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Thinking Out Loud

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.

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