Jason Blakely. Photo by Amy Hickl (cropped).

From Formalism to Authenticity

We publish the text of Jason Blakely's remarks on March 12, 2019, during the Life of Luigi Giussani book tour.

We publish the text of Jason Blakely's remarks on March 12, 2019, during the Life of Luigi Giussani book tour. Blakely is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University.

First I want to thank Alberto Savorana for his act of memory in writing a biography of Luigi Giussani. An act of memory can also be an act of love—to remember is to bring back, to recall into reality. And I am certainly indebted to those like Savorana and his friends who have remembered and recalled this Italian teacher and theologian into my own daily life. Giussani has achieved great relevance for me, even though I live in what to him would have been a foreign city and learned about his teaching years after his death.

Perhaps because I am a political philosopher by training I was asked to focus my remarks on lessons learned from Giussani’s dramatic experience of the student uprisings of 1968 in Milan—a key moment in the formation of Communion and Liberation. But I must begin by emphasizing that what are often referred to as “the Sixties” were not entirely the same in Italy as in America. As Savorana’s biography makes clear, the Italian Sixties were gripped by intense and often violent Cold War conflict. Italy was home to the largest Communist party in Western Europe avowing explicitly Maoist and Stalinist ideologies. This Marxist Left faced off against an ultranationalist, sometimes openly fascist Right in conflicts that often devolved into para-militarized violence. By contrast, the American Left was largely pacifistic or “hippie,” did not mobilize around militarized Marxism, and focused its energies on civil rights, ecology, second wave feminism, and above all opposition to the Vietnam War.

When the first rumblings of student unrest began in Milan, Giussani was a middle-aged priest who had only been teaching theology for a few years at the Catholic University. Savorana narrates in detail how the University’s raising of student tuitions late in 1967 helped provoke the political upheavals of 1968. At that time Giussani was already a magnetic presence at the University, who had gathered a number of young Christian students around him. Yet when tuitions were raised many of these young Christians joined the Communists in the occupation of the university. Although not necessarily a problematic gesture in itself, as the political upheaval spread and intensified large numbers of Christian students left both Giussani and the Church.

Giussani felt torn by these developments. On the one hand, he understood why many of his students admired the Marxist Left. For example, Savorana relates how when Giussani was still teaching at Berchet High School he noticed there was a particularly unified, passionate group of students. When he inquired who they were he was astonished to learn that they were the Communists. “Their steady friendship impressed me,” Giussani later noted. “Why aren’t Christians as capable of living in unity as the Communists?

The Communist students were also exemplary in a second key respect. Namely, they were more deeply attuned to the world’s injustices. From a Christian perspective, they brought attention to how the current social and economic order is never the same as the Kingdom of Heaven or God’s form of communion. In doing so they often exhibited a deeper and more urgent desire for a renewed freedom and solidarity than many of the Christians around them. Too many Christians, by contrast, had grown complacent with a culture of conformity and lacked the desire for a deeper freedom and solidarity.

Yet Giussani also believed the Marxist Left was deeply problematic. Most importantly many had become engulfed in violent abstractions. Their form of humanism—lacking the merciful face of Christ—often became captive to a demand for immediate and unconditional change veering into acts of violence. There was no way to stay in communion with humans who stood between them and the future society. No mercy seemed reasonable before the heightened demands of justice. In this way, the Marxist Left offered a reworked, ideological conception of heaven—one achieved solely through human effort and, if need be, violent revolutionary action.

What was missing according to Giussani was an awareness not only of the need to change structures and societies but also oneself—what Giussani called “a revolution of our flesh and bones.” Yes, society needed to always demand greater justice and imagine new solidarities. Christians could learn of a deeper desire for freedom and communion from the Communists. But in contrast to the Communists, Giussani insisted “something needs to come first, something permanent, something ontological.” What was missing was the ability to love and stay in communion with the human person in all his or her limitedness. The revolution of flesh and bones was the radical conversion of the human heart to love the other precisely amid their flaws and imperfections. Justice without mercy ceased to be just.

This last point is particularly relevant to the current political situation. For many in our society today are being swallowed up by ideological abstractions and are readying themselves to do violence in the name of abstractions—“nation,” “capitalism,” “freedom,” “Christendom.” As Dostoevsky (one of Giussani’s favorite novelists) famously wrote in Demons: “It was not you who swallowed the idea, but the idea that swallowed you.” When an idea swallows us, we abandon the revolution of flesh and bones, we are no longer capable of mercy with the flesh. All are sacrificed before the idol of abstraction. As Giussani put it, “the point where Christian discourse radically wars against any ideology is the person.”

One might believe this made Giussani ripe for the radical reactionary politics that Savorana describes as animating Italy’s Right. But Giussani instead rejected the nationalist Right’s attempt to preserve the Italian life-world by force if necessary, returning to a prior era. In Europe such restorationist projects could sometimes take on nostalgia for the Medieval age or some other imagined Golden Age when the religious world was supposedly a great seamless garment.

Where the Marxist Left had an ideologized version of heaven, the reactionary Right’s intense political nostalgia amounted to an ideologized usurpation of Eden. Specifically, what Giussani saw that the reactionary Right missed is that these earlier epochs, far from Edenic, had been plagued by the problem of formalism. One of Giussani’s great early insights was to recognize that the disorientation of the Sixties in fact had roots in what looked to be the relative tranquility of the 1950s.

The problem of the 1950s was what Giussani over and over again called “formalism.” Giussani defined formalism as a way of embodying faith that no longer bears the content of a real religious experience. Instead, it is transmitted as a set of moral codes, structures, doctrines, and patterns of behavior but not the incarnation of a new communion or love. Italian culture in the 1950s appeared to be Catholic everywhere one looked. But, in fact, there was a “faith that is no longer religiousness.” There were customs, rituals, values, habits, even doctrines but nothing alive and present. Faith was an ideological shell.

