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Thinking Out Loud
  • Thomas Merton and the Work of God

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 17, 2017


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

    Work of GodIt’s 3 a.m., and Gethsemani Abbey is wrapped in a cloak of darkness as impenetrable as the silence. The forests and hills, in the midst of which it sits, lie draped in a dense fog that only adds layers to the darkness and quiet. But within its sanctuary already the monastery is stirring. Monks emerge from doors leading from their living quarters to the church. As light is admitted from the opening door, now and again, you can just make them out processing quietly to their places in the choir to stand or to sit in prayer.

    By 3:15, they will all be in their places, ready for the first office of the day, Vigils.

    A voice speaks: "O God, come to my assistance."

    All respond: "O Lord, make haste to help me."

    So begins the day. And so begins the liturgy of the hours, "the work of God," as it is called in this ancient Christian tradition, which can be traced back at least to the late fifth or early sixth century.

    The monks’ day is framed by these prayers which remind us that all of life in every place, at every moment comes from the hand of God. The day is punctuated by these prayers. The first marks the end of sleep; others mark the beginning of labors, meals and rest. In a Cistercian monastery, the Trappists (whom I consider to be the Marines of contemplative prayer) have seven such services of prayer each day, plus Mass. The first service is at 3:15 a.m., the last, Compline (which I think is the most beautiful), begins at 7:30 p.m.

    St. Benedict says in his "Rule":

    "We believe that the divine presence is everywhere, and that the eyes of the Lord are in every place. ... but most of all should we believe this without any shadow of doubt, when we are engaged in the work of God." [David Parry, OSB, “Chapter XIX. In Households of God: Rule of St. Benedict, with Explanations for Monks and Laypeople Today (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1980), p. 41.]

    Anyone who has prayed the liturgy of the hours in a long retreat, I suspect, can bear witness to the way they work upon you. At their heart are the Hebrew Psalms, spoken, sung or chanted. Like drops of rain, they fall and slowly soak into the soul, hour by hour. One service of prayer following another. Drop by drop by steady drop, like a soaking rain of praise, lament and imprecation, the Psalms flow from the lips of the monks; whether a soul enters upon this work thirsty and receptive, or feels itself already quenched and resistant to the Word, the Psalms have a way of working on us, filling longings too deep for words, creating thirst that we did not want and that only God can satisfy.

    Again, those who have participated in retreats will know something of what it means to pray the hours, to do the work of God, as St. Benedict used this phrase. However, we also know that the long experience of those who have taken monastic vows is something altogether different from the retreatant's experience.

    We visit, however sincerely, as mere liturgical tourists or as seekers and pilgrims.

    They live. They endure.

    What might it mean, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year after year, to do the work of God, as do these monks (i.e., to pray the hours as a life's vocation, to steep in the Psalms and the prayers and the praise of God all the days of your life)?

    A passage from the great theologian of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, comes to mind, in his description of the soul that is safe from the passions and incitements to anger, lust, envy and all that sets us at enmity with God and others. Evagrius praises the person whose "intellect is always 'with the Lord,' whose irascible part is full of meekness owing to the remembrance of God."*

    "Pray without ceasing," admonishes the author of I Thessalonians (5:17). The rhythm of the liturgy of the hours, like the bells of the monastery, throughout the day, brings the monks back again and again to the remembrance of God, reinforcing the habit of praying at all times. Because this is the goal: to have God before us always.

    Thomas Merton was nourished by the rhythm of the work of God in the monastic community. Yet, even in the midst of what many of us would regard as a hushed world of peace set apart from the hectic and frantic world beyond monastic walls, Merton found himself often restless, often harried, "rushing back and forth to church," yearning for a work of God that could only be performed in a more profound solitude away from the community, and free from the interruptions.**

    The Cistercian communal life had set him free from the bondage he had experienced in the world which most of us know, nevertheless he longed for an even greater freedom, the freedom of the hermit, bound to the work of God in an even deeper sense. This is why, as many believe, he wrote of the ancient Desert Fathers with such empathy, why he seemed to understand so intimately the Eastern Orthodox disciplines of Hesychasm.

