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Thinking Out Loud
  • Just Definitions: Narcissistic

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 24, 2017

    Editor’s Note: Occasionally, “Thinking Out Loud” addresses subjects of a very specific nature. In this special series, “Thinking Out Loud” readers are asked to consider the true meanings of certain terms that have recently found prevalence in the current public discourse. What are your thoughts? E-mail us.

    NarcissisticIn the movie version of William Nicholson's play, Shadowlands, about the careers and romance of American writers Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis, there’s a scene in which Davidman says how important it is to get the right word for the right thing. Davidman's observation goes to the heart of the heuristic function of language, using words to explore realities and discover new insights and understandings.* Finding the right word is essential, because the wrong word can lead to a dead end or down a rabbit hole. Lately I've been thinking about Davidman's comment, especially because I've heard a number of words used, often loosely and imprecisely, among politicians, political commentators and in various forms of media, particularly social media.

    This blog and the three other special edition blogs that follow will inquire very briefly into the meanings of a few words, recognizing that getting the meaning of some words straight will necessarily require that we compare and contrast them with other words. The words we will look at directly in these four special blogs are narcissistic, totalitarian, pragmatic and Machiavellian. Our exploration of meanings will take us into the realms of psychology, political science and philosophy.

    These essays are merely descriptive. They will resist making direct connections with current political situations and the various popular usages or misuses of the words. They will also provide references to a few helpful resources along the way for further exploration.


    The origin of the word, narcissistic, of course, is the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful son of Cephissus (the river god) and Liriope (a nymph). Narcissis was extremely proud, and utterly fixated on himself. He didn't give a hoot about others. His nemesis (by the name of “Nemesis”) used Narcissus' self-absorption to entice him to a spring where, seeing his own reflection in the water, Narcissus fell in love with his image, and either pined away or killed himself (depending on the version of the myth you choose). You can read the story for yourself in Ovid's Metamorphoses, book 3.

    Today the term “narcissistic” evokes this myth in various ways. It has been used, for example, in social, historical and cultural criticism, as in Christopher Lasch's 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, (for which Lasch won a National Book Award). And, of course, it is an important psychological category.

    There are some very fine recent psychological studies of narcissism, which I'll reference in a moment, but one of the most fascinating descriptive studies of narcissism from a psychological perspective was provided by the respected psychotherapist Erich Fromm in his book, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, in a chapter on "Individual and Social Narcissism," dating from 1963. (Page references from Fromm in the following paragraphs about narcissism are to this book.)

    Fromm describes various kinds of narcissism, beginning with what is called "primary narcissism," which is what one finds in human infants for whom the outside world has not yet emerged as real. Fromm's primary concern as a psychotherapist, however, is not with this normal developmental form of narcissism, but with the delusional narcissism of the mentally ill, for whom the real world has ceased to be real (Fromm, pp 65-66). Fromm distinguishes a fully psychotic form of narcissism, which he calls "absolute narcissism," from the more often observed and relatively minor neurotic forms. In this “absolute narcissism,” a person has broken all connection with reality and has made his own person the substitute for reality (Fromm, pp. 66-68).

    "How does one recognize the narcissistic person?" Fromm asks. He answers this question in considerable detail based on his clinical observations (and I shall quote him at length):

    "There is one type [of narcissism] which is easily recognized. That is the kind of person who shows all the signs of self-satisfaction; one can see that when he says some trivial words he feels as if he has said something of great importance. He usually does not listen to what others say, nor is he really interested. (If he is clever, he will try to hide this fact by asking questions and making it a point to seem interested.) One can also recognize the narcissistic person by his sensitivity to any kind of criticism. This sensitivity can be expressed by denying the validity of any criticism, or by reacting with anger or depression. … Whatever the different manifestations of narcissism are, a lack of genuine interest in the outside world is common to all forms of narcissism.

    "Sometimes the narcissistic person can also be recognized by his facial expression. Often we find a kind of glow or smile, which gives the impression of smugness to some, or beatific, trusting, childlikeness to others. Often the narcissism, especially in its most extreme forms, manifests itself in a peculiar glitter in the eyes, taken by some as a symptom of half-saintliness, by others of half-craziness. Many very narcissistic persons talk incessantly - often at a meal, where they forget to eat and thus make everyone else wait …". (p.70)

    Fromm explores related psychological problems, such as "the state of self-inflation," "depression," "anger," and "megalomania" (especially in leaders who "'cured' their narcissism by transforming the world to fit it" (pp. 71-77) before analyzing what he calls "malignant narcissism." In some ways, this is the most interesting aspect of Fromm's analysis.

    A person afflicted with malignant narcissism focuses not on what he does but on what he has or possesses. "The malignant nature of this type of narcissism," Fromm explains, "lies in the fact that it lacks the corrective element which we find in the benign form." The narcissist who is "great," Fromm observes, because of something he has or some quality he believes he possesses, then has no need to be related to anybody or anything, except in as much as he sees others related to him as an extension of himself.

    Speaking in the first-person voice of the narcissist, Fromm writes:

    "In maintaining a picture of my greatness I remove myself more and more from reality and I have to increase the narcissistic charge in order to be better protected from the danger that my narcissistically inflated ego might be revealed as the product of my empty imagination. Malignant narcissism, thus, is not self-limiting, and in consequence it is crudely solipsistic as well as xenophobic." (p. 77)

    Wayne Oates, a pastoral theologian and professor of pastoral counseling, studied narcissism as it is manifested in religious personalities in his book Behind the Mask: Personality Disorders in Religious Behavior (Westminster John Knox Press, 1987), pp. 43-55. This resource will be especially helpful for pastors, pastoral counselors and other religious leaders. Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert Pressman provide a fascinating study of The Narcissistic Family: Diagnoses and Treatment (Jossey-Bass, 1994); see particularly their description of the characteristics of “the narcissistic family” (pp. 19-40). One of the insights Pressman and Pressman make has to do with the popular pejorative use of the term narcissist. They write:

    "When the layperson uses the term narcissistic in a pejorative way - as in 'That narcissistic little twit! All she ever thinks about is herself!' - he is really transposing narcissism for solipsism: the view that the self is all that exists, can be known, or has importance." (pp. 41-42)

    Another helpful recent book is Wendy T. Behary's Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed, (New Harbinger Publications, 2013, 2nd edition). These last two resources will be of particular interest to marriage and family therapists.**

    Next time we will explore the meaning of totalitarianism.

    * The heuristic use of taxonomies is described in my study of ecclesiology in a postmodern context, The Church Faces Death, (Oxford University Press, 1999), 50-68.
    ** I'm very grateful to my colleagues Loren Townsend, Professor of Pastoral Care and Director of the Marriage & Family Therapy Program, and Jenny Schiller, Director of Clinical Training, both at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, for their suggestions of the resources listed here.

  • Mindful of Wisdom

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 21, 2017

    MindfulnessSomeone coined the term "McMindfulness" to describe a pop version of Mindfulness, which promotes itself primarily as a relaxation tool. The term is apt not only for the superficial but also the counterfeit versions of Mindfulness that promise quick comfort and instant contentment when, in reality, they offer little more than the spiritual equivalent of a Happy Meal. I have raised concern about this superficial version of Mindfulness in previous blogs, as have other commentators. Recently, however, an essay in the New York Times encapsulated so well certain misconceptions of McMindfulness, in a supposed critique of Mindfulness, that I could not resist returning to the subject to differentiate the well-grounded practice from its popular imitations.

    I do this in the same spirit in which I would raise concerns about any attempt to boil down into a few catchy slogans a rich faith tradition or a complex philosophy of life, or any attempt to dispose of such a faith or philosophy by constructing, then demolishing, a straw man in place of the real thing.

    Any spiritual path worth pursuing requires a lot of time, much of it engaged in disciplined practice, reflection and, yes, study. As one philosopher has put it, "If something can be put in a nutshell, it probably belongs in one."

    I decided to write this blog after reading an essay by Ruth Whippman titled, "Actually, Let's Not Be in the Moment," (New York Times, November 26, 2016). My immediate reaction (and that is the right word) to the essay was frustration and irritation. I thought, how dare she blithely dismiss as a pursuit of the privileged a path toward compassion, peace and justice that has been nurtured for centuries by some of the greatest spiritual teachers in history, from the Buddha to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. But, precisely because my dander was up, I thought I should set the column aside until I could approach it more appropriately, realizing that the ideas in it came from a real person and that I need to respect her and hear her with compassion and empathy.

    In fact, upon reading her critique, while I still disagreed with many of her thoughts, I did find a combination of concerns that have been raised in the community of Mindfulness practitioners about the dangers, especially in cultures like ours, of Mindfulness becoming the preserve of people wealthy enough to attend high-end seminars and retreats. It is even possible that we might use our spiritual pursuits as a substitute for dealing with social injustice, though to do so violates the heart of these practices.

    The author's point that "Americans now spend an estimated $4 billion each year on 'mindfulness products'” is worth making, even if many religious leaders, counsellors, educators and other practitioners are working very hard to make Mindfulness available to children and adults in economically impoverished communities. And they are doing this to equip people better to deal with life, not as a substitute for dealing with the economic and educational inequities of society. There is no doubt but that "a healthy scoop of moralizing smugness" (Whippman's excellent phrase) can accompany practitioners of Mindfulness who watch in amazement as someone blows up at a store clerk for making an error or worries herself sick over a relatively inconsequential problem. If Mindfulness teaches us anything, however, it teaches us not to judge ourselves or others, a spiritual precept much harder to practice than to preach. Indeed, on revisiting the essay, I wish to express my gratitude to its author for pointing out my own lack of skillfulness in my practice and for encouraging me to clarify certain aspects of Mindfulness practice.

    Contrary to the comments of the Times columnist, Mindfulness is not a practice for easing the tensions of the privileged classes. If we allow it to become this, we have missed a great opportunity to fulfill one of our most sacred of vows and vital of aspirations: to do all we can to alleviate the suffering of the world. Mindfulness is a practice designed to teach human beings to come to terms with the persistent disappointments of existence while inhabiting their own lives more skillfully and compassionately for the sake of others. The habits cultivated in the practice of bringing ourselves to attend to the present moment are more like calisthenics for the mind than anything else I can think of. As Shantideva, the eighth-century author of the classic The Way of the Bodhisattva, once wrote, "Putting up with little cares, I'll train myself to bear great adversity." (Quoted in Pema Chodron’s, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Shambhala Publications, 2012, p. 58)

    On some occasions. It may relieve worry. And it may help reduce stress. Sometimes. But more often than not, the practice of Mindfulness is simply hard work that requires a great deal of discipline. Its rewards are not simply stated nor quickly won. Its origins lie not in the leafy, well-manicured neighborhoods of a wealthy North American city, but amid the dust, disease and wrenching poverty of the subcontinent of India. Its spread throughout Eastern Asia from Tibet to China to Japan, and its enduring influence for millennia among thousands upon thousands of adherents, are the result of how well it speaks to the core human problem of suffering.

    Through a practice in which one sets aside time for formal Mindfulness meditation, as well as through informal moments for Mindfulness throughout the day, one learns (to paraphrase a well-known saying of the Buddha) to master your own mind so that it does not master you. One learns to pay attention to what one is doing now, to what is happening in life at this precise moment and to the people with whom one is living and working. One learns to be attentive without condemning. One learns to let go of the past with its regrets and guilt, and not to fixate on the future with its anxiety and worry. One learns to live fully in the present moment because, as Thich Nhat Hahn has said, "Only the present moment is real.”

    Mindfulness practice teaches one how to show up for one's own life. We learn to pause inside ourselves, even in the midst of a tense or conflicted and confusing situation, to listen deeply and sympathetically to others, to hear their perspectives generously, to understand and sympathize with the source of their suffering, rather than merely existing in a perpetual posture of reactivity or defensiveness.

    Through Mindfulness we become more conscious of the hidden drives and compulsions which prevent us from paying attention to life as it is happening. It also trains us to discern the judgmental tendencies that undercut our own best efforts and may cause us to prejudice our experience of other people. Learning to accept our experience without being judgmental not only frees us to encounter ourselves more honestly and graciously, but to meet other people with as little bias as possible, even if the other person is so very "other," so seemingly alien to us, that we would tend to dismiss or condemn them out of hand.

    Mindfulness allows us to experience our feelings like boredom, anger, fear, and frustration, and to experience our distractions merely as feelings and distractions without placing moralizing or dramatic stories onto these experiences, realizing that all feelings pass, unless, of course, we cling to them and fuel them with our narratives. Mindfulness, in other words, frees us to live this life, not the one we dread, not the one we regret, but this one. As Jack Kornfield has put it succinctly, the practice of Mindfulness teaches us to "be here now."

