John Henry Newman. Wikimedia Commons

Admiral Nelson, Newman, and Giussani

The presentation of The Religious Sense in the capital of the United Kingdom. In the fatherland of Empiricism, an apologia of reason open to reality. For the community, a testimony of belonging that increased everyone’s certainty.
Alberto Savorana

“In a world of fugitives [for everyone runs away from the unavoidable task of establishing a meaning for life, establishing what life means, what it is for which we ultimately do everything], the person who takes the opposite direction seems to flee.” London, late afternoon on Tuesday, March 27th. It was raining. While everybody was pouring into the streets on their way home, away from the center of town teeming with cars and people, some were going in the opposite direction. Two hundred people were heading for Trafalgar Square, the economic and political heart of the city. Among banks and embassies, the statue of Admiral Nelson–symbol of English dominion over the world–looms high on its column, a silent witness to what was going on behind the broad windows of Canada House. Here the McGill-Queen’s University Press of Montreal and Communion and Liberation were presenting Father Giussani’s The Religious Sense.

A small and varied crowd was listening to John Zucchi, translator of the book and professor at McGill University in Montreal; Michael Waldstein, President of the Theological Institute of Gaming (Austria); and Father Ian Ker, professor in the theological school of Oxford University and the most authoritative scholar of Cardinal J.H. Newman. Among the others there were Hon Clare Short, a minister in Tony Blair’s government; Father Ian Boyd; Paul Donovan, journalist for The Universe; Stratford Caldecott; Pastor Martin Smyth, leader of the Northern Irish Protestants and a member of Parliament; and work colleagues of the friends in the London community.

Waldstein chose Father Giussani’s expression, “living the real intensely,” as the theme of his talk, discussing the book within the context of the “PerCorso” (the trilogy of books beginning with The Religious Sense), which moves from the religious sense to the Church through the figure of Jesus Christ. Replying to a question from the audience about the usefulness of reading Giussani’s book in a society which seems to have shut the door on the search for truth, Waldstein clarified that precisely the use of reason as a boundless opening onto reality is the sure antidote to a power which tries by every means possible to pull man away from his search for meaning, offering him partial answers which have the appearance of truth but in the long run are unsatisfying.

The floor was then turned over to Fr. Ian Ker, a very lively and keen-witted speaker, who brought from Oxford all the richness of his studies of that great convert from Anglican to Roman Catholicism, Cardinal John Henry Newman, pointing out that Newman’s meditations were chosen this year by the Pope to accompany the Way of the Cross on Good Friday in Rome. Father Ker is the foremost Newman scholar. From the beginning, he could not avoid a comparison between Cardinal Newman and Msgr. Giussani, uncovering analogies and new ideas. We offer our readers here the notes from his talk.

If the “I” happens in the history of a people, the event in Trafalgar Square is something that–like the earlier discussions on The Religious Sense at the UN and in Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Kampala, Moscow, Novosibirsk, and other places throughout the world–marks the history of a people, because for each “I” who takes part, it is tantamount to a declaration of belonging and thus fosters the acquisition of a consciousness of belonging. It may well be that an instant later the world’s hostility, which can go all the way to hatred, will prevail… but at least it will be clear why.

Ian Ker
In the middle or late 1980s, I was university chaplain. We had a number of Italian students in the chaplaincy and it was they who first told me about this movement called Comunione e Liberazione. I was intrigued by it because I had never heard of anything quite like it in the Catholic Church. I was struck then by how we already had in the Protestant evangelical context something very similar but not at all in the Catholic. They told me that Newman had had an important influence on Giussani, the founder of CL. I bought this book in 1997.

I read the first few pages and I realized immediately that there is a Newmanian influence here in the understanding of reason. It reminds me of the very first book on Newman that I read when I was a student and thinking about the meaning of life: Apologia Pro Vita Sua. I didn’t know then that I was going to spend thirty years of my life studying the writings of John Henry Newman!

