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Thinking Out Loud
  • Wounds of Grace

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 11, 2017


    "The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon." -Cyril of Jerusalem*


    Wounds of GraceOne of the courses I most enjoyed teaching was on the theology of vocation. I designed it to be a first-year course, but soon had to rethink the syllabus because of the large number of middler and senior seminarians who wanted to take it to help them in their process of discernment.

    We were lucky to introduce the course when we did because a wealth of good books were being written on the subject of vocation at that time. Books by Eugene Peterson and Parker Palmer were especially timely. Then there were the classics, like Gregory of Nazianzus's Defense of the Flight to Pontus, a riveting theological reflection by a young man so terrified by the call to become a parish priest that, following his ordination, he literally ran for the hills and had to be coaxed by friends to return to his (rather miffed) congregation. They were so irritated with their young priest, by the way, that when he did return, they didn't come to hear him preach. Gregory wrote his Defense so they would understand why he ran away.

    I think I can say with some confidence that students profited from and most came to enjoy the texts I assigned, even if they were initially puzzled about how a fourth-century tract might be relevant to their experience. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that there was one text they didn't care for. It was my favorite of them all, Flannery O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood (1952).

    If you believe that the power (maybe even the excellence) of a text or a work of art can relate to the reactions it provokes, then you might be tempted to believe - as I am - that this book is powerful and great. It tells the story of Hazel Motes, a man who is running from a God he wishes didn't exist. O'Connor describes Hazel as a person "who can neither believe nor contain himself in unbelief and who searches desperately, feeling about in all experience for the lost God."**

    O'Connor famously reflected further on Hazel Motes in the author's note to the 1962 edition of the novel:

    "That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to."


    Hazel looks squarely at the religiosity of the religious, their conventional lives with their conventional self-deceits, their struggles to protect themselves against dangers and the insecurities that dog them, their baptism of prejudices and vanities and hatreds, and their inability to see themselves for what they are: sinners in need of mercy and redemption. He knows they believe themselves to be just fine as they are. At most they see themselves as needing a little refurbishment here and there. On the whole these are people grateful that their god has the good sense and proper upbringing to bless their lives pretty much as they are.

    Hazel is a sinner. He knows it, and he is fighting redemption with every fiber of the soul he doesn't believe he has. And he has nothing but contempt for the religious and their self-justifying religion.

    He is too honest to his own perception not to recognize hypocrisy when he sees it, and he is too honest to God not to give in at last when the hound of heaven tracks him down. Self-blinded, self-tortured in mind and body, worn-out, worn-down from running from and cursing at God, this self-proclaimed preacher of the church without Christ crucified, where the lame don't walk and the blind will never see and what's dead stays dead, is found by God and finds himself against all odds redeemed. Grace as uncompromising and unsentimental as a bottle of wood alcohol poured into an open wound tells the good news of the Gospel: Nobody is beyond the reach of God, and no evil of which we are capable is stronger than God's love.

    Are we still wondering why my students had a hard time with this novel, totally devoid of the easy and comforting messages of contemporary religion? In course evaluations, one student called it "ungodly," as I recall. Another, more frequent, assessment was that it is "depressing." But, as I explained to them, I don't think there is a more vivid portrait anywhere than in this novel of the soul under conviction, of a person resisting the call of God, thrashing violently like a fish on a hook. The more he thrashes, the more we know, he is caught.

    Flannery O'Connor has variously been described as a genius, an original American voice. Thomas Merton thought her more like Sophocles than like any of her contemporaries: Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, or Jean Paul Sartre. She is often thought of as a "Southern" writer, and this is obviously true to some extent, but the "South" of her novels is a mythological country not found on any map. O'Connor has aptly been compared to John Donne and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She reminds me even more, however, of James Hogg of Ettrick, whose Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) used violent and grotesque Gothic themes to communicate the terrifying consequences of a Christianity led astray into antinomianism (the rejection of morality in the name of the freedom of the gospel).

    In fact, O'Connor's mission is even more like that of Søren Kierkegaard, who taught Christian Faith to a nation of people who already believed themselves to be Christian by birth and citizenship. Kierkegaard's quest involved exposing people who had been inoculated with the dead virus of Christendom to the living virus of Christian Faith, in the hope that the live bug would overcome their immune systems and they would be infected with the real thing.

    C.E. Morgan (a graduate of Berea College here in Kentucky, and of Harvard Divinity School), in her introduction to the Folio edition of O'Connor's short stories, makes the case that in O'Connor's stories "violence becomes sacramental via its repetition and its revelation of what Catholics term 'actual grace' understood as a kind of supernatural help from God (not to be confused with 'sanctifying grace,' which is a permanent inner condition). In story after story we see characters broken open by the hard fist of the writer, acts of brutality O'Connor deemed necessary for the eruption of living grace into the stubborn, recalcitrant lives of both the non-believing and the self-professedly devout."***

    Although my favorite O'Connor short story is "Revelation," in which the commonplace, the tragic and the comic combine to convey unforgettably the very heart of Jesus' message, the most vivid example of O'Connor's passionate grace occurs in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." This story illustrates better than anything else I've ever read the truth of a statement O'Connor makes in a letter to a friend: "This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring."****

    Sometimes the cut is more evident than the healing. The story is horrifically violent.