    The goal of Mindfulness is not merely relaxation, happiness or contentment, as I said earlier, though these can sometimes be nice side effects. Rather, the ultimate purpose of Mindfulness is to provide an inner-space of detachment so that we can act with compassion, justice and peace. Through Mindfulness, one seeks enlightenment and awakening.

    I am certainly not saying that one must become a Buddhist in order to practice Mindfulness meditation and Mindful consciousness deeply and truly. But surely respect is in order for the worldview, the social and historical, and the intellectual and spiritual context that gave rise to this practice and that continues to inform it. This means, at least in part, taking seriously teachings of Buddhism such as the Four Noble Truths. It may even mean learning from the vows many practitioners of Mindfulness take, such as the commitment not to cause harm (Pratimoksha); the promise to relieve suffering in the world (Bodhisattva); and the vow to remain open to the world as it is (Samaya). Respecting the philosophical world from which Mindfulness practice comes means entertaining seriously insights of this tradition, such as the idea that the source of suffering is our resistance to the reality of life, the fact that change is a constant and impermanence is fundamental to existence, and that change and impermanence are not things to deny and avoid but to embrace. It certainly means that we not dismiss such ideas with a few stereotypes and a couple of clever phrases, even if they are very different from our usual way of seeing the world. (See, for example, chapter six, “The Essence of Buddha's Teaching," in Thich Nhat Hanh's book, You Are Here, Shambhala, 2010, pp. 103-131).

    What often surprises persons of faith other than Buddhism (especially many of us from Christian and Jewish traditions) is the deep resonance between wisdom or sapiential traditions which exist even though particular faiths may differ dramatically in what we might describe as their "belief systems." Thus, while the beliefs of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity and the beliefs of various streams of Judaism and the beliefs of different branches of Buddhism (and I might add, the beliefs of classical Stoicism) each developed in response to very different perceptions of the problem and predicament of human existence, and each produced complex belief systems to make sense of these predicaments and problems and their solutions, there are often deep commonalities in the human wisdom that gave rise to the beliefs, and that this wisdom is often sustained in the practices of these ways of life.

    The wisdom that lies behind and is contained within the way of Mindfulness has its roots in a serious philosophy and psychology, however one may regard the various religious rites, ceremonies and beliefs that grew up with and around these. Mindfulness is about sanity, humanity and wholeness (as is so much of the message of Jesus of Nazareth, the wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures and the writings of ancient philosophers such as Epictetus). And these ways of wisdom are gifts whatever our socio-economic status or our "home" faith tradition, whether one is among the many, many Buddhist practitioners around the globe whose families get by weekly on less than most of us spend in a single visit to Starbucks, or one is among a more affluent social group, privileged and worried by trials that most people in the world would give most anything to "suffer."

    There may be many motivations for a person to try Mindfulness meditation. Some people do indeed start out just trying to relieve stress, anxiety and worry, just as some people may try Christianity to relieve their guilt, or Stoicism to get through a rough patch in life, or Jewish faith in order to connect again with their core religious identity. But the rewards of all these ways of wisdom, life, salvation and enlightenment lie not at the end of a weekend retreat, but along the way of a long, long discipline in which we seek not "what works for a moment" or "provides a new topic of conversation," but "what is true and lasting." Because we know, ultimately, the truth will set us free.

  • Merton and Interfaith Communication

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 17, 2017

    Merton and Interfaith Communication"I am convinced that communication in depth, across the lines that have hitherto divided religious and monastic traditions, is now not only possible and desirable," it may be "most important" for the destiny of humanity, wrote Thomas Merton in 1968, the year of his death. Speaking even of those persons bound by the strictest religious vows, the men and women in monastic orders, he continues: "we have now reached a stage of (long-overdue) religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment and yet to learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist or Hindu discipline and experience."1
    Speaking as he did in the late 1960s, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and well before hardened resistance to Vatican II set in, one can sense Merton's exuberance and optimism. His own careful study of other faiths, his writing on subjects such as Buddhism and Taoism, as well as his practice of mindfulness meditation and such disciplines as Zen-inspired calligraphic drawing, enriched his spirituality for many years, even as it perplexed some authorities within his church. In a letter to D.T. Suzuki, written almost ten years before his death, Merton writes: "I'll say simply that it seems to me that Zen is the very atmosphere of the Gospels, and the Gospels are bursting with it. ... If I could not breathe Zen I would probably die of spiritual asphyxiation."2
    Merton understood as few had (especially) at that time that our consciousness of God is not restricted within the boundaries of a single creed. While we must inevitably experience the presence of God in terms of particular beliefs and practices and in particular times and places, God is not captive to any particular religion. Merton also understood that exploration of other faiths can deepen one's own faith, make it possible for us to see and understand faith anew, and, even more importantly, to know God more deeply. Our engagement with other faiths need not be seen as a threat to our own, though at least some of Merton's censors apparently felt otherwise.
    Toward the close of his notes for the 1968 Calcutta address, Merton laid down five things we should avoid doing if we wish to make progress in deep and meaningful conversation with persons of differing faiths.3
    First, he says, we should commit ourselves not to allow interfaith conversations to become just another variety of "interminable empty talk, the endlessly fruitless and trivial discussion of everything under the sun, the inexhaustible chatter" with which people try to convince themselves that they are "in touch with" other people or "reality."
    Second, "there can be no question of a facile syncretism, a mishmash of semi-religious verbiage and pieties, a devotionalism that admits everything and therefore takes nothing with full seriousness." Merton anticipated the timely critique of those who reject what recently has been called "McMindfulness," the popular reductionism that abstracts practices such as mindfulness meditation from the deep philosophical and religious beliefs that support these practices, thus trying to convert a faith practice into a mere relaxation technique.4
    If we are to enter into faithful communication with persons of differing faiths, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once observed, we must remember that faith is the indispensable prerequisite to interfaith dialogue. We must respect both the integrity of our own faith and the integrity of the faith of others enough not to reduce either to elements unrecognizable to faithful practitioners of both. This means that we must take a full and serious account of other faiths and allow that which is not compatible to remain incompatible [an insight that Stephen Prothero expresses in his study, God is Not One (Harper Collins, 2010)].
    Third, however, while "there must be a scrupulous respect for important differences," we must also, says Merton, resist "useless debate." The fact that we recognize differences between faiths does not mean that we must enter into defense of our own or attacks upon others. "There are differences that are not debatable," writes Merton, "and it is a useless, silly temptation to try to argue them out. Let them be left intact until a moment of greater understanding."
    Fourth, speaking specifically of the "monastic quest," Merton pleads with those in religious vocations (monks) to seek after "true self-transcendence and enlightenment," a "transformation of consciousness in its ultimate ground," and "the highest and most authentic devotional love" rather than to chase after "the acquisition of extraordinary powers." Compassion, justice and love of God and God's creation lie at the heart of Merton's quest as a monk, not the private acquisition of spiritual or mystical powers whether they be "miraculous activities" or "visions."
    And, fifth, as we advance our conversations with people of other faiths, we should do all we can to ensure that our different institutional structures and forms of religious observance will be seen as secondary to the higher goals of faith and enlightenment. We should not disrespect such institutional and traditional forms of faith, Merton tells us, but neither should we allow attention to them to distract us from our attentiveness to God's presence in the world.
    To the end of his life, Merton remained a devoted Cistercian monk - a faithful Roman Catholic priest. This is confirmed in a letter he sent to friends in November of 1968, only weeks before he died.5 And, while deeply engaged in the faith and practices that are essential to this Christian path, he found his life of faith deepened by his study of and engagement with other faith traditions. In this year, when we observe the centennial of Merton's birth, it is especially appropriate, I think, to listen to his wisdom.
    1Notes for a paper to have been delivered at Calcutta, October 1968, appears as Appendix IV in The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton, Naomi Burton, et al. editors (New York: New Directions, 1973), pp. 309-317.
    2Merton's letter of March 12, 1959, cited in Roger Lipsey, "Merton, Suzuki, Zen, Ink: Thomas Merton's Calligraphic Drawings in Context" in Bonnie Bowman Thurston, editor, Merton & Buddhism: Wisdom, Emptiness, and Everyday Mind (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2007). This superb volume grew from a conference held on February 19-23, 2005, at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary's Laws Lodge, by The Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, with support from Louisville Seminary, The Cathedral Heritage Foundation (now the Center for Interfaith Relations) and the Asia Institute Crane House.
    3All five observations come from the "Notes for a paper to have been delivered at Calcutta," Burton, The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton, 316-317.
    4Ron Purser and David Loy, "Beyond McMindfulness." Huffington Post, July 1, 2013. Accessed September 21, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ron-purser/beyond-mcmindfulness_b_3519289.html
    5"November Circular Letter to Friends," Burton, The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton, 320-325.

  • Random Joy

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 14, 2017

    Emily Dickinson had not been one of my go-to poets. Not until recently. A new edition of her work published by the Folio Society of London changed that.

    Random JoyNot only is the book, Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems, beautiful and beautifully made, the table of contents pages draw you into the inevitable and magical world of meaning-making, largely because of an idiosyncrasy of Dickinson's style. You see, she did not title her poems conventionally. What you have in the table of contents are a list of her first lines.

    At first, I dove into the volume as I would most collections of poems, skipping over the table of contents altogether, reading one whole poem after another. Most of her poems are so brief. I would read. Reflect awhile on the poem. Read it again. Perhaps reflect a little more. Then I would move on to the next poem.

    After only a brief time, however, I recalled why I had ordered the volume from Folio in the first place. It was because of a particular poem they had printed as a teaser in their lavish fall catalogue. The poem begins, "The World is not Conclusion, / A Species stands beyond...", and the specific passage which arrested my attention was this:

    "Much Gesture, from the Pulpit --
    Strong Hallelujahs roll --
    Narcotics cannot still the Tooth --
    That nibbles at the soul."

    I went looking for this poem in the table of contents, and only then did I discover the random joy of Emily Dickinson, as I strolled through her decontextualized first lines.

    Not only could many of these lines stand alone, like Zen koans, worthy of meditation, but read sequentially, one first line after another as though together they composed an unintended poem, their very randomness moves the mind from grief to revelry more eloquently than some of the finest poems I had ever before experienced.

    The first eight first lines in the table of contents, for example, read as follows:

    •"There's something quieter than sleep”
    •“I never lost as much but twice”
    •“Success is counted sweetest”
    •“Exultation is the going”
    •“I never hear the word 'escape'”
    •“Our lives are Swiss”
    •“As by the dead we love to sit”
    •“These are the days when Birds come back--"

    Other examples, again, plucked at random:

    •"The Spider holds a Silver Ball”
    •“I Years had been from Home”
    •“Our journey had advanced”
    •“It makes no difference abroad”
    •“The Lightening playeth -- all the while”
    •“I watched the Moon around the House”
    •“The Brain -- is wider than the Sky”
    •“I cannot live with You”
    •“Me from Myself -- to banish"

    Of course, Dickinson's first lines have been mined for years, as when Woody Allen took her “'Hope' is the thing with feathers" as the cue to title a collection of his bleak humor Without Feathers. And I would highly commend spending time alone with one after another of these lines which work like distilled spirits to restore the imagination:

    •"Water, is taught by thirst" evokes a longing that is itself more satisfying than many of the things we seek so vainly.

    •"I'm 'wife' -- I've finished that --" could stand by itself as one of the finest short poems ever written.

    •"Much madness is divinest Sense --" invites us to see with dervish eyes by which life comes finally into focus.

    Certainly I commend the poems in their integrity, each in its entirety, but I also suggest you take up a volume of Dickinson sometime soon for the sake of random joy in this deconstructed world just to remember how much wonder lies in that which was never intended to go together.

  • John Calvin: Catholic Theologian

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 07, 2017

    Of all the figures of the Protestant Reformation, the one by whom the great Roman Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton, was most troubled was John Calvin. Why? Because Calvin was the most Catholic (capital C), the Reformer closest to the heart and soul of Catholic thought.

    John Calvin: Catholic TheologianCasual readers of Calvin might not notice this. And non-readers for whom Calvin's name provides merely a license for their reactionary excesses or a punch line for their jokes will not know this at all. But careful and astute readers of Calvin have seen this fact from the beginning. Calvin was never a revolutionary, but always a reformer of the One Holy and Apostolic Church.

