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Thinking Out Loud
  • Thomas Merton and the Case 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.


  • Redefining the Church's Relevance - Part 2

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 22, 2016


    “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (II Timothy 4:3)

    Churchs Relevance part 2Since the cultural dominance of mainline Protestant Christianity began to decline (1959, if you were wondering, at the same time that participation in every other voluntary association requiring considerable investment of time and energy in local chapters began to drop off), we have focused more and more attention on gaining and retaining market share by concentrating on the changing interests and desires of various audiences we hope to attract.

    Notice, I'm not saying we focused our ministry even on the needs of people. Our concern has been market share. We may mask our intentions by strategically sprinkling in theological terms like “evangelism” and “ministry,” but we know we're still talking about marketing however we may pretend otherwise. This has led us to a most peculiar place in which our freedom to be a people of God, our joy and confidence as a community of faith, has been steadily replaced by fear, anxiety and a compulsion to please every potential audience in the hope that by "becoming all things to all people" we might save ourselves from the indignity of irrelevance.

    Thus, Eugene Peterson issued in 1987 his broadside to fellow ministers. (Eugene was then the longtime pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland.) What Eugene had to say, however, shouldn't just be heard as a critique of pastors. Indeed, many of the people who most appreciated his words, and who resisted most courageously the problems he attacks, have been pastors. We should hear his comments as a theological critique of us all.

    "American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. ... The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper's concerns - how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money. Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping: religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. 'A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,' says Martin Thornton, 'but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre'." [Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), pp. 1-2.]


    In order to become the place that trains saints and emancipates them from mediocrity, we need to recover an insight Dietrich Bonhoeffer once shared with his students in a class he taught on Christology. “Who” questions have priority over questions of “how.”

    What do I mean by this?

    In Bonhoeffer's lectures, published in the United States under the title, Christ, the Center, he warns his students not to get caught up in the questions that have bedeviled and distracted theologians for centuries like, "How is it possible for Christ to be both divine and human?" Or "How can God be one and three persons?" Rather, said Bonhoeffer, focus your entire attention on the actual, living, personal encounter with Jesus Christ. When we meet Christ, hearing a sermon or a testimony of someone's experience of grace or reading the Bible or worshiping and praying, inevitably Jesus Christ is asking us the same question he asked his followers long ago, "Who do you say that I am?"

    All of the "how" questions are subordinate to getting that question of "who" right.

    To whom is the church relevant?
    To the changing fads and fancies of our culture? If that is our answer, we will chase after them until we have worn ourselves out with worry, anxiety and self-parody. And we will not be fulfilling our vocation toward the people surrounding us either, but will just be giving them more of the culture of which they are already familiar.

    To whom is the church relevant?
    To the God who in Jesus Christ calls us to that abundant life which God shares with us through the power of the Holy Spirit?

    It could be that the greatest gift the church has to offer people in today's culture runs precisely against the grain of what this culture demands, because the thing this culture demands is spiritually, emotionally and physically killing its people. What I am about to suggest would turn relevance on its ear, but it might just be the key to following the God revealed in Jesus Christ in our time and place.

    In a recent article published by New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan shares his insights about what happened to him as a thoroughly connected citizen in the digital world. The teaser for this article says, "An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you too." But this teaser barely scratches the surface of Sullivan's essay, and it may be the most important essay any pastor or church leader reads this year.

    Just to give you some background, Andrew Sullivan owned a profitable and extremely trendy company that trafficked in news and information. He and his team collected information from a wide variety of sources and sent it out with witty, pertinent commentary throughout the day.

    I'll let him describe what he did:

    "For a decade and a half, I'd been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I'd cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I'd spend weeks manically grabbing every scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long." (Andrew Sullivan, "I Used to Be a Human Being," New York Magazine, September 18, 2016. Accessed October 12, 2016. http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html.)


    He was the king of relevance, in other words, a master of multitasking. Even when he was sitting alone with his laptop, his brain was full of voices, full of noise, a cacophony of data and ideas and arguments. He was everywhere at once in his mind, and seldom conscious of his actual existence at any particular moment. He was the very embodiment of what many people believe the church must be more like if it is to be relevant to natives of the digital age.

    Sullivan, this early adopter of all things digital, writes: "If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out."

    What few vacations he took became occasions to sleep. His dreams were versions of his working days. His friendships atrophied and dropped away. Finally, after four successive infections, his doctor warned him that he was literally killing himself. "And so I decided," writes Sullivan, "after fifteen years, to live in reality."

    What follows in this fascinating article is the story of Sullivan's journey back to being a human being. He began to live again. He re-developed friendships and found community. His path led through the spiritual practices of mindfulness meditation, learning to live in this world the life we are given without judgment, moment by moment paying attention to that life with gratitude. He discovered that he had been surrounded by noise, distracted by clatter, so that he didn't have to deal with his humanity, with the inevitable regrets, guilt, unresolved grief, the detritus of relationships lost, all that makes up the human soul and consciousness. He began the hard work of knowing himself again, and learning to be attentive to those around him. He gave up relevance for the sake of his humanity and his spiritual/emotional/physical wholeness. As he writes, I can't help but see the image of the return of the prodigal, who "came to himself" dining among the pigs.

    Emerging from his brokenness, Sullivan addresses us, the church. He writes:

    "If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary." (Sullivan, "I Used to Be a Human Being," New York Magazine).


    Sullivan’s appeal to the church deserves to be marked, read and inwardly digested by every leader of the church today.


  • Thomas Merton as "Exact Contemporary"

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 18, 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!

    Exact Contemporary

    Only a few monks living today at Gethsemani Abbey personally knew Thomas Merton, or “Father Louis Merton” as he was known there. The others know Merton as most of us know Merton, through his books.

    The complex, contradictory, deeply faithful, profoundly thoughtful, sometimes restless, but always very human person who was Merton is remembered with gratitude by those who learned from him when he was novice master, or when they prayed the liturgy with him, or when they talked with him face-to-face. But what of the rest of us who only know Merton as text? And, knowing Merton through his books, what do we know?

    On one hand, we might say that knowing Merton as text means we only know what he wanted us to know. When a writer sits down before a blank page of paper, he or she has complete control. The writer can write whatever he or she wishes. The writer can hide some things and disclose others at will. I recall an art teacher with whom I was working a couple of years ago who said to me as I stood before a blank canvas: "Remember, right now, you are the creator. This canvas can say whatever you want." So, one might assume that readers will only know what writers want them to know.

    On the other hand, careful readers are aware that writers often disclose far more than they intend. The page has a way of capturing aspects of the consciousness and personality that the writer didn't mean to put down. We are seldom aware of all we are saying. Thus, a psychoanalyst will hear in our words clues to what is going on with us that we haven't yet realized ourselves. And a literary critic will observe in a text what a careless reader won't notice. The indelible imprint of an author is upon whatever he or she writes, and that imprint includes the unintended.

    Writers appear in the pages they write. Their living breath can be felt in the vowels, their heartbeat through the consonants. Their false selves and true, their mixed motives, their restlessness and trustfulness are revealed, whether they intended this or not. In other words, there's more of Merton’s flesh and blood on the printed page than we might first have assumed.

    That raises another question, and it is a question with theological significance: Is there a disadvantage to not knowing Merton in the flesh?

    Obviously, there is. How often I have found myself wanting to enjoy the fullness of that sense of humor that comes through here and there, especially in Merton's letters. Listening to stories about Merton told by people like the late Will D. Campbell, I have wished I could have enjoyed a conversation with Merton. And there are questions, so many questions, I would like to have asked him, the answers to which are only hinted at in his books. How often I have wished I could say, "When you wrote this, what did you mean?"

    There's a strange combination of disclosure and hiddenness that I sometimes think could be erased if only I could have talked with him. However, I also have to admit that knowing people in the flesh, even knowing them very well, does not remove the mystery of the dynamic between disclosure and hiddenness. I've known my wife for something approaching forty-five years, forty-one of which we've been married, and she remains a mystery to me. Just because sometimes we can finish each other’s sentences doesn't mean that there aren't aspects of one another that make up volumes we will never comprehend. But we do have the advantage of enjoying and experiencing one another in our full, delightful and maddening immediacy. And that is a real advantage.

    There's something that is not gained, then, in knowing Merton only as text, especially at a personal level. But when it comes to knowing Merton as our teacher, there's something else we shouldn't forget. And this is where the theological significance is strongest.

    Søren Kierkegaard responded to the idea that the disciples of Jesus had an advantage over the rest of us because they knew Jesus in the flesh. History accords the apostles, and other disciples like Mary Magdalene, a special status because they knew Jesus personally. Paul claims a different kind of authority because of his revelation from the risen Christ. But there's no doubt that we often look, almost romantically, at those who walked and talked with Jesus as having the advantage of an access to him which we are denied because of our lack of physical and historical proximity to him.

    Not so, claims Kierkegaard. Jesus Christ remains our exact contemporary still meeting us directly. From a theological perspective, we know that the Spirit of God makes the words of the text come alive in our hearing, so that through the power of the Spirit the Word of God, Christ himself, speaks directly to us, claiming us, calling us to follow. In some ways, the original disciples actually experienced a disadvantage of historical proximity from which we do not suffer.

    That brings us back to Merton and his texts. God uses saints to make saints of us. The Holy Spirit speaks the Word of God through a variety of texts. This is distinctively true of the biblical texts, but there are others. Some of these other texts are apparently especially useful.

    Thomas à Kempis, an obscure monk in a Dutch monastery whom relatively few people in the world knew personally, and Lady Julian of Norwich, an anchoress living in a coastal city of medieval England, have been published for centuries, translated into scores of languages, and continue to be read today by thousands. C.S. Lewis, one of his friends once quipped, has written more books after his death than were published before; he has become a spiritual companion perhaps to more Christians than any writer in history.