    A family of six is traveling to Florida for vacation, over the objections of the grandmother, who, wanting to visit her people in eastern Tennessee, doesn't want to go to Florida. She tries in vain to convince her son, with whom she lives, that a violent criminal known as "the Misfit" has escaped from prison and is also headed for Florida. The next day they head for Florida, and on their way have an accident. Sure enough, they fall into the hands of the escaped convict and two other dangerous men. The irony comes thick and heavy: the news story of "the Misfit" the elderly woman had used to try to manipulate her son into doing what she wanted, becomes a prophecy. The entire family is murdered.

    As the she waits her turn to die, a conversation between the woman and "the Misfit" occurs. At first she tries to bargain with the man, offering him all of her money if he will spare her life. He won't budge. As she sits weeping over the death of her family (she can hear them being shot off in the woods), "the Misfit" muses: "Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead. ... And he shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can — by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him."

    As the conversation progresses, something unexpected happens in the grandmother. Something is awakened in her. She feels compassion toward the murderer. It happens as she listens to him, and she looks into his tormented face as he is on the verge of tears at the meaninglessness of life. She is overcome, it seems, with sympathy. And, saying, "Why, you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children," she reaches out gently and touches him on the shoulder. "The Misfit" recoils at her touch, "as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest."

    In the close of this scene of breathtaking violence, "the Misfit" says to one of the other men with him, "She would have been a good woman ... if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."*****

    That which had insulated the old woman from the humanity to which Jesus called her was the conventional comfort and relative security of her life up to that point; that which opened her heart to the compassion she might have felt toward others (including her family) was the terrible grace of God in the face of her killer.

    The way to God is through the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes it is the threat of death, the pain of illness, the hollow ache of grief, the suffering of life that God uses to draw us close, to awaken in us the compassion and humanity to which we are called in Jesus. As St. Cyril wrote, the path to God passes by the dragon. Sometimes we're bound to get burned. It is dangerous out there, and the greatest dangers are not physical, but spiritual; even as the real dragon is that evil that seeks to empty life of purpose, turn every good thing into a perverse and twisted counterfeit, and thwart God's gracious ends. These are matters of life and death, says O'Connor.

    We are cast upon the mercy of God like wrecked sailors on a stone-strewn shore. But the mercy is true.

    _______________
    *Quoted by Flannery O'Connor in “The Fiction Writer and His Country” (1957), excerpted in Robert Ellsberg, editor, Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings (Orbis, 2003), p. 63.
    **Cited in Richard Giannone's "Introduction," in Ellsberg, O'Connor, p. 27.
    ***Flannery O'Connor, A Circle of Fire and Other Stories (Folio edition, 2013), xiii.
    **** Ellsberg, O'Connor, p. 136.
    *****O'Connor, Circle of Fire, pp. 49-51.


  • Just Definitions: Machiavellian

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 07, 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.

    MachiavellianOur final word takes its name from a historical person, rather than a mythological figure (as in the case of “Narcissism”). However a vast mythology has grown up around Machiavelli, especially in relationship to Renaissance popes, the Medici family, and, of course, the Borgias.

    Those of you who are familiar with the book Deborah and I wrote on leadership, which used certain insights from Niccolo Machiavelli to explore political realism and public virtue (The Character of Leadership, Jossey-Bass, 1998) or the research I later did on Isaiah Berlin, which touches on the pioneering place Machiavelli holds for understanding cultural pluralism (Christianity, Tolerance and Pluralism, Routledge, 2004), will know that Machiavelli is a great deal more complex than the popular image of him would lead us to believe. There are, however, aspects of Machiavelli's thought that do reinforce his popular image as the inspiration for nicknaming the devil himself "Old Nick," and this comes through especially in the book for which he is best known today, The Prince. Machiavelli wrote this book (and lavishly dedicated it) in a failed attempt to gain favor with a new ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, after Machiavelli's long exile from power. When placed on the scales of history, this slim volume far outweighs other, arguably more important and certainly less cynical, works by Machiavelli.

    On the positive side, Machiavelli was the counselor of the mighty who advised them that it is always wisest for a ruler to base decisions on the way the world actually works, rather than the way the leader wishes the world would work. Thus, Machiavelli writes, in The Prince: "[S]ince my intention is to write something useful for anyone who understands it, it seemed suitable to me to search after the effectual truth of the matter rather than its imagined one." [Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 52.] This remains great advice. But, as helpful as Machiavelli's approach is (encouraging leaders to face reality rather than be guided by wishful thinking), this very perspective soon leads him, when combined with his pessimistic view of human nature, to conclude that because humanity is inconstant and corrupt, the prince must be a master of deceit, force and even cruelty if he wants to rule effectively and long.

    The people whom the prince rules are held in very low esteem by Machiavelli. They are, he says, so fickle that it is easy to persuade them of something, but difficult to "hold them to that conviction." Thus the prince must be prepared to use whatever resources he has, including force, to make the people do what he wills. (Machiavelli, Prince, p. 22)

    Machiavelli recognizes that people want to believe that their ruler is fundamentally virtuous, although the meaning of virtue is defined by the culture in which the ruler leads. The ruled want to believe their ruler is good, merciful and just, the kind of person to whom they can look up morally, the kind of person who inspires love. But, if forced to make a choice between being loved or being feared, as desirable as it may be to be both, it is inevitably safer for the ruler to be feared. Machiavelli writes:

    "For one can generally say this about men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, greedy for gain; and while you work for their good they are completely yours, offering you their blood, their property, their lives, and their sons, as I said earlier, when danger is far away; but when it comes nearer to you they turn away. And that prince who bases his power entirely on their words, finding himself completely without other preparations, comes to ruin; for friendships that are acquired by a prince and not by greatness and nobility of character are purchased but are not owned, and at the proper moment they cannot be spent. And men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared because love is held together by a chain of obligations which, since men are wretched creatures, is broken on every occasion in which their own interests are concerned; but fear is sustained by a dread of punishment which will never abandon you." (Machiavelli, Prince, p. 56)


    The love of one’s subjects may fade, according to Machiavelli, but fear remains. And a ruler must adapt his position as the prevailing wind blows, if, that is, he wants to continue sailing.

