|In its stress on mystery, faith, and being, Gabriel Marcel’s Christian existentialism offers an approach to experience that reaffirms our trust in God and the wholeness of life.|
Msgr. Grace is Rector-president of the Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception, Douglaston, New York.
THERE is a beauty and a terror in the reaction of a young child to one in whom that child has placed its trust. I think of the situation in which a young child is poised at the top of a short series of steps, or a stoop, with you as the adult below, and the child, with great abandon, flings itself down the steps into your arms. On the part of the child there is great freedom and abandonment based on a deep trust which that child feels toward the receiver of this precious package. The experience of the adult is one of fright and awe. This child has placed absolute and unconditional trust in you. But you also know that there is in the innocent wisdom of the child a very firm basis for such trust. The child has intuited in you a deep concern and care which makes such trust a possibility. In a very real sense you feel honored. The child has in a primitive way transcended words and come in contact with the heart of one who cares. Even at this non-cognitive stage the child has touched into transcendence.
This world of the young child is one of wonder and freedom. As Sam Keen describes it:
It is the capacity of the child to approach the world as if it were a smorgasbord of potential delights, waiting to be tasted. It is the sense of freshness, anticipation, and openness that rules the life of a healthy child. The world is a surprise party, planned just for me, and my one vocation in life is to enjoy it to the fullest-such is the implicit creed of the wondering child. Reality is a gift, a delight, a surprise-in fact, a toy; it is an excessive, superabundant cafeteria of delights, and should an experience begin to be jaded by boredom and staleness, all one has to do is move on to the next. To wonder is to live in the world of novelty rather than law, of delight rather than obligation, and of the present rather than the future.(1)
In some respects it would be desirable for us to grow up maintaining this spirit of wonder, freedom and abandonment. There would be distinct advantages for living in a creative and vital way, and certainly profound implications for our spiritual growth in the freedom of the Gospels. But, normally and sadly, as we grow toward adulthood this sense of wonder and the abandonment to the security of other begins to wane. We begin to seek mastery and control over our life. This is not in itself a bad thing, and in fact an essential part of the maturing process. In that process, however, the sense of wonder and freedom tends to get lost. Keen denies that this is because there is a natural antipathy between wonder and mastery, but rather associates the loss of wonder not with “the effort to control but the assumption that one has completely mastered.”(2) He proposes that “the underlying reason for the eclipse of wonder must be sought in the basic attitudes toward life and the fundamental models of man adopted by those who educate wonder out of children.”(3)
MASTERING INNER AND OUTER WORLDS
There are so many dynamics at work in the process of growing up. Some of them are susceptible to the kind of education which Keen decries. Certainly the need to master one’s world and emancipate the self from parental ties are open to the kind of education which can destroy the sense of wonder, and with it the freedom that it brings. At the root of the whole process is the sense, whether conscious or unconscious, of the radical finiteness of the human person, and this demands that we be secure. As I have noted in the young child, a basic source of freedom and abandonment is the trust that the child can place in another, usually a parent or close relative, that gives security. This need for security is basic to all of us. There is no escape from it. The question is where and in what fashion we place the trust that will bring it. There seem to be very strong movements to place it in key elements of our external and internal world.
Internally, as reason begins to develop, the locus of that trust tends to be in the understanding and categories by which each individual orders and masters the world. Knowledge and understanding born of learning are of prime importance, but so are the categories, prejudices and particular world views which we inherit from parents, family and local community. These tend to give us a basis for judgment, especially regarding our everyday life that we must live in the midst of persons and things that need to be dealt with and ultimately controlled. This internal organization tends to delude us into thinking that we have that absolute control or mastery of our world. But in so doing it narrows and constrains, and in the long run can make us incapable of moving beyond, of risking the novel, the uncertain.
In the external order we look to certain persons and things to provide the same security. It can be money, position and all the comfortable security that they provide. Perhaps more restraining, yet seemingly securing, is the adoption of certain roles which each of us plays and expects those who relate to us to play. There is a certainty and security if I can name who someone is, who I am, and then live a related life in terms of those roles. There is no risk or uncertainty in terms of the future, and a comfortable sense of security is achieved.