    My friend and colleague Matthew Myer Boulton, President of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, is one of the most astute readers of Calvin today. His superb study of Calvin, Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation and the Future of Protestant Theology (Eerdmans, 2011), is compelling and visionary.

    Notice, for example, what Matt has to say about Calvin's understanding of the unio mystica (our "mystical union" with Christ):

    "When it comes to the church's side of the 'mystical union' with Christ, then, 'God with us' [Immanuel] means 'God with us in the flesh.' Through him, intimacy with God is possible for human beings. 'Christ shares in flesh and blood,' and therefore is 'comrade and partner in the same nature with us'. …  [T]his intimate, embodied, 'mutual connection' is sacramentally - that is, practically and paradigmatically- realized in the 'Sacred Supper.'" (Boulton, Life in God, p. 132.)

    Calvin's intention as a reformer was to restore the Church to its primitive purity and simplicity, not to start "a new church." The very idea of denominations would have been anathema to Calvin. Indeed, starting "a new church" was as foreign to Calvin as the hated sin of schism, which Calvin ranked beside heresy. Calvin saw himself as a physician trying to heal the illness in the Body of Christ.

    Calvin writes in the remarkable letter he sent to Emperor Charles V, "The Necessity of Reforming the Church" (1539): "[The] question is not whether the Church suffers from many and grievous diseases, for that is admitted even by all moderate judges [here Calvin could have listed scholars and leaders like Erasmus and a man who eventually would be considered a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, Sir Thomas More]; but whether the diseases are of a kind whose cure admits of no longer delay, so that it is neither useful nor proper to wait for too slow remedies." Calvin observes that even among those who condemn the activities of the reformers, "they think us right indeed in desiring amendment, but not right in attempting it." [John Calvin, Theological Treatises, J.K.S. Reid, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), p. 185.]

    Calvin's aims are reminiscent of other reformers and reformation movements in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, some of whom managed to remain "in bounds," though not without controversy. Richard Rohr has mentioned, for instance, the uneasy relationship the Franciscan Order has had with the Church for centuries, and how much the Church has needed it. Much the same could be said about other religious leaders, orders and movements in the Catholic Church from Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz to Dorothy Day, and from the mendicant orders to the Trappists. The various orders of nuns, especially in the Americas, have consistently bewildered and agitated the Vatican and have suffered its slings and arrows while advancing the faith. Even Calvin's insistence on a starker beauty of ecclesial architecture than was common in his day, and the elevation of proclamation (though, with Calvin, never at the expense of the sacrament of Eucharist, which he wanted to be received every time the community worshiped) has parallels, for example, in the reformation of the Benedictine Order we know as the Cistercian movement and among the Dominicans.

    Calvin's sources sometimes surprise readers. Obviously we expect to see him refer to and quote that favorite doctor of the ancient Catholic Church, St. Augustine. And, consistent with our expectations, the source index of the venerable McNeill/Battles English edition of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, shows references to Augustine of Hippo running to seven-and-a-half pages, demonstrating Calvin's familiarity with the full range of this Catholic bishop's voluminous corpus. But notice also other scholars and saints from whom Calvin generously draws in his Institutes. Catholic theologians like Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventura, and John Chrysostom, Cyprian, Duns Scotus, and Pope Gregory I, Hilary, Jerome, Peter Lombard, Erasmus and Thomas More, standing cheek by jowl with Protestants such as Huldreich Zwingli, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther and Martin Bucer. [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), pp. 1592-1634.]

    Notice too Calvin's utter disregard for the establishment of an alternative theology to mere Christianity. He is not the founder of a denomination, not in his view. He is not an apologist for Presbyterianism or for the Reformed faith, but of the Christian Faith which knows only one founder, Jesus Christ. Thus, while Calvin defends the reformation of the Church Catholic, he writes a theology of the Christian Religion, not a Reformed Theology, as many of his followers will do.

    Most telling of all, Calvin's approach to the great subject matter of Christian theology is fundamentally non-sectarian and thoroughly Catholic. While faith is deeply personal, deeply felt, a conscious adherence to Jesus Christ, this faith is anything but narrowly individualistic. Faith in Jesus Christ is rooted in a tradition that has continuity as well as divergence; it possesses a corporate character that has priority over the individual's idiosyncrasies and opinions. All this is to say that while Calvin vigorously opposed corruption in the Church Catholic, the ecclesiastical order and polity which he helped establish recoiled from anarchy and the elevation of the individual over the group, and respected the proper exercise of offices and authority in ordered groups. In other words, Calvin held a high ecclesiology.

    Calvin also, and perhaps most significantly, saw the life of faith as an active engagement with the world, not a separation from it. In H. Richard Niebuhr's classification system, Calvin believed that Christ is the transformer of culture and is not against culture. As John T. McNeill once wrote:

    "To Calvin, the Christian is one who lives actively in the world and knows its culture, although he also knows its insufficiency and looks in hope to a blessed life beyond it. Although he rejects the political control of religion, he diligently fulfills all political duties." (John T. McNeill, Our Debt to John Calvin, Vanguard, March 1985, p. 7.)

    Calvin's engagement with culture is grounded in a theological perspective that values the use of the law to help us live faithfully. In contrast to Martin Luther, for whom the law functioned principally to drive a person to take refuge in God's grace and mercy, Calvin understood the precepts and laws of God as gifts of divine grace to help us order our lives, to live at peace with one another, and to fulfill the love of Christ. To put it another way, there is not only a retrospective aspect of God's work with humanity (forgiving our sins) but an enduring prospective aspect as well (liberating us to live in continued obedience). Later commentators on Luther and Calvin, from John McLeod Campbell to James and T.F. Torrance have observed just how crucial this difference between Luther and Calvin really was.

    Perhaps nowhere does Calvin demonstrate himself more clearly (or ironically) to be a Catholic theologian than in his Reply to Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, Archbishop of Carpentras (1539). Sadoleto had written an appeal calling upon the Christians of Geneva to return to the Roman Catholic Church. Sadoleto was, himself, a respected critic of the abuses and corruption of the Church. Calvin, then living in Strasbourg, was asked to reply on behalf of the reformers. In what T.H.L. Parker has referred to as "a masterpiece of the lawyer's art, a defense which is an indictment of the prosecution," Calvin "clears the evangelicals of the charges of heresy and schism and in his turn recalls the cardinal-archbishop to the faith of the fathers and apostles of the church." [T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), p. 95.]

    In his letter, Calvin speaks to Cardinal Sadoleto almost as a pastor or parish priest would to an errant parishioner:

    "I shall not press you so closely as to call you back to that form [of the Church] which the apostles instituted, though in it we have the only model of a true Church, and whatsoever deviates from it in the smallest degree is in error. But to indulge you so far, I ask you to place before your eyes the ancient form of the Church as their writings prove it to have been in the ages of Chyrsostom and Basil among the Greeks, and of Cyprian, Ambrose and Augustine among the Latins; and after so doing, to contemplate the ruins of that Church which now survives among yourselves." (Calvin, Theological Treatises, p. 231.)

    It has been said that if the Second Vatican Council had occurred in 1519, there would have been no Lutheran reformation. Perhaps. The Roman reaction to Martin Luther was of a fortress bristling with defensive weapons and an army terrible with banners. But one can imagine, in whatever age, John Calvin sitting among the conciliar body that drafted Vatican II as a Doctor of the Catholic Church calling the Church to attend to the Word and Spirit of God.

  • Thomas Merton, Karl Barth, and Salvation by Grace

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 03, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Merton and BarthCoincidences of the calendar are simply amazing. I recall my surprise, many years ago, discovering that C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963. The whole world's attention, of course, was utterly diverted that day from the death of arguably the most popular Christian writer of the time by the tragic assassination of the young American president. A fascinating coincidence of the calendar, but not the only one.

    To me, an even more striking coincidence was the death on the same day of Karl Barth and Thomas Merton. Barth died in Basel, Switzerland, at the age of 82, at the end of a long and productive life. Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand, at the age of 53, at the height of his creative powers and influence. The date, December 10, 1968, came toward the end of a terrible year for the deaths of the great and the good.

    Rowan Williams, while he was Archbishop of Canterbury, marked the fortieth anniversary of this date with a lecture to the Thomas Merton Society on December 10, 2008. The lecture, "Not Being Serious: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth," can be read here.

    In Williams' lecture he speculates "about conversations that might be going on in some heavenly waiting room between Merton and Barth. Apparently such very diverse figures: the greatest Protestant thinker of the twentieth century, and one of the most widely publicized and widely-read Catholic writers of the age." Drawing from Merton's book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (the working title of which was originally Barth's Dream) and Merton's journals, Williams provides a remarkably full portrait of Merton's critical appreciation for Barth.

    Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander opens with the sentence: "Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart." Merton goes on to say that in the dream Barth "was appointed to examine Mozart in theology." Barth, the champion of Protestantism, had always been bothered by the fact that Mozart was resolutely Catholic; Mozart criticized Protestantism as "all in the head" and as utterly uncomprehending of the meaning of the phrase: "The Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world."

    Barth, whose devotion to Mozart is well-known, wanted to understand Mozart's faith and theology in the most sympathetic terms possible.
    Merton writes: "I was deeply moved by Barth's account of this dream and always wanted to write him a letter about it. The dream concerns salvation, and Barth is striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology."

    Recalling that Barth began each day's labors as a theologian by listening to Mozart on his record player, Merton says that Barth was drawn to the "divine and cosmic music" that saves us through that love that meets us not only as agape (divine love) but also as eros (a very human love). Barth himself says that "it is a child, even a 'divine' child, who speaks in Mozart's music to us." Merton closes this opening passage with an exhortation: "Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation." [Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Penguin Random House, 1965), pp. 3-4.]

    I wish Merton had written that letter to Barth and that a rich correspondence might have grown between them. We would all have benefited from these two reflecting on their differences and similarities.

    It is singularly interesting that Barth, toward the end of his life, laughs at how preposterous it would be for him to attempt to gain access to heaven pushing a wheelbarrow loaded down with his Church Dogmatics. The image of the old theologian sweating, huffing and puffing, toward St. Peter's gate, pushing a load of books is delightful, and reminiscent of Merton's playful exhortation. Despite the brilliance with which Barth argued with his students, or the doggedness with which he quarreled with friends and foes alike, there was a childlike playfulness in Barth too which comes through in asides and letters. He was capable of taking himself lightly, as Williams says (of both Merton and Barth); and perhaps this side of Barth's character, the playful child, was fed as much by the bizarre and wondrous shenanigans of "The Magic Flute" as by the "Great Mass in C-Minor."

    I have often thought that Mozart's "Magic Flute" is his musical equivalent to Anselm's Proslogion in which the medieval theologian tries to explain how faith kindles understanding and why he was utterly convinced of God's existence. Mozart invites us into an incredible realm where a beautiful woman, the Queen of the Night, a vision of seeming light embodied in a soaring soprano, turns out to be a mortal threat to our souls while the stern and foreboding Sarastro, a basso profundo in extremis, is revealed in the end as pure grace and goodness. Only by entering into the mysteries personally and at great risk can one discern the goodness of God in this life, Mozart seems to say. Barth understood this too when he says that "Divine revelation ... is the opening of a door that can only be unlocked from the inside." (Merton, Conjectures, p. 10.)

    Perhaps it is a fancy, but one shared with an Archbishop: what fun it would have been to overhear the conversation on December 10, 1968, between Barth and Merton. But I suspect as much as they enjoyed getting to know each other, they were both looking forward even more to that evening's performance of Mozart's latest opera, one we haven't heard yet.

  • Post-truth: Reflecting With William Stringfellow

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 31, 2017

    EDITORIAL NOTE: Last November, Michael mentioned in a special post-election message that he intended to spend considerable time reflecting on our current national and political situation in light of the writings of William Stringfellow, one of the most distinctive Christian voices to emerge in the late twentieth century. Today's blog represents the third to explore aspects of Stringfellow's thought.

    "In Christ the false lords of history, the principalities, are shown to be false; at the same time, in Christ the true Lord of history is made known."
    -William Stringfellow*

    Post-truthThe votes are in. According to many lexicographers last year's "Word of the Year" was "post-truth." The word seems unnecessary to me. We already had a perfectly good word for what it describes: falsehood. Or, if you prefer an even more basic word: lie. For that matter, we have a perfectly good commandment against it, one of the top ten: "Thou shalt not bear false witness," (Exodus 20:16).

    One columnist, commenting on the word "post-truth" noted that we are in an era when "anything goes" so long as it gets attention. So long as we have a 24-hour news cycle with a voracious appetite for marketable "content," the more sensational the better, (and that, sadly, is here to stay because the 24-hour news cycle makes lots and lots of money), we are in for a great deal more of what we have seen in the past year.