    "A wise ruler," Machiavelli writes, "therefore, cannot and should not keep his word when such an observance to faith would be to his disadvantage and when the reasons which made him promise are removed. And if men were all good, this rule would not be good; but since men are a contemptible lot and will not keep their promises to you, you likewise need not keep yours to them." (Machiavelli, Prince, pp. 58-59) Furthermore, Machiavelli writes, because men want to believe their rulers are just and good, it is wise for a ruler not to hesitate to practice hypocrisy and to become a practiced liar. People will demand the appearance of goodness. But, fortunately, Machiavelli says, the public is so simple-minded and so absorbed by their immediate wants and needs, the deceptive ruler is always able to find followers who will believe what he says. (Machiavelli, Prince, pp. 59-60)

    My old friend, Ismael Garcia, the ethicist, once said to me that Machiavelli didn't so much have a system of ethics or morality as a system of prudence. On the other hand, Isaiah Berlin, in his groundbreaking paper, "The Originality of Machiavelli," sees this Renaissance philosopher and political counselor as a proponent of the virtues of the ancient Roman Republic. [Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essay, edited by Henry Hardy, (Pimlico Press, 1998), pp. 269-325.]

    When a politician is referred to as "Machiavellian" it ordinarily means that he is behaving cynically or deceptively with only his own selfish gain or power in mind, and that he is a sharp practitioner of the principle: "the ends justify the means." While this picture, does not, in fact, accord with all aspects of the complex reality of Machiavelli himself as represented in books other than The Prince (because in those other contexts Machiavelli does sometimes speak of the purpose of justice and laws as the promotion of equality, and the need for leaders to serve the greater good), nevertheless, the fact that the same man could write such divergent treatises, depending upon changes in his own personal circumstances, does lead one to conclude that Machiavelli was fairly Machiavellian himself.

    Jesus taught us, of course, to be as smart as serpents and as gentle as doves. The modern Machiavellian, by contrast, seems to believe that it is always better to be as mean as a snake; whether you are a bird-brain or not appears to be optional.


  • A Sabbath Walk

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 04, 2017


    Over time, on repeated visits to Gethsemani Abbey, I have walked its garden, surrounding hills and forests. Even before visiting Gethsemani, I began reading Wendell Berry's poetry and prose. Like many, I rank his Sabbath poems among the most beautiful and prophetic poetry. I am profoundly grateful that Mr. Berry has allowed us to combine his poetry with my photography on three of our seminary Christmas cards. Not long ago, while on a midwinter silent retreat at Gethsemani, I wrote an extended theological reflection on Mr. Berry's volume, A Small Porch (Counterpoint, 2016), interspersing these reflections with photos I have taken on my meanderings at Gethsemani.

    ***


    If there is such a thing as "the essence of good poetry," it is attentiveness. But if there is any one thing necessary for this attentiveness to be effectual it is humility: a willingness never to close off oneself from whatever sources promise to inform and enlighten. The poet is alive, awake, but not as one who stands on a ladder of judgment above the world looking down. Rather the poet knows his place within the world, and speaks from that place with all the honesty he can muster.

    Sabbath Walk 1Berry writes:

    "The watcher comes, knowing the small
    knowledge of his life in this body
    in this place in this world. He comes
    to a place of rest where he cannot
    mistake himself as larger than he is..."


    "The watcher" is capable of seeing because of what he understands, that he is no "larger" in this place than "the gray flycatcher, the yellow butterfly, the green dragonfly, the white violet." "The watcher" understands also something of enormous theological significance, though he might not use such freighted words as "theological." He knows that he has received no more grace than these birds and insects and bushes. And knowing this, he will not think himself more graceful than he is.

    Much of what the attentive watcher (whether poet or merely prosaic pedestrian) knows, she knows because she is conscious of the general loss of perception we have suffered as human beings in this world. She feels the gap, and, like Rabbi Abraham Heschel's Old Testament prophets, her feelings are tuned more finely than most.* So the watcher, like a prophet, puts into words the grief of a natural world denied and betrayed by its human stewards.

