mediation role" (22). These sacred symbols attempt to lift man from his current reality of banality and toil to the greater reality of the Mystery, the Unknown.

The myth holds a special place in history, both because it is ubiquitous and intangible. Through their narration myths remove the listener from his "profane" world and place him on the brink of the divine world, at least symbolically. Myths also move us to detach ourselves from our constructed realities we think are true - money, politics, studies - and to "strive to grasp the most incorruptible, original, and mysterious aspects of life" (23). Whether tangible or intangible "religious symbols which touch life's structures reveal a life that transcends the natural human dimension (23).

2. "Man has always recognized... his constant need for other men to be mediators" (23). Just as objects can symbolically possess a special connection to the divine, so can persons. The priest, the shaman, and the oracle all have a special role. They are intermediate connectors between the Mystery and man; they help reveal the Other.

3. Even ancient Greek religion, which held that intimacy with the divine was hopeless, exhibited a desire for revelation. The god Dionysus differs from other deities; he appears to all sorts of peoples and instigates all sorts of pleasures and terrors by his very presence. He "attracts both politicians and contemplatives, orgiastics and ascetics... one could approach him, even incorporate him" (25). Giussani also notes that hermits of Imperial Rome foresaw no other way to satisfy the thirst for knowledge beside the revelation of a god.

4. "All founders of religions have in common the certainty that they are the bearers of an essential revelation of their God" (25). Either by direct contact or an intermediary such as an angel of spirit, religious founders claim that they have at least some of the answers to man's eternal questions about his origin and the meaning of reality.

5. The last observation looks at the faith of Israel, which waits for an "event" to occur in history. God "remains transcendent but entrusts his presence and his words to the reality most inherent in man - history" (27). Could any other aspect of our existence be more salient? The Jewish people await an encounter with Yahweh. "Yahweh and man have a continuous relationship but this relationship is prior to revelation itself and preparatory to it" (27).

Giussani illustrates these five points with various references to religious thought and holy writings of Islam, Tibet, Greece, and Zarathustra, to name a few. Man is compelled to have a religion, and in this sense every religion which is a genuine attempt to know the Mystery is true. But what about Christianity, which says it is the "one and only way?" (28). How do we regard this audacious claim?

There is nothing wrong in feeling repelled by such an affirmation: what would be wrong would be to leave unquestioned such an affirmation, the reason for this great claim. (28)

Friday, August 11, 2006

Chapter 1: The Religious Creativity of Man

Faced with the ultimate enigma, man has sought to imagine, to define such a mystery in relation to himself, to conceive, therefore, of a way of relating to it, and to express all of the aesthetic reflexes aroused by his imagination of the Ultimate. (11)

Religion is the "place" where man relates to mystery. His imagination, or creativity, constructs a place where he can know and interact with the Other. It is not wrong for him to do this, in fact it emanates from his unquenchable desire for the Unknown. He must make a "place," because he realizes that while the world is real, it is only a sign pointing to a greater reality, and he is unable to soar over the horizon of ultimate meaning to meet the Other.

Every religion depends on "people's temperament, their environment, and their particular historical moment" (12), however throughout human history man has tried to address certain basic needs within religion. Giussani gives several examples of how various civilizations have tried to establish a relationship with the Unknown.

Obedience to the order of natural harmony was very present in religious periods in China, Wei, and Sumer. The Unknown remained mysterious and beyond any understanding, so the attempt to be reconciled with the flow of the seasons, life and death, and the cycles of celestial objects became the focus of religion. In the case of the Hittites, a sense of a contract or a pact is fostered between man and the powers that guide the world. J. Reis states that "Sacredness entailed entering into a relationship: man must be able to approach the gods.... Intervention by consecrated personages is indispensable" (15).