    Thomas Merton's writings are ubiquitous, springing up on the nightstands of Catholic priests and Protestant pastors, devoted Christians, curious seekers, and intrigued agnostics. And the Spirit of God uses his words, again and again, to speak to hearts and minds that would never have sat down with a Cistercian monk. Through his books, and through the gentle power of the Spirit of God, Merton becomes our "exact contemporary" again and again. "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24). And just look at the fruit produced by our brother, Thomas.


  • Redefining the Church's Relevance - Part 1

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 15, 2016


    Church's Relevance P 1"Paul, an apostle -- sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead -- and the brothers with me,

    “To the churches of Galatia:

    "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

    "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel -- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned.

    "Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ."
      (Galatians 1:1-10)

    One of the questions I hear most often these days is this one: "How can we make the church more relevant?" It is a question that comes up a lot. And I think it deserves careful thought. In fact, I've been thinking for some weeks about this, and how I might respond that would be helpful. A few days ago, I realized that to begin to respond to this question, we need to explore some more basic questions. And to do that, we have to do some theological thinking.

    I don't know where you are on this, but theological thinking is not always welcome in today's church.

    Several years ago, I was a speaker in a conference honoring John Calvin. After one of the speakers had finished her address, the man sitting next to me (someone I know well and like a great deal) whispered to his wife, "That was too theological!"

    Now, you might be thinking what I thought at that moment. If you come to a conference on John Calvin you should expect it to be theological from soup to nuts. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was simply resisting a particular kind of language that has become strange in even some of the best corners of the church, so strange that we sometimes get embarrassed when that language is used. It's sort of like the fellow who wrote me in response to a blog a few years ago complaining that my use of the two classical terms differentiating the kinds of spirituality in the history of the Christian church (apophatic and kataphatic) was a sign of what's wrong with the Presbyterian Church today. (I'm going to confess to you that I really don't think vocabulary is the issue that keeps most people from coming to church.)

    If I might try to demystify the word “theology,” however, I would say that theology is a disciplined, constructive and analytical thinking about our faith in God and the God in whom we place our faith. And when we turn our theological (disciplined, constructive, analytical) thinking to the question of the church's relevance, we find some really helpful lessons ready and waiting for application. These lessons date all the way back to the early church and the writing of the New Testament, but were refined and clarified by one of the greatest theologians of all time, St. Thomas Aquinas.

    To cut to the chase, Aquinas taught that the most reliable way to make statements about God is by speaking analogically, describing that which is beyond human comprehension (God) by speaking of everyday things. This is what we do when we speak of God as Father and Son.

    Here's the trick - and this is the point that will help us think theologically about relevance.

    The primary reference point in a meaningful and reliable theological analogy isn't with the everyday thing. When, for example, we speak of God the Father or God the Son, we aren't saying that the human males we know who are fathers and sons define what God is. The primary reference point for the analogy is the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation (birth, life, death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ, we discover what it means to say that God is Father and God is Son. In other words, we don't take a human father or a human son, multiply his characteristics by infinity, try to sift out the sin and frailty, and think we've come up with God the Father or God the Son. Instead, by faith and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we reflect on what Jesus Christ reveals to us about the character of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Another way to say this is the way the great sixteenth-century church reformer Martin Luther said it. If you want to know what God is like, run to the stable in Bethlehem, or stand at the foot of the cross. That's where we discover what “Fatherhood” and “Sonship” mean.

    So, here's where the lesson of analogy helps us understand relevance. What's the primary point of reference in the question of the church's relevance? To what or to whom are we, as a people of God, called to be relevant?

    One of my favorite television shows is "Yes, Minister" and its sequel "Yes, Prime Minister." It is an example of brilliantly written British humor from the BBC. In one episode, the prime minister is asked to present the name of a new bishop to the queen. He's not exactly a churchgoer, so he has to get a primer on the Church of England from the permanent secretary to the cabinet, Sir Humphrey.

    Sir Humphrey explains to the prime minister that relevance has become the dominant issue for many leading clergy in the Church of England. The Prime Minister is confused. He asks, "Relevance? To God?" "No," says Sir Humphrey, "in sociological terms." To illustrate, he describes a recently built church that had, in its attempt to meet the interests of its community, built a gymnasium and a variety of places for all sorts of activities but somehow forgot to build a sanctuary where worship might take place.

    Here's where the church's anxiety and insecurity can prove so disastrous in our very "me-centered" and "self-obsessed" culture: many people assume that the primary point of reference when it comes to relevance is the culture with its changing tastes, its fickle likes and dislikes, its sometimes trivial and superficial interests, and its often self-destructive desires and obsessions. Relevance of this sort has a very short shelf life. What appears most desirable today is obsolete tomorrow. What seems to be a meaningful trend fades into a fad in the twinkling of an eye. And the church which makes its surrounding culture its primary reference point for relevance must either spin like a hamster on its wheel perpetually chasing "the next big thing" or risk falling out of favor with the coolest people who will remind them that if they don't keep up, they'll become foolishly irrelevant. Unfortunately, of course, it is possible to stay up with the fad of the moment and still look silly.

    Our primary point of reference as church is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We are called (and I know this is going to sound weird) to be relevant to God. It is sort of like the conundrum of service. If a pastor wants to serve her people well, her first thought is not about pleasing the people, but pleasing God. If we hope to have anything of value to say and do for the people around us, we cannot focus on making ourselves relevant to them.

    I'm going to say something fairly categorical now, and I hope I'm not out of line. But I think one reason many churches have become so anxious is that they have become utterly preoccupied with trying to become appealing to the ever-shifting tastes of popular culture, often wringing their hands that they just don't seem to be attracting massive audiences. Meanwhile, they may have forgotten that their mission is the mission of God. We are in real danger of trivializing ourselves into extinction in a relentless quest to be cool, or cute, or attractive to the lowest common denominator. Meanwhile, we forget that our freedom to be a people of God, our joy and our confidence are not grounded in how successful we are in pleasing our culture or chasing after its every whim. Our freedom to be a people of God, our joy and our confidence rest in the good news of Jesus Christ, the power of his grace, forgiveness, mercy, goodness, justice and love.

    Christians have, as the old hymn says, "A Story to Tell to the Nations." That story isn't reducible to a bumper sticker. Despite the fact that it is the good news of the gospel, it will not be heard and accepted as good news by everyone who hears it. For some, it will sound like bad news, especially if they just can't let go of hatred or vengeance, self-righteousness or self-loathing. Nor will the gospel attract everyone, especially if we preach it intelligently and thoughtfully. We need to get over this. We need to be faithful to God's calling of us to follow Jesus and leave the ultimate results and the future of God's church in God's hands.


  • Alien-Nation

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 11, 2016


    Alien-Nation"My concern is to understand America biblically."

    So began William Stringfellow's An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco: Word Press, 1973). It was a revolutionary biblical and theological inquiry into American politics in the Vietnam era. That book as much as any other in those days shaped my theological imagination. There were other writers who meant a great deal to me, of course, Thomas Merton, to whom Stringfellow's book was dedicated; Karl Barth, who said of Stringfellow when they met on Barth's American lecture tour, that Stringfellow's "was the most conscientious and thoughtful mind" he encountered in America; and others. But the stamp left by Stringfellow was unique and enduring.

    As I have searched in recent days for "something unfoolish to say" (to borrow a phrase from Kris Kristofferson), I have returned again and again to Stringfellow.

    He writes:

    "The effort is to comprehend the nation, to grasp what is happening right now to the nation and to consider the destiny of the nation within the scope and style of the ethics and the ethical metaphors distinctive to the biblical witness in history." (Stringfellow, Ethic for Christians)

    Over the next weeks and months, I shall reflect seriously on where we find ourselves today as Christians in America. My intention is to reflect theologically and biblically, very slowly and deliberately, before I "think out loud" so as not to allow my speech simply to be reactive, driven by anxiety. And I would like to signal to you, that in the new year, as part of our regular Tuesday blogs, I shall introduce a new theme, related closely to Stringfellow's thought. Again, turning to his words, in the preface to An Ethic for Christians:

    "The task is to treat the nation within the tradition of biblical politics - to understand America biblically - not the other way around, not ... to construe the Bible Americanly."

    Until then....


  • Christian Citizenship

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 08, 2016


    Christian CitizenshipIn one of his lesser known books, theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr summarized a central quandary of Christian citizenship. Niebuhr wrote:

    "Genuine piety sets up an authority for the individual conscience which prevents the state or the community from becoming an idolatrous end of human existence. Religious faith makes a rigorous affirmation, 'We must obey God, rather than men,' in opposition to every tyranny. But, unfortunately, piety develops its own idolatries by claiming a too simple allegiance between the divine will and human ends." [Reinhold Niebuhr,Pious and Secular America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), p. 6.]

    Every congregation that has ever argued over whether or not to have an American flag in the sanctuary has wrestled with the problem which Niebuhr outlines. Every young person who has struggled to square Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount with military service - whatever their ultimate decision - has had to find a way through this labyrinth of faith and obligation.

    The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us that we are claimed body and soul, in life and in death, by our faithful savior Jesus Christ. This fact, according to Heidelberg, is our "only comfort." But there has never been a time in history when Christians did not live subject also to earthly powers and principalities. And these powers and principalities, we are told in the Bible, are also God's creation, intended for good, for justice, for order and peace, yet subject to the fall as are all other aspects of creation.

    We have witnessed occasions when religious faith became handmaiden to and apologist for a state's wickedness, oppression, violence, and even mass murder. We wish we could say that Christianity has proven immune to such historical maladies, but it is simply not the case.

