“For Giussani, experience is ‘bumping into a sign, an objective reality that moves the person toward his telos, toward his destiny.’”
The late Italian priest Luigi Giussani (1922–2005) adopted the concept of “experience” as one of the architectonic principles of his thought.1 We can locate Giussani’s treatment of experience between Pius X’s condemnation of the modernist interpretation of the concept, and the revised understanding of the term that emerged in the Second Vatican Council, which attempted to overcome the yawning gap between faith and reason, praxis and theory. Although he was familiar with North American Protestant theology and Jean Mouroux’s work on experience, Giussani says that his understanding of experience is “totally original.”2 This “originality” does not consist in taking up the concept at a time when it was viewed with suspicion, or in assigning it a predominant role. Experience has been one of the main themes of philosophical and theological discussion for the last two centuries. Rather, the originality is in Giussani’s view of “experience” as able to address the existential, theological, and metaphysical impasse of the last century. His intention is to retrieve the unity and catholicity of Christian experience, and to illustrate that Christian experience is the fulfillment of human and religious experience.
To begin with, an inadequate or reductive understanding of “religious experience” has grim results: faith will be irrelevant to man’s existence; Christian dogmatics will be detached from its christological origin and ecclesiological context and be reduced to value-theory; and the Christian life will evaporate into common- sense ethics. Giussani is clear that “religious experience” is not simply a preambula fidei. It is instead a permanent dimension of human existence. He writes: “Jesus Christ did not come into the world as a substitute for human freedom or to eliminate human trial. He came into the world to call man back to the depths of all questions, to his own fundamental structure, to his own real situation. He came to call man back to true religiosity, without which every claim to a solution of the human problems is a lie.”3 For Giussani, religious experience is understood in light of the “origi- nal.” This means that both human and religious experience (or experience tout court) are grounded in original experience as he conceives it and are used interchangeably. Religious experience is at the origin of what are commonly called “natural religions” and finds its unexpected, unforeseen fulfillment in Christian experience.4 In what follows I will attempt to show what it means, according to Giussani, for man to experience God and himself, and in what sense Christian experience fulfills man’s original experience while also preserving it.
In order to approach the relations between God, man, and reality through the concept of experience, we will first address the primary problem of (post-)modernity: that is, the impossibility of arriving at truth in its original dimension of affirming reality, reality’s ground, and the knowing subject in a unity where mediation does not mean the end of difference (as in German idealism) or where différance takes the upper hand and dissolves unity (as in post-modern reflections).5 Admittedly, Giussani’s work was never intended to be an “academic” response to modernity’s problems (at least in the current sense of academy). It is necessary to resolve this issue, however, in order to maintain the claim that faith is pertinent to human existence.
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1. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis in The Doctrines of the Modernists (The Encyclical Pascendi of Pope Pius X) and Modernist Errors (The Decree Lamentabili of July 4, 1907), ed. L. Watt (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1937). In Vatican II see Gaudium et spes, 21; Dei Verbum, 8. For a balanced reflection on experience and Vatican II see Alessandro Maggiolini, “Magisterial Teaching on Experience in the Twentieth Century: From the Modernist Crisis to the Second Vatican Council,” Communio: International Catholic Review 23, no. 2 (1996): 225–43. For an introduction to the life and work of Msgr. Luigi Giussani see: Massimo Camisasca, Comunione e Liberazione, 3 vols. (Cinisello Balsamo: San Paolo, 2001–2007); id., Don Giussani. La sua esperienza dell’uomo e di Dio (Cinisello Balsamo: San Paolo, 2009); A Generative Thought. An Introduction to the Works of Luigi Giussani, ed. Elisa Buzzi (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).
2. Luigi Giussani, “Seminario con Msgr. Luigi Giussani (6 gennaio 1984),” in Annuario teologico (Milan: Istra-Edit, 1985), 131–35, at 134. For his work on Protestant theology see: “Attegiamenti protestanti e ortodossi davanti al dogma dell’Assunta,” La Scuola Cattolica 79 (1951): 106–13; “L’eucaristia nella Chiesa anglicana,” Ambrosius 29 (1953): 164–74; “Da Amsterdam ad Evanston (Cronaca Ecumenica),” La Scuola Cattolica 82 (1954): 133–50; “Il problema dell’intercomunione nel protestantesimo attuale,” Ambrosius 30 (1954): 258–63; “Il ricupero dei valori religiosi nel personalismo americano e la filosofia di Edgar Sheffield Brightman,” Filosofia e vita 8 (1967): 71–85; “Aspetti della concezione della storia in Reinhold Niebhur,” Rivista di filosofia neoscolastica 60 (1968): 167–90; Teologia protestante americana (Venegono: La scuola cattolica, 1969); Reinhold Niebuhr (Milan: Jaca Book, 1969); “La teologia protestante americana” in A.a.V.v., Problemi e orientamenti di teologia dogmatica (Milan: C. Marzorati, 1979): 691–98; Grande linee della teologia protestante americana (Milan: Jaca Book, 1989). For a comprehensive bibliography from 1951–1997 see id., Porta la Speranza (Genoa, Italy: Marietti, 1997), 205–260. Jean Mouroux, L’expérience chrétienne. Introduction à une théologie (Paris: Aubier, 1952). English translation: The Christian Experience: An Introduction to Theology, trans. George Lamb (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954).
3. Luigi Giussani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim (=AOCC), trans. Viviane Hewitt (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998), 97. This is also the task of the Church. See, e.g., id., Why the Church? (=WC), trans. Viviane Hewitt (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 147–62.
4. See AOCC, 11–28. Original and revealed experience should not be confused with Christian experience.
5. This pedagogical emphasis is not the same as a “pastoral” theology such as Karl Rahner suggests in, e.g., “Practical Theology Within the Totality of Theological Disciplines,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 9: Writings of 1965–1967 (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1972), 101–14.