Modern Man Continues to Search for God

Father Adriano Alessi on the Philosophy of Religion

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ROME, AUG. 30, 2004 ( Man continues to satisfy his desire for God, but persists in the temptation to do so in ways that are different from those to which God calls him, says Salesian priest and philosopher Father Adriano Alessi.

Professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Salesian University, Father Alessi is the author of «On the Ways of the Sacred,» published six years ago in the original Italian by the Salesian publishing House LAS.

Ediciones Cristianas is publishing the book in Spanish under the title “The Ways of the Sacred: Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion.”

In the following interview the author reflects on the essence of religion and the inward and outward dimension of religious experience.

Q: Are we witnessing a return to the sacred?

Father Alessi: It is not possible to answer with a yes or a no. I believe there is a triple distinction between «return to God,» «return to the thirst for God,» and «return to the awareness for the need of God.»

In relation to the first meaning—the return to God—I believe that one cannot speak of it as such, for the simple reason that God has never abandoned man nor has he ever diminished his saving will in regard to humanity.

Likewise, I do not think that we can speak appropriately of the return to the thirst for God, given that man, whether or not he is aware of it, is always objectively in need of God, and cannot fulfill himself other than by entering into communion with the absolute.

In regard to the third meaning, which concerns the effective resurgence of the awareness of modern man’s need for God, an appropriate answer would have to be given by a sociologist, not by a theologian or a philosopher.

Nevertheless, I think that few are the authors who say that the process of secularization has often led to a flowering of many sacred experiences. Some are genuine, others—not a few—are problematic because rather than a search for the sacred they appear more as a flight towards esotericism.

Q: Why is it difficult to distinguish between what is and what is not religion?

Father Alessi: Religion, examined from the housetops, that is, in its human dimension, is an extremely complex historic-cultural phenomenon.

The forms with which faith in God have been configured in the course of history are varied and at times contrasting.

Suffice it to think of the configuration that the divine assumes in the religion of primitive and illiterate peoples, or of the monist, dualist, polytheist, or monotheist manifestation with which the absolute is experienced by many believers.

The above, with the exception of the «sui generis» configuration proper of Buddhism, in which, in addition to the search for an eschatological salvation, we see the absence of a divine being, in the traditional sense of the term.

Therefore, it is not easy or correct to want to reduce so much complexity to just one common denominator. Though, when it comes to authentic religious beliefs, it should not be impossible to identify some elements that belong to the essence of religious faith.

Q: In a few words, what is religion?

Father Alessi: A relationship with the divinity. Religion, in the sense of human religious experience, can be defined as a conscious and correct correlation of man with the divinity. This definition follows the line of Thomist thought which connotes it as «ordo ad Deum.»

Thus, it is a relationship or, if you prefer, an existential dialogue that is established between man and God.

Our attitude before God may be defined as religious if it is characterized by correctness at the noetic level and in terms of behavior.

The authentic Christian is the one who has a conception of the divine in accordance with the Christian faith. The authentic Muslim is the believer who conducts himself in keeping with the praxis of Islam.

Q: What are the ways of the sacred?

Father Alessi: I think that here too there is need for a distinction. If by «ways of the sacred» we understand the ways through which God calls men today, we must say that these ways are infinite and inscrutable. They are all those through whom the Absolute in his infinite wisdom and goodness chooses to realize his plan of salvation.

Moreover, if we understand «ways of the sacred» as the ways through which man attempts to respond to the divine call, the answer must then reflect the many forms with which men of good will undertake the search for God. It can be by following the ways marked out by the great historical religions, or by following the more precarious ways of the new forms of religiosity.

We must note that these new ways, even if subjectively valid, to the degree that they are followed with purity of intention, are not objectively equivalent to the others, although all have need of purification in different ways.

Q: Does New Age have a future?

Father Alessi: I would have to be a prophet to answer you. My sensibility leads me to think that New Age, in the world in which it has been configured in these decades, is probably not only a religion à la carte, but a fashionable phenomenon and, therefore, destined to decline.

Nevertheless, a constant temptation of the human spirit will be to want to find God, not in the sometimes uncomfortable ways by which the Absolute calls us, but through the more comfortable and spacious ways that man invents for himself to silence his profound desire for God.

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