    At the close of the introduction to his brief collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers, we sense the fullness of the work of God toward which Merton's own heart inclined:

    He writes:

    "We must liberate ourselves, in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging to disaster. But our world is different from theirs [the Desert Fathers]. Our involvement in it is more complete. Our danger is far more desperate. Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think.

    "We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God. This is not the place in which to speculate what our great and mysterious vocation might involve. That is still unknown. Let it suffice for me to say that we need to learn from these men of the fourth century how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion and strike out fearlessly into the unknown."
    ***


    5:45 a.m., Lauds begins. “Ruthless in prayer;” that is a phrase that resonates with me this early in the morning, when my body rebels, my stomach turns, and I do not want to cooperate with myself (whatever that means!).

    I so often hear folks these days, especially among my particular sort of Protestantism, say they are looking for a church in which they can feel at home, comfortable; or who complain of a congregation they visited that just didn't make them feel welcome. I have begun to suspect that mostly we tend to seek a religious experience or a congregation that reinforces what we prefer or that affirms what we perceive to be our strengths, that may even confirm our opinions and prejudices, but we shy away from those that challenge us or might make us grow or might cause us to confront others (potentially a real problem if God really is, as Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth both maintained, "wholly other").

    I recall my spiritual advisor, at the end of our first session, instructing me to pray a particular Psalm each day.

    I said, "I don't really like that one."

    He said, "That's what I suspected. That's why I want you to pray it."

    We have come to treat faith as we treat everything else in this consumer's smorgasbord in which we live, as an opportunity for indulgence, self-expression or bias confirmation. You might say that choice has become the spirit of this age, especially choice that we use to reinforce our own preferences or pathologies, whether spiritual, emotional or physical. To some degree, the idea that faith is just one option among many is at the heart of this age, and the assumption is that freedom lies in the ability to exercise that option without constraint.****

    What if true freedom, however, is somehow predicated on a will beyond our own? What if faith is not about making ourselves comfortable, but doing "the work of God"?

    Thomas Merton seems to have struggled with a desire for release from the community in which he found himself from sometime in the 1940s. And I have to wonder whether his writings would have taken him so deep into the world of the Desert Fathers, would have led him into so intimate an encounter with the worlds of Judaism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism and Sufism, and into so many other places where he sought ever more deeply the life of God, if he had not chafed against the constraints that held him tethered to the community at Gethsemani.

    Perhaps the ruthlessness of determination that Merton believes we need is to match the ruthlessness of God's love for us, a love which knows what will shape us to become all we were meant to become and called to be. A love that will bind us fast, perhaps, is the only love that sets us free.

    ____________
    *Gabriel Bunge, Dragon's Wine and Angel's Bread: The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness (Yonkers: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009), p. 17.
    **Thomas Merton, The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo (New York: HarperOne, 1999), pp. 50-54.
    ***Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1960), 23-24; see also: Bernadette Dieker and Jonathan Montaldo, editors, Merton and Hesychasm: The Eastern Church & The Prayer of the Heart (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2003), p. 263-310.
    ****Charles Taylor, in his magnificent study, A Secular Age, (Harvard University Press, 2007), in fact, understands the essential feature of secularity not simply as having to do with "the conditions of, experience of and search for the spiritual," but with the very fact that belief is no longer the individual's "default option," but is just one among many options from which people may choose. For a general start, see the introduction to his book, but for details, see Part IV, "Narratives of Secularization," pp. 424-535.


  • Grace is Not PC (Part Two)

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 14, 2017


    In her Spring Convocation Address, one of our professors, Dr. Christine Hong, appealed to her audience to listen to the stories of others, however difficult those stories may be to hear.

    Grace is Not PC Part TwoI have often felt that we would be surprised to discover that many of the things we find most difficult to hear and disagreeable in others originate in their suffering. And if we could only discern the source of their suffering (whether inflicted long ago or ongoing), we might understand them better, and be better able to live in community with them. To listen closely enough to locate the suffering in someone with whom we disagree is itself an act of vulnerability and love.

    This means, as C.S. Lewis once observed, the old adage, "to understand is to forgive" may be in need of some refurbishment. In fact, "to love without condition is the only way really to understand someone else." Love precedes forgiveness and understanding.

