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Reflecting on "From Utopia to Presence"

An interview with Mark Painter on the upcoming NYE/Crossroads Event

The annual Giussani Series organized by Crossroads and, for the first time, New York Encounter will be dedicated to the discussion of Luigi Giussani’s "From Utopia to Presence.” The zoom webinar (register here) on September 19, 2020 at 3:00 pm EST will feature professors Stanley Hauerwas and John Zucchi and will be moderated by Paolo Carozza. To learn more about this upcoming event, the CL Newsletter interviewed Mark Painter, who serves on the New York Encounter Committee,

CL Newsletter: We are already looking forward to New York Encounter in February, but now you are offering this September event. Why this event now?

Mark Painter: Seven of us meet regularly to discuss the New York Encounter, and this event came out of those discussions. When the protests came, we decided we could not just wait until February. We wondered if we could give ourselves to organizing an event to put forth the originality of the Movement. When this idea emerged, it fit naturally with the Giussani series on Faith and Modernity [that Crossroads sponsors].

CLN: How did that urgency manifest itself? Were there particular events that propelled you forward?

MP: We had the exhibit on James Baldwin at the Encounter last year that was so strong on the issue of racial injustice and a perfect introduction to, or even carries forward, what Giussani says in “From Utopia to Presence.” But the killing of George Floyd really sparked in everyone the intensity of the question. It opened up a wound. 

In June, there was a call with people from the Movement around the U.S. that was heated and intense. We all left that call with this awareness that this is a decisive moment for the Movement in the U.S. What I also saw in myself and my friends was this urgency to not just sit on the sidelines, an urgency to be a protagonist in some way in everything that was happening. The question becomes—what do we have to offer? What is this gift that we received that gives us the sense that we should be protagonists in this story? We don’t have political power. It is not like we can swing the direction of the country. And is that really where our hope is, in some political project, or in deciding what political project the Movement supports?

In the fervor, I felt lost. I think I know who I am. I think I know what it means that I met Christ, what the dignity of life is, the limitations of human justice and evil in the world. But what do I do now? To wake up another day in a world in which people are dying for unjust reasons is a real wound, and you can’t just let it keep happening. 

Together, we wanted to see what we can learn from our history. This is far from the first time that Christians existed in a society facing the limitations of human justice, surrounded by evil and systems of power that oppress people and take away their dignity. And in particular, our Movement has been through this before. The protests of ‘68 and the years that followed in Italy were an extremely dramatic moment that has a lot of parallels to what is happening now in terms of who we are and how we respond. 

In “From Utopia to Presence,” Giussani offers an original position while sparing nothing. In a sense, you could read the first two-thirds of this talk [the part on presence] and still think, “That is nice, but what are we doing for anybody?” But Giussani gets to point ten and suddenly pivots and says “But, with all this insistence on presence, in what sense do we intervene in the needs and requirements of everybody and of every sort, public and private?” It is not that we don’t do something. But what is really the newness of what we have?

CLN: So, you see this event, the conversation that is coming up, as a way for people to go deeper into that sense of the wound they are living?

MP: What I see reading this text is, the wound is there. We live in a society that wants to turn everything into politics. I see this as the huge temptation. It feels like I am doing nothing if there is not a political expression to what I am doing. What Giussani is saying here is that you can make your political attempt. But everything plays out at the level of the person. 

Giussani in this lesson uses the example of the seed. You can’t try to build something that doesn’t exist. Our responsibility is to plant the seed. The seed is given. It will germinate and bear fruit in its own time. I can plant the seed, I can water the seed, I can give it good soil. But the seed does everything. I am at the mercy of the seed, and it takes the time it takes. I can plant the same two seeds next to each other, and one is huge, and one is barely growing. That is not the way we would want it to be. We want to be able to build the perfect world. 

If this is the way it is, what is asked of me? First of all: an awareness of who I am. And then: cultivating the place where the whole world can have that awareness.

CLN: It is difficult for us in this moment, when we realize that we cannot immediately align ourselves with politics. We feel that we cannot jump on anyone’s bandwagon. We feel stuck, thwarted. But we see from Giussani’s own witness that that suffering is part of planting the seed.

MP: All of the proposals to quickly fill in the wound are inadequate. And everyone sees it. I was struck by the sports shutdown across the U.S. People are asking, how can we go on playing sports when we are so wounded? But after a few days, when nothing has changed, you reiterate the political slogan—“Vote!" —and get back to playing! There is an immediate need to patch over the wound, which is so deep, so raw.

The originality of what Giussani says is the whisper that maybe it is possible that our wound has a real home. There is something that can take hold of this whole wound that I have, not just throw a patch over it, which is what everything else feels like. He quotes from Claudel in The Tidings Brought to Mary,

“I live on the threshold of death, and I am filled with inexplicable joy.” This is what many of us have already begun to feel, what is already part of a new experience: “I live on the threshold of death,” on the threshold of falsehood . . .  on the threshold of evil and pain, of the inhuman, and yet “I am filled with inexplicable joy.”

I think that perfectly captures the moment we are in. It is not that the original Christian proposal takes us away from the fact that we all feel—everyone in the U.S., not just Christians—that we live on the threshold of death. Some feel it more urgently than others. I can only imagine the fear of being a black man in America—really living on this threshold of death, of falsehood, of the inhuman. We cannot step away from that. No policy proposal, no initiative will cross that threshold to something more human. What is required is the “presence” Father José was talking about, the presence of someone who says: “Yes, I am here with you! We all stand together on this threshold with inexpressible joy.”

How many centuries will it take for there to be justice in America? It is not going to happen tomorrow. But today, how do we live? Is it possible to live with joy on the threshold of the inhuman, precisely where we live right now?

CLN: You have assembled a great panel to discuss this—Hauerwas, Zucchi, and Carozza. Why these three? 

MP: The heart of the question is, what is the Christian in the world today in the light of the current social situation, with this text “From Utopia to Presence” as a starting point? We wanted to find people who could help us understand the pitfalls of the utopia as well as this “presence” we are drawn to.

Stanley Hauerwas is one of the most important theologians alive, an influential person who understands and thinks critically about the questions of politics, sociology, and Christianity in society. He is not in the Movement, not Catholic, but has an affection for us. He can help us see what is original in what Giussani is saying and in the Christian experience. He can help us step outside of ourselves and our own insulated way of thinking.

John Zucchi was a teenager in ’68, experienced all the wounds we are talking about, and is now a very successful historian. He is someone who can help us understand this feeling of disorientation that makes us think we have to start over from scratch. He can help us understand who we were as Christians in the Movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Paolo Carozza, the moderator, is also intellectually and academically engaged in all these questions about society, human dignity, and how we live. He has a deep love for Giussani and will make sure we stay attached to both the current moment and what Giussani is saying about Presence. 

CLN: I am really looking forward to this. Is there anything else you would like to share?

MP: I would like to encourage people to participate. Sign up to join us via Zoom.


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