To Have or Not To Have: Possessing Vs. Being in the Christian Life

To Have or Not To Have: Possessing Vs. Being in the Christian Life June 1, 2021
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Matthew 6:25

Gabriel Marcel and The Problem Of Possession

Commenting on the work of Christian existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, philosopher F.H. Heinemann suggests that, for Marcel, the source of modern man’s feeling of alienation lies primarily in his disordered sense of having or possessing certain things, capacities or social functions. This inordinate focus on possessing or having, alienates man from his authentic being

“Alienation” is a central concept that emerges out of Hegelian and Marxist thought, and which takes on a technical meaning in 20th century, existential philosophy. It is best understood as the individual’s sense of being alone or isolated from God, others and any transcendent purpose or meaning that might tells us something about ourselves. Unlike other existentialists of his day (e.g., Sartre or Heidegger), however, the Roman Catholic Marcel saw our orientation toward possession at the heart of our alienation from God and our true selves. Heinemann elaborates on Marcel’s concern over equating our identity, our essence, with the act of “having”:

Objects which we possess, houses, books, factories, gardens, or ideas and opinions which we regard as our ‘possessions’, in a specific sense ‘have’ us. We are in danger of being imprisoned or devoured by them. People concentrating on having are in danger of becoming captive souls cut off from other persons and not responding to their ‘presence.’
F.H. Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, 143

For Marcel, the more one seeks to have or possess things for themselves, the more one does damage to his own being– to his own “ontology.” Man’s identity becomes confused with the concrete things he owns or even the abstract ideas he considers his own. According to Marcel, if we get lost in this project of having, we “suffer a loss of being.” We incur an “ontological deficiency” (Heinemann, 143). This having, and the subsequent ontological damage it causes, could manifest itself in very tangible things like the aforementioned “houses” or “factories,” or in more abstract things like intellectual property or social success.

However, it is not just in a personal desire to have or possess that man is alienated from himself, from God and from his fellow man. Modern man belongs to a world where the individual is increasingly socialized. He is incorporated into an increasingly large and powerful corporate structure. He has further become a mere functionary (fonctionnaires) of this larger superstructure. In becoming more and more embedded in such a structure, genuine privacy, affection and relationship is lost:

An increasing socialization of life and the growing powers of the state are invading the privacy of the person and destroying the brotherhood of men and the fertile soil in which creativeness, imagination and reflection can flourish.
Heinemann, 143

In addition, as the technology associated with this socializing process advances, the daily struggles of human existence become mere “problems to be solved by reasoning and calculation” (143). The vicissitudes of life are but obstacles to overcome, things to be fixed. They are no longer mysteries, (i.e., “metaphysical problems”), to be acknowledged and explored, let alone entered into for the sake of discovering wisdom (145).

Possession and The Case of Abortion

What happens if we apply Marcel’s concern over seeing life as a set of problems to be fixed or solved, rather than as mysteries to be accepted and pondered, to a concrete moral issue like abortion? Instead of seeing moral attitudes or actions as either intrinsically right or wrong, good or evil, inherently dignified or sheer means to ends; what if we saw them as purely political concerns? What if we understood moral dilemmas as simple technicalities, defects to be remedied through technological advances, medical progress and legal revision?

On this view, something like abortion is not an inherently evil act: the intentional destruction of a mysterious being of incalculable, ontological worth. Instead it is a sociological ill, an undesirable consequence of perhaps irresponsible, yet understandable, sexual behavior. Abortion becomes equivalent to a political puzzle, like social security or inflation, that can be overcome through better medical technology (RU-486) or social policies (free health insurance). It is emptied of its metaphysical significance as it is relates primarily to a certain ideal of how society might function better. 

This kind of pragmatic attitude seems popular among some Evangelical Christians today.  There are those who appear to balk at the overturning of an intrinsically unjust law in Roe v. Wade, seeming less interested in pondering the great mystery that is novel human life, and caring mainly about finding ways to drop actual abortion rates. These worry, for example, that overturning Roe may cause more abortions (which is certainly a bad thing, but not a speculation that would warrant leaving the unjust law in place). This Christian pragmatism, unfortunately, assumes the “right” to abortion could stay in the books, so long as no one actually exercised that right. The idea being that if there were no actual abortions, it would be okay, or irrelevant, if people still believed abortion to be a morally justifiable act.

This position implies that if we, through technology and social policy, can eliminate the need for anyone to have an actual abortion, it wouldn’t matter if, in theory, it was still seen as a legitimate moral option. This view, however, would facilitate the kind of possessive thinking that Marcel warns about. It would suggest that the profound enigma of life is yet subject to our possessing the knowledge and technical ability to destroy it, should it ever become too bothersome for us to bear.

Few today, however, would apply this kind of thinking to something like slavery. After all, it is not okay to believe slavery is morally acceptable, even though it is no longer economically viable and, therefore, of no practical use in contemporary society. If historical conditions were to change, and a new economic crisis made the idea of slavery once again viable from a purely pragmatic standpoint, we would still refuse to pursue that option. The reasons for this refusal are metaphysical, for as Marcel points out:

The more my existence takes on the character of including others, the narrower becomes the gap which separates it from being; the more, in other words, I am.

quoted in Heinemann, 147

This recognition of the interdependent need we have for each other, itself grounded in our common, God-given nature, makes issues like slavery and abortion not merely technical problems to be solved, but, per Marcel, great moral defects that relate to deep ontological mysteries. The very mystery of being, the mysterious nature of human life, alone warrants the total rejection of any notion of slavery or abortion in a humane and just society. 

Being Vs. Possessing

Returning to the more general problem of alienation from God, our true self and others through the elevating of “having” over “being,” C.S. Lewis echoes Marcel’s thinking in his classic, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis writes about the kinds of possessive claims we make on our lives. These include claims about our bodies and even time itself. Regarding time, Lewis has the elder tempter, Screwtape, advise the younger Wormwood:

They [interruptions] anger him [the Christian man] because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties.
The Screwtape Letters, Letter 21

In deceiving the individual into believing he or she possesses the very time that passes, any intrusion upon one’s time by one’s neighbor (let alone by God) is seen as an offense, a “tax” upon one’s property. This opens up the door to various kinds of conflict between the individual self and “the other,” as human pride is further fueled by the enemy. The result is that every inch of “our” lives becomes a battlefield. After all, the notion that man possesses time itself can only be the height of hubris!

Regarding the body, it is much the same. The sense of “having” or “owning” a body is the source of incredible pride and egocentricism:

Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they ‘own’ their bodies—those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love’s sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counsellors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.
The Screwtape Letters, Letter 21  

It is this sense of ownership, this claim to “having rights” over everything from tangibles like houses and motor-cars, to even the physical pains and pleasures of “those vast and perilous estates” that are our bodies that enslaves us. Only when we realize that none of these things are appropriately ours, even if we experience them as such, but instead are part of the Divine life, can we begin to relinquish this false self. In relinquishing our false self we start to participate in the life of God. When we let go of our sense of ownership, our “having,” then we can really start to be. And, having found our identity in Christ, we can truly begin to “be in Him.” Transformed, we are no longer creatures who possess things but creations that participate in the grand drama of Being itself.

Applied to culture, this view would also put us as a society on a much better track than we are currently on. It would refocus us, as our goals would not be primarily economic, related to everyone “having” an equal amount of x, y, or z; but rather ontic, related to everyone being together and being fundamentally equal regardless of what they have. Perhaps then we would better understand Christ when he says “you are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” Why should we allow a false sense of possession spoil the salt or hide such light?

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design– a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
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