    I would imagine that if we were able to locate the source of someone else's suffering, we would discover suffering not unlike our own. We might find that we have far more in common with those with whom we disagree than we ever imagined possible.

    This is something of the spiritual dynamic that St. Paul is describing in the passages following his discussion of the fruit of the Spirit (which we addressed last week). After having listed a variety of sinful acts, including sexual immorality, debauchery, selfish ambition, hatred and rage, Paul discusses how we should deal with one who is "caught in a sin." This is where the compassion exemplified in listening is converted into active kindness.

    St. Paul writes:

    "Brothers and sisters, if one is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore that person gently. But watch yourself, or you may be tempted too. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load. ... Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. One reaps what he sows. ... Let us not become weary in doing good. At the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." (Galatians 6:1-10)


    I have been struck again and again by how coming to know and listen to someone very different from ourselves can change our perceptions, can open us to people to whom we may not previously have extended friendship or community. Such personal knowledge can change us. Perhaps we meet a child who is being taunted and bullied because she is struggling with her sexual identity, such as the child whose courage and whose parent's support helped the Boy Scouts of America open its membership to transgender children. Listening closely and with compassion to the child's suffering, the issue ceases to be one of bloodless policies, and becomes an opportunity to "do good to all people," as the Apostle says.

    Recently, as our Seminary Council* made a recommendation that we adopt a policy that ensures that those who are on our campus can go to the restroom consistent with their gender identity, I suspect that most of us around the council table had in mind someone we have known, listened to, perhaps loved as a friend or sibling, someone whose story we knew personally and deeply. And when the unanimous vote was taken, the sense around the table was not that we had acted for the sake of some abstract "political correctness" but as witnesses to the grace, love and justice of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    In contemporary American culture, my deepest hope is that the word “Christian” will cease to be used either as an epitaph disparaging the faith of any group or as a badge of honor signifying self-righteousness and self-satisfaction. Most of all, I pray it will stop being used as an excuse to divide.

    The Word of God may compel us to act in ways that will have social, cultural or political implications, but the Word of God is free, and the Word of God will not be the captive of any partisan ideology. Our only excuse, our only rationale for action is that we are all broken, fallen people who have found grace in the God who, at the cost of his own suffering and death, became human to redeem us from sin and death. It is all about grace, or nothing at all.

    _____________
    *The deliberative body consisting of faculty members, senior administers, some other administrators and staff, and elected student representatives who are charged with responsibility for the community life of the seminary.


  • Just Definitions - Totalitarian

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 10, 2017


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

    This week we continue our exploration of the meaning of some words that are being used, misused and sometimes abused in current cultural, religious and political comments by investigating the meaning of totalitarian.
     
    TotalitarianConfusion about the term totalitarian and its derivatives often has to do with the way it is used in relation to the words "dictator," "dictatorship," "fascist" and "fascism." Probably most of the people confusing the terms have in mind the most notorious example of a political leader who could be described using a combination of all three terms: Adolf Hitler, was a totalitarian, a fascist, and a dictator.

    It is possible, however, to be both a fascist and a dictator and not to be a totalitarian. Benito Mussolini, ruler of Italy from 1922 to 1943, fits that bill. There have been, of course, dictators who weren't fascists, but who were totalitarian. Pol Pot, for example, the Cambodian Communist leader of the Khmer Rouge, and Joseph Stalin, the Communist ruler of the Soviet Union who succeeded Lenin, were Communist totalitarian dictators. While we often think of fascism as a European political phenomenon, in fact, one of the more recent examples of fascism is the Ba'th Party, also known as the Arab Socialist Ba'th Party which held power in Iraq from 1968 till 2003, and which rules over Syria to this day.

    Fascism refers to a political philosophy, ideology and/or movement particularly of the far right in which a nation or a race is given priority over the individual. A fascist state is characterized by a centralized autocratic government ruled by a dictatorial leader, and is typified by severe economic, social and cultural regimentation and the suppression of opposition. Under many, if not most forms of fascism, militarism is equated with patriotism, and an extreme version of nationalism is enforced through persuasive or manipulative propaganda and intimidation.