    If we live in a time when lies and falsehoods have become acceptable, when anything goes as long as it gets attention, then we have no way of knowing where we are anymore, not only morally and ethically, but also in the most essential human relationships. If people, including politicians and public figures, are not just occasionally wrong about their facts, but are just making them up entirely; and, if in the name of "balanced reporting," facts, opinions and lies are all treated alike, we are not just in an uncomfortable spot, we are in a very dangerous place as a society.

    Again, if we really are in a post-truth era, then we have no idea where we are anymore.

    Popular media and, apparently, a great many of us are willing to substitute the word "post-truth" for “lies,” as though we had "matured" to the point that we have simply outgrown the truth.** Prophetically the Christian thinker William Stringfellow decades ago encountered a similar dynamic and responded to the problem from the perspective of biblical faith. In an essay Stringfellow wrote in 1984 in response to Seymour Hersh's book, The Price of Power, Stringfellow reflects on a certain glib disregard for truth that fits right in with many of the discussions we are having (whatever our party affiliations) around water-coolers and watering holes these days.

    Stringfellow asks how in the world politicians and other public figures can possibly retain credibility when they exhibit virtually no respect for truth.

    He writes:

    "The answer is that each [of the public figures about whom he is speaking] has succeeded in shifting credibility from a connection with truth to a dependence upon marketing technics. The shift is from that which is credible because it derives somehow from truth to that which is credible because people can be coerced, induced, conditioned, or programmed to believe it whether or not it has any significant relationship with the truth. Often, in the present U.S. culture, especially in the commercial realm, credibility is achieved simply by the technics of repetition, redundancy, and volume." [Bill Wylie-Kellerman, editor, A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 291.]

    It is easy enough, of course, to say to some politicians and public figures, "Shame on you for lying!" But what happens when we allow ourselves to become complicit in their lies, either because we allow ourselves to be manipulated, treat the falsehoods as "business as usual," or dismiss the untruths as irrelevant? In any of these cases, we are essentially saying, not only that we have no moral obligation regarding the truthfulness of statements, but that there are no social consequences for lying. There are, however, real consequences.

    In fact, lies are among the most consequential of social acts. Lies are corrosive, eating through the fabric of relationships and society like sulfuric acid burning through cloth or skin. Our active or passive complicity with lies only lends them force, creating a culture in which human relationships become a fiction and the fundamental social contract making possible our life together is rendered void.

    One of my all-time favorite plays is Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Since first seeing the play, my respect for Williams' understanding of the corrosiveness of mendacity has only grown. For Williams, lies are a vile and ugly violation of everything that promises life and the possibility of love. Indeed, for Williams, mendacity is the language and tool of death, a malignant tumor eating away at all human relationships that indulge in it. Unless the lies are exposed, cut away and burned out whenever they appear, unless the body politic learns to attack the cells of duplicity and dishonesty within it every time they return, mendacity will threaten our society's life and future. What is really required is a social body with a robust enough immune system that it can discern and resist the empty promises of untruth.

    This is a serious spiritual issue. This is a serious biblical issue. It’s an issue which Christians and other people of faith cannot afford to ignore for the sake of short-term political gains. Only by realizing that lies represent the death of human society can we understand why in our Christian tradition Satan is described as "the father of lies." Whatever the intent of the ancient maxim, vox populi, vox dei, in fact "the voice of the people" may not be God's voice at all, but the devil talking, as perhaps the earliest written record of this saying, in a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne, clearly indicates. Alcuin wrote: "Those people should be ignored who say that the voice of the people is the voice of God because the mob is always close to madness."

    I don't think I had really taken note, until recently, of the significance of the fact that the person who asks Jesus, "What is truth?" was Pontius Pilate, a Roman political figure, a person who, in the end, had Jesus crucified either because he became convinced that Jesus was a threat to the imperial power of Rome or simply because it was easier to crucify a person he knew to be innocent than to resist the mob. I somehow doubt that Pilate was sincere even in asking the question, "What is truth?" I suspect he knew what the truth was. And his life became a lie as he conspired with death (John 18:28-19:16; Luke 23:1-5). It’s ironic that the only reason Pilate's name is familiar today is because of his association with Jesus of Nazareth.

    The cynic, of course, will say that only a fool believes what a public figure says, much less gives credence to the word of a politician, but the cynic is wrong. The Proverbs have it right when they say: "Truthful lips endure forever, the lying tongue, only for a moment," (Proverbs 12:19).

    *William Stringfellow, "Christ and the Powers of Death," from "Free in Obedience," (1964), in Wylie-Kellerman, Keeper of the Word, p. 203.
    **One politician, when confronted about misleading statements and deceptions spoken by a fellow-partisan, actually said recently we just need to "grow up" because this is the way the real world works.

  • Faith and Politics: Reflecting with William Stringfellow

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 24, 2017

    EDITORIAL NOTE: Last November, Michael mentioned in a special post-election message that he intended to spend considerable time reflecting on our current national and political situation in light of the writings of William Stringfellow, one of the most distinctive Christian voices to emerge in the late twentieth century. Today's blog represents the second to explore aspects of Stringfellow's thought.

    Faith and PoliticsBack in November, I pulled down from the shelf some favorite books by William Stringfellow and started going through them again. I found I had underlined virtually all of the sentences in one of these books. The book, The Politics of Spirituality, was published by Westminster Press in 1984. And I can open it to almost any page and see my underlining and marginalia.

    When I first read this book, I was the pastor of a thriving Presbyterian church in the rich black-dirt agricultural region of central Texas. Most of my days were spent visiting church members, driving down dusty country roads to their farms, ranches, and homes, or traversing the highways to hospitals in major cities like Fort Worth and Dallas to pray at their bedsides. I preached, taught and worked closely with the staff at the nearby Presbyterian Children's Home. And I was active in the governing courts of our church as the moderator of a division of the presbytery responsible for the pastoral care of pastors and other church staff members.

    There were lots of political issues roiling our church and our society at that time. Among the many issues facing the church, no issue loomed larger for congregations in the American Southwest than the "Sanctuary Movement," a movement among Protestant and Roman Catholic churches to provide safe haven for families and individuals fleeing the civil wars and political unrest in Latin America.

    At the height of the controversy, I called John Anderson, then the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Dallas. John was a dear friend, trusted mentor, and one of the most generous and understanding golfing partners I've ever known. In that phone conversation, I asked John what response I should make as a pastor to the difficult political questions facing us. I was probably wringing my hands in rookie anxiety, lamenting having to deal with the conflict and controversy. John asked me, "Isn't it wonderful that we belong to a church that embraces the challenges of our time?" It was a rhetorical question. With that wonderful sonorous voice, John proceeded to tell me that this was my opportunity as pastor to help my people wrestle with their faith, to learn the Bible, and to figure out what it means to live as Christians in the world today. Sit beside them, learn with them, teach them, and lead them, he told me. Then he asked another rhetorical question, "Isn't it great to be Presbyterians?" I knew the answer to that one. "Yes, sir."

    So it was that as the controversy raged in newspapers and on television, as debates occupied hours on the floor of our presbytery, I told our congregation that I would like for us to study the issue of "Sanctuary" biblically and from the perspective of Reformed theology. They thought this was a swell idea, and the session (the governing board of the church) led the way by committing to participate.

    What I discovered cut two ways. First, it became clear to us that as Christians we had a responsibility to make sure our framing of any political or social situation is appropriate to our biblical faith. It cannot simply be assumed that because we are Christians our response to a political or public policy issue reflects the teachings of Christ. As we examined the concerns that gave rise to the "Sanctuary Movement," in time, we decided that framing the solution in terms of "the granting of sanctuary" was on somewhat shaky ground, that is, from a biblical perspective. Second, it became clear to us that as Christians our response to other human beings caught up in civil wars and political and military conflicts could not simply be to ignore the problem or to relegate responsibility to "things I will just leave to the politicians." Our faith in Jesus demanded a response consistent with his teachings.

    It was at this point that our study of the Gospels confronted us with a call to action we could not dismiss. Jesus calls us to live as neighbors to others, all others. The neighborhood of Jesus Christ does not respect boundaries of race, religion, gender or the borders of countries, realms and nation states. The question Jesus asks is not the question of the Pharisee trying to find a loophole in the law: "Who is my neighbor?" Rather, the question Jesus compels us to ask is this: "Am I a neighbor?"*

    I don't think I'll ever forget the candor and faithfulness of one of our elders who stayed to talk with me one evening after our Bible study. It was the evening when we realized that the neighborhood of Christ has no boundaries, a fact that might place us on a collision course with civil authorities. Sue Ellen (not her real name) waited for me as I straightened the chairs in the fellowship hall. She wanted to talk on the way to her car. Sue Ellen was the perfect version of the Texas rancher's wife. I don't believe there was anything in her wardrobe that didn't come from Neiman Marcus. I never saw her without pearls. Every year she bought a new Cadillac. She and her husband attended all the soirees at the Petroleum Club, including the annual Tuxedo and Boots Ball. Her big hair was perfectly coiffured, her clothes immaculate, her politics very conservative, and her faith very Calvinistic.

    Sue Ellen asked me, "So, Mike, if I'm understanding what we all agreed on tonight, if someone fleeing danger down in Central America makes it to my door, I'm obliged to be their neighbor. Even if our government defines them in such a way that I'm supposed to call the authorities, I should welcome them in the name of Jesus."

    I said, "I think that's where we find ourselves. We embody the neighborhood of Jesus. And the neighborhood of Jesus isn't limited by national policies or interests."

    "Well, I can't disagree. If that's what God expects of us, then that's our Christian duty." She said this gravely, taking in the consequences. "But, can I ask you something else? Is it okay if I pray that God not bring them to my door?"

    I don't think I have ever loved a member of any church I have ever served more than I loved Sue Ellen at that moment. She refused to ignore the claim of the Gospel, but she hoped and prayed she wouldn't have to drink from that cup. That's real faith, really lived.

    Probably about now you are wondering what the devil does this story have to do with William Stringfellow and The Politics of Spirituality. This: Among the worn pages and underlined paragraphs of this book, which I read while our church was struggling to find a faithful response to these issues confronting us in the 1980s is an underlined paragraph with emphatic stars in the margins of the page and its own entry in my personal index on the blank pages at the end of the book. That paragraph I shall quote at some length:

    "[T]he examples are profuse in the life of Jesus as to the political dimensions of the gospel. Consider Herod's attempt to assassinate the child. Or the healing episodes in which Jesus directly confronts the demonic powers and their effort to wreck creation and ruin human life. And notice how all these specific incidents culminate in that agonizing encounter in the wilderness in which Jesus is tempted by the power of death incarnate as the devil in explicit political terms. ... Jesus in the wilderness was tempted, truly tempted, to become idolatrous of the power of death, thereby rejecting the very Word of God which constituted his being. He transcends and repels the temptations and thus enunciates his Lordship in this world now. That politics is, then, verified in his crucifixion. The politics of the gospel are the politics of the cross." (Stringfellow, The Politics of Spirituality, p. 44)

    How else do we arrive at our own crosses, but through the sweat and tears of our own Gardens of Gethsemani, where we pray that God will let this cup pass us by?

    Sue Ellen weighed the cost of discipleship, determined to obey if called upon, and hoped she wouldn't have to go through with it. She wasn't itching to be a martyr, or, in fact, to draw any attention to her faith. She prayed that she wouldn't have to drink from this cup.

    We also pray this prayer sincerely, yet sincerely knowing that if we have to drain the cup, death can do its worst, but death has no more dominion over us - not in the reign of God, nor in the neighborhood of Jesus Christ. The Spirit who sustained Jesus, sustains us too, in this risen life.

    *This clearly is the point of the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:29-37.

  • Merton and the Power of Love

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 20, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Merton and King"We just don't know what peace and love mean," wrote Thomas Merton in reply to a letter from Jim Forest in 1966. Merton continues: "The only ones who have done anything are Martin Luther King and those who worked so hard at it in the South.... Of course Dorothy [Day] is there to remind us with her unfailing wisdom what it is all about too." Jim Forest, a peace advocate and biographer of Merton, shares this letter from Thomas Merton, as well as several exchanges of correspondence between him and Merton, in his new book, The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton's Advice to Peacemakers. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2016, p. 180.)