    We have also seen times when religious faith has served as a courageous motivation to resist tyranny, dictatorship, imperialism, enslavement, and genocide. We wish we could say that, in such times, the faithful were honored by their fellow citizens as true patriots, but neither is this the case.

    Tom Currie once observed, "The truth of the matter is that the idea of God can be made to serve any number of abhorrent causes and none so easily or so well as the ones we value." [Thomas White Currie III, Ambushed by Grace: The Virtues of Useless Faith (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1993), p. 21.] It is almost always true that our highest values (and this includes our love of country), when perverted, can cause the greatest suffering, even as it is true that the highest goods, when distorted, become the lowest sins. So it is that good people, people of faith, can find themselves, and sometimes with the very best of motives, giving their souls to some false deity that promises more than it can deliver, or rendering unto Caesar those things that belong to God. In few places are these perils greater than in the political realm, because the potential there for good is so great.

    Fortunately, the moments in history when dire circumstances force the faithful to choose radically between Christ and Caesar are not routine. But the possibility is always there.


  • Thomas Merton's Restless Heart

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 04, 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!

    Restless HeartThomas Merton wrote one of the most influential spiritual autobiographies in Christian history. St. Augustine of Hippo wrote the original. Though I am sure that Merton would be the first to say that Augustine's Confessions towers above his own The Seven Storey Mountain, there are many similarities between the two.

    Both autobiographies were written for spiritual purposes. They are spiritual memoirs. They are not written in the vein of a modern "celebrity tell-all," a meticulously footnoted critical appraisal of a national leader, or a ghost-written self-advertisement. Both Confessions and The Seven Storey Mountain were written with searing honesty, to help other pilgrims find their way to God. Both were written by extraordinarily erudite, philosophically subtle and eloquent authors. Both display a humility that is profoundly moving. And both exhibit an aesthetic sensibility and love of beauty that shines through even the most densely reasoned theological points.

    Merton and Augustine were larger than life. They sought after spiritual satisfaction, but had reveled in carnal pleasures before their surrender to God. Augustine famously prayed, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet." And Merton's exploits with alcohol and women, especially while a student at Clare College, Cambridge, are well known. Perhaps the greatest similarity between the two was that which drove them or drew them toward the divine: a relentless restlessness.

    Augustine gave this drive its classic formulation in the prayer with which he begins his Confessions:

    “‘You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised' (Ps. 47:2): 'great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable' (Ps. 146:5). Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being 'bearing his mortality with him' (2 Cor. 4:10), carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you 'resist the proud' (1 Pet. 5:5). Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." [Augustine, St. Augustine’s Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 3.]


    In “Book V” of Confessions, Augustine continues praying, reflecting on the nature of this restlessness, and the way in which it alienates one from oneself:

    "The closed heart does not shut out your eye, and your hand is not kept away by the hardness of humanity, but you melt that when you wish ... and there is 'none who can hide from your heat' (Ps. 18:7). ... So from weariness our soul rises toward you, first supporting itself on the created order and then passing on to you yourself who wonderfully made it (Ps. 71:18; 135:4). With you is restored strength and true courage. ... Let them turn, and at once you are there in their heart - in the heart of those who make confession to you and throw themselves upon you and weep on your breast after traveling many rough paths. ... Where was I when I was seeking for you? You were there before me, but I had departed from myself. I could not even find myself, much less you." (Augustine, Confessions, 72-73.)


    "Our heart is restless until it rests in you." Merton's Seven Storey Mountain reads like a commentary on this passage from Augustine. On page after page of Merton's autobiography we find a young man confessing, "I could not even find myself, much less you."

    "There is a paradox," Merton writes of himself, "that lies in the very heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of man. The paradox is this: man's nature by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems." [Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: HBJ, 1948/1976) p. 169.]


    Paul Tillich had said as much when he said that humanity is the question to which God alone is the answer. Both Merton and Augustine courageously probe a psychology of the spirit using themselves and their own lives as exhibit A, inquiring into the human creature's inability to know itself, to recognize what it is and what it was made for, until the light of God's grace blinds the creature into a new kind of sight. "In thy light we shall see light."

    The various plots of the sinner's recovery are familiar to us all. One is based on the parable of the prodigal. The child wandered into a far country and squandered his inheritance foolishly and winds up dining with swine only to come to himself by grace. And, by grace, seeing himself anew and remembering his father's house where he was intended to feast, no longer is he a stranger in a strange land but again a child at home. Another common plot is the even more ancient one, the journey from one place to another to the unknown but promised land. Abraham and Jacob as well as Moses and Joshua are all originals for this story of the soul. And still another plot is the story of sickness and healing, near-death and health-restored, or death and new life. The plots of sickness and healing abound throughout the Bible, but especially in the gospels. All of these plots require that we pass through "dark nights of the soul," periods of disorientation, times of great discomfort and apparently God-forsakenness which (to our surprise) turn out to be occasions for overwhelming grace. In the dark night we come to rest in the God beyond all our conceptions.

    Restlessness, movement of the heart, changes of mind, conversions of manners, are often involved in the life of faith because spiritual transformation requires displacement of the most profound sort. God places us in darkness and blinds us in light, sends us out into solitude and draws us into deep silence so we will pay attention.

    "What has to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God. What we have to learn is love. The healing and the learning are the same thing, for at the very core of our essence we are constituted in God's likeness by our freedom, and the exercise of that freedom is nothing else but the exercise of disinterested love - the love of God for his own sake, because he is God. The beginning of love is truth, and before he will give us his love, God must cleanse our souls of the lies that are in them." (Merton, Mountain, p. 372.)


    Here is the promised healing, the journey's end, and the prodigal's true home appearing on the horizon at last.

    At the close of Augustine's Confessions, we come upon his comments on Sabbath. Here we find his most beautiful reflections on rest. He writes:

    "The seventh day has no evening and has no ending. You sanctified it to abide everlastingly. Even as we are promised a rest that never ends in God, in the end God will rest in us and through us, even as God works through us now.” (Augustine, Confessions, 304.)


    I have often wondered at the astonishing literary productivity of both Augustine and Merton. Their pens never rested, even if their hearts did. But perhaps they had discovered the secret of running and not fainting, because it was no longer their restlessness that made them run.


  • Twilights and Dawns of Gods

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 01, 2016


    TwilightsOnce upon a time long long ago, something happened that nobody expected. The world stopped working properly. It was the summer of 1159 BC. Well, it would have been summer, except summer never really came. The priests went through all the usual rituals. The great stones all stood waiting, lined up with the stars like always, ready for the sun to grace the people with its warmth. The invocations were spoken by the shamans. But the summer sun refused to brighten the skies or ripen the grains and other crops. And, stunted, they withered. Summer never came. And the same thing happened for eighteen years, virtually a full human generation.

    This story was not handed down in ancient texts, but lay encoded in tree rings long preserved in an Irish peat bog until unlocked by dendrochronologists like Professor Michael Baillie of Queen's University, Belfast. Reflecting on an environmental catastrophe of biblical proportions, he says: "Imagine what eighteen years of failed harvests would do to any civilization. It would pretty much wipe out any agricultural group." Carmel McCaffrey (a lecturer on Irish history and language at Johns Hopkins University) and Leo Eaton (a film producer) observe that this environmental crisis precipitated upheaval in every known society.

    "The date suggested for the fall of Homeric Troy, the collapse of Mycenae, and the beginning of the Greek Dark Ages is close to 1159 BC. In the same period the Hittite Empire of Anatolia ended in rebellion and economic chaos while the Babylonian poems, inscribed on clay tablets, speak of abandonment by the gods. Egypt was almost overrun by an invasion of sea peoples, nations were on the move, and in distant China terrible events heralded the fall of the mighty Shang dynasty. All these events took place in the mid-twelfth century." [McCaffrey and Eaton, In Search of Ancient Ireland: The Origins of the Irish from Neolithic a Times to the Coming of the English (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003), 38-41.]


    A variety of explanations have been advanced to explain what happened (volcanic eruptions, for example, which flooded the atmosphere with ashy clouds shutting out the sun), but I would like to reflect on one small slice of the social effects. During this period of stress, according to the scholars who looked primarily at Irish history, the society became much more militaristic and much more religious. Indeed, a warrior aristocracy arose in Ireland in this period, and religious practices to appease "the gods of the underworld" seem to have intensified. In an interview McCaffrey and Eaton conducted with Richard Warner, curator of antiquities at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, Warner explained that, as in other times of social stress when people become more warlike and religious, the Irish in the twelfth century BC began to build huge fortifications defending their scarce resources, and they attempted to satisfy those gods who lived in bodies of water and who were believed to be the source of the catastrophic weather. (McCaffrey and Eaton, Ancient Ireland, 42-43.)

    Place your mental page marker here for just a moment, if you will.

    If you have ever traversed ancient landscapes in Europe, Africa or Asia, surely one of the most remarkable experiences is viewing the religious remains of vastly different ages cheek-by-jowl. There's one particular valley  (of which I've written in another context) in Britain where Stone Age religious sites dating from sometime after the last Ice Age stand near structures built hundreds, even thousands, of years later. There have been people living and worshiping in that landscape for thousands of years, perhaps even longer. The monuments they left have been used and lost, adapted for new uses and adapted in the name of a variety of gods, by a people who have lived there over the millennia. Indeed, in the case of the valley I'm thinking of, the best vantage point to see the sweep of the valley is in the burial ground beside the modern church (dating from just after the Reformation) which stands on the site of prior Christian churches dating back to a preaching cross erected long before St. Augustine "brought" Christianity to Britain. People have lived and worshiped in that particular place for nearly 10,000 years through several different religions.