    Dictatorship describes the concentration of absolute political power either in an individual or a small group. It is one form of authoritarian government. Often dictatorships actively silence or suppress political opposition and the press, attempting to ensure that rival perspectives are degraded or discredited in an attempt to dominate the population. In Ancient Rome, the word was a synonym for the magistrate of the Republic (for example, Julius Caesar), and, like the Greek term, tyrant, originally did not necessarily convey negative connotations. However, by the modern era, the term was indelibly stained by characteristics such as: legislating without the benefit of assemblies representing the voices of the governed; the suspension of elections or manipulation of the voting process; rule without appropriate legislative consultation or judicial review; repression of political opponents; and extraordinary use of personal power that sometimes leads to the emergence of a full-blown cult of personality. Dictatorships also tend to have a real problem with civil liberties.

    The word totalitarian carries a comprehensiveness of rule that other forms of government do not. It represents a kind of state rule that seeks to bring every aspect of human activity, behavior and thought, private as well as public, under central control. Whereas an authoritarian government may only be concerned with the regulation of public policy and political activities, a totalitarian regime seeks to regulate every aspect of a society: political, social, cultural, religious, artistic and intellectual.

    Perhaps no one has contributed more to the understanding of totalitarianism than the philosopher, Hannah Arendt. Totalitarianism, according to Arendt, attempts to control the lives of those under its power in accordance with its ideology which demands to take the place of all other understandings of the world. In her analysis of totalitarianism, she distinguished: (1) between governments of law and totalitarian governments of arbitrary power; (2) between the traditional concept of laws as expressions of human values and ideals, and the totalitarian vision of law as an instrument to impose ideology upon a people and to shape them according to this ideology; and (3) between traditional sources of authority that serve to stabilize legal institutions and that, therefore, accommodate a variety of human activities and perspectives (an example might be the balance of power in the United States in which the legislative, judicial and executive branches all have countervailing powers as well as complementary functions guaranteeing that no single ideology prevails) and the ideologically determined totalitarian system of laws meant to enforce the will of the state and to channel the out-working of its ideology throughout every institution of the society and in the lives of individuals. (Summarized from "The Inversion of Politics" by Jerome Kohn, director of the Hannah Arendt Center.)

    It was this totalizing control of every aspect of human life and thought in Nazism that was especially troubling to church leaders in Germany like Martin Niemoller, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and which was countered by our confessional document, "The Theological Declaration of Barmen" (1934). The "Declaration" perceived in the Nazi system a state which intended to take the place of God, thus Barmen's focus on the Lordship of Jesus Christ in contrast to an idolatrous racist and nationalistic ideology.*

    Arendt observes the role of the masses in the formation of totalitarian movements, noting that such movements are possible wherever large groups of people become available in a society. Such masses most often are not held together by shared interests, and may even have members who are totally uninterested in the common good.

    Looking to European history in the 1930s, Arendt writes:

    “It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 1930 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene.” [Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism: Part Three of The Origins of Totalitarianism, (Harcourt, Brace, 1951/1968 edition), 9-11.]


    She also observes the ways in which resentment was stoked among these masses against institutions that had guaranteed the rule of law and against individuals (such as intellectuals, spiritual leaders and artists) who were identified as dangerous to the ideology of the totalitarian movement and the will of its leader. (p. 36-38).


    * In addition to the "Theological Declaration of Barmen" itself, a resource that may be of interest is Karl Barth’s Church and State (Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 1991).


  • Grace is Not PC (Part One)

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 07, 2017


    Grace is Not PC Part OneMy wife, Debbie, was standing in line at a Fed Ex store recently having some photocopies made. The woman in front of her was dissatisfied with the service. Instead of simply complaining, however, she began ranting at the employees in the most vile, disrespectful and demeaning manner. The employees stood shocked and silent. At the end of her harangue, the woman said, “We don't have to be politically correct anymore. And you can’t make me.”

    Debbie leaned forward and whispered to the woman, “What you said didn't have anything to do with political correctness, just a lack of manners.”