Worse than that because formalism can be used by nationalist movements as a way to generate political allegiance it is often strongly coercive in a way that is incompatible with the Gospel’s appeal to a conversion of the heart through love. In other words, formalism is often in actual social and political reality what I will call armed. Armed formalism can happen in many ways. One way is through subtle social ostracization (i.e. you are not really Polish or Colombian if you are not Catholic; or you are not really a true American unless you are a certain kind of Christian). But armed formalism can also employ actual physical violence. Sometimes through state action, war, militarism, and genocide but also through a violent microphysics of power to mandate Christian moralism. Here one might fruitfully join Giussani’s critique of formalism with what the French theorist, Michel Foucault, famously called disciplinary society, in which institutions of medicine, psychology, and health are used to practice constant surveillance and normalization of individuals.

Many Christians today do not join what Giussani would call a true communion, but instead a coercive disciplinary society—a society that watches and normalizes moral behavior through persistent corrections. What is clear from Savorana’s biography is that Giussani rejected coercive formalism and reversion to a lost mythic age of religious-political unity. As he said in an interview from 1977: “Who could possibly still be dreaming of a pre-industrial society? Christianity means having relevance in a human way, and that means following the course of history.

This brings me to what Giussani learned by following the path of history and retaining an openness to the students of 1968. As Savorana writes, one of Giussani’s key contributions was that he “proposed a new point of departure to respond to the sign of the times.” One of Giussani’s great spiritual gifts was the humility to learn from those who were not Christian—and to learn even something profound about his own faith.

In a word, what Giussani learned from the Sixties youth was authenticity. Here was a generation of young people who would not accept anything that did not first pass through their “I”—that did not become theirs. They were not going to marry, or follow a moral code, or attend to rituals, or identify as Catholic because it was the “Italian” or “Western” thing to do. This ethos of authenticity reverberated across North Atlantic societies and found expression in perhaps the most potent poet of that time, Bob Dylan, who famously wrote the lyrics: “I try my best to be just like I am / But everybody wants you to be just like them.” This was what Giussani saw as the gift of the Sixties, “its basic demand for authenticity in [all] things … a greater authenticity in life, in public life … and a human restlessness always prompted by a need for authenticity.”

Paradoxically, what Giussani found helpful about authenticity is that it offered a return to the very thing much of the Sixties rejected, namely tradition. But this was a tradition now purged of deadening and coercive formalism. What became possible was a genuinely unarmed Christian witness that appealed to the human heart—a witness not unlike that of the Patristic Age of the Church. In this way authenticity offered a path out of the armed formalism of the long Eusibian and Constantinian turn. As Giussani said it allowed him and his friends to “go back to the origin, to how [faith] … started.”

And how did faith start? According to Giussani, faith started as the “event” of an unarmed witness of love. An event is a happening in Being (for example, a traffic jam, a wedding, a war) but here the key event is the happening in Being of Christ’s person. Jesus is a person who offers first and foremost his love of our destiny. How do we know it’s Christ’s person? Because a new solidarity, a new communion becomes possible, one that the world deemed impossible. This new solidarity is God’s communion, God’s way of being in relationship with us, which is sharply different from human political communities. Christ’s love is not bounded by nation, class, ethnicity, sex, power, merit, or ability. Instead, Christianity starts as a relationship of love—it is closer to falling in love with someone than it is to learning a code, let alone mobilizing around an abstract ideology. This is the genius of Giussani’s way to holiness—being (as event) always comes before knowing.

Our own situation today is very different than the one facing Giussani. What is so different is the Sixties generation is passing from the scene. And what attracts today again is an armed formalism, a politics of nostalgia, and often ideologized, nationalized Edens. But this is a nostalgia for a past, national unity that precisely Giussani’s life should warn us never existed. Today there is great spiritual and political energy gathering around a restorationist movement to install Christian formalism via the state and other disciplinary actions. This is often through a nationalist narrative—that you are not really Russian, British, American, Italian, unless you are also formally Christian. This generates various xenophobias and increasingly violent suspicion of religious and ethnic outsiders. Frequently today the narrative is subtly racialized. Western Civilization and White Christianity are cloaked in power and the state.

This disincarnated mobilization of Christianity as values is the religion of Eusibius or of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. It is a formalistic, reactionary Christianity at risk of becoming completely divorced from the revolution of flesh and bones that Giussani championed. The message of the Gospels is reduced to rules and a nationalistic moral code. There is zero love and zero companionship (or perhaps instead of the communion of the Church there is the rival communion of the nation). But this is an absurd Gospel that has subtly subtracted Jesus.

Writing in 1968 Giussani prophetically observed: “Christian communion is not an empire,” nor is it “formulas, dogmas, abstract concepts, and ideas.” Throughout his entire life Giussani held Christianity is not reducible to ideology or to formal national or racial belonging.

The greatest threat to Christian faith today, is a false mirror-image form of Christian faith. An armed formalism that in the name of civilization and nation inaugurates acts of state-sponsored coercion and lone acts of violence against other human beings. Christians would do well to learn from Giussani’s call to convert from formalism to authenticity. Authenticity allows for a return to the Church’s original, patristic position—disarmed. It saves us from the temptation of power and armed formalism. As Giussani said many decades ago Christians must be “for pluralism, and if there is something that worries us, it’s that pluralism is not lived and respected enough.”

In some sense Christians are put in the paradoxical position today of defending the Sixties culture of authenticity but precisely in the name of living tradition. As Giussani saw Christianity is always a messenger from beyond, an “unimaginable” “witness of divine love and a sign of contradiction” that hopes to “transfigure the structures … from within through divine love.”