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Summary Article: Marcel, Gabriel (1889-1973)
From Encyclopedia of Philosophers on Religion

His mother having died when he was only four, Marcel was raised by a father who had abandoned his Catholicism to become an agnostic along the lines of a Kierkegaardian aesthete. Marcel’s stepmother (the sister of his deceased mother) felt that only Christianity could make sense of life and had a keen sense of morality, but could not bring herself, intellectually, to join the believers, and so remained something of an agnostic also. Notwithstanding this skeptical home environment, and despite—or perhaps because of—the loss of his mother and other tragic, dehumanizing experiences as a student and a Red Cross official during World War I, Marcel developed an early interest in the theoretical foundations of religion. As a budding philosopher given to reflection he felt that were he ever to become a Christian it would have to be in one or another form of Protestantism.

His marriage at the age of twenty-nine into a rather open-minded Protestant family spawned some sympathy for the Reformed Church. But prompted by François Mauriac, Marcel would later convert to Catholicism because Protestantism seemed "all too divided among a variety of sects that were not at all in agreement on the essentials." What he perceived to be the superstitious and legalistic proclivities of some Catholics and the "essentially Thomist dogmatism" he encountered in others disturbed him, but he felt that the Catholic Church had "the richest and most global vision." The memory of his baptism and first communion always filled him, he said, with expansive joy. (His Protestant wife offered no objection to his conversion, and in fact, after developing a love of the Catholic liturgy and its Gregorian chant, converted to Catholicism herself a few years prior to her death).

Despite occasional skirmishes with some "rigidly orthodox Catholics," "certain liberal Protestants," or a few "more or less fanatic Jews" regarding certain of his plays or philosophical works, he felt no inhibition as a man of religious convictions to express himself freely. Although reluctant to identify himself as a "Christian" Existentialist, he went to his grave convinced that "in its purity and its integrity" the "testimony of the Christian" alone added a dimension of absoluteness to the certitude he claimed to have already experienced prior to his conversion.

Marcel on Religion. Arguments for the existence of God inevitably fail when they reduce God to some objectified third party about which one can predicate certain attributes. Whatever logic there is in such arguments can only be found through a dialogical experience of the mystery of Being. But it is precisely such an ontological sense that the modern world has lost, broken as it is by a rationalistic/scientistic spirit of abstraction and a technological, possessive preoccupation with the solving of problems. The innately human demand for transcendence is suppressed under the impression either of total mastery or of utter absurdity. Any attempt to recover it must begin with a search for that which in personal existence does not allow itself to be dissolved by the dialectics of experience (e.g., criticism, tragedy, despair, etc.)—something, in other words, that is eternal and inexhaustible. Only secondary reflection that involves the cognitive feeling humans experience in the light of Being can be of any help in this regard. By such "blinded intuition" individuals experience themselves as incarnate beings in a world of multiple situations that reach their climax in inter-subjectivity.

It is especially these interpersonal relationships that open individuals to the experience of transcendence. By way of becoming spiritually available and unconditionally committed to each other in love, individuals discover a dimension of reality that is indestructible by death. Even nonreligious people who live within such fidelity can be said to have a sort of crypto-faith by which they witness to the Absolute Thou. For whether they acknowledge it or not, the unconditionality of their fidelity and hope toward and for one another both demand and symbolize the presence of a personal God. Theistic religions simply bring this human participation in the mystery of Being into full expression, at least when, eschewing all conceptualization, they address the God they have come to know in prayerful worship alone.

  • Marcel, Gabriel. Being and Having. Boston: Beacon Press, 1951.
  • Marcel, Gabriel. Creative Fidelity. New York: The Noonday Press, 1964.
  • Marcel, Gabriel. The Existential Background of Human Dignity. Cambridge, MA: The Harvard University Press, 1963.
  • Marcel, Gabriel. Homo Viator. New York: Harper, 1962.
  • Marcel, Gabriel. Metaphysical Journal. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952.
  • Marcel, Gabriel. The Mystery of Being. 2 vols. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1964.
  • Marcel, Gabriel. The Philosophy of Existentialism. New York: Citadel, 1961.
  • Blackham, H.J. Six Existentialist Thinkers. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959. 66-85.
  • Collins, James. The Existentialists: A Critical Study. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952. 115-49.
  • Keen, Samuel M. Gabriel Marcel. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1967.
  • Keen, Samuel M.. The Idea of Mystery in the Thought of Gabriel Marcel. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Princeton: Princeton University, 1962.
  • Schaldenbrand, Sister M. Aloysius. "Gabriel Marcel: Philosopher of Intersubjectivity." In Twentieth-Century Thinkers, edited by John K. Ryan. Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1967. 107-32.
  • Schilpp, Paul Arthur, and Lewis Edwin Hahn, eds. The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1984.
© 2008 McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

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