    "What I am sure of," writes Berry, "is that we have lost the old apprehension of Nature as a being accessible to imagination, linking Heaven and Earth, making and informing the incarnate creation, and requiring of humanity an obedience at once worshipful, ethical and economic." (113). It is not only the "numinous and exalted" character of Nature, its "starlike beauty" that we have lost a sense of, (87) though much is lost today in our lack of contemplation on what the Romantic poets experienced as the sublime, that transcendent power and beauty that Nature possesses independent of our powers and preferences, and often in resistance to our efforts to bring the natural world under our control. It is also an "appropriate human cooperation" with Nature (106) that we have lost.**

    If we are willing to allow Nature to teach us, willing to watch and listen, then Nature will tell us of the mutability of all things, the shifting cycles of seasons that roll irresistibly onward, and of the life-giving fertility of the world which relies on birth, and growing, and vitality, and dying, and rotting of everything created; that teaches us that we are not exempt from these changes, that our existence relies on this mutability as surely as does the end of our existence and our returning to the soil from which we also came. Nature can teach us wisdom, if we will be attentive. Nature will even teach us to number our transgressions, if we will enter its sacred confessional. (104-106; 149-151)**

    Sitting in the walled garden by Gethsemani Abbey's Retreat House, I marvel at how Berry's words reflect the natural beauty of this part of central Kentucky, particularly this monastic house surrounding by rolling hills and knobs, as in his poem titled, "To The National Security Agency":

    Sabbath Walk 2"I am away in a quiet valley
    am busy at my quiet work
    in this comely cup of country
    exactly fitted to my mind,
    my mind to it exactly fitted.
    It is enclosed by slopes and trees,
    filled full of light and air and wind,
    fulfilled by time and wear and weather."
    (6)

    But even here, in this abbey, in this place so saturated by silence, where at times the only thing breaking the quiet and sense of solitude are the bells of the Church tolling at the quarters of the hours, maybe especially here in this valley ringed by forests and farmland, one also bears witness to the scarred and scarring "progress" of those of us who have carved from the wilderness a "possession." Forests, once breathing freely from hill to hill, the world's deep respiration, the world's full lungs, now near asthmatic, cough to catch their breath, the stirring wind interrupted by that which has been denuded.

    So much stripped away. So much washed away. So much lost.

    Sabbath Walk 3Berry writes:

    "From Virginia, they came to wilderness
    old past knowing, to them new. A quiet
    resided here, into which came these
    new ones, minds full of purpose, loud,
    small, reductive, prone to disappointment.
    They surveyed their places in it, established possession...."
    (15)

    "What was here
    that they so wanted to change?
    They wanted a farm, not a forest. From then to now, no caring thought was given to these slopes, ever tending lower.
    Thus Nature's gift, her wealth and ours, is borne downstream, cluttering the bottomlands in passing, and finally is lost at sea."
    (16)

    The damage, or much of it, was not intentional. The destruction, or much of it, was unforeseen, says Berry. Much was ruined by remote forces, those "positioned to profit by global trade." (17)

    Berry repeats the refrain, "What was here that you wanted to change?" His poetry hammers away with humanity sitting in the witness box under oath, bound to think carefully before we answer.

    Was the change worth it?
    Were the losses to humanity, not only the losses to the land, worth it?
    Or did we strike a bad bargain?

    Communities eroded as much as the land; laughter and friendships lost along with topsoil until: "the people drift in scatters, homeless/ as their garbage, on the currents/ of a violent economy, their care and work/ from their dismemoried country, beyond/ every dreamed beginning, lost." (19)

    "Beyond every dreamed beginning, lost." Perhaps it is Berry's use of that word "dismemoried" in the previous line that does it, or maybe the rhythm of the whole passage, but I cannot help but think here of Shakespeare, especially when Berry moves from the opening verses to the reflections on what has been lost. When Shakespeare's Henry V confronts the traitorous English lords, once his friends, who betrayed him on the eve of his invasion of France; broken-hearted Henry said it seemed like another Fall of Man. When Berry moves from reveling in the miracle of "good soil" lovingly, responsibly preserved by "perennial vegetation kept with care on the uplands and slopes" to the unforeseen losses that trail after devastating erosion, a local tragedy pointing to an ecological catastrophe beyond words, it seems like another Fall of Creation, a land "dismemoried," and a people too. Any culture that wishes to reach high, Berry tells us, "must cultivate the low arts of land- and water-keeping." (14)

    What grace there is in the next terrible lines! What grace, if we can only interpret the warning as a kind of hard mercy!

    Sabbath Walk 4Berry continues:

    "Nature does not prefer humans
    to the fish, the eagles, or the moles...."
    (14)

    "The rain falls on the just and the unjust," so Jesus tells us, because the rain is indifferent. Nature has no regard whatsoever for that which gets wet, or that which dies of thirst, or for that which disappears forever from the earth. Nature does not weep. Humanity ought to have learned by now from nature the cruel and beautiful and exacting and gracious reality of God's creation. "If we love ourselves, we have got to love [Nature]." (14)

    Sabbath Walk 5Berry writes:

    "We must study
    endlessly her long unending work,
    thus learning to do our own, also unending, making Nature our ally so far as we can ask and she comply."
    (14)

    This is what Berry, the watcher, sees from his "small porch," his "lookout upon a place to work, live, move, and be in thought." From this vantage point he can "see the local/ geography as a guide for thinking." (20) And this land teaches him "Right-mindedness," that is, "a mind in place,/ in right relationship to Nature and/ its neighbors." (12)

    So Berry tells us:

    "Thoughts, instructions, stories, songs enter from outside, and some of these are needed, can be made welcome, but nothing replaces the living geography, topography, ecology, history, the mind's waking at home in its creaturely household, which is its work, its burden, its privilege, its intimate reference, its way to find at need, against the time's perilous leanings, the unshifting star." (12)

    The alienation from Creation and Creation's God and the fellow creatures we should call neighbors which is the current shape of our fallenness is not our inevitable default nor our indelible fate. We fell from God's higher intention. We were created for much more than this failure. Creation was willed by God to have a steward not a despoiler. But God's love is always larger than our sin. We were called to the glory of caretakers and co-creators in the fruitful unfolding of this natural world. This is only possible when we are humble enough to understand Nature's own partnership with God in co-creation. "The best of human work defers," says the poet, "always to the in-forming beauty of Nature's work." (68)

    May it be so.

