Introductory remarks as moderator at the Giussani Series on Faith and Modernity event “Can a Modern Person Still Reasonably Believe in Divinity?”
Tonight we gather as a way of recalling the life and writings of Luigi Giussani. Fr. Luigi Giussani is well-known as the founder of Communion and Liberation and the author of numerous books such as The Religious Sense. But what is less understood about him was how he broke through the conventional opposition between liberalism and traditionalism, and proposed Christianity in a way that answers the challenges of modernity to the Christian faith.
One crucial question for modernity perhaps can be seen as a twist on the perennial question of evil: in the face of so much misery, division and war, how can the existence of God be justified to man?
Giussani responded to this challenge by asking all of us: Where do we see God in the midst of our everyday realities, not just some of them, but all of them?
As a person of faith, I have in fact greatly struggled to understand the continuing existence of war, misery and human suffering, which have often been the subjects of my own work as a sociologist.
Now when I tell people I teach sociology and theology at Princeton, I get a puzzled look.
From those who know that sociology emerged to develop a modern, empirical science of the human good without need for the transcendent or the eternal, I get questions like: How do those two fields even go together? How did you end up working in those two disciplines?
I answer those questions by saying that I increasingly found myself limited by the vocabulary about human experiences that I found in sociology or psychology, so I increasingly read philosophy and theology. When I first read Guissani’s books for the first time only a few years ago, I quickly saw he had an ability to break through the fragmentation of human experience so common in modernity and guide us in the universal desire to ponder our ultimate origins and ends as human beings.
The way in which Guissani does this is by calling us to pay close attention to the seemingly disparate events of our lives, and immerse ourselves in reality. In that way, we develop a contemplative outlook, where we don’t need to dominate nature and control our destiny. Rather, we ponder the unexpected happenings in our lives and savor our special chosen-ness to have experienced every single moment of reality. In this way, we come to see how all our experiences point us from the reality of each moment to the presencethat is always there, animating those moments, and reaching out to us.
As Guissani said:
“Every day we are called to experience this subtle, discreet jolt of resurrection: we have a point of light, a desire to know, an impetus of gratuitous good, a passion for the destiny of men and of things-it is like a projection of love for our own destiny-and within this, slowly, as time passes
all things are embraced and involved until the culmination…How right it would be if the boldness or keenness of this awareness of self and of things that the eternal implies were as vibrant and intense as they could be.” (Luigi Guissani, “On the Way: Notes from a Talk of Luigi Guissani with Some University Students.” La Thuile, August 1992.)
As Guissani expressed in this quote and other writings, it is in encountering an other that we become more fully a person; whereas in pursuing autonomy we never feel complete. So often in trying to be autonomous we end up depending on other finite human beings, or on substances, or on entertainment to fulfill us. It’s our dependence on God that frees us and makes our daily reality full of joyful encounters again!
For Guissani, theology was not just a set of abstract ideas. His theology animated his pedagogy as an educator of so many young people, his vocation as a priest and founder of Communion and Liberation, and his relationship with everyone he met of every background.