    "What is your point?" you may well be asking.

    Perspective, historical perspective, is hard to come by among a people whose vision is limited by their lifetime much less by those who are unconcerned about anything that happened last year. Yet, historical perspective is one of the most valuable assets for anyone hoping to combat the enervating, crippling anxiety of our age. God is up to grand things on a grand scale, "mighty acts," as the great A.B. Rhodes said. And God does not get smaller the more we know. Indeed, the opposite is true. The more we know, the bigger God and God's world and God's universe become. Feeling small can be a big gift, especially when it comes to gaining a true sense of proportion regarding our worries about the church these days.

    There’s something else we may learn from what happened in 1159 BC. Fear makes a poor tutor. What we tend to learn from fear is often counter-productive, at best, and may be profoundly destructive. It is worth remembering that when a society disintegrates (whatever the cause), when trust in others is lost and confidence in institutional structures erodes, the results are seldom good. At such times in history, almost inevitably, violence increases as social ties unravel. People may get more religious in such times; that doesn’t mean they get better or more peaceful.

    Maybe it makes a lot more sense to invest ourselves in the rebuilding of trust and of institutional structures in stressful times, rather than to participate in distrust and cynicism.


  • I Love Libraries

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 25, 2016


    I Love LibrariesWhenever I drive through a town and pass a public library or walk across a campus and see the school's library, I can almost hear the community's heartbeat. I love libraries, from neat little Carnegie libraries tucked into small villages to the vast New York City Library's main building on Fifth Avenue to our own seminary's library across the quadrangle from my office.

    My love for libraries dates to my early childhood. I can still remember the first book I checked out of the little library at the Redland Elementary School. I mean the first real book with real chapters. It was the second grade. I can't recall the title or the author, but it was about the most wonderful adventure of serving on a merchant sailing vessel in the nineteenth century.

    It is impossible to describe everything I felt when I closed that book on its last page. It was as though I had discovered a whole wide world beyond the hardscrabble red clay of Deep East Texas. It felt like doors being flung wide open. It wasn't the joy of reading. It was the joy of going to other places, walking in other shoes, experiencing realities that were unimaginable until they unfolded on the page. From that day onward, libraries were not places where books were stored, but treasure houses where dreams were kept.

    The love affair only deepened over the years. When I was in junior high, my daily routine included walking from the middle school into downtown Lufkin where I would go to the library until my mother got finished in her office and was ready to go home. I would sit for hours, day after day after day, reading whatever I fancied and checking out as many books as they would allow. I still recall the minor scandal it caused in my religiously conservative family when I brought home several volumes of Ian Fleming (whose James Bond had already inspired me as a fifth grader to write a series of short stories on the adventures of Toron McKillan, Scottish secret agent) and Sigmund Freud (who even wrote about dreams!). At fifteen, I found both Fleming and Freud fascinating, for not entirely dissimilar reasons. Perhaps most interesting of all were the books I could not check out of the library.

    In a large reading room, the library had stacks and stacks of large format art books. These couldn't leave the building. Everyone was there: Picasso; Monet; Pollock; Rothko. There were collections of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. There were volumes that carefully compared and contrasted Picasso to Matisse to Modigliani to Miro. Cezanne's deep rich colors, blue mountains and strange houses. Marc Chagall's floating lovers. Mary Cassatt's gentle portraits. I would sit in one of the huge comfortable chairs absorbing beauty and wonder.

    They say that if a child reads a book that makes her laugh, she will probably be hooked on reading forever. For me, it was having a place to read where reading was the normal and ordinary thing to do that meant the most to me, a place where it wasn't odd or strange or lazy to sit and be completely absorbed in a story, in a subject, or in a good reproduction of a painting.

    There are folks today who will say that libraries are a thing of the past. I suspect that most of the people who say this never had much of a relationship with a library in the first place. But I may be wrong. They, at least, don't know much about what libraries are today, or in fact, what they've been for many years. Contemporary libraries are vast high-tech search engines dedicated to connecting you with a world bigger, wider and more astonishing than ever before. They still invite the curious. They still ignite the imagination. They still make knowledge, beauty, laughter and adventure available to anyone who will enter. They still dispense dreams.

    If you haven't visited one recently, I encourage you to do so. Better yet, take a child.


  • Thomas Merton and the False Self

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 21, 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!

    Merton False Self


    Thomas Merton frequently wrote about the dangers of the false self, a fact that Rowan Williams observes in his essay, "Bread for the Wilderness." In it Williams writes:

    "There is here [in certain passages by Merton] an implicit recognition that the monastic vocation demands a real encounter with one's own 'nothingness,' with the false and illusory persona created by one's betrayal of the true self, the image of God, in a concordat with a false and illusory society." [Rowan Williams, “Bread for the Wilderness,” in A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2011), p. 25.]

    As true as it undoubtedly is that one must struggle with the false self in the monastic vocation, it is also true of the human vocation into which we are baptized as followers of Christ. In Merton's reflections on the lives of the Desert Fathers (the hermits who fled the cities of the Roman Empire in the early centuries of the church to seek God), he finds a resonance between the most secluded religious figures and those, like many of us, who follow a more secular path. Merton writes:

    "What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion of 'the world'. ... [The hermit] had to lose himself in the inner, hidden reality of a self that was transcendent, mysterious, half-known, and lost in Christ. He had to die to the values of transient existence as Christ had died to them on the Cross, and rise from the dead with Him in the light of an entirely new wisdom. Hence the life of sacrifice, which started out from a clean break, separating the monk from the world. A life continued in 'compunction' which taught him to lament the madness of attachment to unreal values." [Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp. 5-6, 7.]

    Merton's reference to the Desert Fathers' flight from "the world" as a dying and rising in Christ evokes St. Paul's description of baptism (Romans 6:1-4). We can imagine the arid reaches of wilderness that separated the Desert Fathers from the unreal values of the world as reflected in the waters of baptism, a font as vast as any desert. Not only does baptism seal the self who has died with Christ and has been buried with him in a watery tomb, we are promised in this rite that when we rise from the waters, we are rising with Christ in newness of life. The sacramental waters return to us again and again throughout our lives washing over us in liturgical remembrances; they wash over us at the most ordinary of moments in our daily lives, too. Baptisms pour down upon us like rain when we prepare for the Eucharist, receive a blessing at the end of worship, and sometimes just walking along the crowded street. "Remember your baptism," we are told by priest, minister or friend, and this remembrance performs not only a retrospective but a prospective spiritual function, claiming us anew in Christ's name.

    When we find our deepest values threatened by our own compulsions and compromises, one false step following another, until we find ourselves wondering how we came to be making decisions so out of character with what we most deeply believe, we hear the churning of a watery grave promising to bury our false self beneath leagues of divine mercy.

    When we find ourselves replaying in our heads a loop of self-loathing tapes, plunging us into regret, guilt and shame, descending ever more deeply into remorse, imagining that our sin is somehow more powerful than God's love, a dam-burst of undeserved unmerited grace tumbles over us in life-giving waves bearing us along streams of living waters.

    When we find ourselves on the treadmill of acquisition, allowing ourselves to be defined by economic taskmasters as "laborers" or "consumers," comparing ourselves endlessly and anxiously to one another in a desperate scorekeeping driven by commerce, uncertain of our own worth, or what or how we should value, even here in the madness that holds so many in thrall, the waters of baptism are a gulf as wide as the sands of ancient Egypt separating us from that which is unreal and untrue.

    Whether prideful or shameful, arrogant or hollow, falsely all-competent or just as falsely incompetent, the selves we construct and present to ourselves and to others threaten to obliterate the true self we were created to become in Christ, the self we don't have to earn, the self not made with human hands but given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. False selves must die if a true self is to live. And these false selves will not go quietly. They will kick and raise a ruckus, pitch fits and cry out like the demons confronted by Christ: "What do we have to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?" (Mark1:24) The false selves blame and disparage others. They shiver with anger and terror in the presence of Jesus. But as we recognize ourselves buried and risen and alive again in Christ, the weaker the false selves will become.

    For Merton, the construction of a false self is a form of idolatry, what we might term an "auto-idolatry." Merton speaks to the temptation to build an image of the self, a strong, permanent, lasting image of me which I will believe in, serve and defend. Like a golden idol, I will cast the image of myself from molten materials. I will carve it with care, set it in a prominent place, worship it, and hope others will worship it, too. I will work to insure that no one takes the name of my image in vain, that it is treated seriously with respect, that it doesn't get threatened or damaged, because I want this image to endure all the changes of life. The false self is a lie we tell ourselves, a self-deception designed to deceive others, a misrepresentation of who we are and what the world is like.

    The true self, by contrast, though (as Merton says) "hidden," "transcendent," "half-known," mysteriously "lost in Christ," is true in every sense, reflecting the deep reality of who God is, who we are, and what the world is like. This means at least two things: 1.) The more we attend to Christ, the more our true self will emerge; and 2.) God gives us our true self in community with others (a fact the Desert Fathers, though hermits, understood). With that, we have no real control over the true self, no real idea about what this self will finally become (other than like Christ), and no need to justify this self at all because the true self lives totally by God's mercy. The true self embraces the ambiguities of life and its transient and contingent nature, resting in the faithfulness of God. This also means that the true self, as opposed to the false one, does not delude itself into believing it owes its strength to pretensions of its own power and righteousness and ingenuity. Nor does the true self have to exist in a state of anxiety to sustain what the false self calls "motivation." The true self rests in God because it doesn't depend on us for anything.