    _____________________
    * Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (Harper, 1962), Vol. I, pp. 7-17.
    **The references in these two paragraphs are to the prose essay, "The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation" included in A Small Porch. In this essay, Berry engages writers as varied as Alan of Lille, Chaucer and Thomas Carlyle, C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton. I do not believe I have ever witnessed a poet more fluently to make use of his own careful scholarship in the crafting of his poetry.


  • Thomas Merton and the Passion of God

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 31, 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 CornerI suspect that few of us even blink when we hear the word "passion" applied to God. Certainly we take it for granted that the last days of Jesus' life, culminating in his crucifixion, are called his "passion." Blink we should, however, and stammer, and stand amazed in slack-jawed wonder at the God to whom we attribute "passion."

    When we apply the word "passion" to God, and to God incarnate, we are leaping a boundary that proved unscalable to many in the early church. Many early Christians could not imagine a God who really suffers. Make no mistake about it, the word "passion" in English, which we use to speak of Jesus' last days on Earth, derives from the Latin passio meaning "suffering" (from patior, "to suffer") and not from the Greek pascha which means "passover."* (The Greek equivalent for "passion," incidentally, is pathos.) The passion of the Christ is the suffering of the Christ.

    While many in the early church struggled with the idea that God almighty and eternal could suffer and change and decompose (in contrast to the conception of divine immutability, which staunchly held that God cannot change, that God cannot experience corruption, or fall victim to those human experiences that entail suffering), and while some early Christians, such as the docetic gnostics, were so opposed to this idea of divine suffering that they argued that Christ's "divinity" was only apparent, Christian orthodoxy has believed in the irresolvable tension that the eternal and everlasting God beyond all human conception is known fully in Jesus Christ who is co-eternally God of God, true God of true God, begotten not made. This orthodoxy was exemplified in the twentieth century by Reformed theologian Karl Barth who, in his own inimitable manner, wrote:

    "God requires no exclusion of humanity, no non-humanity, not to speak of inhumanity, in order to be truly God. But we may and must, however, look further and recognize the fact that actually [God's] deity encloses humanity in itself." [Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), p. 50.]


    Barth's assertion that God's deity "encloses humanity in itself" reverses the approach to God which sometimes has held sway in the church's long history (and caused so much heartburn, from the early docetics through some adherents to the Westminster Confession) by which we conjure up the attributes of an eternal God and then try to fit the new wine of the incarnation into that old wine skin. Thus, we trap ourselves by defining God according to strange Hellenistic philosophical formulae like "omnipresence," or "omnipotence," or "omniscience" and then try (with considerable difficulty) to combine the biblical portrait of the passionate, living God with these abstract ideas. Instead, with Barth, we begin with the new wine, Jesus Christ as the full revelation of who God is, and rethink all of our notions about God in light of the God we have met in this human being, Jesus of Nazareth.

    When Barth's monograph The Humanity of God, in which this idea was so powerfully expressed, was published, it became clear that Barth's mind had continued to change throughout his life, that he really was committed, as he had claimed, to beginning the theological enterprise again and again each day by taking the name of Jesus Christ as his starting point. Barth makes manifest in this essay his willingness to keep following Christ with his mind, even when following Christ took him along paths that required considerable imagination. But even Barth could not have imagined the paths Thomas Merton would take in following Christ.

    Among the experiences in Merton's pilgrimage that best exemplify this fact is one that occurred one morning in 1958 at a street corner in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. He famously remembered this experience:

    "Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut [now Muhammed Ali Boulevard], suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were or could be, totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream - the dream of my separateness, of the 'special' vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of [people] or put me in a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race - and what more glorious destiny is there for [person], since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!

    "Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being [human]. As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are - as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth"
    **


    If no part of human existence is foreign to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, then it follows that if we are "in Jesus Christ" no part of humanity can ever be foreign to us either. We are not only capable of suffering, i.e., passion, as human beings, we are capable of compassion, suffering with and for others. And in this we are experiencing the life and character of God incarnate for whom all of life was lived under the shadow of the cross.

    Suffering is not the exception to the rule of life. We all know this. But neither does suffering per se guarantee sanctity. Suffering is simply the common lot of all human life. But through suffering, through the test of suffering, through our attentiveness to suffering and our openness to what God may teach us through that suffering, our suffering can be sanctified as a participation in the life of Jesus Christ. We may even learn through this common suffering that we are one with all God's creation and at one with God in Christ. In this we may discover our vocation anew, not as someone set apart, but as one in union with all others through the power of God's love.

    Merton's No Man is an Island explores something of this deep spiritual dynamic, this mystery at the heart of our humanity, our sharing in the compassion of the God who revealed himself fully and forever in human flesh. As Merton writes:

    "If ... we desire to be what we are meant to be, and if we become what we are supposed to become, the interrogation of suffering will call forth from us both our own name and the name of Jesus. And we will find that we have begun to work out our destiny which is to be at once ourselves and Christ." [Merton, No Man Is An Island (Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1955), pp. 81-82.]