    Debbie's grandmother, Ruby, would have been proud of her, and not just because Debbie knows the difference between non-PC language and rudeness. She also knows that Grace is not just PC.

    We have been watching for years the gradual erosion on civility in our country and the triumph of vulgarity. It was in 2004 that one of my favorite journals, The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture, dedicated its fall issue to the topic of “Discourse and Democracy” in which David Brooks wrote an essay titled “A Polarized America,” and James Davison Hunter wrote another on “The Discourse of Negation and the Ironies of Common Culture.”

    The failure we are facing, as these and other analysts of the culture and politics will tell us, goes much deeper than merely keeping a “civil tongue.” The problem goes much deeper than mere partisanship and identity politics too. For some of us, at least, it goes straight to the heart of what it means to be Christian.

    Today's blog, therefore, isn't really about popular culture or social norms, though it touches on both. My concern today is with us as Christians, because, sadly, so many Christians are actively engaged in graceless behavior. In other words, I’m preaching today to the choir. And I’m doing so because the choir is in conflict.

    This struggle over discourse and behavior affects persons on the political left and the right, those who see themselves as conservative and liberal and progressive, Democrats and Republicans, Independents and Libertarians. Maybe the Federalists and the Whigs are dealing with it too. At some time or the other, I would guess that most of us have engaged in some level of discourse or behavior of which we are less than proud, whether we have done so publicly in a Fed Ex store or in a Sunday school class, or with a few like-minded friends.

    There are abundant opportunities for us to behave otherwise. And there are opportunities enough to shape our behavior however we may see ourselves politically. As far as I can tell there's no partisan restrictions on St. Paul's lists of actions violating the Spirit of Christ. There are also no partisan limitations as to who can exhibit the fruit of God's Spirit.

    Hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy - all of which St. Paul lists among the “acts of the sinful nature” alongside debauchery and idolatry - can afflict anyone whatever their partisan or social or cultural affiliations. Equally so, the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control - can appear among us all, if, that is, we are willing daily to crucify the "sinful nature" and to "live by the Spirit." Those who keep step with the Spirit in their daily walk, St. Paul says, refuse to become arrogant and conceited, and do not provoke or envy one another. (See Galatians 5:16-26.)

    What surprises most of us reading these two lists of sins of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit – and what must really irritate some preachers who would prefer not to have some favorite behaviors listed right alongside of some acts of gross immorality – is that these lists are meant to turn upside down the conventional moral code that would privatize sin and virtue. According to St. Paul, what makes some of these things sins is the damage these things do to community; and what makes others virtues is how they build up community.

    Gordon Lindsey communicates Paul’s message particularly well in his new study of Galatians, Charter of Christian Freedom (Wipf & Stock, 2017). He explains that, “when Paul uses the term ‘flesh,’ he is thinking of the human being as a creature of nature. As a creature of nature, we are governed by the drive for self-survival, even when that means taking the life of other living beings to sustain our own.” But this “me-first” mentality which elevates my security and survival above every other consideration, however common for beasts of the field, is not Christian. Paul tells us that “self-vindication” should be listed right alongside the other vices, because they all represent “a violation of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.” (Lindsey, Charter, 129-130.)

    Lindsey continues: “If we read carefully, we note that the fruit of the Spirit is not miracles or mighty acts of ethical behavior, but rather deep-seated traits of personal character. … What the Spirit does is nurture within us those traits of character that will express themselves naturally in the way we choose to behave.” (Lindsey, Charter, 131.)

    Paul reminds us that the symbol of the Christian faith is not a castle but a cross. He reminds us that we do not live for ourselves, but are called "to be to others what Christ has become for us," as George MacLeod once wrote. And when we find ourselves in Christ being "transformed by the renewing of our minds" (Romans 12:2), we will find every aspect of ourselves being changed, including the way we behave, speak and listen to one another.

    Next week, I would like to follow St. Paul's development of these ideas one step further, into territory that moves from compassion to active kindness.


  • Merton and the Importance of Not Being Ernest

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 03, 2017


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


    stained glassEarnestness can be the enemy of honesty.

    Merton learned this lesson early on, and, like most of us, he had to keep re-learning it throughout his life.