NATURE, GRACE AND FREEDOM
Spiritual life is but a mirror of our natural life. Grace does build on nature. Our life in God is incarnate. In the same way in which we seek the security of internal and external mastered patterns in our natural living, we can seek them in our spiritual life, and most probably will. What is our conception of God? Have we categorized the Deity according to our needs and so mastered another element in our world? Have we determined the manner of our relating to God and thus, in our own mind, guaranteed our salvation? And what does all this say about the freedom that is the promise of Christ? What does it say about becoming “sicut parvuli, “little children who follow him, who respond to the radical demands of a Way that can only be lived in its fullness if we can let go of ourselves completely and give ourselves totally to him-to abandon ourselves?
My thesis is that since grace builds on nature, there is an essential need for each of us, in the natural order, to have a “basic attitude toward life”(4) which will be the basis for the radical demands of the Christian way of life. I will concede that there are those who go through radical conversions which seem to change both the natural and supernatural ordering of their lives. But for most of us our faith and the living of the Christian life have grown side by side with our natural maturing process and been ultimately affected by it. We need to break out. Not just in prayer and fasting, but through a view, an attitude or stance toward life that will free us in both the natural and supernatural order.
HAVING AND BEING
I would propose that some basic elements of the Christian philosophy of Gabriel Marcel offer such a breakthrough. Though a man of profound thought and reflection, his basic philosophic premises regarding us as beings in the world are not beyond either our understanding or our capabilities. In essence Marcel speaks of two fundamental ways in which I can be present to my world. There are profound implications regarding each. I can be present to and look upon my world from an attitude of ‘having’ or one of being.’ The key is that the stance or attitude is not something necessarily and irrevocably determined, but within my power to direct through my orientation toward reality.
Having’ tends to be our normal mode of relating to the world. It must be noted that the term ‘having’ does not necessarily imply the acquiring of possessions or some form of crass materialism. It is a term that represents a stance and way of dealing with our world, of organizing and mastering it. This mode of relating is encouraged by most education and abetted by our scientific and industrial world. ‘Having’ is characterized by abstraction from the concrete reality. We seek to objectify our world, viewing it as an object to be possessed, controlled. We approach situations principally as problems to be solved, e.g., “I wonder how it works? What is wrong? What does she want.” The basic relation becomes one of I-it even when we are dealing with persons. In the case of persons we tend to characterize or categorize. As Marcel describes it: “Characterization is a certain kind of possession, or claim to possession, of that which cannot be possessed.”(5)
It is obvious that in many areas of our life the ‘having’ mode of relating is essential. There is much in our everyday life that genuinely presents itself as problem to be solved. It would be quite useless and inappropriate for me to stand in awe and wonder before my car which will not start. There is a genuine problem, and I must go about the normal logical thinking process to come to some sort of solution. When we are faced with genuine problems there is no other sane course but to maintain the attitude of ‘having’ and seek a solution. The problem is that since this mode of relating to the world is so prevalent and encouraged, it can become the exclusive mode of awareness particularly because it gives us such control and security.
There can be many events and experiences which have complex and profound dimensions to them. Seeing them only from the standpoint of ‘having’ can lead one to deal merely with the surface elements, put them in some category, and miss a whole other and richer dimension. Even more limiting is the situation in which one deals with people from this ‘having’ mode of relating. It is easy and comfortable to organize a number of surface impressions and abstract a picture (characterization) of a person. Then one knows who this person is, knows how to relate, and can anticipate actions and responses in the future. Development, insight and depth of experience are cut off, and the other is related to in terms of a characterization or role-all of this in the name of the security which one needs in order to be protected from the uncertainty of the future. But ultimately there is no depth of relationship nor genuine possibility of the two people being for each other in their mutual process of becoming. If one were to relate to God from this stance, then the possibility of freely abandoning oneself to him is greatly constricted. In such a situation one could only give oneself to the characterization of God that is operative. And the giving of oneself is in terms of who I know that self to be through one’s own self-characterization. There is no freedom in such a relationship and the possibilities of growth, of being really led, of responding in depth are radically limited.
