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The Mystery of Being: Faith and Reality

1948 to 1950
University of Aberdeen

In his second volume of lectures, subtitled Faith and Reality, Marcel builds upon his existentialist meditation on the self in the world set forth in Reflection and Mystery and moves his thoughts in a more explicitly theological direction.

In Lecture I, Marcel ponders the ‘question of being’. ‘Being’ is not something the philosopher can extract from experience. Marcel’s ontological enquiry starts from the recognition of intersubjectivity, and looks to a recognition of the ego by the ego as a being that is one among others. Ontology, he thinks, ties us to other beings. Lecture II proceeds from the notion of ‘being’ to its relation to ‘existence’. If one crudely reduces a being such as Napoleon to a certain mechanism that functioned at a certain time, we might properly say that Napoleon no longer exists. For Marcel, ‘things’ exist now and cease to exist at some other time, but Napoleon or any other person is not a thing but a being. ‘Beings’ transcend such oppositions, and we seek to relate ourselves to our own being, either through reaching out toward others or turning inwards.

Lecture III expounds Marcel’s notion of ontological exigence based on his ideas of being and existence. ‘Being’ is in existence but not given in existence, and he stresses the potential danger in overlaying the concept with notions of function. Being cannot be divorced from value, yet importantly, it is not to be identified with perfection. The next lecture assesses the legitimacy of ontology in relation to particular beings and for being itself.

Lecture V separates opinion, conviction and faith. Marcel interprets ‘opinion’ as that which I do not know but maintain against some other, be it a real person or an imaginary interlocutor. It also wavers between impression and affirmation. ‘Conviction’, as Marcel understands it, becomes a definitive affirmation which is not simply rooted in the fact that I have an unshakeable disposition but is extended into an objective judgment. Faith, however, is neither of these, since it is better understood as ‘believing in’ rather than ‘believing that’. Opinion and conviction are closed, whereas faith as Marcel understands it necessarily involves an opening up of the self.

In Lecture VI, Marcel travels further down the theological path to examine prayer and humility in the context of his thought. He rejects Sartre’s view of humility and distinguishes it from self-humiliation. The act of prayer is then analysed, and a notion of the pure and the impure in prayer is invoked. The idea of pure prayer is validated as an act of faith as it transcends any hypothesis that there either is or is not a being who may or may not agree to particular requests. The true spirit of prayer, according to Marcel, is the way in which one unites himself with another by recognising intersubjectivity.

In Lecture VII, Marcel raises questions surrounding freedom and grace from a personal perspective. On a topic such as this, he believes, only a first-person approach can satisfy. The idea of his free will is distinguished from that of being able to do what he wants, yet at the same time he recognises that it cannot be simply the making of an arbitrary choice. It is something he sees as essentially connected to the self in which he is ‘given back to himself. Its value can only be seen and understood under the metaphysical light of grace.

From the relation between freedom and grace that transcends the verifiable, Marcel moves on to Lecture VII with a discussion of testimony in the person with faith. The believer detaches himself from the praying ego and undergoes a trial that aims at purifying his faith. Here Marcel meets what he describes as the “inaptly” termed problem of evil. Yet in testimony, Marcel finds a purity in the relation the believer seeks, because testimony is not the act of bearing witness to some external fact but is a mode that goes beyond reflection and transcends both the objective and the subjective.

In the penultimate lecture, Marcel puts the notions of death and hope in the context of his philosophical research. He aligns a notion of evil with death, and suggests that since the real trial the believer is called upon to undergo is the creative call to go beyond evil, it is thus a call to ‘go beyond’ death. Hence, it is here that Marcel finds his understanding of the metaphysical choice involved in the religious quest for immortality. It is a reaction against a state of captivity toward the immortality of an intersubjective bond.

In his concluding lecture, Marcel decides that ‘modern man is in an eschatological position.’ This idea, for Marcel, is quite independent of Scripture, but derives from his view of our condition as incarnate beings in this world and his philosophy of intersubjectivity. His concept of purity in faith and the spirit of truth allows him to distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘false’ theologies. He pours particular scorn on Hegelianism and its view of history as progress towards salvation. Salvation, Marcel maintains, is liberation from death, or evil, since for him the two are intimately linked. Since this world is characterised by death, liberation must therefore take place on a level which is not that of history. Here Marcel meets the boundaries of philosophy, where he must turn from the light of reflection toward ‘the first glimmers of the fires of revelation’.


The Mystery of Being: Faith and Reality

The Harvill Press Ltd.
  • Sam Addison, University of Aberdeen