    In January of 1948 we find Merton reflecting in his journal:

    "I just read some of the notes I wrote in the journal a year ago, and I am wondering what I thought I was talking about. The first thing that impresses me is that practically all I wrote about myself and my trials was stupid because I was trying to express what I thought I ought to think, and not for any especially good reason, rather than what I actually did think. I couldn't very well know what I meant when I hardly meant it at all.

    "What was painfully artificial in that diary was that I was trying so much to write it like every other pious diary that was ever written: 'I resolve this' - 'I pray that.' Well I am very slow to learn what is useless in my life! I keep thinking that I have to conform to a lot of artificial standards, to things external and fragmentary that tend to keep my interior life on the surface, where it is easily scattered and blown away."
    (Thomas Merton, The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals. Edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1999, p. 48.)

    As Merton demonstrates, earnestness can undercut our attempts to be honest, even with ourselves. Earnestness also can become the enemy of faith.

    "Good Lord, deliver us from sour-faced saints," Saint Teresa of Avila is believed to have said. She, Merton and a whole host of other saints remind us that life is too serious to be taken too seriously.

    And we are such comical beasts (really, we are), we can't afford to take ourselves seriously at all.

    Trying to sound like someone more serious than I, certainly smarter and more profound than myself, nearly ruined me as a young preacher. I listened to Carlyle Marney's sermons on tape. I read them in print. I admired them, prayed over them, and tried to imitate them. Nobody, I should have known, could preach like Carlyle Marney, a man whose deep bass voice could make the rafters quiver, a man who could melt his listeners' stony hearts just reading the fine print of the Federal tax code. One Sunday evening, it is said that Marney held his Baptist congregation in Austin, Texas, spellbound reading T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he didn't have several conversions that night, at least two or three of them finance majors converting to English Lit.

    When I - a second tenor of no great profundity - tried as a young preacher to "do Marney," the result was a disaster. My sermons grew tedious, even more tedious than usual. Long, much longer than ever before. Bigger and bigger words crept in and hid themselves in vast, sprawling, needlessly elaborate, labyrinthine sentences. (One sermon in that period was ponderously titled, "Dwelling in the Land of Nod." And, yes, it was a sleeper.) It all came to a head one Sunday morning when I preached a sermon titled, "Betting Losers and Folding Winners." An elder came up to me afterward in the fellowship hall and said, "You know, kid, sometimes winners don't know to stop when they're winning, that's when they lose us."

    As painful as that moment was, it helped me realize that I had to find my own voice if I ever wanted to be the preacher I was called to be.

    We have to find our own "voices" in life, too. Merton's experience as a writer in search of his true voice serves as a wonderful example for finding our way in faith.

    When he shed his earnestness and stopped trying to sound like a pious monk ought to sound, God's light would shine through Merton's words in whole new ways. Merton's mischievous (and sometimes wicked) sense of humor is woven through his reflections making him more authentically human because he was more authentically himself. He chides himself for whining and self-pity. He warns himself against academic jargon and pious expressions. Even when he writes a line that sounds more like Hemingway than Hemingway did ("So I drank the wine and it was good and it gave me back my appetite."), this echo from contemporary literature only adds more layers of irony to a story that is all the more poignant for the rich veins of ironic humor Merton mines in it.*

    We laugh with him, and wince perhaps, when Merton mentions that a visitor he has named "Humble George" is visiting the Abbey:

    "Humble George is here again. He goes around praying with a medal in his mouth. The other day he was kneeling in church with a book, and he had a rosary around his neck and the cross of the rosary in his mouth. I think Humble George needs a little spiritual direction." (Merton, Intimate, p. 50.)


    Listening to the sermon of another monk in Chapter, Merton guiltily confesses that he made "funny faces" when the preacher said that Abraham was born 1,959 years after the creation of the world.

    "Nor can I figure out why he imagines that this event should be commemorated next year, 1949. But he says things like that; they come into his head and he says them." (Merton, Intimate, p. 52.)


