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A conversation about the nature of the self and its relevance in the formation of a people between Fabrice HADJADJ, writer and philosopher, and David SCHINDLER, Dean Emeritus of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at Catholic University of America.
Nowadays, the debate on what constitutes and defines the human person is very much alive. Can personhood be described in purely biological terms, as suggested by a widespread scientistic approach? Can it be re-created, or even surpassed, by the development of artificial intelligence, as the proponents of a “singularity” predict? What make us essentially different from an ape or a robot, if anything?
“The religious sense is reason's capacity to express its own profound nature in the ultimate question; it is the "locus" of awareness that a human being has regarding existence. Such an inevitable question is in every individual, in the way he looks at everything. The Anglo-American philosopher, Alfred N. Whitehead, defines religion in this way: "Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness."
The definition, although interesting, does not fully express the value of the intuition that gave it birth. True, this ultimate question is indeed constitutive of the individual. And in that sense, the individual is totally alone. He himself is that question, and nothing else. For, if I look at a man, a woman, a friend, a passerby, without the echo of that question resounding within me, without that thirsting for destiny which constitutes him or her, then our relationship would not be human much less loving at any level whatsoever. It would not, in fact, respect the dignity of the other, be suitable to the human dimension of the other. But that same question, in the very same instant that it defines my solitude, also establishes the root of my companionship, because this question means that I myself am constituted by something else mysterious.
So, if we wanted to complete Whitehead's definition, then yes, religion is, in fact, what the individual does with his own solitariness; but it is also where the human person discovers his essential companionship. Such companionship is, then, more original to us than our solitude. This is true inasmuch as my structure as question is not generated by my own will; it is given to me. Therefore, before solitude there is companionship, which embraces my solitude. Because of this, solitude is no longer true solitude, but a crying out to that hidden companionship.
A suggestive echo of all of this is to be found in the poetry of the 1951 Nobel Prize for Literature, Pär Lagerkvist:
My friend is a stranger, someone I do not know. A stranger far, far away. For his sake my heart is full of disquiet because he is not with me. Because, perhaps, after all he does not exist? Who are you who so fill my heart with your absence? Who fill the entire world with your absence?”
(Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense, McGill)