    What Forest said in his letter, which evoked Merton's response, had to do with the anger then plaguing much of the anti-Vietnam War movement in which Forest was investing his life. After relating the caricaturing and lampooning of their opponents, especially President Lyndon Johnson, which he and others were engaged in, Forest told Merton about a dream he recently had about sitting next to LBJ and talking with him on a public bus and then going for a silent walk with him. "It was a real if troubled human exchange," wrote Forest. When Forest woke up from his dream, he went into his kitchen. There he saw a photo of the president which he had put up on a dartboard. "The photo of Johnson looked like it had been sprayed with bullets. I just made it back to the bed, collapsed and wept. I felt like a murderer. So you see I'm not talking about problems others have but my own problems, my own sin." (Forest, The Root of War, p. 179.)

    Forest was, if not exactly "preaching to the choir," at least confessing to it. This is apparent in Merton's response, "WE just don't know what peace and love mean." It is as though Merton sits down beside Jim Forest, not just to hear his confession, but to weep over a shared, a common sin.

    To understand the meaning of peace and love, Merton plumbs not only the depths of biblical wisdom and Christian theology, he also explores the insight of Mohandas K. Gandhi, a key source for the theology of Martin Luther King, Jr., the one whom Merton lifts up as an exemplar of really understanding peace and justice. In one of Merton's most extraordinary and profound essays, published as the introduction to a collection of Gandhi's writings, Gandhi On Non-Violence [New York: New Directions Publishing, 2007, originally published 1964/65), he uncovers the key to the power of non-violence, the power of love to change human hearts and human society.

    According to Merton, although many protest movements against the views and actions of others originate in a posture of self-righteousness and lead to aggression, even violence, of their own, non-violent action for justice and peace begins in confession, in a recognition of the sinfulness we share, and a longing for God's mercy toward all.

    Forest, weeping on his bed at his own anger and "violence" toward the president, is in the right place to begin to act for peace and justice. The worst place from which to launch a war on war, by contrast, is the high ground of moral certitude and righteous indignation.

    Merton, drawing on Gandhi's wisdom and revealing the genius of Dr. King's vision, calls into question some of the most common human ideas that lead to violence. In particular he critiques the "irreversibility of evil," the idea that sin only moves from evil to evil, that it is unforgivable, and that those who commit evil acts are beyond hope and sympathy. Such ideas are simply unChristian. The moral world is flat. There is no moral high ground. Even in the midst of doing good, we fail. And often believing we have failed to act righteously, we unconsciously have accomplished good. Only God is in a position to judge. And while God allows us to participate in God's work of justice and peacemaking, God never relinquishes the Judge's bench, and we never achieve the role of chief prosecutor. Inevitably, we stand in the dock beside the accused. At any moment, the accused and we may exchange places; we are all guilty, all in need of grace. Fortunately, God is more eager to forgive than to punish.

    Once we realize this, we are prepared to love others into justice, even if they mean to batter us or put us behind bars. Merton writes:

    "The 'fabric' of society is not finished. It is always 'in becoming.' It is on the loom, and it is made up of constantly changing relationships. Non-violence takes into account precisely this dynamic and non-final state of all relationships among [humanity], for non-violence seeks to change relationships that are evil into others that are good, or at least less bad." (Merton, Gandhi, p. 21.)

    The logic of non-violence assumes, then, that we all fall short, and are generally blind to the evil of our actions. The goal of non-violence is not the defeat of those we oppose, but their and our liberation from the vicious circle of hatred and violence. As Merton writes, "To punish and destroy the oppressor is merely to initiate a new cycle of violence and oppression. The only real liberation is that which liberates both the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time." (Merton, Gandhi, p. 22.) Thus, the non-violent advocate for peace and justice sees herself as one who stands in need of forgiveness just as much as her opponents, as much even as those who engage in oppression and violence. The non-violent advocate seeks to understand and to make clear the truth about immoral and oppressive social systems; she non-violently refuses to cooperate with these systems (as much as is possible), in the hope that her opponents, and even the oppressors, will see and understand and disown the injustice which is unveiled often brutally in and through her act of non-violent non-cooperation.

    Such an advocate embodies the prayer of hope that the sinner will not be destroyed, but that he will turn and live. But, of course, such advocacy is not oriented primarily toward achieving a particular short-term goal, but in expressing a mode of being in the world that is true and faithful, whatever the immediate practical results may be.

    Gandhi's concept of non-violence and the truth-seeking for which Gandhi coined the term satyagraha, according to Merton, "is incomprehensible if it is thought to be a means of achieving unity rather than as the fruit of inner unity already achieved." Merton adds, "When satyagraha was seen only as a useful technique for attaining a pragmatic end, political independence, it remained almost meaningless. As soon as the short-term end was achieved, satyagraha was discarded. No inner peace achieved, no inner unity, only the same divisions, the conflicts and the scandals that were ripping the rest of the world to pieces." (Merton, Gandhi, pp. 10-11.)

    In his new preface to Merton's book, Gandhi On Non-Violence, Mark Kurlansky quotes Gandhi at length:

    "Whether mankind will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not perturb us. The law will work, just as the law of gravitation will work whether we accept it or not. And just as a scientist will work wonders out of various applications of the laws of nature, even so a man who applies the law of love with scientific precision can work great wonders." (Kurlansky in Merton, Gandhi, xiii.)

    "Greater love has no one," said Christ, "than to lay down his life for his friends." If that is the "greatest love," however, how inconceivably great must be the love to lay down one's life so that one's enemies might be transformed into friends?

  • The Fallen

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 17, 2017

    Editor's note: Last November, Michael mentioned in a special post-election message that he intended to spend considerable time reflecting on our current national and political situation in light of the writings of William Stringfellow, one of the most distinctive Christian voices to emerge in the late twentieth century. Stringfellow was a thinker singled out by the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth as "the most conscientious and thoughtful" mind he encountered when visiting the United States almost fifty years ago. Today's blog represents the first to explore aspects of Stringfellow's thought.

    The Fallen"Biblically speaking, the singular, straightforward issue of ethics - and the elementary topic of politics - is how to live humanly during the Fall. Any viable ethic - which is to say, any ethics worthy of human attention and practice, any ethics which manifest and verify hope - is both individual and social. It must deal with human decision and action in relation to the other creatures, notably the principalities and powers in the very midst of the conflict, distortion, alienation, disorientation, chaos, decadence of the Fall." [William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco: Word Press, 1973), p. 55.]

    Among the many insights of the late William Stringfellow, arguably the most important for our moment in American history is this: Contemporary Christians do not take seriously the significance, pervasiveness and extent of the Fall.

    One might equally argue, of course, that contemporary Christians do not take seriously enough the significance, pervasiveness and extent of God's original grace either. Thinking theologically is just not a regular practice for many Christians these days. We often hear the common refrain from pastors and church members alike that they have a very difficult time connecting the biblical and theological ideas and concepts they learn in seminary and church with their everyday lives and the events going on in the world. This is precisely where William Stringfellow helps us most.

    Like C.S. Lewis before him, Stringfellow was a "lay theologian." He was not a minister, pastor or professional theologian. He was an attorney and an Episcopal lay person. And, perhaps because of this, he was especially good at breathing new life into tired theological concepts, such as the Fall.

    Specifically, Stringfellow helps us to see more clearly that we live in an age in which it is not unusual at all to undervalue the deep theological significance of the manner in which God's good creation is so compromised by and implicated in the Fall that almost every attempt to speak of sin conveys also a trivialization both of sin and divine mercy. He understood (and helps us to understand) the Fall as a present theological reality and not merely as a quasi-historical or mythological notion.

    When we think of sin, we tend to think first of the things we do or leave undone as individuals. Almost everyone has their favorite list of such sins, mostly acts that other people tend to do. In the pietistic tradition in which I was reared the typical sins were drinking, smoking and dancing. Sometimes we think of sins as the things that we all do which reveal lapses in judgment or expressions of selfishness. Probably the first sins we tend to think of when the topic comes up are sexual in nature, although one might argue that economic and social sins are really more popular in our culture.

    Christians historically have come up with lists of "cardinal Sins" in contrast to the "cardinal Virtues." And there is no doubt that individual acts of wickedness merit repentance, restitution and reconciliation. However, as Stringfellow observed:

    "Human wickedness in this sense is so peripheral in the biblical version of the Fall that the pietistic interpretation that it represents the heart of the matter must be accounted gravely misleading. The biblical description of the Fall concerns the alienation of the whole of Creation from God, and, thus, the rupture and profound disorientation of all relationships within the whole of Creation." (Stringfellow, An Ethic, p. 76.)

    To put this idea in slightly different terms, the Fall points toward the pervasive condition of Sin affecting, tainting and undercutting God's creative and gracious purposes throughout creation in distinction from those acts we call sins. To speak of the Fall is to speak of the fundamental out-of-jointedness, the essential distortion of reality and illusory nature of existence that stands in opposition to God. From a biblical perspective, as Stringfellow himself puts it, the Fall signifies "the brokenness of relationships among human beings and the other creatures, and the rest of Creation, and the spoiled or confused identity of each human being within herself or himself and each principality within itself." Certainly we can speak of individual acts of wickedness "within the scope of the Fall, but only as an incidental matter within the time or history or era which the Fall designates, in which death apparently holds and exercises moral dominion over the whole of Creation." (Stringfellow, An Ethic, pp. 76-77.)

    Stringfellow's principal insight into the nature of the Fall goes beyond even his appreciation for the corporate nature of sin. He also recognizes the inclusion of what the Bible calls "principalities and powers" in the Fall, understanding that all such institutions and ideologies are themselves "creatures"; that is, "principalities and powers" are aspects of God's good Creation. But as fallen creatures, along with all other fallen creatures, "principalities and powers" share in the moral confusion and the dominion of death from which all Creation yearns for deliverance.

    All of this may feel rather abstract or theoretical, so let's bring the ideas home. The Fall so perverts our understanding that we live our lives as though brutality and naked force, the threat of suffering and death, and the cursedness of existence seem stronger than the love, the power of mercy and kindness and simple goodness, and the truth and beauty of holiness revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth.

    The Fall is manifest in that illusion that gives rise to what we might call "practical cynicism," the sort of cynicism which claims that while Christianity teaches fine moral ideals, it lacks the power to deal with so-called political realities. Such cynicism is illusory because it fails to perceive that Jesus was crucified in the real world by a coalition of political, military, moral and religious powers and principalities, and that it was God alone who raised him from the dead.

    According to the Gospels, the cross is the most likely if not inevitable end for those who follow Jesus in the era of the Fall. But those who live leaning into the cross, live toward life instead of death, as Stringfellow claims in another of his books. [Stringfellow, Instead of Death: New and Expanded Edition (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1976).]

    If it is true that survival and reproduction are the driving forces of all life, from a biological perspective, it is also true, from a political perspective, that survival and the extension of influence (the political equivalent of reproduction) are the driving forces of institutions and ideologies. Even as a creature may sacrifice kindness for the sake of survival, a principality can subvert almost any virtue and utilize the threat of death to insure its continuance and success. And the power of a principality, the ideologies that serve it, the institutions that embody its values, the efficiency and effectiveness with which it promulgates and instills in others its interests seek to intimidate and overwhelm resistance based upon what are often (and mistakenly) termed the "softer values" of love and mercy.

    The fallen principalities and powers masquerade their ruthless self-interest under the guise of higher ideals. Thus a tribe's self-serving drive to survive, including the most vicious brutality toward those outside the tribe, can be transmuted into a seemingly higher value by masking mere tribalism as patriotism. This is, at least in part, why jingoistic Nationalism and Imperialism remain so durable while religious faith has proven so easily co-opted.

    And yet ... And yet ... in the midst of the Fall, there are glimmers of transcendent grace breaking through, moments of eternal significance revealed here and now, when God raises up people convinced that love and mercy, goodness, humility and justice are more powerful than the threat of suffering and the dominion of death.

    •    Mohandas Gandhi stands against an imperial power, although he is armed only with a stubborn peace that will not participate in institutional racism and hatred, nor will he retaliate.

    •    Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands against the fascism, the idolatry of racial purity, and the military force of Nazism (in his own nation and among his own people), although he is armed only with a tenacious discipleship that transcends national boundaries and demands love for strangers and enemies.

    •    Martin Luther King, Jr. marches against the powers that demoralize men, women and children and segregate them on the basis of racial and ethnic biases, the forces that impoverish the many for the enrichment of the few, that mislead the population into believing that violence can ever produce lasting peace.

    These three persons, and many more, have understood what Stingfellow knew: "There comes a moment when words must either become incarnated or the words, even if literally true, are rendered false." (Stringfellow, An Ethic, p. 21.)

    Whatever we will do we must do in the shadow of the Fall.

