The Existential Approach to God

Approaches to God (1954) by French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain is one of the most interesting set of reflections I have come across. It is also one of the most challenging. Maritain is capable of writing clearly. Unfortunately much of this work is encumbered by academic jargonese. Take for instance his comment about “a radically practical, nonconceptual and nonconscious knowledge of the existence of God.” Yet for its glaring faults of style, there is much fine thought to be mined out of this book. It requires just a little patience since it is a short work.

The reader is forewarned about the second chapter, which covers Thomas Aquinas’ famous “five philosophical proofs” of God’s existence. I have seen these proofs stated much more cogently elsewhere. What is of particular interest are Maritain’s discussions of “prephilosophic,” “intuitive,” and “practical” awareness of God. Chapter I, on the “primordial way” is densely written and takes some persistence. But there are some novel insights.

Maritain speaks of  “instinctive” notions of divinity which, for their informality, are a kind of basic metaphysics. Our initial thoughts about God do not require specialized training or study, though they can certainly lead to it. This primordial perception depends on “the natural intuition of being.” Such a meditation is basically “existential,” and touches on all the points that bewildered atheist existentialists, though it reaches very different conclusions than they do (for an alternative theocentric existentialism, I refer readers to Maritain’s contemporary Gabriel Marcel).

[T]his primordial intuition is both the intuition of my existence and of the existence of things. When it takes place, I suddenly realize that a given entity—man, mountain, or tree—exists and exercises this sovereign activity to be in its own way, in an independence of me which is… totally implacable. And at the same time I realize that I also exist, but as thrown back into my loneliness and frailty by this other existence by which things assert themselves and in which I have positively no part….

It is it this consideration of humanity that is “fragile and menaced, exposed to destruction and death” which was the source of so much angst for atheist thinkers from Marx to Sartre. It resulted in so-called “alienation” because the total self-assertion that they craved was frustrated. But for the mind that is open, this understanding of being leads to an analogy about the presence of the divine. To paraphrase Maritain, we are beings threatened with “nothingness.” But being cannot come from nothing, so there must be a “being-without-nothingness” or a source of “absolute existence.” The author concludes by saying:

This is not a new approach to God… What is new is the manner in which the modern mind has become aware of the simplicity and liberating power, of the natural and in some way intuitive character, of this eternal approach.

I hope to discuss other aspects of Maritain’s book in later posts.

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