Friday, November 7, 2008

Seeing President Elect Obama through Marcel's Lens

For the second time in the last couple of weeks a current event illustrates the theme of Into the World so well that I cannot resist commenting on it. It will take a couple of paragraphs to set this up.

As noted in an earlier post, Gabriel Marcel's The Mystery of Being employs a method he called "philosophical reconnoitring." (The Mystery of Being, p. 140) Because a mystery explained is a mystery eliminated, a mystery per se--in contrast to a mystery that exists as a condition of continued human ignorance--can only be encountered, not explored or examined. Marcel's reconnoitring, then, is a way of encountering the mystery of being by locating it in questions that inherently escape our grasp.

As was also noted earlier, Marcel's exposition is very difficult, and the difficulty is twofold, as I reflect on it. First, it is disorienting to have a book's exposition introduce you to what must escape your understanding as opposed to introducing you to a subject with which it will make you more familiar. And second, Marcel locates the mystery of being in points of view that we are not used to thinking of as mysterious: what it means to have a self or a life, what it means to be a parent or a child, and so on. The combined impact of these two aspects of Marcel's book is to produce a sense of existential vertigo: assumed familiar truths about ourselves open into chasms of mystery about the nature of human existence. The Mystery of Being is in the least a very odd book, in that to the extent that it succeeds it introduces us to what we can never succeed in knowing. It turns the very idea of exposition on its head. And if you think that he succeeded in placing the mystery of being at the center of our life and understanding, it is also an important book that places mystery at the core of life where to live deeply means to encounter the mystery of being.

I will use a quote from Heidegger's "What is Metaphysics?" to put Marcel's reconitioring of "the mystery of being" in a slightly different context.

"No matter investigates what-is it will never find Being. All it encounters, always, is what-is, because its explanatory purpose makes it insist at the outset on what-is. But Being is not an existing quality of what-is, nor, unlike what-is, can Being be conceived and established objectively." (Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, tr. Walter Kaufmann, p. 259-60.) In Heidegger's thought, literally, "Nothing" must be said of "Being" as a prerequisite to human meaningfulness, for Heidegger assumes that " is of the truth of Being that Being may be without what-is, but never what-is without Being." (p. 260) Paraphrased (with considerable metaphorical license) as God created the world out of formless void in the Genesis mythos, so we create meaning out of Being by imposing limits--and thus negation, imposing "Nothing"--on formless Being. That is how I interpret the meaning of being made in the image of God. From the infinite possibilities of Being we create meaning.

But what then happens when a human being imposes those limits on a fellow human being? In Heidegger's words again, without negation "...there is no self-hood and no freedom." But it is the wielding of the power of negation that yields the human power to create meaning and inner freedom. To wield that power against another human being to to take their humanness away--their being made in the image of God as creators of meaning. That is my view, as a Christian. And it requires me to view my fellow human beings as mysteries--as points of emanation of meanings that I have no right to view as subject to my judgment. In Kant's terms, other persons are always to be seen as ends, not means (to my ends). In Martin Buber's terms, we reduce an I-Thou relationship to an I-it relationship, if we do so. In Marcel's terms, " the condition...of participation..." (The Mystery of Being, p. 113)

That is, we dehumanize and de-sacra-lize as we define and objectivize. As a Christian I can almost view the grand introduction from the US Declaration of Independence as sacred doctrine when it states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." And so it followed when African Americans were made into slaves that they had to be dehumanized and de-sacra-lized. And as the defense of freedom and human rights in the world is the best of what America stands for, it follows that the historic dehumanization and enslavement of its African American citizens is the worse blemish on its history.

Now I can provide a glimpse of what President Elect Obama means for me as a European American. I will do so in a Marcel-like way, by situating the meaning in my ordinary life experience. Since for most of the first 13 years of my life I lived on a ranch on the Great Plains, it was not till attending high school in a town with a Air Force base near-by that I had any opportunity to meet black peers. And the best opportunity I had was on the school track team, where I met several good-natured, intelligent, funny African American team mates whom I should have welcomed as friends. Yet there was an invisible barrier to friendship. I could not have said what it was then, but the social roles my team mates and I had inherited could not be accepted by any self-respecting black or white person. So we remained in our racial cliques--the only decent thing to do for a person who did not have the courage and insight needed to transcend the cultural reality.

For the first time that has changed. In Central Minnesota I still live in racial isolation, with only occasional exceptions. The day after the election I saw a singe black person, a chef at a restaurant that buys pizzas from the company I work for. Entering the door to the kitchen I was greeted with a loud Bob Marley Rastafarian protest anthem, "Most people think that God comes from above..." And for the first time I could look a black man in the eyes without the gulf that emanates from a presumptive barrier of cultural inequality that requires us to either transcend it or remain in separate racial cliques out of self-respect. Having a black person elected into the highest position of authority in our nation transcended the presumptive barrier for us. We exchanged meaningful looks followed by genuine smiles. That was it, and in a sense it was a very small thing. But it was a very big thing too, because a terrible historical legacy has been transcended--not entirely overcome, but transcended symbolically, at least--in this election.

If I were a black man in a white majority community last Wednesday, I think it would have been a great choice to put on some Bob Marley, really loud, and see who gets it and who doesn't. Well done!

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