    Our moral vision will never be whole.

    Our intentions and motives inevitably will be mixed.

    Our complicity in Sin cannot be erased.

    We can, however, entrust ourselves to the God whose vision and will are true, and whose mercy is everlasting.

    Fallen we are, but also forgiven. And forgiven, we shall act to embody God's love in the face of the Fall and for the sake of Creation. However dismal and dismayed we may be at any particular moment, we need to remember that joy and hope are theological virtues, gifts of God.

    Gandhi once observed that while evil may seem for a moment to dominate, the long trajectory of history is toward the good. And, if we may return to a specifically Christian theological perspective, the perspective articulated so eloquently by William Stringfellow, while we must live in a fallen Creation, we may nonetheless live with the confidence that all that is belongs to God and all that ever shall be serves God's redemptive ends.

  • Post-Christmas Questions

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 10, 2017

    Post-Christmas QuestionsWhy are Christmas stories such as Frank Capra's movie It's a Wonderful Life and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, so popular while American culture seems so often to contradict their messages?

    We are horrified by the prospect of a vulgar, self-serving and brutal Pottersville and are repelled by the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge saying that the struggling poor and sick should die and decrease the surplus population. Yet, a sizable proportion of the American population support the policies that advance the very agendas they seem to loathe when they see them dramatized.

    Are the Christmas stories merely sentimental, idealistic and naive? This seems to be the cynical take on things. The cynic will tell us that a single human life can't prevent a town from going bad; a person can't really be changed, converted or transformed from selfish to selfless.

    Or do these Christmas stories exemplify goodness?

    A Presbyterian pastor I knew and respected greatly, the late David Pittenger, once called into question the criticism someone had of "do-gooders." David asked, "Would you as a Christian prefer ‘do-badders?’”

    David was as sophisticated an ethical thinker as you'll meet. He understood how ideology and high idealism can get in the way of making wise decisions. He was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr, and a proponent of the ethics of “Christian Realism.” But he was also aware that if our practical decisions do not reflect the substance of our faith, we aren't really acting as disciples of Jesus Christ. The Bible has a name for us when our actions don’t match our values: hypocrites.

    Christmas is in the rear-view mirror again. Capra and Dickens are safely put away for another year. But I just can't quite forget the question that haunted my holidays: Why don't we live up to the stories we tell?

  • Merton's Resolution

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 06, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Merton's resolution

    "My chief care should not be to find pleasure or success, health or life or money or rest or even things like virtue and wisdom - still less their opposites, pain, failure, sickness, death. But in all that happens, my one desire and my one joy should be to know: 'Here is the thing that God has willed for me. In this (God's) love is found, and in accepting this I can give back (God's) love to (God) and give myself with it to (God)."1

    So wrote Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation over fifty years ago.

    For Merton, the exercise of self-surrender is not merely an acquiescence to a nameless, faceless fate, nor is it the self-righteous act of the sour-faced saints of whom St. Teresa of Avila rightly complained. The ultimate goal of our surrender to God's will, according to Merton, is nothing less than full participation in the love of God, which is the life for which we were created. Our "consenting" to God's will "with joy" means that we share in our hearts the same love that is essential to God. When our hearts are filled with the love of God, we are set on the path of becoming like the God who is love.

    We might call this “Thomas Merton’s Resolution.”

    This resolution begins with the discovery that our surrender to God's will opens the door to joy and peace, love and life. Merton never assumed that this surrender is easy, nor that God's will is obvious. Merton himself struggled with questions of God's will and his own vocation, recognizing that questions of vocation are closely related to choosing our real selves over our false selves. As he wrote, again in New Seeds of Contemplation:

    "We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours, We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our true face. … Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny."2

    In one of his most famous works, Thoughts in Solitude, Merton confesses:

    "I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. … And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing."3

    The humility of Merton's prayer, including its renunciation of his own ability even to know when and whether God is leading him at any particular moment, speaks to the core of faith, one's trust in God.

    Possibly the simplest and most difficult of the lessons Merton taught, and the one which is most helpful as we pray for God to direct our steps, to know God's will, and respond to God's calling of us, concerns distinguishing between "our real and false selves." It is only the "real self" that discovers real humility. Robert Inchausti, editor of The Pocket Thomas Merton, (a singularly wonderful little resource) explains:

    "At the heart of Merton's spirituality is his distinction between our real and false selves. Our false selves are the identities we cultivate in order to function in society with pride and self-possession; our real selves are a deep religious mystery, known entirely only to God. The world cultivates the false self, ignores the real one, and therein lies the great irony of human existence: the more we make of ourselves, the less we actually exist."4

    The world around us is ready to judge our lives on its ruthless scales of success and failure, but Merton calls even the categories of success and failure into question. In one of his most remarkable (and humorous) reflections, Love and Living, he says:

    "A few years ago a man who was compiling a book entitled 'Success' wrote me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me. I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success. If it so happened that I had once written a best seller, this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naïveté, and I would take very good care never to do the same again. If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. I heard no more from him, and I am not aware that my reply was published with the other testimonials."5

    Not only does the false self submit itself to the relentless judgment of the world, it engages in the judgment of others. The urge to correct, chastise, rank and judge others is a compulsion of the false self, an expression of the spirit of the Pharisee or the Puritan, though sometimes writ small in its petty pursuit of one-upmanship, but no less corrosive to the soul for its smallness. It is none other than Jesus who calls into question the world's standards of success and even righteousness. As Merton writes:

    "In dying on the Cross, Christ manifested the holiness of God in apparent contradiction with itself. But in reality this manifestation was the complete denial and rejection of all human ideas of holiness and perfection. The wisdom of God became the folly of men, (God's) power manifested itself as weakness! And (God's) holiness was, in their eyes, unholy."6

    Merton's resolution asks for trust in God that takes the form of "self-emptying" in place of self-assertion, even when that self-assertion is dressed up in the language of justice, righteousness and rights. Merton repeatedly speaks of "the world" which God created in love and for which Christ gave his life, but he also speaks of "the world" in an altogether different sense, warning of its false claims and false judgment and its subtle enticements of the self. "The world (in this latter sense) is the unquiet city of those who live for themselves and are therefore divided against one another in a struggle that cannot end, for it will go on eternally in hell." The person in society who is a captive to "the unquiet city" will divide every community according to his or her own lusts for self and selfish interests, whether these interests are allowed to be seen in their ruthless nakedness or are dressed in the white robes of the saint. But we cannot, Merton says, escape that city merely by fleeing into solitude, because the unquiet city will follow us into a hermit's cave. The person "who locks himself up in private with his own selfishness has put himself into a position where the evil within him will either possess him like a devil or drive him out of his head."7

    Were we to make Merton's resolution our own, we might find something better than success, wealth or good health to celebrate in this New Year. We might rediscover sanctity and sanity.

    1Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. Introduction by Sue Monk Kidd (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2007, originally published 1961), 17-18.
    2Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 32.
    3Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, originally published 1956).
    4Robert Inchausti, editor, The Pocket Thomas Merton (Boston: New Seeds, 2005), 1.
    5Thomas Merton, Love and Living. Edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Patrick Hart (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), 10.
    6Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 62.
    7Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 78-79.

  • Immigration Denied: An "Epiphany" (That Might Have Been)

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 03, 2017

    Immigration DeniedScene: A ramshackle, squalid little government office on the northeastern Egyptian border. The desert sands whip into dusty spirals forming drifts against the edges of the tiny building at the border crossing. The peeling paint on the cinder block walls looks like it once was more grey than beige, but is now neither. A minor immigration official sits at a metal desk with stacks of papers before him. An oscillating fan on the filing cabinet in the corner blows the warm air and a fine powder of sandy dust from one side of the office to the other and back again. In his hands the disheveled official holds a single thin sheet of paper, an application for permission to enter Egypt. Before him sits a man and a woman. The woman holds in her arms a small child.

    Official: I can't quite make out your handwriting. What is your name, please?

    Man: I am Joseph Ben Jacob from the village of Nazareth. I am of the House of David.

    Official: Do you have some form of identification?

    Man: Yes. (The man rustles about in a small bag until he retrieves a government issued ID.) We just came from Bethlehem. We registered there in the census. Here are my papers.

    Official: Hmmm. And the woman?

    Man: Mary, my betrothed. Oops, I mean my wife. We are only recently married.

    (The man hands the official more papers.)

    Official: So, you ARE married now? (The official looks over the tops of his glasses at the baby squirming in the woman's arms.)

    Man: Yes. Yes. Married now.

    Official: Uh huh. Is this your son or hers?

    Man: Excuse me?

    Official: Are you the father of this child?

    Man: (blushing) Well, that's complicated.

    Official: (looking the man in the eyes) I assure you it isn't. Either you are or you aren't the father.

    Man: Let's just say I am. I am the father.

    (The official looks doubtful, but moves on with his questions.)

    Official: What level of education do you have?

    Man: Yeshiva. I was taught by our village rabbi.

    Official: Does the woman work outside the home?

    Man: Not currently, but she hopes to … (The man trails off, his words too soft to hear.)

    Official: Well, we can't make bricks with hope can we. How about you? What marketable skills do you have?

    Man: I am a carpenter.

    Official: Not much employment here in Egypt for carpenters. I can tell you that. Our economy is largely agricultural, although we do have lively markets for trade. But most of our buildings are made of stone or brick. Hmmm. (He seems to be studying the papers, but there's a vacant look in his eyes. At last he looks up from the papers and speaks to the man.) Still, sometimes there are carpenters needed to produce wooden frames for construction and molds for bricks, and so forth. It's not impossible that your craft would appear on the list of professions approved for resident aliens. But we won't have you taking jobs away from honest hardworking Egyptians, that I can tell you right now.

    Man: But work isn't really the point. Not now, anyway.

    Official: (Looking into the man's eyes, then down again at the application form, then into his eyes again.) Well then … Oh, I see. It says here on your application that you aren't seeking to immigrate for economic reasons. You're seeking political asylum? Is that right?

    Man: Yes. Yes. We were warned by three wise men that King Herod seeks to take the life of our child. We are fleeing here to Egypt to protect our child from the king. For now, we have enough money to tide us over until things improve back home.

    Official: "Three wise men." (The official smiles crookedly.) And where, may I ask, did you meet these "wise" men in your country. I confess I've never met anyone wise from Galilee.

    Man: They came from principalities in the east. They visited us in Bethlehem after Mary gave birth. They came to the manger where the child lay and presented us with gifts of great value. The Ruler of all Creation, who sees all and knows all, provided the gifts of the magi that the child might escape the tyrant King.

    Official: So, you plan to sell these gifts and live on the proceeds?

    Man: That's right.

    (The official refers to a thick book. Thumbing through it, he frowns and rubs his chin.)

    Official: I've got to tell you, your story sounds kinda far-fetched. (The official studies the thick book, thumbing from page to page slowly.) Why did these "wise men" think your king wanted to kill the child?

    Man: Because they knew our son would grow up to be the savior and the messiah. His name shall be called Wonderful, counselor; he will be the Prince of Peace, the Lion of Judah; generations yet unborn will rise up and call him Blessed.

    Official: Well, we're all pretty proud of our kids. These are mine here (the official says pointing at a photo of three small children playing in a sandbox). And I'm sure the fellas, excuse me, "the three wise men" who visited you thought that your little guy there was as cute as a button. But ... (he shuts the big book, and looks at the couple) ...  But here's the long and short of it. Egypt is currently under a bilateral treaty with Judea, Galilee, Peraea, Samaria, and Idumaea, the regions under the control of your King Herod. Our ruler, "the Master of All Egypt, Lord of the Two Kingdoms, High Priest of all Temples, May he live forever!" and your King Herod, "May he etc. etc." had a summit last year. So, at least for now, we do not recognize any sort of political oppression to exist in your country. You don't have any political oppression in Herod's region. And you can't legally flee from or seek political refuge from oppression that doesn't exist. Officially that is. Officially, you are now a security risk to Egypt. You may be terrorists for all we know.

    Man: But if we return, our child will be killed.

    Official: Off the record, I'm sympathetic. Sure. I just read yesterday that soldiers had rounded up little boys in your country and killed them. Terrible. I can't believe what the world is coming to. And I don't know what's going on where you are from, and I don't really doubt your story (except that whole "wise man" thing), but my hands are tied. (Then slowly the official adds), "Hold the phone! I've got an idea. Let's take a look at that guest worker process for you folks. You're a carpenter, right?

    (Turning his creaking swivel chair around to his computer. He begins tapping on the keyboard. The man exchanges a hopeful look with his wife, who smiles weakly.)