    It is hard for us as Christians today even to imagine a deity who does not possess the capacity for suffering, who does not feel compassion, who does not enclose our humanity, who is foreign to human flesh. We have met Jesus Christ and are convinced by the Spirit of God that we have met in Christ none other than God. Yet, it is even harder to conceive of the eternal God, creator of all that exists, the God beyond all knowledge and understanding, whose entire character is truly disclosed in this human being, Jesus of Nazareth. This inconceivable God in Christ is ultimately our only creed; our creed is not what we believe about God in Christ, nor what we have to say about him. Our creed is this God incarnate. The flesh-and-blood person who is Christ Jesus in whom we believe we have met God, this reality, this fact, this problem to logic and love, this is our only real creed and confession. Trusting him, inevitably, whether we desire it or not, we shall encounter suffering, not suffering as an ordinary fact of life, but suffering for the sake of others in the name of Jesus.

    We may resist this suffering, try to isolate ourselves from others and protect ourselves from the love that leads to suffering, and, in so doing, may invite all manner of lonely hells on Earth. Or, like Thomas Merton, we may embrace the passion of God, suffering with and for others, and may find ourselves, at last, when we look into the human face of God.***

    ______________
    *Alan Richardson and John Bowden, editors, New Dictionary of Christian Theology (SCM Press, 1989), pp. 252-253.
    **Cited in many places, including in The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo (HarperOne, 1999), p. 124; and in Paul Elie's beautiful study, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, in which Elie explores what he refers to as an American Catholic moment in literature though the lives and writings of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 254.
    ***Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image, 1965/66) provides other opportunities to reflect on the relationship between Merton and Barth.


  • Grace is Not PC (Part Four)

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 31, 2017


    In one of Robert Frost's most beloved poems, there is a line especially resonant for Christians: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down."*

    Resonant because it brings to mind a passage from Ephesians:

    "For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new human out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came to preach peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit." (Ephesians 2: 14-18)


    Broken WallMarkus Barth, in his commentary, The Broken Wall, called Ephesians "Paul's Puzzling Epistle." The epistle is puzzling, Barth says, because of the bewildering approach the author takes to his subject and to his readers. If it was written by Paul, Barth says, then he "humbles himself in this letter more than elsewhere," referring to himself in the most bizarrely tortured Greek phrase which, if translated literally into English, would describe the author as "less than the leastest" of all the saints.**

    It occurs to me that the modest posture of the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians is picture perfect.Marcus Barth's father, Karl, (in Church Dogmatics, 1.1.3) referred to theology as "handling an intractable object with inadequate means." This impossible situation is explained by Elizabeth Johnson in her magisterial book, She Who Is: "The unfathomable mystery of God is always mediated through shifting historical discourse."***

    Even the most casual reader of the Bible will see that the Bible is a complex world of literary and spiritual peaks and valleys, vast and beautiful oceans, dangerous swamps, tiny rivulets and rushing rivers, that its dark impenetrable forests have little in common with its majestic plains, and that only a very confused reading of it can claim to hold all of it equally authoritative. In fact, the more carefully one reads the Bible, the more sure one is that if consistency is (as Ralph Waldo Emerson said) "the hobgoblin of little minds," this book is the least infested of hobgoblins, having an incomprehensibly large mind, marked by genius closely trailed by contradiction.

    There are passages in the Bible that reveal a goodness beyond anything we can possibly imagine, such grace, mercy, loving-kindness and love that inspire us; and there are texts of terrifying, breathtaking cruelty and violence such as a monster or a sadist might conjure up. In our Reformed tradition, we say that God is free and sovereign, that God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ, that God speaks the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit in the hearing of the Bible. We make no exceptions to the texts God might choose. God might speak through any part of the Bible, or between its lines, or in those moments of silence when the reader is just taking a breath. But saying this does not mean, it cannot mean, that we endorse the cruelty that rears its grotesque head in certain passages. Indeed, we believe that God is not the author of the cruelty of which we read, but that such belongs entirely to a humanity struggling feebly to understand what it means to be a people of God in a particular historical moment. And we believe this because we do believe that God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

    C.S. Lewis credited his friend Owen Barfield as helping him understand the foolishness of "chronological snobbery," the "uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age, and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited."**** A slightly different angle on this "chronological snobbery" bears particularly on modern Christians. We cannot take for granted that all or even most Christians will continue to value hard-won insights and values just because they share the same chronological era.

    Change is the constant. But change is not a stream that flows in one direction. It eddies and ebbs and flows and rages and retreats. Belief in witchcraft is not limited to seventeenth-century Salem. Nor the execution of witches. Justifying violence against persons who do not share our faith did not go out of style when the last Crusaders returned to their European homes. Using the Bible to defend and promote ignorance and cruelty, instead of to inspire goodness, mercy and peace, has not stopped just because we live in the twenty-first century. We would do well to remember that the people who titled the twentieth century as "the Christian century" were shocked and humbled as their age became the bloodiest in all of human history.

    "Chronological snobbery" kept C.S. Lewis from believing in God for a long time; but it can also trap us in a dangerous complacency, thinking that the advances in grace and peace and justice and in the translation of grace and peace and justice into popular culture are permanent. The historical discourses that try to convey the mystery of God are not the only things subject to historical shifts and changes; attitudes, perspectives, understandings, values, ethics all shift and change, and never in a predicable manner. We cannot afford to take goodness for granted.

