“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?”
Gabriel Marcel and The Problem Of Possession
Commenting on the work of Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel, Oxford philosopher F.H. Heinemann suggests that for Marcel the source of modern man’s ‘alienation’ lies in his sense of having or possessing certain things, capacities or social functions. This inordinate focus on possessing
alienates man from his authentic being
. ‘Alienation’ is a fundamental concept that emerges out of Hegelian and Marxist thought and takes on a technical meaning in 20th century existentialism. It is best understood as the individual’s sense of being alone or isolated from God, others and any telos
or transcendent purpose or meaning.
Unlike other existentialists of his day (e.g., Sartre or Heidegger), the Roman Catholic Marcel saw the problem of possession at the core of our alienation from God and our true selves. Heinemann elucidates 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, per
Heinemann, 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, Existentialism,
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 begins to lose himself and his connection to God and his fellow man. Modern man belongs to a world where the individual is increasingly socialized. He is incorporated into an increasingly large and powerful state structure, and he has become a mere functionary (fonctionnaires
) of that 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, Existentialism 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” (Heinemann, Existentialism
, 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 (Heinemann, Existentialism
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 see moral issues as purely political issues? What if we understand moral dilemmas as simple technicalities, defects to be remedied through technological advances, medical progress, and legal revisions?
On this view, for example, abortion is not an inherent evil, i.e., the destruction of a mysterious being of incalculable ontological worth, but merely a sociological ill to be overcome through medical technology (e.g., RU-486) and better social policies (e.g., free health insurance).
We see this kind of pragmatic attitude
among some Evangelical Christians today
, who care less about overturning an intrinsically unjust law in Roe v. Wade
, or of pondering the great mystery of life more generally, but care only about finding means to dropping actual abortion rates. As if the unjust “right” of abortion itself could stay on the books
so long as no one actually exercised that right. The idea being that so long as abortions were not actualized, it would be okay that people still believe
abortion is morally justified.
This position seems to imply that if we, through technology and social policy, have eliminated the need for anyone to have an actual abortion, it wouldn’t matter if they theoretically still saw it as a viable option. This view, however, would facilitate the kind of possessive thinking that Marcel is warning about. It would suggest that the great mystery of life is yet subject to our possessing the knowledge and technical ability to destroy it, should it ever become too bothersome to us. 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 if it is no longer economically viable and, therefore, of no practical need.
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 thought in 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, as our goals would not be economic (i.e., related to everyone “having” an equal amount of x, y, or z) but rather ontic (i.e., 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 allow a false sense of possession spoil the salt or hide such light?
“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”