Giussani, like Newman, sees human rationality as a much larger thing than the enlightenment had envisaged it. Here, for example, is a passage that absolutely struck me as being so Newmanian and yet it was something that was new, that was written with a new contemporary idiom and context: “Reason is not as arthritic or paralyzed as has been imagined by so much of modern philosophy, which has reduced it to a single operation–‘logic’–or to a specific type of phenomenon, to a certain capacity for ‘empirical demonstration.’” In other words, reason is not as the Enlightenment envisaged it, that is, it is neither simply inductive nor deductive. “Reason is much larger than this; it is life, a life faced with the complexity and multiplicity of reality, the richness of the real…” “Real” here is a very Newmanian word that includes the real human mind, not the human mind that the English empiricists imagined but something of a much more empirical conception than the empiricists were able to grasp. “Reason is agile, goes everywhere, it travels many roads.” A famous passage in the university sermons of Newman struck me, where he speaks about the human mind being like a mountaineer ascending a mountain.

As I continued reading The Religious Sense to the end, I found it terribly attractive. The whole thing put out Newman’s ideas: the same approach to reason–human reason–and to religious faith, and they are set out in contemporary idiom and in a contemporary context. There is a wealth of literary illustrations, particularly modern illustrations from literature, bringing alive this sense of the human mind, the human mind which can only reach its full potential in the religious sense. Here are the kinds of things which are familiar to me from reading Newman, but, again, presented in a new and contemporary way. The reason–the whole human mind–not just the deductive or inductive entitles me to be sure for instance, if I was married, that my wife loves me. And there are so many certainties in human life that we wouldn’t be able to live a single day without being sure of, although they can’t be demonstrated logically or empirically (scientifically).

I also found in Giussani the understanding that the human mind does not operate in a kind of vacuum as a sole individual looking out onto this world from a totally individual point of view. Rather, we all, as human beings (and we philosophers too) in our reason and our reasonings work within a tradition. Philosophers of science are clear about that–that scientists don’t work within a void, they work within a scientific tradition and they build upon what has gone before, working within the context of what has gone before. Giussani is very strong on that as well, emphasizing the importance of tradition and the importance of the will also, because the human mind is not a detached kind of camera just looking at reality. That is, our personalities are involved. As Newman said in the Apologia, “It is not logic that moved me but the whole person that moves.” Our will is involved there too because we have to have that desire for understanding. Without that desire to understand, if we assert (like Bertrand Russell) that asking whether life has any meaning is a senseless question, we will in fact stunt that desire at its very roots. But the desire to understand is surely in all of us as human beings.

In addition to highlighting tradition, Giussani brings another factor to the fore: community; a sense that we are part of a community. Here is another quotation from Giussani, which again strongly and vividly struck me as Newmanist: “…man is launched on life’s path with a tradition in his hands. Suppose he throws it away before putting it to use with the loyalty coming right from the very core of his being, before having really verified it. His refusal of something so inherent to his nature would betray a fundamental disloyalty in other aspects of his life as well, particularly with respect to himself and his destiny.”

Of course, Giussani finally reaches the fullness of reason just as Newman does. The fullness of reason in The Religious Sense is that boundless human desire to understand life, to understand the world. This desire pushes beyond; it goes on pushing until we reach what we call the Infinite or the mystery of God. Again, Giussani is very clear, as is Newman. The Mystery does not mean something vague, something hazy or mushy, something which is just called “mystery” because you have no idea what it is. Rather, it is that supreme reality which we call “Mystery” because the human mind can only comprehend it to a certain extent, can only comprehend certain aspects of it in a limited way.

The human mind drawn into that Mystery at the conclusion of reason’s journey (in the religious faith) is not a denial of reason but is rather the fullness of the dynamic and potential of human reason. Finally, at the end of the book, Giussani says something again which is absolutely Newmanian when he says (speaking about Newman), that the Gospel “is a supply to a demand”. I put it in a very English way, of course. Giussani puts it in a slightly different way, this hypothesis that Christian revelation is extremely convenient. It responds to human desire, adapts itself to the human being’s heart and nature.

English people can read it with great profit and certainly I did, as an enthusiast and student of Newman and I’m looking forward to buying the other two volumes.