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Archie Spencer Th.D.

At the Origins of the Christian Claim – Luigi Giussani

Luigi Giussani, At the Origins of the Christian Claim Trans. V. Hewitt; Montreal & Kingston:  McGill-Queens University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-7735-1714-6 (Cloth): ISBN 0-7735-1627-1 (Paper)

In his “Religious Sense”, Luigi Giussani laid the foundations for a defense of the inherent religious impulse of the human that requires a totalizing answer to the “utmost questions” of human life and existence.  Giussani is now prepared to offer an initial answer to the question laid bare at the end of his first enterprise, namely, does the Christian God, understood as Father, provide the most reasonable solution to this human religious dilemma?  The answer lies, as the title suggests, At the Origins of the Christian Claim.

This second part of Giussani’s trilogy amounts to an investigation into how the ultimate questions of the earliest disciples were decisively answered by the totalizing message of Jesus Christ the risen Lord.  This was a conclusion at which they arrived simply because life “spurs reason to search for a solution.  Indeed reason’s very nature implies that a solution exists.” (Introduction, p. 9)  The “religious creativity of man” [sic], which is the “entire expression” of human imaginative efforts to “possess the mysterium tremendum” has left us with a “spectrum of hypothesis” regarding the “truth” of any one religion.  1)  Either we must know all religions in order to make a rational and dignified choice or; 2)  Know at least the major religions and risk the loss of any truth in minority religions.  3) Perhaps we should aim at a form of enlightenment syncretism which synthesizes the best of all religious truths or still; 4) Allow for the truthfulness of all religious on an empirical basis, requiring adherence to ones native religion only.  All of these options, which express our human imaginative attempts at grasping the divine, require us to posit a freedom on the part of the “mysterium tremendum” which transcends, interrupts and challenges our “religious imaginations”.  That is, human reason must be “confirmed by revelation”.  Reason cries out for it and launches itself toward this hypothesis, “which is so rational and so much part of our nature that, to some degree, it always emerges.” [p. 21]  This impulse toward revelation is inherent in our drive for knowledge, our need for mediators of knowledge, our experience of proximity to God, our common appeal to revelation, and our western appeal to the faith of Israel.  If there is a crime that can be leveled at this universal religious impulse, as conceived by culture today, it would be that of the claim to “exclusive truth.”  Yet, Christianity does just this.  For Giussani this is a claim that can only be justified or not, when we return to the “origins of the Christian claim.”

Considered on its own merits as a human construct, Christianity would certainly be wrong to make such a claim in the face of other religions.  If, however, we understand the Christian claim to be an expression of the “enigma” as a fact within the history of this human religious trajectory, then this fact must be regarded or examined on its own merits.  Were we to suppose that the enigma (mystery, God) became flesh then this “supposition would correspond to the need for revelation”.  To deny this would be irrational and contrary to the human religious sense.  Were this to be the case then could not Christianity prove to be “a more human synthesis, a more complete way of valuing the factors at play.” [p. 30]  Taken in this way the Christian claim is no longer an hypothesis but a problem that must be solved.  Announced as a fact of history, the Christian claim must be taken seriously as a problem to be solved, not as a “despotic irrational claim”.  It concerns a question of fact, i.e. incarnation, not opinion.

Given that Christianity, as a factual problem, has a history, the place to begin solving the problem is with an attuning to the singular event of Christianity, the Incarnation.  “The mystery chose to enter the history of man through a life story identical to that of any other man.”  As imperceptible as this divine entry into time was in terms of recorded history, nevertheless history records a certainty on the part of the disciples of having found the Messiah.  The imperceptible became perceptible as a conviction among a few which produced a “profound certainty over time.”  If one follows faithfully the “itinerary” of their conviction one comes to the certainty that this incomparably great man of power and goodness was a master to be followed in freedom as the Messiah, indeed as the forgiving one whose new ethic inaugurates a new kingdom.

So the origin of the problem as a fact of history lies not so much in the event itself as in the “perceptive experience of the earliest disciples” and their careful formulation of the primitive “Christology” or Messianism.  While the event is a mystery, almost imperceptible, the conviction is the fulfillment of humanities deepest longings, needs and questions.  It was, as such, a totalizing event.

But Giussani is not satisfied to lay all the weight of the exclusive claims of Christianity on the basis of the experience of the earliest disciples.  He takes great pains to point out that Christ himself, through a “slow pedagogy”, taught his disciples to think of him as “God”.  Jesus’ claim is simply a fact that lays bare “the basic position of the human heart – whether closed or open – to the mystery of being.” [p. 79]  As such the Christian problem is resolved in the same terms in which it presents itself:  “either we are dealing with madness or this man, who says he is God, really is God.” [p. 79]  Our free decision to penetrate this mystery “is a decision with hidden roots bound to our attitude to reality as a whole.”  It is that “supreme something” which sees Jesus as the ultimate good and worth our free commitment.

To understand this Christian claim we must be educated into “Christ’s conception of life” which is an education in “morality for understanding”.  What is at stake is the “correspondence of human existence as a whole to the form of Christ.” [p. 83]  Jesus own outlook on the value of humanity, dependence on the Divine, self existence, sin and human freedom answers the ultimate questions about these core human realities in a definitive way.  “Following Christ (faith) thus generates a characteristic existential attitude by which man walks upright and untiring towards a destination not yet reached although sure (hope).” [p. 83]  Thus, the event of the Incarnation, as mystery, is an “ethical urgency”, and an “education to the ideal”.  It was “an extra ordinary historical reality” in which Jesus moved his disciples from “awe to conviction” because the answers he gave to the questions of ultimate concern convinced them that he was the “God-man”.  The greatest task of Christianity is to announce, with the same conviction that was present “at the origins of the Christian claim”, that Jesus of Nazareth is God.  Furthermore;

“The task of the Christian is not only the greatest, but also the most tremendous in history because it is destined to provoke unreasonable reactions; yet it is supremely reasonable to face and to verify an hypothesis on its own terms, and here is precisely an event which happened in history.”

This task is the reason for the Church’s existence, from which place the message will be proclaimed and worked out in society.

Some Reflections

Once again Giussani has surprised us with his unique ability to combine profound concepts with a well illustrated and very readable style.  As with The Religious Sense, one has the feeling of not being in the classroom but rather sitting by the fire listening to the sage expound on the most important events in life with story, poem and prose.  Catholics, whether clergy or laity, should embrace this almost folksy rendition of contemporary Catholic Christianity with enthusiasm and a desire to go deeper with Giussani.  Though this work is shorter and less detailed than the previous volume, The Religious Sense, it is no less a serious call to reconsider the Incarnation as a natural, historical event that gave rise to an historical consciousness of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  Similar treatments in the history of Christian theology from Schleiermacher to Schillebeeckx have taken many more pages and done it less justice than Giussani’s brevity.  As with the previous volume, this one will have to be reckoned with by Protestants and Catholics alike; whether scholar, clergy or lay person.  It will be intriguing to see how such a religious sense is worked out in the Church, the bearer of the historical claim to answers of ultimate concern.

A serious question remains, however.  Despite his brevity, clarity and intellectual power, Giussani has still failed to answer the question of the relationship between revelation and experience.  The Incarnation as event is almost eclipsed by the disciples experience of it.  The attempt to uncover the “religious sense” of today will always be a dubious exercise because of the gulf between our time and theirs.  Without a clear starting point in revelation as the event of the Word of God, we are left with only a surmising of how that event affected the first followers.  Their experience must be secondary to the event and not constitutive of it.  Giussani needs to be clear on this.

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