The mode of relating which Marcel terms ‘being’ is completely opposite to that of ‘having,’ and essential to our personal relationships as well as to our living richly human events. When one approaches the world with the attitude of ‘being,’ that world appears as something I participate in. I am immersed in it and it appears to me not as an object, but as a presence. I deal with the concrete experience and not the abstraction. The other is there not as problem to be solved, but as mystery to be experienced, delved into, and comprehended to the extent that that is possible. By mystery Marcel does not intend something arcane and totally incomprehensible. Rather the term denotes the complexity and depth of all reality. As Marcel describes it, “Mysteries are not truths that lie beyond us; they are truths that comprehend us.”(6) The world is mystery because I am immersed in it and am comprehended by it. I can never grasp it in its totality, but only in terms of my immediate experience and the memory of past experiences. There is always more not yet experienced, not yet comprehended. Relationships from this mode of relating are of an I-thou quality, rich in their possibilities and becoming. From this mode of relating one begins to open up the richness of experience and of other persons. The novel, the possible, become the order of the day. With this stance the world is no longer a closed and categorized entity, but a rich experience filling one with awe and wonder. From such a view point I know that something is, and look forward to the unfolding of what it is in both its predictability and its newness. Most of all, I see myself and my world as becoming in both their unfolding and their growth.
Obviously there is risk in such a stance. There is the unpredictable. Further, the kind of absolute security that one so much desires is no longer so absolute. This situation demands some sort of base other than the mind’s ability to abstract and codify. Marcel maintains that the attitude of ‘being’ demands two important prerequisites. One is belief in God, the other is love as the essential ontological datum.
FAITH AND LOVE
Belief in God is essential because of the risk and uncertainty that the mode of ‘being’ brings with it. We need a sure base of security, just as the little child who flings itself into your arms does. It is essential that we believe that underlying the whole of reality, and literally shot through it, is the ever-present and loving God who has created and cares for this world. In a very real way there is a primary natural abandonment called for in simply relating to the world from the mode of ‘being.’ I can only risk the uncertainty of the novel, the becoming, if I believe firmly in the guiding presence of a loving God. Then I need not fear. Then I can risk.
But that belief rests upon and is fleshed out by my attitude of love which is a fundamental movement in the stance of ‘being.’ Joined with the cognitive view of the world as mystery to be lived is the volitional disposition called love by which one gives oneself to that encompassing world. Unless love comes first, I will simply revert to the stance of ‘having’ and miss the essential. Love as Marcel sees it is of a particular quality, at least in so far as it is the primary ontological datum. In Being and Having he offers this description:
Love, in so far as distinct from desire or as opposed to desire, love treated as the subordination of the self to a superior reality, a reality at my deepest level more truly me than I am myself love as the breaking of the tension between the self and the other, appears to me to be what one might call the essential ontological datum.(7)
By love, then, Marcel does not intend some simple affection or emotion, but rather a radical disposition which acknowledges a superior reality and moves the individual to subordinate him or herself to it. That reality is both the Divine and the totality of beings in all its richness and mystery. The disposition of subordination is in itself a profound act of abandonment, relinquishing the superiority of the rational self in acknowledgement of an even higher reality. Such a love demands that I give myself over to, be at the disposal of, the other. I am totally for the becoming of the other. As stated above, that can only be done on the basis of faith in the presence of a loving and provident God.
As is evident, this philosophical position is in itself one that demands a natural abandonment, and consequently affords a basis for the kind of total abandonment which the Gospels call for. Though there are distinctions by way of quality between a natural and a supernatural abandonment, it is perhaps better to see that what Marcel grounds in philosophical reflection is not essentially different from what Jesus calls for. There is an incarnational thrust to Marcel’s thought that beautifully describes the reality of grace building on nature not in some artificial way, but in a radical interrelatedness. We can seek to respond to the call of Jesus to give ourselves over to him and experience the freedom of such abandonment. But it would seem that that can only be done in a genuinely effective way if the totality of our lives is lived in the spirit of finiteness in a world profoundly rooted in and shot through with the Divine. Marcel leads us to that vision and a fruitful mode of relating and being in that world.