    In one of his most profound passages on the false versus the true self, Merton speaks of the way the false self masquerades as true. He writes:

    "Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive uncontrollable dynamic of fabrication designed to protect mere fictitious identities - 'selves,' that is to say, regarded as objects. ... Such is the ignorance which is taken to be the axiomatic foundation of all knowledge in the human collectivity: in order to experience yourself as real, you have to suppress the awareness of your contingency, your unreality, your state of radical need. This you do by creating awareness of yourself as one who has no needs that he cannot immediately fill." [Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp. 15-16.]

    The deep irony at the heart of realizing our true selves, then, lies precisely in our embracing our own contingency, our emptiness and need. We depend at every moment upon the God who holds us in existence. We are not omnipotent and immutable. Far from it. We are "frail creatures of dust and feeble as frail." Nor need we fear the fact that we are not all-powerful and unchangeable. Nor need we be anxious if we find ourselves feeling inconsequential, irrelevant and empty. As Merton writes:

    "The [person] who dares to be alone can come to see that the 'emptiness' and 'uselessness' which the collective me fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth. It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen as illusory.” (Merton, Raids, p. 18.)

    The true self finds itself sustained by God alone. This is the source of our peace. (Which may explain why these words flank one another on the walkway leading to the church at the Abbey of Gethsemani: "God Alone" above the monastic enclosure; "Pax" above the doorway to the Retreat House.)

    There are times when Merton parallels what one might describe as C.S. Lewis's paradox of authenticity. Lewis believed that the more we try to be ourselves, that is, to be our unique, original and authentic selves, the more we tend to fall into a trap of constructing a false self. A mundane example of this spiritual dynamic occurs among those who, in their quest for non-conformity, wind up dressing, looking and talking alike. Only by surrendering our "selves" to Christ and by allowing Christ to make us ever more like him are we liberated from our false selves to be uniquely and truly "ourselves." And the hard work of surrendering ourselves to Christ, according to Merton, is best done in silence and solitude.

    In silence and solitude, as difficult as it may be to endure, we may discover the quiet courage that allows us to see the desperate machinations banging and prattling inside our own heads; the inner devices and desires relentlessly driving us toward in-dependence and dis-grace; the source of those insecurities that cause us to deny who we are in Christ. Shutting the door on all the distractions that keep us from yielding to the God who stands always ready to awaken us so we can "come to ourselves," we find ourselves welcomed home from the far country. Merton understood that it is when the prodigal sees himself in the eyes of the waiting God that he knows who he is and what he is made for.


  • A Most Mundane Evil

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 18, 2016


    Mundane EvilBrunhilde Pomsel was a secretary in the office of the Nazi minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. In 1942, as a bright young woman with experience as a stenographer for a Jewish attorney and a typist for a right-wing nationalist, a friend in the Nazi Party helped her get the job. She joined the Nazi Party, in fact, in order to secure it. That was more than half a century ago.

    At 105 years of age, she agreed to participate in a documentary film, “A German Life,” which premiered at the Munich Film Festival last summer. Charly Wilder, reporting from Munich, Germany, for The New York Times, told her story and the story behind the documentary in a fascinating article, "The Nazi Inner Sanctum and an Unwitting Witness in the Secretarial Pool," in the July, 25, 2016, issue of the newspaper (Also read online as “Goebbels’s Secretary Struggles With Her Responsibility,” nytimes.com, July 5, 2016).

    We have become familiar with a phrase, "the banality of evil," introduced by Hannah Arendt in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt used the phrase to describe the pedestrian manner in which ordinary people served a massively destructive, cruel, inhuman war and genocide machine, then calmly went home to their dinners each night, and sat by the fireside.

    Writing of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal who was tracked down in Buenos Aires in May of 1960 and flown to Israel to stand trial for "crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and war crimes during the whole period of the Nazi regime and especially during the period of the Second World War," Arendt wrote:

    "As the months and years went by, he lost the need to feel anything at all. This was the way things were, this was the new law of the land. ... whatever he did he did, as far as he could see, as a law-abiding citizen. He did his duty, as he told the police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he obeyed the law." [Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963), pp. 21 and 135].


    It is one thing to imagine the defiant Eichmann in the Jerusalem courtroom and quite another to hear Ms. Pomsel calmly saying of her decision to join the Nazi Party in order to get a prestigious job: "Why shouldn't I? Everyone was doing it." Here the banality of evil has a new face, the smiling, bespectacled young woman photographed during the war, as proud as punch to have landed such a well-paying and respected position. Now elderly, this great-grandmotherly woman looks into the camera and calmly asks: "Is it bad, is it egoistic when people who have been placed in certain positions try to do something that is beneficial for them, even when they know that by doing so they end up harming someone else?" (Charly Wilder, "The Nazi Inner Sanctum and an Unwitting Witness in the Secretarial Pool," New York Times, July, 25, 2016, p. C5).

    On the whole, Ms. Pomsel enjoyed working with Goebbels, one of Hitler's closest and most trusted aids, the key figure behind the Nazi regime's anti-Semitic propaganda. She described him as "well-kept" and "good looking," an "outstanding actor." He was the best she had ever seen "at transforming himself from a civilized, serious person into a ranting raving hooligan." (Wilder, “Nazi Inner Sanctum,” C5)

    By all accounts, she loved playing with Goebbels's children and dining at his country villa. She heard the things he said, but went along apparently with little thought and no remorse.

    Her frankness is disarming. Her lack of a sense of personal responsibility disturbing.

    She says she is doubtful when people today say that they would not have stood by and let the Jews of Europe suffer and perish at the hands of the Nazis. "I really believe that they sincerely mean it," she says, but then adds that, sincere or not, they wouldn't have acted any differently from the Germans like her who did nothing to help. And when asked if she felt any responsibility, she struggles a bit. "No," she says, "I wouldn't see myself as being guilty. ... Unless you end up blaming the entire German population for ultimately enabling that government to take control. That was all of us. Including me." Today she confesses to having "a bit of a guilty conscience." "I just didn't listen. ... Because it didn't interest me. That was stupidity within me, I know this now." (Wilder, “Nazi Inner Sanctum,” C5)

    Reading Ms. Pomsel's comments, I am struck again by the aptness of Arendt's analysis of Eichmann and his ilk. What a mundane face evil can wear. But I am struck by something else as well, the prophetic timing of this documentary.

    Wilder, commenting on conversations with the film's directors, observes: "At a time when rightist populism is on the rise in Europe, they want the film ... to be a reminder of the human capacity for complacency." As Olaf Muller, one of the directors, said: "The dangers are still alive. It could happen again. ... One of the main aims of the film is to have the audience question: How would I have reacted? What would I have done in her situation for a new step in my career?" (Wilder, “Nazi Inner Sanctum,” C5)

    These are not purely hypothetical questions about a historical event.

    A recent issue of The Economist tells us:

    “Across Europe, the politicians with momentum are those who argue that the world is a nasty, threatening place, and that wise nations should build walls to keep it out. Such arguments have helped elect an ultranationalist government in Hungary and a Polish one that offers a Trumpian mix of xenophobia and disregard for constitutional norms. Populist, authoritarian European parties of the right or left now enjoy twice as much support as they did in 2000, and are in government or in a ruling coalition in nine countries. ... News that strengthens the anti-globalisers' appeal comes almost daily. ... This is the gravest risk to the free world since communism. Nothing matters more than countering it.” (“The New Political Divide," The Economist, July 30, 2016, p. 7)


    Does the moral act of a single person matter? I'm not sure I know of anything else that finally does. The right response to a most mundane evil must surely be a most mundane goodness.


  • Sacrificial Living

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 11, 2016


    Opening the Doors
    Sacrificial LivingOne year ago, September of 2015, marked a watershed moment for Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. It was then that we launched our Covenant for the Future Tuition Scholarship Program, which provides 100 percent tuition assistance to all master’s-level students at Louisville Seminary.

    The generosity of our seminary's many friends and supporters makes this possible. This program is almost entirely endowed now. So it will endure into perpetuity. This tuition scholarship program allows us to recruit and admit the students we assess as having the greatest promise for ministry; it liberates these students, when they graduate, to follow God's call wherever that call leads.

    From time to time, I am asked the question, "Doesn't this program feed a sense of entitlement among your students?"

    This is a good question. And it has been raised by people whom I respect a great deal. After all don't we appreciate something a lot more when we "have some skin in the game?"

    The reality, however, is that our students have invested "a lot of skin" in this game by the time they walk on to this campus. Many of them have sacrificed a great deal just to get here.

    Power of the Promise
    I think of the man who, having served as a new church development pastor for several years in an Evangelical denomination, after hearing one of our professors speak at a national conference, made the risky and costly decision to come to seminary because he realized that he needed a theological education if he was to be truly effective as a pastor. He and his wife and children left their home, their security, friends, family and the faith community they had known, so he could enter seminary. He has since become an inquirer for ordination in the Presbyterian church.

    I think of the young man who left a career in law enforcement to follow God's call. For the first year of his seminary career, he commuted hundreds of miles back and forth between his family and the school. And, while keeping up with all of his studies and his duties as a parent, he also established a vital ministry here in Louisville.

    I reflect on the young woman who walked away from an important position in the national office of her denomination because her work had awakened in her the gift of serving as a caring listener and counselor. Leaving behind her previous career to become a student again, she is now earning her degree to become a marriage and family therapist.

    Then there is the student who heard about our program while doing a year of humanitarian work in India. She has graduated and is serving in a leading church of our denomination, but she would not have been able to afford to come to seminary at all had it not been for the scholarship we offered.

    These are just four stories. There are scores more.

    They Have Invested Their Lives
    An alum of Louisville Seminary recently contacted me to say that she once felt that students needed more "skin in the game" if they were to get the most out of seminary. After all, she told me, she and her husband lived pretty lean when she was a student. But, she said, she has changed her mind after working closely with an intern from another seminary who is living hand-to-mouth, virtually homeless and on food stamps. She wrote to tell me that she now backs our Covenant for the Future Tuition Scholarship Program.