    Official: You know, there may just be an opening there. Let's look and see if you've got an option. (He taps and taps again the keyboard of the ancient computer on his desk.) First, of course, I'll need to take a quick look at our homeland security files on my computer, to see if your name comes up on a watch list. Forgive me, but this will take a few moments. This computer dates back to the Patriarch Joseph.

    (The official looks up suddenly from his computer keyboard and laughs.)

    Official: Hey, how about that? And you're Hebrew too! Funny.

    (It's Joseph who smiles weakly now, then looks down at his feet waiting for the official to work his way through the files.)

    Official: (Reading along, nodding, then sitting utterly still … finally he whistles low and long.) Oh boy, here we go. Joseph, Joe, you've been holding out on me, friend.

    (There's a long pause as the official reads silently from the electronic security dossier, his head shaking back and forth all the while.)

    Man: I assure you, sir, I have never been involved in anything that would make me an undesirable immigrant.

    Official: It's not you, Joe, it's your wife.

    (Turning finally to face Mary, the official begins to question her.)

    Official: Ma'am, is it true that you have written political statements that call for the overthrow of the legitimate ruling authority in your country?

    Woman: No. I've never been political.

    Official: I want to give you a chance to rephrase your answer.

    Woman: There's no need.

    Official: Then, do you deny ever saying that God has chosen you as the vessel through whom his arm will strike down the proud; that rulers on their thrones will be overthrown; the poor and hungry will be well-fed while the powerful and rich will be sent away empty?

    Woman: That was a prayer, my prayer, in response to God's gracious act of allowing me miraculously to bear this child.

    Official: Well, apparently, someone heard your prayer and published it in your synagogue's weekly blog, and it has gone viral. Anarchists and revolutionaries all over the place are rallying to your words. You appear to be suspected of sedition back home.

    (The official shakes his head.) This is out of my hands, folks. Sorry. Even if there are jobs available, we aren't about to take in security risks.

    (At this point the official takes out a large rubber stamp, presses it onto an ink pad, and brings it down hard on the application paper: "IMMIGRATION DENIED" appears in red across the page.)

    (The man, Joseph, slowly stands. Gently, with powerful calloused hands, he takes the child from the woman. As she rises and they turn to leave the office, the official behind the desk speaks again.)

    Official: Listen. It's not that I'm unsympathetic. I'm a working stiff just like you. This is off the record, but I heard from a buddy in the foreign office that they are taking immigrants to the east, India I think. Maybe their standards aren't so high. Or maybe they don't have treaties with your king. You might get in there on a temporary worker's permit, if you aren't too choosy what you'll be doing. I'd advise you not to mention the whole thing with the king, though. Religion is bad enough, but nobody likes to get involved in politics.

  • With What Words Shall We Praise?

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 27, 2016

    What Words Shall We PraiseThroughout Advent Season, we shared readings from classic and contemporary sources. Today, in the midst of Christmastide itself, our reading is from one of the most respected and beloved saints of the ancient church, St. Augustine of Hippo, the North African bishop and doctor of the church who lived from 354-430 AD.

    "And now, with what words shall we praise the love of God?

    “What thanks shall we give?

    “He so loved us that for our sakes he, through whom time was made, was made in time; and he, older by eternity than the world itself, was younger in age than many of his servants in the world; he who made man, was made man; he was given existence by a mother whom he brought into existence; he was carried in the hands which he formed; he nursed at breasts which he filled; he cried like a baby in the manger in speechless infancy - this Word without which human eloquence is speechless."

    From St. Augustine: Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1952), p. 93.

  • Send Us an Angel: A Reading for Advent

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 23, 2016

    This Advent our blogs all point toward the promise of incarnation. Each is a reading from a well-known Christian writer.

    Send us an angelThe Iona Community has become one of the most significant ecumenical and interfaith centers for justice and peace in the world. Two generations ago, however, it was just the dream of a single person, the Very Reverend George MacLeod.
    George MacLeod was a gifted and complex person. A decorated hero of the First World War, he became a dedicated pacifist; the descendant of a distinguished family that produced five moderators of the Church of Scotland, he was a life peer (Lord MacLeod of Fuinary) and bona fide representative of the British establishment. He was also a dedicated socialist; a leader in one of the Kirk's most successful evangelism efforts following World War II, he became the Kirk's most persistent seeker of justice. MacLeod and a faithful band of craftsmen and students rebuilt the ruined Abbey of Iona and brought the Iona Community into existence. He was a brilliant preacher, a popular writer (whose classic Only One Way Left remains a prophetic and lyrical call to the gospel) and a theologically astute liturgist.
    Our reading today is an excerpt from "Send Us an Angel," a prayer offered by MacLeod and reprinted in The Whole Earth Shall Cry Glory: Iona Prayers by Rev. George MacLeod [(Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 1985), pp. 22-23.]
    "Lord God: some of us are a little like the Shepherds;
    just carrying on with our jobs ... despite the
    turbulence in the world scene.
    Give us a message ... send us an angel
    that will start us seeking a new way of life.
    "Lord God: others of us are like the Wise Men from the east;
    we can see the need of some power to come
    and to give us direction:
    but we don't know in which direction to go.
    Give us the wisdom to see that it is not in physical power
    that our salvation lies,
    but in love and humility.
    "Lord God: a few of us are like Herod;
    we don't want a new power to enter the world,
    in case it might threaten our own power.
    Give us the humility to be ready
    for a quite new form of power:
    to fit the dangerous age in which we live: ...
    "We ask You to make us expectant, ...
    We ask You to make us seekers,
    rather than know-it-alls.
    "We ask You for grace
    so that we are ready to receive. ...
    We ask You for faith ...
    really to believe;
    that, in this dark day of our land, we can accept the gift of Christmas:
    and bring our wealth as a land to serve the Christ;
    to bring our incense to worship Him:
    and our myrrh, the symbol of burial,
    to be ready to die for Him.
    "Thus we shall be able
    to receive the gift of love and light and life,
    when Christmas Day shall dawn."


  • A Rumor Going Around: A Reading for Advent

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 20, 2016

    This Advent our blogs all point toward the promise of incarnation. Each is a reading from a well-known Christian writer.

    Rumor Going AroundThose of us who have read (and re-read) C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, know that Lewis had a lot to say about the incarnation. Remember the land where it was always winter and never Christmas? At least until Aslan came. But Lewis wrote a great deal more about the miracle of incarnation and its implications for us. Today's reading is from Lewis's publication, Mere Christianity, which began as a few series of war time radio talks on Christian beliefs, behaviors and the doctrine of the Trinity. We will draw from two talks, "Making and Begetting" and "Good Infection." The reading has been edited for length and more inclusive language. Brackets mark the words I changed (sons to children, men to people) or added for clarity sake.

    "Now the point in Christianity which gives us the greatest shock is the statement that by attaching ourselves to Christ, we can 'become [children] of God.' One asks 'Aren't we [children] of God already? Surely the fatherhood of God is one of the main Christian ideas?' Well, in a certain sense, no doubt we are [children] of God already. I mean, God has brought us into existence and loves us and looks after us, and in that way is like a father. But when the Bible talks about our 'becoming' [children] of God, obviously it must mean something different. And that brings us up against the very center of Theology.

    "One of the creeds says that Christ is the Son of God 'begotten, not created'; and it adds 'begotten by his Father before all worlds.' ... We are thinking about something that happened before Nature was created at all, before time began. 'Before all worlds' Christ is begotten, not created. ...

    "We don't use the words Begetting or begotten much in modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the father of: to create is to make. ... Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God: just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God, just as what man makes is not man. That is why [people] are not [children] of God in the sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God. ...

    "And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor's shop. We are the statues and there is a rumor going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life. ...

    "We are not begotten by God, we are only made by him; in our natural state we are not [children] of God [in the sense that Christ is], only (so to speak) statues. ... Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have his way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be [children] of God [in the fullest sense]. We shall love the Father as he does and the Holy Spirit will arise in us. ... Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else." [C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001), pp. 156-159, & 177.]

  • God's Big Idea: A Reading for Advent

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 13, 2016

    This Advent our blogs all point toward the promise of incarnation. Each is a reading from a well-known Christian writer.

    God's Big IdeaOne of my favorite writers, and one of my favorite people, is Barbara Brown Taylor. This week's Advent reading is drawn from a Christmas reflection by Barbara*, which has deservedly gotten a lot of play. I found it on the website of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas. In that context, Bishop Gary Lillibridge shared it with his staff during the Eucharist.

    We pick up the reflection at the point where Barbara has been recounting the various ways God has tried to communicate the message of love with fallen humanity.

    "[God did everything he could to get their attention.] He shouted to them from the sidelines, using every means he could think of, including floods, famines, manna, and messengers. He ... got inside peoples' dreams, and if that did not work, he woke them up in the middle of the night with his whispering. No matter what he tried, however, he came up against the barriers of flesh and blood. They were made of it and God was not, which made translation difficult. God would say, 'Please stop before you destroy yourselves!' but all they could hear was thunder. God would say, 'I love you as much now as the day I made you,' but all they could hear was a loon calling across the water.

    "[There was one] exception to this sad state of affairs: [babies]. While their parents were all but deaf to God's messages, babies didn't have any trouble hearing God at all. They were all the time laughing at God's jokes or crying with God when he cried, which went right over their parents' heads. 'Colic,' the grown-ups would say, or 'Isn't she cute? She's laughing at the dust mites in the sunlight.' Only she wasn't, of course. She was laughing because God had just told her it was cleaning day in heaven, and that what she saw were fallen stars the angels were shaking from their feather dusters.

    “[Not only did babies hear and understand God, they had other advantages.] Babies did not go to war. Babies never made speeches or littered or refused to play with each other because they belonged to different political parties. Babies were crazy about God and they hung on his every word. [Perhaps best of all, they] depended on other people for everything necessary to their lives so a phrase like 'self-made babies' would have made them laugh until their [little] bellies hurt. While no one asked babies' opinions about anything that mattered (which was too bad because it would have been a smart thing to do), almost everyone seemed to love them, and that gave God an idea. If God was a baby, they would all love him! Why not create himself as one of these delightful creatures?


    "It was a daring plan, and once the angels saw that God was dead set on it, they broke into applause. ... While they were still clapping, God turned around and left the cabinet chamber, shedding his robes as he went. The angels watched as his midnight blue mantle fell to the floor, so that all the stars on it collapsed in a heap. Then a strange thing happened. Where the robes had fallen, the floor melted and opened up to reveal a scrubby brown pasture speckled with sheep and - right in the middle of them - a bunch of shepherds, sitting around a campfire drinking wine out of a skin. It was hard to say who was more startled, the shepherds or the angels, but as the shepherds looked up at them, the angels pushed their senior archangel to the edge of the hole. Looking down at the human beings who were all trying to hide behind each other (poor things, no wings), the angel said in as gentle a voice as he could muster, 'Do not be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.' And away up the hill from the direction of town, came the sound of a newborn baby's cry."

    *Text from Barbara Brown Taylor, “God’s Daring Plan,” in Bread of Angels (Plymouth, UK: Cowley Publications, 1997) used with permission.

  • The Gospel as Fairy Tale: A Reading for Advent

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 06, 2016

    This Advent our blogs all point toward the promise of incarnation. Each is a reading from a well-known Christian writer.

    Gospel as Fairy TaleTo start us off is one of the most beloved Presbyterian writers, Frederick Buechner, whose Lyman Beecher Lectures were published in 1977 to wide acclaim. For many pastors of my generation, Buechner's lectures, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, his non-fiction books like Wishful Thinking and his novels such as Godric, ignited our creative spirits and liberated us to preach more interesting and imaginative sermons.

    Our first Advent reading is from Buechner's lecture, "The Gospel as Fairy Tale."* It reminds us of the paradoxical nature of the gospel, the fantastic irony at the heart of the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.

    "When Jesus is asked who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven, he reaches into the crowd and pulls out a child with a cheek full of bubble gum and eyes full of whatever a child's eyes are full of and says unless you become like that, don't bother to ask.

    "And as for the king of the kingdom himself, whoever would recognize him? He has no form or comeliness. His clothes are what he picked up at a rummage sale. He hasn't shaved for weeks. He smells of mortality. We have romanticized his raggedness so long that we can catch echoes only of the way it must have scandalized his time in the horrified question of the Baptist's disciples, 'Are you he who is to come?' (Matt. 11:13); in Pilate's 'Are you the king of the Jews?' (Matt. 27:11) you with the pants that don't fit and a split lip; in the black comedy of the sign they nailed over his head where the joke was written in three languages so nobody would miss the laugh.

