Some Thoughts on the Religious Sense

Douglas P. McManaman
July 28, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

Whoever has left the darkness of sin yearns for God . (The Roman Breviary, Sunday, Morning Prayer, Psalter, Week I).

The experience of our own contingency is something all of us have, and for some of us, this experience has been particularly acute and perhaps frightening. I believe this sense of our own contingency is especially heightened when we are young. As I child, I recall a number of occasions when I had a sudden intuition that I could not verbally articulate, but if I were to do so now, I believe it would be accurate to say that it was a profound realization that my existence is not necessary (i.e., contingent), that I need not be here; of course I am here, I am in the world, but I simply need not be and it is purely gratuitous that I am here.

This experience is one of radical dependency, which is why it can - and did in my case - give rise to a sudden fear. I am not sufficient unto myself, I depend radically on someone or something; my whole existence depends not on me, but on someone or something 'other'. With further experience I come to the realization that this dependency is multi aspectual: I depend on oxygen, on the air outside of me in order to breath and continue to live, I depend on food and drink, and I depend on others to provide food, etc., and I know through simple apprehension that other people are of the same kind as me, they are like me, and so they too are radically dependent. I may depend on a parent, but I also know immediately that my parent also depends on someone or something - even though I may keep that knowledge from becoming explicit. I recognize my finitude and limited capacity, and I recognize the finitude of others, including my parents on whom I depend in many ways. Everyone and everything in my experience is limited and dependent: plants depend on water and sunlight, animals depend on food and water, etc.

I also know intuitively and pre-consciously that an infinite regress of dependents is unintelligible and cognitively insufficient. In other words, I intuit an independent upon which all contingent things depend. And if I intuit my own finitude, I also intuit in some way, simultaneously, "infinitude". If I experience my own contingency, it seems to me that I intuit necessity as a backdrop, so to speak. I know, at some level, that all contingent things depend on a non-contingent, that is, "the Necessary being" that is without limits, who is absolutely independent. This Necessary being that is independent and first, and absolutely without limits, without beginning and without end, is unknown to me; it is intelligible as a complete and utter darkness, one that is real and indirectly knowable nonetheless. I only know it as unknown. But the entire universe proceeds from that Necessary being, because the universe is the sum of the contingencies (beings, events, activities, changes, etc.) that make it up. There is also a sense in which the universe reflects the Necessary being in some way, is an image of it, a distant image (because everything in the universe is contingent and finite), but the universe as a whole is experienced by me as inconceivably larger than me and without spatial limits, and has secrets that are revealed to me only gradually.

Some of us experience a certain awe before this mystery. There is an "Other" that is totally unlike me upon whom we all depend. It is large, infinitely so, it is unknown, mysterious, necessary, and eternal. I am naturally inclined to seek relationship with this mystery, just as I naturally seek relationship with other human beings and other things in my environment. In fact, the drive for science may very well be a fundamentally religious quest.

To continue this from a slightly different angle, I know from within that I have a desire for completion; thus, I experience my incompleteness and finitude. I desire happiness, or fulfillment. Specifically, I desire a happiness that endures, that does not come to an end, one that is complete, and one that is independent or sufficient unto itself, that is, a happiness that is not precarious, dependent upon unforeseeable and contingent factors. But there is nothing in my direct experience that answers to this desire. Moreover, I cannot desire what I do not know. It follows that at some level at least, I know that there is an "Other" that answers to this desire - otherwise I would not desire it - for I cannot desire what I do not know. In other words, there is a "self-sufficient" (independent), an eternal, and there is a completeness that completes me, which is why I look outside of myself for completeness. Now, when I say I look outside of myself, I do not mean spatially outside. I look to something "other than" myself, but that "Other" is not me but is within me in some way, because I know it at some level, and knowledge is "in me". It is within me and at the same time other than me.

This, I believe, is the religious sense. It can be dulled and I believe it is severely dulled in some people, and it is character that dulls it, that is, bad character. Selfishness dulls this sense; sensuality dulls it, for the Necessary being is not sensible, and happiness is not sensual; for it is contingencies, that is, things or events contingent and limited that give pleasure, but pleasure is as limited and finite as the things that cause it. A preoccupation or excessive love of the sensual causes a person to lose sight of the Necessary being. In other words, disordered love of self dulls the religious sense.

When a child does something that is good in and of itself - not merely delectably good, or good for his own private self, but good as such, for example, when he gives his last candy to a stranger because in his mind it is good to do so, the implication is he recognizes the good as such, in contradistinction to his own private good; and he loves the good as such, that is, he loves this larger good over his own limited and private good. By willing that good over his own private good, he disposes himself to see the good as such more clearly; in other words, the distinction between his own private and limited good and the good as such is more pronounced in his own mind, and thus he comes to a deeper awareness of it - a deeper religious sense. The one who loves his own delectable good over the good as such in-disposes himself to the awareness of that transcendent good. His own private good becomes the principal good in his own life. Gradually he dulls his natural religious sense, and gradually, certain alternatives become more or less appealing to him than other alternatives. Thus, his interests change, and along with that change of interest come different problems and different questions to solve those problems.