Sunday, July 19, 2009

What is the Religious Experience and Religiosity? Two Theological Giants of Our Age Speak Out

I remember seeing a cartoon in which a couple was bringing their baby home soon after it was born. The setting was the middle of Manhattan with its traffic, mobs of people in the street, and awesome canyons of skyscrapers. The couple was standing (waiting for a cab?) in front of the majestic entrance to the hospital, the baby buried in his mother’s arms. The caption was the mother’s words to the baby: “Look, Harry. The World!”

Suppose that baby had been able to look and see the sheer magnitude of it all: the buildings, the traffic, the noise, the people. His reaction would have been overwhelming amazement. This amazement is the religious experience.

Religious experience is a human experience, a human passion like many others. It expresses the power, the energy of human life itself. In fact, religious experience can be seen as the fundamental human experience that unleashes passionate curiosity. It is this passionate curiosity that sustains the efforts of science, for example, as well as other creative human enterprises, such as the development of a just social order and an equitable distribution of human resources. It is this same passionate curiosity that energizes children in their wondrous exploration of the world.

Religious experience is not directly an experience of a reality beyond this world. It isn’t that I see this other reality. All I see is what is in this world. It is a way of experiencing the world as a sign of the reality that is always beyond its limits. The cell mutation researched by a scientist, the social inequities confronted by an activist, the ladybug pondered by a child-- all of these point to this Mystery at the heart of everything that exists.

Religious experience, therefore, is not an escape from this world: it is an affirmation of it. It is a way of standing before reality-- the reality that each of us encounters in our lives, our work, and our relationships each day-- and regarding it with a passionate curiosity. It is a contemplative posture before all that exists. Like the wonder of that mother holding her newborn child and saying, with joy and anticipation, “Look, the world!” All that counts is wonder.

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, God at the Ritz

How is it that man has this right, this absoluteness, whereby even if the whole world were to move in one direction, he has something within that gives him the right to stay where he is? He has something within by which he can judge the world from which he or she was born.

If the human being were to come into the world solely through the biology of the mother and father, as a mere brief instant in which all the flux of innumerable prior reactions produced this ephemeral fruit; if the human being were only this, then we really would be talking about something ridiculous, something cynically absurd when we use expressions such as, “freedom,” “human rights,” the very word, “person.” Freedom, like this, without any foundation, is flatus vocis, just pure sound, dispersed by the wind.

In only one case is . . . this single human being free from the entire world, free, so that the world together and even the total universe cannot force him into anything. In only one instance can this image of a free man be explained. This is when we assume that this [human being] is not totally the fruit of the biology of the mother and father, not strictly derived from the biological tradition of mechanical antecedents, but rather when it possesses a direct relationship with the infinite, the origin of all the flux of the world, . . . that is to say, it is endowed of something derived from God.

The Catechism of Pius X affirms this: “the body is given by the parents, but the soul is infused directly by God.” Apart from the scholastic formulation, this “soul” indicates precisely that there is a “something” in me which is not derived from any empirical phenomenon, because it does not depend upon, does not originate in the biology of my father and mother. It directly depends on the infinite, which makes the whole world. Only this hypothesis allows me to proclaim that the world can do what it wants with me, but it cannot conquer, possess, grasp on to me, because I am greater than it is. I am free.

It is here that we find the foundation and the explanation for the fundamental right of freedom of conscience. The human being has not only the capacity, but also the duty to judge and act according to ultimate personal comparison to the truth and the good.

So here is the paradox: freedom is dependence on God. It is a paradox, but it is absolutely clear. The human being-- the concrete human person, me, you-- once we were not, now we are, and tomorrow will no longer be: thus we depend. And either we depend upon the flux of our material antecedents, and are consequently slaves of the powers that be, or we depend upon What lies at the origin of the movement of all things, beyond them, which is to say, God.

Freedom identifies itself with dependence upon God at a human level: it is a recognized and lived dependence, while slavery, on the other hand, denies or censures this relationship. Freedom comes through religiosity. Religiosity is the single hindrance, limit, confine to the dictatorship of man over man, whether we are referring to men and women, parents and children, government and citizens, owners and workers, party chiefs and rank and file. It is the only hindrance, the single barrier and objection to the slavery imposed by the powers that be.

It is for this reason that the powerful, whoever they might be-- within the family or a collective-- are tempted to hate true religiosity, unless they are profoundly religious themselves.

--Msgr. Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense

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