The Nature of Experience

Growing Human: The Experience of God and of Man in the Work of Luigi Giussani

Antonio López

“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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