When Buber described Jesus as his “great brother” and declared that “a great place belongs to him in Israel’s history of faith,” one “that cannot be described by any of the usual categories” (2003, pp. 12—13), he might as well have been pointing to the spirit ofjesus as manifested in the believing humanism of Marcel. For Marcel, qua Christian, Jesus and the “the great truths of Christianity” have an “essential agreement” with “human nature” (1964, p. 79) (Buber felt likewise about Judaism). For example, psychologically speaking, the Jesus paradigm is a portrayal we all can relate to, “of coming through fully, murdered, abandoned, resurrected, supported” (Eigen, 2014, p. 35). Indeed, Marcel believed that there is a domain of experience that reflects mystery, not so much because it is unknowable, but that it can best be phenomenologically approached via secondary reflection (personally engaged contemplation that presences the mystery of being) as opposed to primary reflection (detached analysis of problem-solving cognition). Love, hope, fidelity, and faith, some of the ways of accessing the plenitude of being, fall into this category. Marcel converted to Catholicism at age 40, in part, at the invitation of Francois Muriac (a Noble Prize—winning novelist), and he gives us a sense of his ambivalent struggle before his faith-driven conversion experience:
It seemed to me that he [Muriac] was but a spokesman and that the call came from much higher up. It was as though a more than human voice were questioning me and putting me into my own presence. “Can you really persevere indefinitely in that equivocal position of yours?” this voice asked me.“ls it even honest to continue to think and to speak like someone who believes in the faith of others and who is convinced that this faith is everything but illusion, but who nevertheless does not resolve to take it unto himself”? It seemed to me that I could only reply to this last interrogative with an assent.
(Marcel, 1984, p. 29)
While Marcel’s conversion did not radically alter his philosophy, it did lead him to focus more on the role of transcendence in his general oeuvre, including “the mystery of faith, and the search for the transcendence in human life” (Sweetman, 2008, pp. 54, 75). For Marcel (similar to Buber), transcendence is a form of reaching out of oneself toward the intersubjective character of existence, a reaching out which is a constituent aspect of human being-in-the-world, and without which we are never existentially fulfilled. Such a transcendent experience often evokes an affirmation of God, and in fact, says Marcel, it necessitates the existence of God for its ultimate justification, regardless of whether a specific person references God. Moreover, the experience of transcendence involves freedom, since the person is free to affirm or to decline the experience of the transcendent, and grace, because the experience emanates from the outside, that is, it cannot be fully cognitively grasped and made into propositional knowledge (ibid., pp. 6, 88). As Keen notes, “Marcel never gives the word faith an adequate definition,” and Marcel doubts whether it is even possible to assert a “general theistic position.”This being said, a serviceable definition of Marcelian faith, says Keen, is “a relationship to an absolute Thou who is the creator of the world and who places us under ethical obligation to our neighbors” (Keen, 1984,p. 120).13 For example, it is the Christian notion of the indwelling of Christ in the person who is utterly faithful to Him, or conceptualizing the relationship between the faithful and living God, as “fatherhood in its purity" (Marcel, 2001, p. 140).
Take a real-life example, such as a faith-driven whistleblower. For Marcel, the capacity to act morally courageously is not simply, or rather I would prefer to say not only, a matter of maintaining deep inner convictions, that is, a belief or opinion that is held firmly. In fact, Marcel has a lot of trouble with the word “conviction” and distinguishes it from “belief” or faith, which he maintains is the deeper and “higher” animating existential basis for courageous actions, especially what he claims is the ultimate expression of courage, self-sacrifice, as in martyrdom. For Marcel, the problem with “conviction” is that it “appears as an unshakeable position, definitive, without the power to justify these characteristics.”14 In contrast, faith represents “movement from the closed ... to the open.” In other words,“to believe,” to have faith “is not to believe that [e.g., being persuaded or convinced that], but to believe in, that is, to open a credit [to be “available,” disponibilité] in the favor of, to place oneself at the disposal of” (Marcel, 2001, p. vi). Where a conviction is a strictly cognitive/intellectual judgment about some kind of propositional “truth” on so-called “objective” reality (what people typically mean by belief), faith is a creative testimonial, an existential attestation of believing in, of trusting and being confident in another person or supra-personal reality. As Marcel notes, a person may have an opinion or conviction, but he is his belief: “Belief in the strong sense of the term—not in the sense of believing that, i.e., assuming that—is always belief in a thou, i.e., in a reality, whether personal or supra-personal, which is able to be invoked, and which is as it were, situated beyond any judgment referring to an objective datum” (Marcel, 1964, pp. 266—267). Marcel is here making an important distinction, namely, that the “down” side of conviction is that it represents a fixed and definite perspective on something that is not open to change, revision, or correction; it claims to “arrest time” suggesting being closed (ibid., pp. 131, 133). Faith, on the other hand, not only believes that something is true, but it requires giving oneself up to an “other,” to someone or something that one deeply cherishes. It is out of this fecund faith consciousness that the courage of the whistleblower, and indeed courage in all of its glorious forms, is nurtured and unfolds.
