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Thinking Out Loud

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.
 
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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.

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