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The Fundamental Decision

In the now classic The essence of Christianity, Romano Guardini, one of the greatest thinkers of the XX century, accompanies the believer in the recognition and comprehension of the nature of his faith. We offer here the first chapter of the text.



The fact of the person Jesus



In the development of the Christian life, there is a time in which the believer is spontaneously Christian. For him, being Christian means the same thing as being a believer, as simply being pious. Without a doubt Christianity forms his entire religious world and all questions arise within its scope. Thus it was, generally, for Western collective life during the Middle Ages and remained for individuals as long as they grew up in a unitary Christian atmosphere. Later however, the Christian became aware of the fact that there are other religious possibilities. The believer, without doubts up to now, begins to ask himself what is the truth. He confronts, judges and feels pushed to decide.


In this process of becoming conscious and taking a position, the question of what is that which is peculiar to Christianity has decisive importance. What exactly constitutes the particular quality which belongs only to Christianity, in virtue of which it was founded and distinguishes itself from other religious possibilities?


To the degree that the immediate connection with Christian reality slackens and the other possibilities are not just considered, but perceived within, the question becomes more urgent.


The problem related to the "essence" of Christianity has been resolved in different ways. It has been said that this essence consists in the fact that the individual personality comes to occupy the central position in the religious consciousness; that God becomes manifest as Father and the individual stands before Him in a relationship of pure immediacy; that love for one's neighbour becomes the decisive value and so on,up to those attempts to demonstrate that Christianity is in highest conformity with reason, that it contains the purest morality, or that it best accords with the requirements of nature.



All these answers are incorrect, above all else, because they limit the fullness of Christian totality in favour of one particular moment which, for diverse reasons, is felt to be the most important. The unsatisfactory nature of these answers is shown by the fact that it is almost always possible to counter them with other solutions that are equally justifiable and, naturally, equally unsatisfactory. Thus one could say with solid reasons that the nucleus of Christianity consists of the discovery of an "us" which is understood religiously, or rather the discovery of super-individual totality; one could say that it manifests the inaccessibility of God and is therefore the religion of a mediator; that through the primacy of love for God, it eliminates the direct love of one's neighbour and so on, - until we arrive at those affirmations which claim that it is the religion which most radically challenges the pretexts of reason, that negates the primacy of morality and suggests nature welcome that which is intimately its opposite.


But these answers are also false for this reason - and here is the decisive element - : because they are posed in the form of an abstract definition, they reduce the object to a general concept. But this contrasts with Christianity's most profound conscience because in this way Christianity is referred to natural presuppositions, precisely to that which experience and thought mean by personality, religious immediacy, love, reason, ethics, nature, etc. In truth Christianity cannot resolve itself in such natural categories. That which Christ preached as "love", that which Paul and John mean when they speak of love in the light of their Christian conscience, is not that universal human phenomenon usually referred to by this word, nor is it the purification or sublimation of it, but something else. It presupposes the progeny of God. This in turn is clearly distinguished from what is meant by the common concept of history of religion, for example when one says that the religious man moves toward divinity in the form of a father-son relationship. Rather it signifies the rebirth of the believer in the living God, which takes place through the Spirit of Christ. Thus love for one's neighbour in the New Testament sense signifies the appreciation and attitude which are possible from that perspective.


The same is true for Christianity's "interiority", which is not a phenomenon from the history of general psychology, as it would have been had this interiority begun with the dissolution of the objective consciousness of the ancients; with the penetration of Nordic spirituality; or if it had developed historically in Renaissance individualism or in the personal consciousness of the modern period.


It signifies rather the peculiar sphere in which the believer is finally withdrawn from meaning based on the world and history; it is above the believer or within him, as it is sometimes put. This is the place where those redeemed in Christ stand before «God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ» (2 Cor. 1:3) and have only Him as their foundation. As soon as Christ disappears, Christian interiority is reduced. Christian love is naturally human love and in its concrete manifestation all the attitudes and acts which characterise human love are found. Naturally the phenomenon of Christian interiority also includes all the strengths and values of the processes of interiorisation manifested in the course of history and in the individual's life: but the most important aspect is the distinction. In the consciousness of responsibility before the revealed God, that which is specifically different must be underlined. Different at least from the point of view of its pretext and its original source, no matter how confused its realization may be.


That which is Christian cannot be derived from worldly premises and its essence cannot be determined with natural categories, because in this way its peculiarity is eliminated. If this is to be grasped, it can only be drawn from its own field. Christianity must be directly questioned and the answer must be drawn from it. Only then will its essence be characterised as something peculiar to itself which cannot be resolved in something else. It exceeds natural thought and speech, which reduce all things, as far as they are different, to the supreme categories imposed by experience and logic. Christianity does not adapt itself to these categories. Therefore only when reflection makes one recognise that Christianity, despite all the common elements of material existence, cannot finally be resolved in or reduced to the world, does its essential structure emerge clearly.



Lastly, Christianity is not a theory of Truth, nor an interpretation of life. It is also this, but its essential nucleus does not consist of this. The kernel of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, His concrete existence, His work, His destiny that is, an historical person. The person for whom a particular individual has an essential meaning perceives a certain analogy with such a situation. In this case it is not "Humanity" or the "human" which become important, but "this" person. He determines all the rest, as profoundly and universally as the relationship is intense. This can happen in a manner that possesses one so much that everything, world, destiny, work, is fulfilled in the person loved, as if he were contained in everything, everything makes one think of him, he gives meaning to everything. In the experience of a great love, all the world is collected in the I-Thou relationship, and everything that happens becomes an event in this sphere. The personal element, to which love attends in the final analysis and which represents the highest elements of the world's reality, penetrates and determines every other form: space and landscape, stones, trees, animals. . .


All this is true, but it resonates solely between this I and this Thou. To the degree that love becomes enlightened, it comes to demand less that the focal point of the world for oneself must be the same for the rest of the world as well. Such a pretext could be just from the lyric point of view, but for others it would be foolish. In Christianity things are otherwise. The fact that Jesus is for man the decisive religious reality does not depend on the love encounter's presence, but it is so unconditionally and of its own nature. That it is understood as such by the individual, is not a possibility left to chance, like the awakening of an inclination that comes when it comes, but is rather a necessity imposed on consciousness.


Christianity affirms that for the incarnation of the Son of God, for His death and His resurrection, for the mystery of faith and grace, all creation is asked to renounce its own -apparent- autonomy and submit itself to the reign of a concrete person, that is, Jesus Christ, and to make this one's decisive rule. From the logical point of view this is a paradox, because it seems to put the reality of the person in danger. But even personal sentiment rebels against this. Since accepting a general law which has been demonstrated to be correct - be it a law of nature or of thought or morality - is not difficult for a person. He recognises that in such a law he continues to be himself. On the contrary, he sees that the recognition of such general laws can be transformed into personal action. But he needs to recognise another person as the supreme law of the entire sphere of religious life and of one's existence - one opposes this with elementary liveliness, and one understands what the request to renounce one's own spirit means.