In Chapter 2 (The spirit of love), I have discussed Marcel’s notion of “creative fidelity” in some detail—“the hold the other being has over us” (Marcel, 1965b, p. 46)—that is, the human tendency to make profound unconditional commitments such as to a spouse or significant other, or as evidenced say in the phenomenology of hope, presence, and intersubjectivity, and which cultivates an ethical approach to others (though avoids ethical formalism and ethical individualism) (Sweetman, 2008, p. 69). For Marcel, these common human experiences are not adequately grasped in an objective, abstract manner (i.e., primary reflection); rather, they are best articulated with reference to an absolute, transcendent reality, the absolute Thou. In creative fidelity, “my behavior will be completely colored by this act [of promise-making] embodying the decision that the commitment will not again be questioned” (Marcel, 1964, p. 162). In other words, creative fidelity means donating ourselves (or maybe the “core” of ourselves) to others, which is accomplished by mutually partaking in love and friendship, or engaging in the creative, performing, and fine arts (Marcel was a well-regarded dramatist and music lover). Creative fidelity connects us to others, affirming the others separate, unique subjectivity while affirming our own. Creative fidelity is the resolute, continuous desire to expound who we are, in part, in order to have an enhanced sense of being. Similar to Buber, we become creatively faithful when we transcend the space or breach between ourselves and others in the process of making ourselves available, that is, present to them.
For Marcel, as fidelity necessitates an absolute promise, an unconditional commitment, it necessitates the same to an absolute Thou (i.e., to the Absolute Personal Being, to God).1’ That is, the homo viator who makes such an unconditional commitment to another person provides witness to the absolute Thou, and this may involve not enouncing this witness (a so-called “wordless witness,” as Christians say): “One might say that conditional pledges are only possible in a world from which God is absent. Unconditionality is the true sign of God’s presence” (Marcel, 1950, p. 40). In other words, somewhat similar to Buber and Levinas, absent religious faith of some sort, absolute, unconditional commitment cannot be affirmed: “Fidelity can never be unconditional except when it is Faith, but we must add, however, that it aspires to unconditionality” (Marcel, 1965a, p. 133). What Marcel is saying is that for the spiritually animated person who creatively lives his fidelity, the “inwardly consecrated soul,” as Marcel calls him, fidelity “reveals its true nature, which is to be an evidence, a testimony,” about that which is both “Absolute [eternal] in us” and in the loved other (ibid., p. 134).
A few general points about Marcels description of faith may be helpful before closing this section. First, for faith to have a strong interpretive grip on one’s outlook and behavior it must overpower the homo viator, that is, it must profoundly emotionally impact the heart of his existence (“being incarnate,” that is, embodied, or bodying-forth in Marcelian language, which disseminates radiance). Second, faith is a relation that involves the totality of one’s being, the whole self, or at a minimum, something vitally real in oneself, something which feels that to reject it would mean rejecting the whole self (i.e., the totality of circumstances that constitute who one believes one is). Third, even though the faith commitment may feel true to the believer, it always disavows certainty.That is, since faith is a free act (a “leap” with no guarantees), it resides in (or at least has proximity to) a realm of ambiguity, ambivalence, and doubt. Marcel detested fanaticism: “I assert without a shadow of hesitation—the first duty of the philosopher of our world today is to fight against fanaticism under whatever guise it may appear” (Hernandez, 2011, p. 107). Fourth, faith is not merely a personal affirmation (not a projection of one’s inner world though it correlates to it) but is, in addition, something that involves divine grace. That is, for Marcel, faith without grace is not conceivable because it objectifies the divine gift experience within the subject, implying there is no “genuine existence of an absolute of non-human origin” (i.e., “no living presence of God”) (Selzer, 1988, p. xviii). Rather, faith is always co-mingled with grace, divine gift-giving, as it is for Buber and Levinas. Indeed, Marcel felt similar to
Buber, who in the latter’s reply to Carl Jung noted that psychology and psychoanalysis are not “authorized to make a distinction,” a definitive judgment “between psychic statements to which a super-psychic reality corresponds and to psychic statements to which none corresponds” (i.e., “Whether God can exist independent of man”) (Buber, 1988, p. 135). What grace allows us to do is to glimpse the divine nature, to feel His transforming healing presence without being able to adequately account for why we have received this mysterious gift: “We are again in the order of what can be found and taken in account rather than what can be understood” (Marcel, 2001, p. 181). In a word, for Marcel, grace can be conceived as the transcendent and nonobjectifiable assumption of the act of faith (Marcus, 2013, p. 69).