To Have or Have Not?: The Problem of Possessing vs. The Gift Of Being

“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?”

Matthew 6:25

In his commentary on the work of Gabriel Marcel, Oxford philosopher F.H. Heinemann1 Heinemann is a little known figure in philosophy, but seems to have been deeply involved with the existentialist movement on the European continent in its heyday. He also claims to have coined the term “Existenzphilosophie” in German, and knew many of the leading existentialist thinkers like Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl personally. Thus, he has all the credentials of an expert in this arena of philosophy. suggests that for the French existentialist the source of ‘alienation’2 ‘Alienation’ is a fundamental concept and a technical term in 20th century existential thought. It is best understood as the individual person’s sense of being alone or isolated from God, others, and any telos or purpose in the world. for modern man lies in man’s “having” or “possessing” certain things or capacities or social functions. This inordinate focus on possessing or having alienates man from his authentic being. Unlike other existentialists of his day, like Sartre or Heidegger, the Roman Catholic Marcel saw the problem of possession as the core of our alienation from God and our true selves. Heinemann elucidates Marcel’s thought regarding the dangers of viewing our identity, our essence, in 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.”3 Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, 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 things like one’s own intellectual property or one’s 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, belonging to a world where the individual is increasingly ‘socialized,’ i.e., incorporated into an increasingly large, powerful state structure, 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, 143.

In addition, as the technology associated with this socializing process advances, the daily phenomena of human existence become mere “problems to be solved by reasoning and calculation.”4 ibid., 143. The vicissitudes of life all become obstacles to overcome rather than mysteries, i.e. “metaphysical problems,”5 Heinemann, 145. to be acknowledged and explored, let alone entered into.

Here, one could ask, “what happens if one applies Marcel’s concern over seeing things as problems to be fixed through instrumental reasoning, rather than as mysteries to be accepted and pondered, to concrete moral issues?” Instead of seeing moral attitudes or actions as either intrinsically right or wrong, good or evil, inherently dignified or mere means to ends, we see moral issues as primarily political ones; as technical deficiencies to be remedied through technological advances and legal revision. 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 (and evil) 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.6 Which is, of course, one aspect of justice but not the whole story. As if the unjust “right” of abortion itself could stay on the books so long as no one actually exercised it. So long as the problems were not actual, it seems many would be okay with the idea that people could still believe abortion was morally justified. So long as we have through technology and social policy eliminated the need for anyone to have an actual abortion, it wouldn’t matter if they theoretically thought it was still a viable option. Nevertheless, this would be to go on thinking that the great mystery of life is itself subject to our possessing the knowledge and ability to destroy it should it ever become too bothersome to us. Few today however would apply this kind of thinking to something like the institution of slavery. After all, it is not okay to believe slavery is morally acceptable even if it is no longer economically viable and therefore not needed.

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 (independently I believe), in The Screwtape Letters when he 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.

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 and 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.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

It is this “sense of ownership,” this claim to “having rights” over everything from tangibles like houses and motor-cars,7 for Marcel avoir-possession, or “possessing having” to even the physical pains and pleasures of “those vast and perilous estates” that are human bodies8 for Marcel, the avoir-implication, or “implicit having” 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, and in doing so participate in the life of God. In letting go of our ownership, our “having,” we can really start to be, and having found our identity in Christ, we can truly begin to “be in Him.” Rather than being creatures who possess things, we are transformed into creations that participate in the grand drama of Being itself.

Applied concretely, this would also put us as a society on a much better track than we are currently on, for 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 notion of possession spoil the salt or hide that 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…”

Ephesians 3:8bff

2 thoughts on “To Have or Have Not?: The Problem of Possessing vs. The Gift Of Being”

  1. I appreciate you integrating the notion of “possessing” one’s body into the modern idea of a woman’s right to “control her body” relative to the body forming in her (as you touch on briefly re: abortion). Does this idea of ownership become the basis of ignoring any other notion that assails it such as the idea that a person of “incalculable ontological worth” is forming inside another as in the body of a mother (to be).
    I wonder if you are familiar with the works of James M. Houston (founding principal of Regent College/Seminary). I recommend his “The Mentored Life: From Individualism to Personhood” – as it also speaks to what you write re: Marcel’s understanding of how we “suffer a loss of being,” and incur an “ontological deficiency.” Houston (now age 99 I think!) has written to this more in his last decade or so. Thanks for your thorough essays on matters that require some intellectual robustness.

    1. Rusty,

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments here. I am familiar with James Houston, but not with any of his books. I will take the recommendation to heart, as I have heard some very fine things about him as a person.

      in Christ,
      Anthony

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