    Christ himself is our peace, writes the humbled author of Ephesians, for "he has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility." And Christ himself is that lens through which alone we Christians can read and hear the whole of the biblical witness. A good friend once said to me, there are Psalms only Christ can pray for us. To place them on our lips is truly dangerous. The same could be said of so much of the Bible: passages that in human hands could be used to craft instruments of evil or to justify our selfishness, must be placed in the hands of Christ.

    "Something there is that doesn't love a wall...." Or an instrument of torture, or a bomb, or an AK47, or a demeaning comment, or a justification to subjugate a person because of their race, ethnicity, religion or gender. Something there is that doesn't love hatred and cruelty and violence.

    Christ is the Lord of all broken walls. Christ is our peace.

    ______________
    *Robert Frost, "Mending Wall," The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 34.
    **Markus Barth, The Broken Wall: A Study of the Epistle to the Ephesians (Judson Press, 1959), p. 13.
    ***Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (Crossroad, 1992), p. 6.
    ****George M. Marsden, C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 10.


  • Just Definitions: Pragmatic

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 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.

    PragmatismOne of the games I sometimes invite the faculty to play at the luncheons we host for prospective students is: "What historical person would you most enjoy having dinner with?"

    Our answers vary from time to time. Recently it occurred to me that one of the people that I would like to meet, have dinner with, or just sit and listen to is William James (1842-1910), the great American philosopher and professor at Harvard College, known today as the father of American psychology.

    You only have to read a few paragraphs from any of his lectures or books to get a sense of the man's original vision, the grand sweep of his intellect, his imagination and his wonderful sense of humor. James was so fully alive. And it is to James, more than to any other person, that we owe a debt for advancing the use of pragmatism as a way of determining the validity of philosophical and religious ideas.

    James drew on the pioneering work of Charles Pierce to advance the idea that if one wishes to evaluate the relative truthfulness, validity or durability of an idea we should trace its "respective practical consequences."

    As James once wrote, with characteristic clarity and wit:

    "It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants in our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one." [John J. McDermott, editor, The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 377-379.]


    What James did was to announce the death of ideologies unsupported by practical consequences. Yet, such ideologies continue to shape everything from religious practices to public policies.

    In our society it seems as though the ideas which are least testable in practice tend to be the most important when it comes to testing one's orthodoxy in any field. It is as though some religious folks or adherents to a particular political perspective demand of their adherents, "Do you believe that fairies are blue or orange?"

    When the adherent replies, "I don't know, I've never seen a fairy in the flesh. Have you?" the one in authority is shocked by the impertinence of the reply and pronounces the adherent unsound.

    If the adherent persists in refusing to choose between blue or orange, the authority is likely finally to react with the judgment that this adherent is an apostate or a heretic because "all true believers" or "all right-thinking people" know that fairies are blue.

    The very un-knowability and un-testability of the notion is essential to its importance in the ideology. The idea that the ideology will be somehow eventually beneficial, even if its efficacy retreats further and further into an imaginary and unknowable future, does not adversely affect the tenacity with which the ideology is held by true believers.

    William James and his tribe live by the simple dictum: You will know the truth of an idea by examining its fruit, not its roots.

    Among the most provocative practitioners of James' pragmatic method today are Steven D. Levitt (an economist) and Stephen J. Dubner (a journalist) who, together, developed "Freakonomics." Of the many resources these two have produced or inspired, one of my favorites is their recent book, Think Like a Freak (William Morrow, 2014), from which I shall quote extensively.

    Levitt and Dubner, reflecting on a meeting they had with then prime minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, observed that, "whenever people, especially politicians, start making decisions based on a reading of their moral compass, facts tend to be among the first casualties." (Levitt/Dubner, Think Like a Freak, p. 13) What they found was that when leaders strictly adhered to an ideology in the making of public policies and laws, facts about the consequences of these laws and policies tended to be distorted. Often policy makers tried to hammer the square pegs of their legislation into the round holes of their ideological dogma; and if that didn’t work, they would simply ignore any evidence that contradicted what they wanted to see. Most seriously, wherever ideological orthodoxy reigned supreme over pragmatic solutions to problems, the public good tended to suffered. (Levitt/Dubner, Think Like a Freak, pp. 31-41)

    In their praise of pragmatism over ideology, Levitt and Dubner refer to a researcher at the University of California whom readers of my regular blog will remember from years ago, Grawemeyer Award winner (2006) Philip E. Tetlock, whose book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton University Press, 2005), has become required reading among many pragmatic leaders today. Tetlock is the person who tracked the accuracy of the political experts we often see on television and found that they tended to be less accurate than chimpanzees would be randomly throwing darts at a dartboard on which were tacked various answers to political questions.

    Commenting on Tetlock's findings, Levitt and Dubner write: "When asked to name the attributes of someone who is particularly bad at predicting, Tetlock needed just one word. 'Dogmatism,' he says, 'That is, an unshakable belief they know something to be true when they don't.'" Tetlock and others who track the accuracy of politicians, their expert advisors, and the pundits who comment on them have found a lethal combination having to do with what you might call the "massively overconfident" personality. It is just a disaster to combine “cocky” and “wrong." (Levitt/Dubner, Think Like a Freak, p. 25)


  • Grace is not PC (Part Three)

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 21, 2017


    This man and I were sitting at a table in the refectory of a camp in northern Indiana. I was there to teach a workshop on the Christian doctrine of the atonement. He came from a church in Illinois to participate in the class. At some point, he raised the question of why Presbyterians ordain women to church offices when, as he said, "the Bible says that women should not speak in church.”

