Nostalgia for a Time that Never Was: Natural Law and Anamnesis

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A while ago I had an exchange with a feminist blogger, Elizabeth Freudenthal, about abortion and related matters. In a later post she wrote that the feeling she got from my comments was one of “nostalgic sorrow” for a time that never really existed. That thought occurred to me again as I was reading a talk that then Cardinal Bergoglio gave at the presentation of a book of Don Giussani’s. The future Pope Francis said:

I am convinced that [Father Giussani’s] thought is profoundly human and reaches man’s innermost longings. I dare say that this is the most profound, and at the same time understandable, phenomenology of nostalgia as a transcendental fact. There is a phenomenology of nostalgia, nóstos algos, feeling called home, the experience of feeling attracted to what is most proper for us, most consonant with our being. In the context of Fr. Giussani’s reflections, we encounter instances of a real phenomenology of nostalgia.

This nostalgia is a kind of “recollection” of the creator, who has created us for Himself, and it explains the kind of “recognition” of the Lord when we encounter Him. But in a secondary sense this nostalgia is also for “the law,” the order written into our hearts. There is a wonderful passage on this written by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI:

The word anamnesis (recollection) should be taken to mean exactly what Paul expressed in the second chapter of his Letter to the Romans: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts while their conscience also bears witness …” (2:14 ff.). The same thought is strikingly amplified in the great monastic rule of Saint Basil. Here we read: “The love of God is not founded on a discipline imposed on us from outside, but is constitutively established in us as the capacity and necessity of our rational nature.” […] This means that the first so-called ontological level of the phenomenon conscience consists in the fact that something like an original memory of the good and true (both are identical) has been implanted in us, that there is an inner ontological tendency within man, who is created in the likeness of God, toward the divine. From its origin, man’s being resonates with some things and clashes with others. This anamnesis of the origin, which results from the godlike constitution of our being is not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents. It is so to speak an inner sense, a capacity to recall, so that the one whom it addresses, if he is not turned in on himself, hears its echo from within. He sees: “That’s it! That is what my nature points to and seeks.”

I think that everyone who tries to live the Christian life has had an experience of this anamnesis, this recollection of what is “most consonant with our being.” And, as Ratzinger continues, this is what makes mission possible: “The Gospel may, indeed, must be proclaimed to the pagans because they themselves are yearning for it in the hidden recesses of their souls.”

At the end of the post where she discusses my nostalgia Elizabeth Freudenthal writes:

I’m all for the comfort that religion provides to people. I wouldn’t even call myself secular, despite my affiliation with liberal feminism, higher ed, and data-driven policy. But here, we don’t legislate religion. Which is pretty much the best thing about our country.

If all “religion” were, were a comforting symbol of the mystery of human life, but without any claim to truth, then it would be a sad thing indeed. But if it is indeed the encounter with our maker, the ground of our being, the deepest longing of our hearts, then any theory of human life that contradicts it contradicts the depths of our humanity, and is deeply destructive of true happiness.

8 thoughts on “Nostalgia for a Time that Never Was: Natural Law and Anamnesis

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