    Many of our students come from financially very modest backgrounds. As many as 87% of our students qualify for federal need-based financial aid. Many others, like the earliest disciples who left their nets to follow Jesus, have walked away from established careers, businesses, homes, churches, networks of friends, to follow God's call. The ministry is richer for their presence. They will bring their gifts, wisdom and experience to the leadership of our churches. The ministry is richer, but they are not. They will be entering a vocation that is among the least well-paid of all professions, but which requires a level of education consistent with the more lucrative professions.

    What we are doing does not come close to "compensating" these students for their sacrifice. But it will make it a little easier to get started in ministry, knowing that a mountain of educational debt ($25,000 - $40,000 debt is not unusual for seminary graduates) will not follow them.

    Our Investment, Too
    We have almost (but not quite!) endowed the Covenant for the Future Tuition Scholarship program. We need only another $79,000. And when that is done we will be adding more full scholarships that cover tuition, housing and some living expenses. I hope you will join us, if you haven't already, to make sure that the church's future ministers are liberated from seminary debt so they can concentrate on the ministries to which God is calling them.


  • Thomas Merton: The Patron Saint of Seekers

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 07, 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!

    Saint of Seekers"One day, in the month of February 1937, I happened to have five or ten loose dollars burning a hole in my pocket. I was on Fifth Avenue, for some reason or other, and was attracted by the window of Scribner's bookstore, all full of bright new books." [Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: HBJ, 1948/1976), p. 171]

    Among the books on display in the window was Etienne Gilson's The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy. Merton had just signed up for a course in French Medieval Literature, so he decided to buy the book which consisted of a series of lectures Gilson had delivered at the University of Aberdeen.

    It was not until Merton was on his way home on the Long Island train that he noticed, on the first page of the book, words in small print, "Nihil Obstat ... Imprimatur" indicating that the book contained, as Merton put it, "safe doctrine," teachings approved and sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church. He writes:

    "The feeling of disgust and deception struck me like a knife in the pit of my stomach. I felt I had been cheated! They should have warned me that it was a Catholic book! Then I would never have bought it. As it was, I was tempted to throw the thing out of the window at the houses of Woodside - to get rid of something dangerous and unclean. Such is the terror that is aroused in the enlightened mind by a little innocent Latin and the signature of a priest." (Merton, Mountain, p. 171)


    Merton didn't, however, throw the book out the train window. Drawn by his interest in what he termed the "Catholic culture" which suffused medieval Europe, and resisting the disgust he felt as a thoroughly enlightened thinker, he read on. Merton writes:

    "Now in the light of all this, I consider that it was surely a real grace that, instead of getting rid of the book, I actually read it. ... And the one big concept I got out of its pages was something that was to revolutionize my whole life." (Merton, Mountain, p. 172)


    What shall we call it? That strange sense of serendipity, of happenstance, that seems to leap out at you when reading Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiographical reflections that culminate in his entering Gethsemani Abbey?

    I've used relatively neutral terms above: "serendipity" and "happenstance." You could add, perhaps, "chance" if you want to try to remain neutral, although John Calvin would certainly hasten to differ. In Calvin's book, to say "chance" is to miss the theological point. "Fate," of course, is the deliberately pagan word for it, and a loaded word it is. But "providence" is the no less loaded Christian word: apparent chance, but with a divine purpose unapparent until the retrospect of faith kicks in.

    Merton simply calls it "grace." We know (and Merton knew) that grace is not an abstract quality free floating in the atmosphere. Grace signifies the active presence of God. When Merton says, it was "a real grace," he is saying, in effect, that God was present in his life at that moment. The Holy Spirit was at work in him in that bookstore on Fifth Avenue and in that rail car on the Long Island line.

    The force that brought creation from chaos worked its way into the heart of a most enlightened young man, transforming him from a potential literary star into a saint, arguably the patron saint of seekers, especially of those of us for whom the aesthetic is the primary threshold to transcendence.

    And what did the Holy Spirit disclose to Thomas Merton that was to "revolutionize" his whole life? It was a teaching of the church which on its surface looked as dusty as an ancient vestry neglected by brooms for a hundred years, the doctrine of divine aseity. Merton himself explains: aseity means "the power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, not as caused by itself, but as requiring no cause, no other justification for its existence except that its very nature is to exist." This idea impressed Merton so profoundly that he made a pencil note in the margin of the text: "Aseity of God - God is being per se." (Merton, Mountain, pp. 172-173).

    With an imagination ignited by grace, Merton moved from insight to insight with Gilson, as one after another voice from the ancient and medieval Christian world weighed in - Thomas Aquinas, St. John of the Cross, St. Bonaventure, St. Jerome - until finally Merton began to see the implications of the doctrine of divine aseity: God is being itself, uncaused, without need. God does not need creation. God does not need us. God did not create because of some necessity, some aching void that yearned to be filled. God creates because God is love. God's love is not based on need, but flows from an overflowing abundance of God's pure being.

    Gilson, Merton writes, described "the concrete and real Infinite Being, Who, Himself, transcends all our conceptions." And Merton found himself captivated by an intellectual encounter with divine transcendence ("a notion of God that was at the same time deep, precise, simple, and accurate") that upended his entire worldview ("charged with implications which I could not even begin to appreciate").

    "I think the reason why these statements, and others like them, made such a profound impression on me," writes Merton, "lay deep in my own soul. And it was this: I had never had an adequate notion of what Christians meant by God. I had simply taken it for granted that the God in Whom religious people believed, and to Whom they attributed the creation and government of all things, was a noisy and dramatic and passionate character, a vague, jealous, hidden being, the objectification of all their own desires and strivings and subjective ideals." (Merton, Mountain, pp. 172-174)


    Merton had resisted Christianity, not only because of intellectual pride on his part, and certainly not just because he carried an anti-Catholic or even anti-Christian bias, but also because of the smallness, sentimentality and reductionism he had seen in some expressions of Christianity. Merton takes upon himself so much of the responsibility for not understanding well Catholic and Christian thought. However, it should also be admitted that there existed and that there exists today Christianity whose God is "the objectification of their own desires and strivings and subjective ideals." Christianity, we would do well to remember, caricatures and stereotypes itself as thinly and falsely as any of its cultured despisers have done.

    Merton's encounter with the Christian thought exemplified by Etienne Gilson liberated him from his own prejudices about Christian faith, but also from the beliefs and practices of many actual Christians (Catholic and Protestant) for whom God is as small, noisy and jealous as they are. Merton's personal reflections are at once moving and convicting for any of us who have (intentionality or inadvertently) reduced God to something as small as we are.

    "What a relief it was for me, now, to discover not only that no idea of ours, let alone any image, could adequately represent God, but also that we should not allow ourselves to be satisfied with any such knowledge of Him." (Merton, Mountain, 174-175)


    What a relief! And what a challenge!

    Merton reminds us of something particularly important to remember today when churches are anxious about the shrinking numbers in pews, and when, in desperation, they are searching for ways to attract new adherents (or to "re-brand" themselves for a new "market"!).

    Merton reminds us that people are not hungering for something they can understand. A comprehensible god who simply reflects our own "desires and strivings and subjective ideals" is not God enough. Such a god is merely an idol made with our own hands. In our anxiety for the future of the church, as people who love the church, we too often focus on "delivery systems" and "technologies" and the "programmatic aspects" of our "religious organizations," not seeming to notice that the spiritual hunger of contemporary people is as great as ever, that their hunger is not for penultimate matters but for that Ultimate Concern which is none other than a living God. We should be savvy about the various technological and programmatic "how's" (of course!) but never is the How a substitute for the eternal Who!

    Merton speaks a prophetic word to the church of his time, and it remains prophetic today. Those people who search for meaning often do so with a diligence and depth, a curiosity and sophistication that puts the churchly to shame. Sometimes the things that prevent seekers from entering the church (metaphorically or literally) are the things we do to attract them, our attempts to make God relevant, understandable, more relatable, our attempts to evangelize, educate and entertain them.

    Perhaps Merton was speaking most autobiographically when he articulated the plight of those who will not enter the church because their seeking seems more serious than what is going on behind the church's doors. People like him stand outside looking in. "They stand and starve in the doors of the banquet," Merton writes, "the banquet to which they surely realize that they are invited," while others who take the feast for granted and even trivialize its riches, stuff themselves "at those tremendous tables." (Merton, Mountain, p. 175)

    The patron saint of seekers remains as prophetic today as when he first wrote those words.


  • Talking About "Talking About God"

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 04, 2016


    Talking About GodMy pastor, Steve Jester, and I were sitting in a favorite spot, the patio of the Starbucks on Frankfort Avenue. When we meet for coffee, we talk about most everything, from the best uses of corn and rye in the great Commonwealth of Kentucky to the meaning of life. On that particular day, with the morning sun breaking through the clouds, we were talking about “talking about God.”

    We were lamenting, as many Christians are bound to do these days, the tendency of some folks to make absolutely certain pronouncements about God on the basis of which they proceed to exclude everyone who doesn't share their views. This tendency is not unrelated to Fundamentalism, but there are lots of non-Fundamentalists who exclude those whose doctrinal formulations differ from theirs. I've known otherwise perfectly nice religious folks who get mightily rigid and dogmatic as soon as the conversation takes a turn into the "higher math" of Christian beliefs. They seem to feel that it dishonors God if one does not share their favorite doctrinal statements.

    This tendency reminds me of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead's comment that it was unfortunate Christians developed the habit of "paying God metaphysical compliments." Perhaps this habit was inevitable, however, given the way Christian theology evolved in the centuries following the founding of our faith.

