On Wednesday, 13 March, The Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology (MBIT) in Cambridge will host a groundbreaking conference, in person and online, to explore the legacy of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain. 'Beggars for Heaven: the Inheritance of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain' aims to stimulate and inspire greater awareness of this enigmatic and saintly couple. Conference organiser Chris Grey (Pearl Jubilee Research Fellow at MBIT) answers some questions.
Who was Jacques Maritain? As the Canadian philosopher William Sweet succinctly puts it: "[Jacques] was perhaps the best-known and most admired Catholic philosopher of the mid-twentieth century." A convert from agnosticism, Jacques Maritain authored over seventy books, passionately advocating the perennial wisdom of St Thomas Aquinas, and influencing philosophers, theologians, politicians, popes, painters, and poets. At the time, his sphere of influence was spectacularly wide, yet he remained somewhat under the radar - in old age describing himself as 'a secret agent of the King of Kings.' Maritain's well-known masterworks include The Degrees of Knowledge, The Range of Reason, The Person and the Common Good, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry; but most corners of philosophy were subject to his Thomist interpretation - sometimes well-received, sometimes less so.
Who was Raïssa Maritain? Raïssa was a Russian-Jewish émigré who also converted to Catholicism following extreme disillusionment with the prevailing winds of logical positivism at the turn of the last century. She wrote of her Sorbonne professors: 'they despaired of truth, whose very name was unlovely to them.' Dramatically, she and Jacques agreed to throw themselves into the Seine unless their nihilism could be relieved - which, thankfully it was, at the hands of Leon Bloy and Aquinas. Although an academic, Raïssa's true vocation was more intimate - as a poet and contemplative; and having married Jacques in 1904, she remained his 'muse' in the most elevated sense, until her death in 1960. As one contemporary observed: Jacques 'attached a peerless value to her vigilant and penetrating judgement.' Decades of illness and intense suffering marked her life.
The Maritain home was a place of prayer, hospitality, and intellectual discovery. The very idea of a Thomistic study circle was born in the Maritain's living room in Paris, and their Sunday afternoon meetings in Meudon drew visitors from every walk of life. Thus, in so many respects, Jacques cannot be fully assessed apart from Raïssa. Interestingly, a cause for the canonization of both Maritains began in 2011, although this has not yet been advanced.
What is the conference about? The theme of the conference is to explore very broadly the inheritance of the Maritains, and the ways in which their work and example still addresses the cultural, political, and theological spheres, in the academy, and the Church. Right now, the voices of Jacques and Raïssa are a clarion call to truth, realism and wisdom, and their profound witness to the mission of the laity stands as an exemplar of lives lived in the pursuit of beauty and goodness. There is still far less engagement in Maritain studies in the UK than elsewhere (especially the USA), so the simple aim of the conference is to address this situation: to renew interest and to generate it anew.
Our keynote speaker is John G Trapani Jr, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Walsh University, author of Poetry, Beauty and Contemplation: the Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain, and President of the American Maritain Association 2001 and 2006-2012. The plenary speaker is Sebastian Morello, Senior Editor and Columnist at the European Conservative, and author of The World as God's Icon: Creator and Creation in the Platonic Thought of Thomas Aquinas.
Who is the conference for? Anyone with an interest in the spiritual and intellectual mission of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, and those wanting to discover more. Scholars, students, lay, religious; philosophers, theologians, or those from outside academia: the Maritains embraced all whom they encountered with a spirit of generosity and exquisite charity, and our aim is to be inspired by their example. Tickets for the event are generously priced to cover costs, including a light lunch and refreshments throughout the day. If you would like to register for the event, or to submit a paper to present, please follow the link below: