Arts and Culture

Gabriel Marcel: My Second Favorite Philosopher

by Father Robert Lauder


First in a Series

MY FAVORITE philosopher is St. Thomas Aquinas. Of course, Thomas was primarily a theologian, but within his writings, there is a great deal of philosophy. When I studied undergraduate philosophy in the seminary, all the courses had a Thomistic emphasis, and this was also true of some the courses that I took as a graduate student. While teaching during the last 45 years, I have been greatly influenced by phenomenology, existentialism and personalism.

If I had to classify myself as a philosopher, I suppose I am some kind of a Thomist, perhaps a Thomistic personalist-existentialist. I mention all of this because I want to devote this essay to my second favorite philosopher: the existentialist personalist Gabriel Marcel. I find Marcel’s philosophy not only insightful and stimulating but inspiring. Though Marcel’s writings make for difficult reading, his philosophy is beautiful.

About 20 years ago, I created a course at St. John’s University called Personalism. It is possible that St. John’s University is the only university in the country with such a course. I had some difficulty getting the course approved because the dean at that time thought it was a theology course rather than a philosophy course. He probably thought this because Marcel’s philosophy is so God-centered. But to accept Marcel’s philosophy, a person does not have to be a member of any religion or appeal to any Divine Revelation. Marcel’s reflections do not make any appeal to Marcel’s Catholicism. The French thinker bases his philosophy on human experience, which is available to anyone, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, agnostic and even atheist.

Beautiful as Marcel’s insights are, his writing almost seems like stream of consciousness. I know I have struggled with it. One of my projects when I was a young professor was to rewrite Marcel’s philosophy in language easier to understand than the Frenchman’s. That was a project I never completed.

Marcel claimed that God could only be addressed as a Thou. He said when we speak about God, it is not God about Whom we speak. He meant that we can never turn God into an object. This would be to turn God into an It rather than a Thou. If God is an object in our thought, then we are thinking of an idol not the real God Who is identical with Love. I think that Marcel is emphasizing the Mystery of God and suggesting that only in direct speech to God rather than speech about God can God-talk be authentic. Marcel seems to be suggesting that the only valid God-talk is prayer. I agree that we have to speak carefully when we speak of God, but I think we can speak truthfully about God.

In his excellent little book, Gabriel Marcel (South Bend, Ind.: Regnery/Gateway, Inc.) Seymour Cain points out that according to Marcel when we relate to God in an I-Thou relationship, in other words when we love God, we are joined intimately to all other beings. Cain writes the following:

“Indeed, He is only Thou for me in a community of all other beings, which I ‘intend’ (direct myself, or tend toward) when I intend Him. I embrace – not forsake – all others. My relation to the Absolute Thou is not an acosmic one in which I hurdle over a world which is as indifferent to me as I am to it…Indeed, I am only as other beings count for me, and when I enter into a thou-relation with God, I will that all other beings shall be thou for Him too. ‘I hope in Thee for us,’ says Marcel in his later work. Given the concept of a creative and redeeming God, it is, indeed, questionable whether for God anything can be merely ‘it,’ absolutely unlovable and irredeemable, a mere datum – one of the empirical facts of life.” (p. 40)

Marcel believed that when we relate in love to God we necessarily relate to all other beings with a kind of love. We may not be aware of this, but if we were to consciously exclude some of God’s creatures from our love, this would influence our love for God. Perhaps we have to remind ourselves that God’s love is literally creative. When God loves, being appears. If God were to stop loving some creature, that creature would disappear. It would return to nothingness. Because God loves all creatures, we should too. God affirms the value of all creatures by bringing them into existence. Because it is God’s will that they exist, we are basically affirming all creatures, at least implicitly, when we say in the Our Father, “Thy will be done.” We are joining God in affirming the value of all creatures. Of course, the implications of this in terms of how we should treat the environment are important.