    David the Psalmist praises the mercy of the God whom, he believed, was with him wherever he went, even if he descended down into the depths of Sheol. "Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there," prays the psalmist (Psalm 139:7-8). But, by the time the church started reciting the Psalms morning, noon and night, and quicker than you can say "Neo-Platonic adaptation of Hebrew thinking," Christian theologians were saying that God is "omnipresent." The shift may not seem terribly significant at first glance. But, the Hebrew psalmist was talking about his own personal experience of God while the Christian theologians converted that personal experience into universal philosophical terms ripe for dogmatic codification.

    The distinction is crucial. We moved subtlety but decisively from confessing, "I just can't seem to get away from God," or "Whether I am experiencing joy, sorrow, anxiety, the depths or the heights of life, God is with me," to the metaphysical assertion that God is present everywhere. This transition, from one theological perspective (idiosyncratic personal experience) to another (metaphysics) sets us up for angels dancing on pinheads and riddles like, "Can God create a rock so heavy God can't lift it?" And, it places us in a posture to include those who agree ("I believe God is omnipotent") and to exclude those who don't or who confess that they just don't know.

    It isn't hard to move from a deeply personal and idiosyncratic confession to a statement that creates more problems than it solves. And once we have made this move, it becomes much easier to demand that others (whose experience of God may be quite different from our own) must either adopt our statements about God or remain excluded from our fellowship.

    Don't get me wrong, our personal experiences of God demand expression. And this leads, necessarily and inevitably, toward making some kind of positive theological statements about God.

    When the faith of the first followers of Jesus was awakened, and they came to believe that when they met Jesus of Nazareth somehow they had met none other than God in the flesh - even though this belief seemed to run counter to their centuries-old, deeply held faith that "God is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4) and that God is utterly beyond human conception and perception, indeed that "one cannot see God and live" (Exodus 33:18-20) - they were forced by their experience to find new theological wineskins. The doctrine of the Trinity, which can get theologically and philosophically pretty abstract and has proven as divisive as any other area of Christian faith, is itself grounded in personal experience.

    Theology as a discipline is made necessary by our experience of God. The key, as Christian theologians have long believed, is to hold our doctrines lightly, reverently and humbly. The key, to put it another way, is not to confuse our theologies with the God about which our theologies are trying to speak. We need to remember that our creeds and confessions of faith are simply stumbling and sometimes bumbling human attempts to express in the words and thought-forms available to us in our time and place the ultimately "Inexpressible Who" we have encountered.


  • The Alchemist

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 27, 2016


    The Alchemist


    Great poets do not just make you admire their poetry. They make you fall in love.

    They evoke passion and desire, but also compassion, longing and awe. Even regret in their hands can be transmuted from salty tears to the blood of a passion-bitten lip. Even reverence is grounded in the mundane: the cut of an eye, the lift of a hawk, the transcendence of a salt marsh at daybreak.

    More alchemists than literati, great poets. More sorcerers than scribes. In their hands, pens become wands. At a flick of the wrist, skies weep for lost love, mountains leap like goats, irises rise from the dead drawing from the earth our beloved in their wake.

    Great poets steal out to the crossroads at midnight to make a deal with the devil. They play poker with Mephistopheles till the break of day, wagering a soul for the right word. They awaken in a wooded glen midway through life's journey so they can awaken all humanity to heaven and hell. They pay the price, and lose themselves, that we might see through their inky scrawls that which will lay siege to our souls.

    Once, at the beginning of an Advent sermon, I read a poem by that master magus himself, the late Seamus Heaney, about a boy imprisoned in a chicken coop - a poem of desperate longing and of a hope that would not die in the face of even more desperate cruelty. Later that day, a friend came by my office. He said that hearing the poem made him want to find a dark place where he could weep undisturbed. His reaction to Heaney's poem was a response of love evoked by the sorcery of a great poet. It seems to me that any compassionate person, if they are paying attention, must find his or her heart breaking. Often. Heaney fashioned a work of art from a nightmare scenario to remind us of this fact.

    Michael Mather, a good friend and a United Methodist minister in Indianapolis, slipped a book of poetry across the table to me at the beginning of a meeting last spring. He marked a poem he wanted me to read. I took and read. And the next day I ordered a copy of the book: Paula Meehan, Painting Rain, (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 2009). I recommend the book and the poet. But, be warned before you read this collection of poems; know that this poet means for you to share her broken heart. She will make you fall in love, and you will feel the loss only lovers know.

    Meehan is an Irish poet, born in 1955 and raised in Dublin, where she lives today. Her poems conjure moments of excruciating yearning. Ghosts drift from memory to memory, as from room to room in some dark deserted house, haunting the poet, and through the poet, the reader.

    One cycle of poems titled simply, "Sea," observes the outer world, "a driftwood stick, a hazel wand," "a heron takes flight," "reams of brent geese," as surely as it observes the inner world of love and grief. The poem closes with these lines:

    "She who died by her own hand cannot know the simple love I have for what she left behind. I could not save her. I could not even try. I watch the way the wind blows life into slack sail: the stress of warp against weft lifts the stalling craft, pushes it on out."

    There's a lot about death in this collection. Stern stuff. Poems such as "She didn't know she was dying but the poems did" and "Her Void: A Cemetery Poem." But, you have to admit, there's a lot about death in life. Love pays the toll of grieving every day.

    One poem, in particular, "Snowdrops," evokes personal grief in such a true voice that when I invited my wife, Debbie, to read it, I warned her to find a very private place where she wouldn't worry about being interrupted and to allow herself extra time to recover after reading it. Such time and space are required by this poem which consists of eight taunt couplets. I'll leave it to you to read this one on your own.

    There's a sense of humor, a surprising joy, woven through these poems, reminding us of the connections between joy and longing, love and loss, laughter and suffering. But the tone of elegy predominates, what Miguel de Unamuno once called "a tragic sense of life."

    "Single Room with Bath, Edinburgh," which begins with the startling line, "I slept last night in a room where someone died," works its deft magic with a slight of hand (you may be tempted to say, after reading it, “a slight of heart”) that will steal your breath away no matter how many times you read it. The cycle of poems titled "Six Sycamores" includes a verse evoking Gerard Manley Hopkins' line, "all trades, their gear and tackle and trim." The reader of this poem cannot but feel the passion for life and creativity that fires the poet's sorrow. One careens from tears to laughter to tears again as one traverses Meehan's poetic imagination.

    The alchemists of old labored in their labs to change base metals into gold. Was it greed alone that compelled them? Curiosity? The lust for power and wealth? I suppose there are poets driven by such motivations, though they do not deserve our time. The best alchemists of verse, like Meehan, can change a moment of selfish obsession into a pearl of great price, or a moment of airplane turbulence into a meditation on human hope and frailty. They are driven by a love stronger than death.

    Perhaps there's no more appropriate celebration of the poet as alchemist than the poem, "liminal," from the cycle "Six Sycamores," with which I must bring this blog to a close:

    "I've always loved thresholds, the stepping over, the shapechanging that can happen when you jump off the edge into pure breath and then the passage between inner and outer.

    "Mist becomes cloud; becomes rain. Water. Ice. Water.
    In the daily flux, no telling where one will end or begin.
    Death can kick start and birth be the true El Fin.
    You jig and you reel through molecular spin, daughter.

    "Nothing can harm you or cure you. You've found a clear path through the chaos, a loaning

    "from history and whether you are free or bound is still in the balance. There's no gain in owning.

    "Old riddles still posit the same - what is the sound of one hand clapping? Is that the door opening or closing?”


  • Thomas Merton's 'Plowed Soul'

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 26, 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!

    Plowed Soul

    The sun as it rises casts long shadows across the furrowed fields surrounding Gethsemani Abbey south of Bardstown, Kentucky. A tractor makes its way steadily along, plowing the waiting soil, breaking and turning the earth, preparing the ground to receive seeds for a new crop. In the plow's wake, a cloud of black birds rise, shift and alight on the newly plowed ground making a meal of whatever is unearthed.

    Standing in the breeze on a hill above Gethsemani, the loamy aromas of the earth rising, you see fields gracing the rolling terrain, greens, browns and golds beneath a blue sky, the soft curvatures of nature cradling the sharper lines made by human hands. Hummus yielding to humanity. Plowing makes the land ours and places our productive mark upon it.

    There's a passage in Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain in which he speaks of his "plowed soul." Merton is sitting in worship, a "low Mass," listening to a sermon, reflecting on his own "infidelities" during the years when he refused to yield to God. He ponders the idea that perhaps God had withheld grace from him out of mercy, because God could see that he wasn't ready for faith, that he would only "waste and despise" grace and end up in ruin.

    "For there is no doubt that one of the reasons why grace is not given to souls is because they have so hardened their wills in greed and cruelty and selfishness that their refusal of it would only harden them more. ... But now I had been beaten into the semblance of some kind of humility by misery and confusion and perplexity and secret, interior fear, and my ploughed soul was better ground for the reception of good seeds." [Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, 1948/1978), p. 210]

    A synonym for "plowed" is the word "harrowed." While "plowed" has an almost peaceful feel about it, bringing to mind the image of a field of gently turned rows, the sort of scene we see from a hilltop, the word "harrowed" takes us down to field level, reminding us of the process of plowing, the violent cutting and forced turning of the packed earth, the rending, tearing and breaking of the soil that is necessary for seeds to be planted and to grow. Both words speak to the potential of new life, but “harrowed” reminds us that growth is not without discomfort and pain.

    Merton's idea of God plowing his soul might rankle some contemporary sensibilities. It is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis's well-known comment: "We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us, we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be." Merton seems to share something of the understanding of God we find in John Donne's Holy Sonnets, where violent images are used to describe God's shaping of the poet's soul, or in George Herbert's image of a priest being "annealed" like stained glass in God's furnace so divine light can show through his life. Again, such a view of God is distasteful to many today, and for good reason. Such a theology has been used to justify not only a sadistic god, but to excuse the most cruel, violent and abusive of human behavior.

    Yet saints, from ragged Anthony the Great, taunted and tempted in his Egyptian desert, to Lady Julian of Norwich, wracked by her physical suffering, have found in and through their emotional, spiritual and physical trials the loving transformative purposes of God being hammered out. Perhaps we can only speak confessionally of such experiences in our own lives. Certainly we do well to resist speaking prescriptively to others. But many have found comfort in their perception that God worked through their suffering to transform them.

    It is significant, I think, that immediately after Merton comments about his "plowed soul," he describes the experience of walking out along the street at the end of worship that day, though he remained (in his words) "only a blind and deaf and dumb pagan as weak and dirty as anything that ever came out of the darkness of Imperial Rome or Corinth or Ephesus." Making his way down Broadway in New York City, suddenly he becomes aware that he is happy, at peace, content with life. "I was not yet used to the clean savor that comes with an actual grace," he writes. (Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 210-211).

    But the ploughed ground of Merton's soul was even then being made ready for planting. And he knew that the plowing marks us as God's.


  • The Beauty of Holiness, Revisited

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 20, 2016


    Beauty of Holiness
    Recently, early on a cloudy and cool Louisville morning, fueled by an excellent Heine Brothers almond milk latte, I sat under the maple tree in our backyard re-reading Richard Gummere's introduction to his translation of the Roman philosopher Seneca's "Letters."*

    My thoughts had turned to Seneca, the aristocratic Stoic and contemporary of St. Paul, because a few nights before, unable to sleep, I had pulled from my shelf Paul Venye's commentary on Seneca** and found it strangely comforting. I know this sounds like heavy-going, but it wasn't I assure you. And Gummere, much more than Venye, has a real gift for writing a memorable phrase, as when he describes Seneca's fall from influence in Rome under the Emperor Nero: "a philosopher without the support of military power was unable to cope with the vices and whims of the monster on the throne."

    Toward the close of his brief introduction to Seneca's thought, Gummere addresses what might be described as Seneca's sense of reverence. He writes:

     "Finally, in no pagan author, save perhaps Vergil, is the beauty of holiness so sincerely presented from a Roman perspective. Although his connection with the early church has been disproved, Seneca shows the modern, the Christian spirit."***

    Seneca's only actual historical connection to the early church appears to have been through his brother Gallio, before whom the Apostle Paul was brought (Acts 18:12-17). But his spiritual or intellectual connection with Christianity lies in something far deeper. The God behind Seneca's Stoicism is the God in whom we "live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

    I turned from Gummere's introduction to that chapter (chapter XLI) in Seneca's "Letters" in which the translator tells us we will find the philosopher's understanding of holiness most vividly displayed, and I was not disappointed. Seneca provides food for contemplation which I think you will appreciate too. He does far more in this passage than communicate ideas. He renders an atmosphere of sanctity, evoking a sense of divine presence:

    "If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of pleached and intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. Or if a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God."****

    Reading these passages I could not help but think of a path that winds among densely forested Kentucky knobs on the monastic property of Gethsemani Abbey. Sunlight there, even on a bright day, filters softly through a sheltering canopy of green, towering cathedral-like above altars of fallen tree trunks and chapels of low brush. Songs of praise raised continuously by woodland birds in these hills remind the visitor that the Creator is worshipped there even when no human is present.

    Reading Seneca, I cannot but recall the arches of stone rising out of the Atlantic Ocean on the Isle of Staffa, nature's own Gothic structures supporting hills and pasturelands above cliffs that dive abruptly into the crashing, turbulent sea hundreds of feet below. Looking down from the cliffs, your breath cannot resist being sucked from your lungs as you feel the sheer force of nature, and you glimpse, if only for a moment, the power beyond nature's powers that crafted these elements.

    Despite the fact that the so-called "proof from design" for God's existence is of far more use not as an argument but as a kind of contemplation on God's greatness by those who already believe, and in spite of the fact that we preachers have given a hard time to those who say, "I can worship God just as well watching the sunrise on a mountainside as sitting in a pew in any church building," there is something to say for the fact that God does speak to us powerfully and uniquely when nature renders us mute.

    Sometimes it takes a pagan to make us better Christians. Maybe this is why John Calvin wrote his first commentary on Seneca and not on a book of the Bible.
    _________________
    *Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Epistles, Volume 1: Epistles 1-65, Richard M. Gummere, translator (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1917/2006).
    **Paul Veyne, Seneca: The Life of a Stoic (London: Routledge, 2003). Veyne, who teaches at the College de France, does a remarkable job of placing Seneca in his own historical and philosophical context and of helping the contemporary reader understand this ancient philosopher's relevance in our own time.
    ***Seneca, Epistles, Gummere, "Introduction," p. xiv.
    ****Seneca, Epistles, (XLI, pp. 273-275). Those who have read Rudolf Otto's classic The Idea of the Holy, will recognize the resonance between Otto's evocative choice of words and that of Seneca, as in this passage: "illa proceritas silvae et secretum loci et admiratio umbrae in aperto tam densae atque continuae fidem tibi numinis faciet." See: Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational (New York: Oxford University Press, 1923/ 1958), 12-13; 76-77; and his Religious Essays: A Supplement to the Idea of the Holy (London: Pimlico Press, 2000), 280-312.


  • Thomas Merton: A Special 'Thinking Out Loud' Blog Series

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 16, 2016


    Thomas Merton QuotePeriodically 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.

    A Trappist monk who resided in the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton was one of the most influential Catholic writers of the 20th century.

    The first entry of this series will publish Friday, September 23. We hope you enjoy this special series of “Thinking Out Loud.”

    E-mail us!


  • A Summer Lament

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 13, 2016


    A Summer LamentThis summer a number of folks debated whether they still want to live in this country. The feeling was widespread enough that billboards were erected by a South Carolina real estate firm advertising that if you want to move to Canada, they will sell your house for you. And the desire to escape, for others, was not limited to our national boundaries. There were times when one might be excused for thinking that humanity had lost its collective mind.

    One unspeakable act of cruelty, hatred and violence following another. The tragedies we witnessed this summer were punctuated by the depressing spectacle of American politics, which exhibited worrying (and growing international) trends toward nativism and tribalism, nationalism run amok, my-way-or-the-highway arrogance and know-nothing-ism.*

    In the midst of all of this, I found my own faith restored - at least partially and tentatively - by a rising chorus of lamentation. Sometimes the lament consisted more of tone than content. At other times it was full-out lamentation. Sometimes the laments came from like-minded friends, but often from people I do not know, with whom I may differ considerably when it comes to politics or religion.

    We tend to forget just how powerful lamentation is as a force for good. We tend to think that angry rhetoric is more powerful. But there is no human expression that deals so effectively with the tragic, the catastrophic and the awful as does lament.

    Lament expresses human grief, sadness and disappointment in the face of loss, devastation and oppression. Lament can become a vessel that carries wrathful denunciations of injustice, certainly, but also ironic tweaks of the nose to actual and would-be tyrants. The person lamenting can deliver her message through tears of sorrow or with a voice choked dry from having cried far too long. Lament even has a place for mocking scorn and the sort of laughter that puts the proud in their place. Lament appeals to a higher bar of justice than any earthly court and demands that we hold ourselves to a higher standard than momentary self-interest.

    Lamentation has the power to lift up those who are battered and damaged as well as those who do the battering and cause the destruction, because lament places history and its actors in the hands of the God of history while refusing to relinquish human accountability. Lament recognizes that no one but God has the power to restore both the broken and the breakers. This is why, of course, the biblical Psalms of Lament are ultimately heralds of redemption.**

    The growing chorus of lament this summer reminded me that God will not be left without a witness even on the darkest days. And it deepened in me the consciousness that is essential to prayer - and this is especially true of lamentation - of entrusting this world and all we love to the hands of God.

    As the tragic, devastatingly violent, and sometimes demoralizing events of the summer live on in our memories like nightmares from which we cannot wake up, I invite us all to join in the empowering and liberating act of lamentation. To pray a prayer of lament is to confess that despite its dangers, terrors, insanities and evils, this world is still God's world. God is willing to be held accountable for it. And God holds us accountable for it too.

    Ultimately, to lament is an act of hope, because the one lamenting believes, sometimes against a mountain of contrary evidence, that good prevails in the end because God is good. That's why so many laments begin: "How long, O Lord …?"

    ___________

    *The lead article in an issue of The Economist this summer ("The New Political Divide") lamented the dangerous new politics that may be eclipsing left vs. right, i.e., open against closed. Noting the reemergence of isolationism on the left and the right in American politics, the magazine goes on to say: "America is not alone. Across Europe, the politicians with momentum are those who argue that the world is a nasty, threatening place, and that wise nations should build walls to keep it out. Such arguments have helped elect an ultranationalist government in Hungary and a Polish one that offers a ... mix of xenophobia and disregard for constitutional norms. Populist, authoritarian European parties of the right or left now enjoy nearly twice as much support as they did in 2000, and are in government or in a ruling coalition in nine countries." (“The New Political Divide," The Economist, July 30, 2016, p. 7.)

    **Among some fifty Psalms of Lament in the Psalms are: Psalms 13, 22, 25, 80, and 109. If you would like to read more about lamentation in the Psalms, I recommend Claus Westermann's Praise and Lament in the Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1987); Patrick Miller's They Cried to the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994); and Walter Brueggemann's The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1984).


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