    Grace is not PC 3His comments reminded me of another conversation not long before. A fellow in a study group a long, long way south of Indiana told me that he and his wife were contemplating leaving the Presbyterian Church because, he said, in violation of "the Word of God, it allows women to teach men." I reflected with him on the problem of trying to build a universal doctrine on the basis of what were clearly local teachings which addressed problems in a particular church in the first century, but he persisted. When I asked him how it was that he had become so convinced of these ideas, even to the point of leaving the church to which his family had belonged for generations, he said - without the least hint of humor or irony - "Well, my wife is actually the biblical scholar in our family. She explained all of this to me."

    So, back to our Midwesterner. After reflecting on the biblical text that he used to prove his point (I Timothy 2:11-15), I said, "The larger theological issue, to quote a beloved and respected professor emeritus of our seminary, Eugene March, is that God's circle of love tends to become ever more inclusive rather than exclusive." Or, as Cynthia Campbell, former McCormick Theological Seminary president in Chicago and current pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, writes: "In the end, God's grace will win out, and all creation will be transformed and renewed."* Or, to put it the way I usually do: the trajectory of the biblical faith stretches from grace to grace; from the Gospels through the book of Acts to the letters of St. Paul and beyond the biblical era. God is progressively revealing his full intention to us. And his intention is grace.

    To reflect more fully on this idea, I turned to St. Paul's letter to the Galatians in which the Apostle famously writes: "You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:26-28) Far from being an isolated, local teaching addressing a particular problem in a congregation, this teaching echoes throughout the epistles of the New Testament from I Corinthians 12:12-13 to Ephesians 2:14-22 to Colossians 3:1-14.

    According to Donald Guthrie, in his commentary on the book of Galatians, Paul is signaling that all who are "in Christ" are ushered into a larger, even universal, perspective on God in contrast to those who wish to restrict God's sphere to the merely cultic, sectarian or ethnic. Guthrie notes that distinctions between Jew and Greek (synonymous here with Gentiles), slave and free, male and female were "deep-seated," not only in ancient society but in Hebrew scripture. Long-established structures defined people according to their religion, ethnicity, economic status, social position, and gender. Paul articulates a perspective that is more radical than anyone in the ancient world could grasp; frankly, the Christian Church and the world have had a very difficult time catching up with him.**

    The "faith" to which St. Paul refers here, which unites the follower of Jesus to the Christ and makes him or her a "child of God" in the full theological sense of the phrase as Paul uses it, is, according to Marty Soards and Darrell Pursiful, "activated by Christ Jesus himself." The union with Christ is a reality that for Christians has priority over other allegiances and appearances. In long doctrinal passages, such as in I Corinthians chapters 10-14, and Romans 11:33-36, as well as chapter 12, St. Paul provides the theological context for understanding his vision of "the Body of Christ." As Soards and Pursiful write: "Members of the congregations of believers are as if they were one person, the Corporate Christ. In Christ Jesus, differences are nullified, and they are replaced not by mere equality but by a unity that was created by and is identified with Christ Jesus himself."***

    When we are "clothed in Christ," to return to Paul's metaphor in Galatians 3:27, we are made one with him, and realize our oneness with one another, a unity that rejects as unreal all the various distinctions we use to stratify society and divide humanity. The image of being clothed with Christ was especially lively for the early church, as we see in writers such as Cyril of Jerusalem, who, in his lectures on the Christian Sacraments provides a glimpse of what baptism actually looked like in early Christian communities. Cyril provides a sort of time machine, taking us into the sanctuary, as it were, to see the ancient Christian ritual in person. We witness those who are to be baptized removing their "street clothes," the raiment that reflected the various distinctions of the world, before going down into the baptistery. We see the very heart of St. Paul's teachings given ritual form: being washed in the baptismal waters, the new believer participates spiritually in the crucifixion, death and burial of Christ; rising up from the cleansing waters, the new believer participates in the resurrection to new life in Christ; being anointed with oil, the new follower receives the sign of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And being sent forth to be clothed in a white robe, the new follower receives the symbol of union with Christ that also revokes all worldly distinctions.****

    The vision of the Apostle was clear. Although various forms of oppression have been practiced in the world and in the Church through the centuries, from anti-Semitism to the justification of enslavement to misogyny and racism, for St. Paul, our union with Christ, our divine sonship and daughterhood in Christ, the indwelling of God's Spirit, has priority over every worldly distinction and division. Christ's union with us through the power of the Spirit has the power to subvert all the walls we try to build. (Ephesians 2:14-18)

    God's ways, we are told in the Bible, are higher than our ways. And this is true. But it is also true that God's ways have a way of staying well ahead of us, drawing us further and further along God's trajectory of grace in human history. The question is: How do we continue to participate in what God is up to in this world?
    ___________________
    *The context of both Gene's and Cynthia's reflections is "religious diversity," but their comments apply equally to the expansion of perspective that attends the movement of God's grace in other areas. W. Eugene March, The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). Cynthia M. Campbell, A Multitude of Blessings (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 16.
    ** Donald Guthrie, The New Century Bible Commentary: Galatians (New Series, 1974), p. 110.
    *** Marion L. Soards and Darrell J. Pursiful, Galatians, (Smyth & Helwys, 2015), pp. 171-177.
    ****St. Cyril of Jerusalem, "Mystagogical Catechesis, II: On the Rites of Baptism,” in Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, edited by F.L. Cross (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1986), pp. 59-67.


  • 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.


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