'Martin Luther' by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Via Wikimedia Commons

Experience in Giussani and Protestantism

A Catholic convert, the University of Pennsylvania theologian demonstrates the novelty of Fr. Giussani’s ideas for the American mindset and Protestant culture.
Rodney Howsare

Rodney Howsare is Associate Professor of Theology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. He has a profound understanding of American Protestant religion and theology, not only for professional and scholarly reasons but also because he is himself a convert from Protestantism to the Catholic Church. This gives him a particularly favorable vantage point to grasp some of the resonances of Fr. Giussani’s teaching in the American culture and mentality. In an address he gave for the presentation of Fr. Giussani’s ideas at Marquette University in 2000, he explained why he, an avid reader of The Religious Sense since his undergraduate years, felt it was essential to include Giussani’s trilogy among the texts studied in his theology course. He stressed the power of this work to go straight to the heart of the truly crucial issues in current theological discussion, revealing the radical force of their human and cultural implications.

His observations on the impact of the idea of experience and its theological and religious reception across the Atlantic is a clear example of this judgment. It reveals aspects perhaps not fully understood, and to some extent even surprising, of the originality and novelty of Fr. Giussani’s ideas in America, as well as other countries.
(Elisa Buzzi)

One aspect of the late Fr. Giussani’s thought that has consistently stirred up controversy is his repeated appeal to experience. This has been an especially sore subject for certain Protestant thinkers coming out of the so-called “Yale” school. At a Risk of Education conference some years back, Stanley Hauerwas, for instance, after offering some high praise, admitted his reservations concerning Fr. Giussani’s appeal to human experience. Knowing a little about the history of Protestant thought on experience might help to clarify Hauerwas’s concerns, but also, hopefully, distinguish Giussani’s thought from some of the less helpful appeals to experience that have appeared in recent years.

That Protestant history evidences a very strange relationship with the idea of experience can be traced right back to the beginning. Already in Martin Luther there was a paradoxical and not entirely consistent theology of experience. In the first place, it is hard to imagine a theologian prior to Luther for whom individual spiritual experience had as large an impact. Even if modern Luther scholars wish to downplay the importance of Luther’s “terrified conscience” for his early theology of justification by faith alone, it is hard to argue that it had no impact. It was Luther’s early experience of never feeling justified before God that led him to search the Scriptures for a better theology of justification than the one he had received in his nominalist training. It was for this reason that he was attracted to Paul’s theology of justification by faith.

Protestant suspicion
However–and here comes the other side of Luther’s theology of experience–once I have come to realize that God justifies me on account of my faith, I must ignore my experience or feeling of unworthiness before God. Luther’s theology demands that we get our sights off of our religious experience and onto Christ. It seems to me that this is the origin of the classical Protestant suspicion of experience. While my experience may mislead me, the Gospel never will. The movement of the person toward God (what Benedict XVI refers to as eros in his first encyclical) is replaced by God’s justifying movement toward the person (agape). Since my movement toward God can do nothing to contribute to my justification, all is left to God’s movement toward me.

This initial suspicion of experience is only exacerbated after the history of Protestant Liberalism. Recall that Protestant Liberalism no longer believed that God could reach us through the medium of history. It was Lessing who said that the accidental events of history cannot provide the ground for the necessary truths of reason. The subsequent history of Liberal Protestant theology is little more than a footnote on that statement. And it was the great Friedrich Schleiermacher who built his entire theology upon the experience (feeling) of absolute dependence. Schleiermacher basically accepted Lessing’s statement and so tried to find another way in which God could reveal Himself to us. Since we can’t rely on the Bible (which records events that may or may not have happened in history, and which are, at any rate, extrinsic to us), we must rely on something universal and necessary, the human feeling of absolute dependence. All Christian doctrine must now be explained in light of this universal experience, an experience which was too often the measure of doctrine. This explains why the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, gets short shrift in Schleiermacher’s mature theology; it didn’t seem to correspond to anything from the side of human experience.

Agape and eros
The history of Protestantism is certainly marked by the two extremes outlined above: either we direct our faith to God as revealed in history (objectivism) or we salvage what we can of the Christian faith on the basis of some alleged universal experience (subjectivism). George Lindbeck’s famous critique of “experiential expressivism” is but another episode in this history. I should add that Lindbeck does not necessarily fall into the opposite extreme, as his critique of cognitive-propositionalism should make clear. In any case, Hauerwas’s fear of Giussani’s use of experience has at least something to do with his own reaction to Protestant Liberalism (not to mention his exposure to Lindbeck).

And this is not to say that there have not been more or less successful ways of negotiating these extremes in certain varieties of Protestantism. Jonathan Edwards’s theology of experience, for instance, serves like an oasis in the desert of rationalistic Calvinism. In Edwards’s theology, there is an effort to resist the false objectivism mentioned above: if Christianity is simply the revelation of truths that find no correspondence in the human heart, then why should anybody believe or practice it? If agape (God’s selfless descending love) is simply the opposite of eros (humanity’s striving for a selfless love and transcendence), then eros can only be saved if it is destroyed. The Good News of the Gospel can elicit religious affections in Edwards’s view precisely because it corresponds to something deep within the human heart, even if that “something deep” is itself the result of a gift of God.

Nature and grace
Perhaps some of Hauerwas’s fear stems from an inordinate canonization of Wittgenstein’s theory of language. In such a view, one cannot redeem a bad word, insofar as words are not tools we use in order to express a prior thought. The assumption here is that, because experience has been put to such bad use before, it comes to us now with a great deal of freight that we can’t accept. But Giussani’s use of the word does not stem from the corruption of Liberal Protestantism. It stems, rather, from his desire to combat the lifeless but orthodox Catholicism of post-war Italy. It’s almost synonymous with Paul’s believing with the “heart” or Newman’s “real assent.” In fact, I think one must associate Giussani’s use of experience with de Lubac’s treatment of nature and grace. Human beings have a natural desire for God (a necessarily experiential sort of thing), but such a natural desire cannot give what it wants. It cannot sustain itself. Only the free gift of grace can take nature to where it wants to go but cannot go on its own. And that means that even my experience must be willing to allow itself to be measured by a norm other than itself. Indeed, this is what it naturally wants! Giussani’s “experience,” then, far from undermining the need for an objective revelation of God in Jesus Christ, actually prepares the way for it.