    One can only imagine the faces Merton might make now that Kentucky has a Creation Museum featuring displays of cowboys and dinosaurs and recently built its own "life-size" Ark. How amusing can an amusement park be taking its theme from an event in which God apparently slew everybody on earth but one fellow's family and a smattering of animals?

    For me at least, there's something about Merton's lightheartedness that ushers me into and enlightens the passages that are more somber. Perhaps this is because there is sometimes something dark and deep even about his humor that reminds me how powerful his intelligence is in the service of God. Walker Percy's dark and darkly comic apocalyptic vision comes to mind when I read Merton's reflections on the possibilities of the fiery end of the universe.

    "Sooner or later the world must burn and all things in it - all the books, the cloister together with the brothel, Fra Angelico together with the Lucky Strike ads, which I haven't seen for seven years because I don't remember seeing one in Louisville. Sooner or later it will all be consumed by fire and nobody will be left, for by that time the last man in the universe will have discovered the bomb capable of destroying the universe and will have been unable to resist the temptation to throw the thing and get it over with.

    "And here I sit writing a diary.

    "But Love laughs at the end of the world because Love is the door to eternity. He who loves is playing on the doorstep of eternity, and before anything can happen, Love will have drawn him over the sill and closed the door. He won't bother about the world burning because he will know nothing but Love."
    (Merton, Intimate, p. 60.)


    Like so many pastors and priests, I have said the words so often, perhaps, that I hardly hear them anymore: "Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, in the sure and certain hope of resurrection of the dead in Christ Jesus."

    We've probably all wept at one time or another hearing these words; maybe, sometimes, the faithful response is to laugh. Because, as Merton taught us, love laughs on the threshold of eternity.


    *This is the story of his stay in the abbey infirmary in March of 1948. He had the flu. Yet, during his time in the infirmary, he was able to say, "It has been one of the most wonderful days I have ever known in my life." All references in this blog are drawn from The Intimate Merton, edited by Brother Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo. This book is one of the most beautifully edited and lovingly crafted I have ever read. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


  • A Lenten Practice

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 28, 2017


    "So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him." (Luke 15:20)

    A Lenten PracticeLent is the season which allows time, space and ample opportunity "to come to ourselves." This phrase, of course, is familiar because it occurs in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, one of the most beloved parables of Jesus.

    The parable tells the story of a young man, who, after demanding his future inheritance from his father, went off into a far country and squandered his birthright, wasting all of his money on "riotous living." When he was flat broke, he worked as a swine herder. And before very long the scraps the pigs were eating began to look pretty good to him. It was at this point, the Bible says, that "he came to himself." (Luke 15:11-32)

    He didn't just “come to his senses.” "He came to himself." He remembered who he was and where he came from, and he realized the kind of life for which he was intended. He wasn't created to wallow with pigs, but to live in his father's house.

    For some of us it takes dining with pigs to bring us to ourselves. For others, it may take a serious illness, a shattering loss, or some other profound and disorienting changes in our lives. But every year, every one of us has at least one chance to come to ourselves built right into the liturgical calendar.

    Too often, I suspect, we squander this opportunity. We ask, "What will I give up for Lent?" Some see it just as a convenient time to moderate their eating or drinking, to follow up on a New Year's resolution.

    I've tried a lot of different approaches to Lent. But last year I began a practice that over the course of Lent provided exactly the opportunity for me to "come to myself” - to silence those chattering voices in my head that prevent me from attending to what God is saying. This Lenten practice provided just the right conditions for me to open my heart wider toward that purpose for which God created me; in other words, it made space and time "to come to myself."

    The practice emerged from reading a book, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers (1999), by the man whom Thomas Merton regarded as a friend, even a brother, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk (long exiled from his homeland and living in France). Some may remember Thich Nhat Hanh as the person whom the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Each day in Lent, following a period of silent meditation and prayer, I took a set of four vows which in the Buddhist spiritual tradition are vows of compassion (the Bodhisattva vows), and I promised to engage in the practice of Thich Nhat Hanh's "Five Mindfulness Trainings." Ordinarily I also pray the Psalms morning and evening using the Daily Office of the Book of Common Prayer. You may wish to read the Gospels each day, perhaps Mark or Luke, or St Paul's Letter to the Romans. I strongly suggest Bible reading along with these practices, because the practices will lead to greater openness to hear the Word of God.

    Here are the vows and practices to which I daily commit myself in Lent.

    The Four Vows of Compassion

    • However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.
    • However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.
    • However immeasurable the [teachings of the Way]* are, I vow to explore them deeply.
    • However incomparable the mystery of interbeing,* I vow to surrender to it freely.


    The Five Mindfulness Trainings

    First training: "Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone the act of killing in the world, in my thinking and in my way of life."

    Second training: "Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving-kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am committed to practicing generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth."

    Third training: "Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything within my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct."

    Fourth training: "Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and to relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord or that can cause the family or the community to split apart. I will make every effort to reconcile all conflicts however small."

    Fifth training: "Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I am committed to ingest only those items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicants or to ingest other items that contain toxins such as certain television programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial [for the transformation of myself and our society.]"*

    Last year I closed my daily reflection on these vows (to which I adhered throughout the season of Lent) with a reflection from the Dalai Lama:

    "Every day think as you wake up: 'Today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious life. I am not going to waste it. I'm going to use my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts toward others. I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can."**


    This year, I intend to close this period of reflection on the vows of compassion with the following prayer from the Scottish Episcopal Liturgy for the Eucharist:

    "Father of all, we give you thanks and praise that when we were still far off you met us in your Son, and brought us home. Dying and living, he declared your love, gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory. May we who share Christ's body live his risen life; we who drink his cup bring life to others; we whom the Spirit lights, give light to the world. Keeps us firm in the hope set before us, so we and all your children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise your name; through Christ our Lord. Amen."


    Perhaps, this year we can "come to ourselves" again, finding ourselves in the presence of God through silence, solitude and the practice of compassion.
    ________________
    *I have adapted these two phrases for a Christian meaning. The original word used in Buddhist texts is "Dharma." And the concept of "self-transformation" for Christians is related to the doctrine of sanctification. Both sets of vows are drawn from Thich Nhat Hanh's book mentioned above, pp. 126-135. There is no simple, adequate substitute for the word "interbeing," the idea pointing toward the mutual inter-dependence of every aspect of God's creation, reminding us that we share in the life of all beings and all beings share in our life.
    **This reflection from the Dalai Lama was quoted by the late Zenkei Blanche Hartman, of the Zen Center of San Francisco, in her book, Seeds of a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart, (2015).


  • Just Definitions: Narcissistic

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 24, 2017


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

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

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

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

    Narcissistic


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

    Next time we will explore the meaning of totalitarianism.

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


  • Mindful of Wisdom

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 21, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Merton and Interfaith Communication

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 17, 2017


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


  • Random Joy

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 14, 2017


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


    Other examples, again, plucked at random:

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


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

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

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

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


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


  • John Calvin: Catholic Theologian

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 07, 2017


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


  • Thomas Merton, Karl Barth, and Salvation by Grace

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 03, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Post-truth: Reflecting With William Stringfellow

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 31, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    He writes:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Faith and Politics: Reflecting with William Stringfellow

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 24, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Merton and the Power of Love

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 20, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


  • The Fallen

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 17, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Our moral vision will never be whole.

    Our intentions and motives inevitably will be mixed.

    Our complicity in Sin cannot be erased.

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

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

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


  • Post-Christmas Questions

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 10, 2017


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

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

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

    Or do these Christmas stories exemplify goodness?

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

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

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


  • Merton's Resolution

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 06, 2017


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

    Merton's resolution


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 03, 2017


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

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

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

    Official: Do you have some form of identification?

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

    Official: Hmmm. And the woman?

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

    (The man hands the official more papers.)

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

    Man: Yes. Yes. Married now.

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

    Man: Excuse me?

    Official: Are you the father of this child?

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

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

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

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

    Official: What level of education do you have?

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

    Official: Does the woman work outside the home?

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

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

    Man: I am a carpenter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Man: That's right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Woman: No. I've never been political.

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

    Woman: There's no need.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • With What Words Shall We Praise?

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 27, 2016


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

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

    “What thanks shall we give?

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

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


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