On the other hand, much of Greek religious thought held that "negotiation with the gods is impossible" (15). Human beings are always struggling against some evil, whether it be starvation or disease. People are not creatures of a Creator and have no hope of intimacy with the Unknown. Ancient Romans held a more positive view of their relationship with the sacred. Religion "allows the universe to be structured and establishes how the relationships between men and the gods will function" (16). It is a way of organizing meaning.

The next examples show that man imagines the Unknown as something that he cannot know, but trusts to be benevolent. The Other is mighty and even dangerous, but "in the reciprocal service relationship, in Egypt as elsewhere, gratitude and piety go hand in hand with hopeful expectation" (16). Man's normal disposition is to trust in the Unknown and render service in exchange for providence. Giussani writes that in the Koran and the Islamic liturgy have this trust, "In the name of the merciful and benign God." The book of Hosea shows this appeal to "divine kindness."

When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them, the farther they went from me, Sacrificing to the Baals and burning incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, who took them in my arms;
I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks; Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer. (Hosea 11:1-4)

Across the wide gamut of religions, one element is common to all: the attempt. A religious construction, if sincere, is always the result of man's effort to seek and understand the absolute to the best of his ability.

Although there are many similar ideas across religions, so too are there so many differences. If man is once again sincere in his search to know the ultimate mystery, then he will be faced with the question of truth. How does man find which religion has the most value - the real truth - and not just smoke and mirrors?

One way would be to examine every religious construction and compare each one to the others. By knowing all religions man could make an educated choice with his reason. At first glance this idea seems like a possible solution, but it is both theoretically and practically flawed. This method is "not an ideal but rather a utopia.... the assumption that we must know all religions produced by the history of man in order to make a rationally dignified choice is an abstract criterion, impossible to apply" (18-19).

Perhaps man could at least know the major religions with large followings to base our decision? But here still we have an unreasonable criterion. If I lived in Rome two thousand years ago I would have to ignore the small sect of "Christians" since they were only a tiny fringe group. I would never know if that religion contained the truth. "If a criterion is true, it should be able to be applied in all cases" (19).

Another method which is prevalent today is the "syncretic notion." This effort continually takes the best parts of different religions and combines them like a melting pot. Far from being a universal religion, the result is simply another religious construct. Who decides which parts are added or discarded? It is a religion synthesized by a few. "Here we find the typical presumption of a society whereby people must prostrate themselves before the will of a group of 'enlightened' ones" (19).

A more reasonable way to approach religion is to follow the religious tradition that one is born into. For man, "it is highly probably that the religion his surroundings profess will be the expression best suited to his temperament" (20). This is not meant to be a definitive rule; we should not be chained to an ancestral religion. By being receptive to all of life we may encounter an idea, a teaching, a feeling that invites us to deepen and intensify our relationship with the Mystery as it really is. In this sense we are in a constant state of conversion, in which we are always attracted to an encounter with truth.

At the Origin of the Christian Claim

The purpose of this blog is to provide an outlet for my study of Luigi Giussani's book At The Origin Of The Christian Claim. It is the second book of his trilogy on man, religion, Christ, and the Church.

While reading the first book of the trilogy, The Religious Sense, I posted summaries and reflections on this blog. Studying The Religious Sense enlightened me in many ways. First, I became aware of how much of my thinking had been poorly influenced by the prevailing culture of materialistic rationalism. Secondly, I realized how to consider man's yearning for God in an existential way, which can be seen throughout all of human history. Finally, I understood how man, if open to reality in all its factors, inevitably considers the hypothesis of revelation, in which divinity enters into our reality as a presence in history.

This blog is first and foremost a collection of my notes and writings about At The Origin Of The Christian Claim. I do not promise that it will always be masterful writing, but I will try my best to make it comprehensible and flowing. I also hope that this blog can be a resource for others who are studying Giussani's works. Please link to this site and leave comments and questions for discussion.

My goal is for the last chapter write-up to be completed by Christmas 2006, and to finish the third book in the trilogy, Why The Church?, by August 2007, just in time for my entrance into seminary.