    "But the whole point of the fairy tale of the Gospel is, of course, that he is the king in spite of everything. The frog turns out to be the prince, the ugly duckling the swan, the little gray man who asks for bread the great magician with the power of life and death in his hands, and though the little tin soldier falls into the flames, his love turns out to be fireproof. There is no less danger and darkness in the Gospel than there is in the Brothers Grimm, but beyond and above all there is the joy of it, this tale of a light breaking into the world that not even the darkness can overcome.

    "That is the Gospel, this meeting of darkness and light and the final victory of light. That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, the one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still." [Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977), pp. 89-90.]

    *Editor’s note: Text from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale used with permission by Frederick Buechner Literary Assets, LLC.

  • Thomas Merton and the Cure for "Rhinoceritis"

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 02, 2016

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Rhinoceritis"Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Jesus of Nazareth, St. Matthew's Gospel 11:28.)

    On one of my first visits to Gethsemani Abbey some years ago, during the Friday evening talk for those on retreat, the guestmaster went through a list of things we might "do" while at the abbey. He finished by saying, "Or you can just sit and pray and meditate in the silence. We've always got lots of that around here."

    Indeed they do. In fact, I've never been anywhere that has a more abundant supply of silence and solitude. As it says on the signs posted all around, "Silence Spoken Here."

    There are birds calling. You may hear the occasional fox in the hills or the lowing of cattle in their fields. From time to time you're bound to notice the sound of a truck or a tractor rumbling along the farm road. Far away, you may hear a plane cutting through the clouds, though that's rare. Each season has its own sounds at the abbey, from summer's insects clicking to the mute cloak of winter snow. But when it comes to the human sounds of chatter and rush, these are mercifully absent. I suppose I had never noticed how loud our modern world of hustle and bustle sounds until being in a place that just doesn't value it.

    So much of what we do in the world has nothing to do with simple human labor. Almost all that we do is activity predicated on self-advancement, self-promotion, even the production of a self which others will admire or at least not successfully attack. Merton referred to such activity, not as labor, but as "unnatural, frantic, anxious work." He spoke of it as the kind of work that is "done under the pressure of greed or fear" or some other "inordinate passion," adding that such work "cannot properly be dedicated to God." [Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 2007), p. 19.]

    Even our talk often has more to do with compulsions, anxieties and greed than with either communication or the promotion of community. Chatter multiplies meaninglessly, reinforcing false selves, stoking fires of envy, anger, power, lust or other forms of violence, mistaking conspiracy for community, confusing a malignant spirit of gossip for real compassion and concern.

    In solitude, we notice. In silence, we hear. Without the din of distractions, without the controversies blaring from television and radio and the self-promotion around whatever metaphorical "water coolers" we gather, we are able to see and hear and recognize what's going on. In and around the abbey, the piles and drifts of silence, the sanctuaries, hallways and gardens heaped with stillness have a way of inviting and encouraging "being" over doing, "reflecting" over reacting, cultivating among us a habit of humanity rather than the headlong pursuit of ephemeral goals that are anything but "proper ends of our humanity."

    Thomas Merton understood what it means to inhabit a stillness and solitude that allow us to notice and to name the relentless mindless charge of distracted humanity. Commenting on a play by Eugene Ionesco, Merton named a spiritual malady many of us will recognize in ourselves: "Rhinoceritis."

    In Merton's essay, "Rain and the Rhinoceros," he quotes Ionesco:

    "'In all the cities of the world, it is the same,' says Ionesco, 'The universal and modern man is the man in a rush (i.e., the rhinoceros), a man who has no time, who is a prisoner of necessity, who cannot understand that a thing might perhaps be without usefulness; nor does he understand that, at bottom, it is the useful that may be useless and back-breaking burden. If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots....' Rhinoceritis, he adds, is the sickness that lies in wait 'for those who have lost the sense and the taste for solitude'." [Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), p. 21.]

    There is no easy, painless cure for Rhinoceritis. Apparently, we almost have to die of the disease before we seek healing. It is significant, I think, although ironic, that in contemporary society, it is sometimes the arts and philosophy, rather than religious faith that offer a cure from this illness. For example, the epigraph which Merton selected for his book Raids on the Unspeakable, in which this essay appears, is by a philosopher who was also a playwright, Gabriel Marcel, who wrote:

    "Today the first and perhaps the only duty of the philosopher is to defend man against himself; to defend man against that extraordinary temptation toward inhumanity to which - almost without being aware of it - so many human beings today have yielded."

    As much as I hate to say it, if one were merely to listen to many of the most popular spokespersons for Christianity these days, one would be led to believe that Rhinoceritis is not a disease at all, but a Christian virtue. We tend to bless and baptize the frenzied busy-ness of our age, to praise it even while we complain about its negative effects.

    We rush from goal to goal, without the benefit of peripheral vision, without evaluating whether the goals of our lives are worth what we sacrifice to attain them. Our worship, where sacrifices should be assessed and properly made, offers little or no help. Congregants find, not so much a place of solitude and silence, reflection, prayer and meditation in Christian worship, as a loud weekly pep rally between quarters of that boisterous sweaty contest we call contemporary life. Such worship sadly provides just another form of distraction to prevent us from being quiet so we might hear the still small scratching of God at the window of our souls. Our liturgical cheerleaders select texts and songs that provoke effort, that tell the rhino to run faster. How odd and unnecessary, and ultimately deadly.

    Except, of course, it isn't odd, is it?

    Christians are, after all, not distinguished by our wisdom, our strength or righteousness, but merely by knowing we are sinners forgiven by God. And sinners are subject to every disease of the soul, including Rhinoceritis.

    Perhaps the most powerful line I've ever read in all of Merton's oeuvre appears in the essay on Rhinoceritis. Merton writes:

    "Because we live in a womb of collective illusion, our freedom remains abortive. Our capacities for joy, peace, and truth are never liberated. They can never be used. We are prisoners of a process, a dialectic of false promises and real deceptions ending in futility." (Merton, Raids, p. 17).

    So, in the memorable words of Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof: "As the Good Book says, Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed. In other words, send us the cure, we've got the sickness already."

    But what is the cure?

    In a variety of his writings, Merton describes a quality of life and spirit that represents the very opposite of Rhinoceritis, and he points the way toward a cure from the disease.

    Merton's exquisite little introduction to selected sayings of the Desert Fathers, for instance, describes a "purity of heart" that is "a clear unobstructed vision of the true state of affairs, an intuitive grasp of one's inner reality as anchored, or rather lost, in God through Christ." This purity of heart requires slowing down, being alone, listening through the silence for the voice of God, being willing for God to speak to us about who we really are, and waiting for God's grace to comfort our broken hearts when we hear the truth. The fruit of this purity of heart is "rest," not merely "rest of the body," but rest that is a kind of "sanity and poise." Such "rest" has "lost all preoccupation with a false or limited 'self'." [Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1960), p. 8.]

    In Merton's version of the writings of Chuang Tzu, he speaks of the wise person who has found rest in the eternal place; there he is hidden "in his own unfathomable secret." "His nature sinks to its root in the One. His vitality, his power hide in the Tao." Merton, himself, unwraps these cryptic poetic words from Chuang Tzu with moving eloquence: he explains that Chuang Tzu's whole teaching "is characteristic of a mentality ... a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and in general a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity, the ambition, the push and the self-importance which one must display in order to get along in society." [Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New York: New Directions, 1965/1997), pp. 105-106 and 11.] The way of the Rhinoceros, in other words, is the polar opposite of the eternal Way.

    But I think it is again in Rain and the Rhinoceros where we get a feeling for how we can cultivate in ourselves this rest and sanity, this poise and equanimity, the hiddenness that liberates us merely to be. It is awaiting us in a particular kind of solitude, it is there for us already in a particular form of silence. As Merton tells us in the opening of the essay, in his long, lyrical reflection on the rain, in a passage that, it seems to me, could have been written by Wendell Berry. Merton writes:

    "I came up here [to his hermitage] from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows. ... Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen." (Merton, Raids, pp.9-10.)

    What voices, within and without, drive those afflicted by Rhinoceritis to charge on and on? What messages speak, threaten, cajole, ridicule, excite and make anxious the poor creatures who run headlong in attack or flee in terror from every hint of threat? Armored and horned and harried, the creatures react. However fearsome, they know no rest.

    It need not be so. But rhinos don't learn to slow down, it seems, until they stop altogether and are quiet.

  • Redefining the Church's Relevance - Part 3

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 29, 2016

    “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16)

    Church's Relevance 3Recently the Church of England published its "eight social media commandments," a set of guidelines to influence parish priests and other church leaders to re-direct their energies and efforts, to become more digitally savvy, to tweet, blog, use "Slack" to facilitate discussions, create stop-motion videos, and employ apps to make their churches more relevant to the digital generation. The church's parish leaders are told that the church simply must embrace the digital revolution or risk irrelevance and extinction. (John Bingham, “The Gif of God: The Church of England issues eight social media commandments," The Daily Telegraph, August 3, 2016. Accessed October 12, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/03/the-gif-of-god-church-of-england-issues-eight-social-media-comma/.)

    While I appreciate the many uses for the digital tools that are multiplying around us, to communicate better and more broadly, to learn more about the world around us, and to keep in touch with one another, I find the assessment of the Daily Telegraph article both superficial and ultimately self-defeating. Surely, the people of our world deserve a better response from us. And, surely, we have something better to offer.

    A few years ago, I began going to Gethsemane Abbey regularly and frequently for silent retreats. It has become increasingly more difficult to book a retreat in the past couple of years because so many people want to go to the abbey. Protestants, Catholics, all sorts and conditions of human beings are making their way to this Cistercian abbey near Bardstown, Kentucky, where there is no Wi-Fi, no television nor radio, and where drinking the coffee, until quite recently, was an act of penance. The services and daily prayer are utterly lacking in any sense of performance. And many of the people who retreat there have never heard of Gethsemane's most renowned monk, Thomas Merton.

    All we do there is pray, read, meditate, and try to silence the voices inside our heads to match the silence outside. We are attentive to God, to the quiet presence of others, and to all the stuff deep inside of us from which a world of noisy distractions ordinarily keeps us from dealing. As that stuff inevitably rises up, one makes one’s way to the chapel to be reminded of God's forgiveness, or to the garden to walk silently the Stations of the Cross, or out into the stillness of the Kentucky hills to gain some perspective.

    The Psalms are applied like healing balm to tired and broken souls all throughout the day. The Eucharist is present daily to nourish. The Gospel is evoked again and again. And the silence, solitude and reality of a community of fellow pilgrims support us in our journey inward and journey outward. Gradually, during the years of disciplined prayer, contemplation, mindfulness training and meditation as well as regular extended silent retreats in the context of a permanent Christian community that practices hospitality, I have come to feel like a prodigal who has too long fed on the swine's scraps while a feast awaited me in my Father's house.

    William James, the philosopher and psychologist, in reflecting on what standards we might use to evaluate the relative truthfulness of a religious faith, articulated a perspective that has become more and more convincing to me the older I have gotten. The authenticity of a faith, according to James, should be judged by the character and quality of the lives of those who practice it. "By their fruits ye shall know them," writes James, "not by their roots." If a faith is good and true, we will know it by the results it achieves in the lives of its adherents. (William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, Modern Library edition, 1994, p. 24.)

    In other words, "Who" we are, the character of our humanity lived out in practice, is the ultimate litmus test for the truthfulness of our faith.

    But what if we fail actually to embody or convey a faith in the God revealed in Christ in our manic attempts to appeal to a culture?

    This certainly is possible. Then all we do as a church is replicate among ourselves more and more of the same culture that surrounds us on every side: a culture of consumption that is eating us up; a culture of fame that damns the quiet good in its rush to recognize the most visible and vulgar; a culture that celebrates violence and vengeance, and equates kindness with weakness; a culture obsessed with the trivial and the superficial; a culture impatient with anything intellectually profound, and mocks prudence and virtue and wisdom.

    It is possible that the church could, maybe without realizing the gravity of what it is doing, exchange the gospel that seeks to restore to us our full humanity for some life-depleting message that only manages to keep step with the culture in which we live. And, if that happens, sadly our fruit will tell.

    Sometimes what our culture most needs is not what it demands. We need to have confidence enough in the Gospel not to give up on it just because others don't "get it."

    Whether or not this Gospel is what they demand, it is the source of life abundant. The God to whom we are called to be relevant has so much to offer us and everyone else in our contemporary culture, if we have the courage to follow.

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