I’m going to start spending Mondays on my blog with Thomas Merton since I’ve been deeply influenced by several of his books. Merton was a Trappist monk who spent most of each day in prayer; his words are rich and beautiful and liberating. Because he is from a different generation and lived only with men, he doesn’t use gender-inclusive language, so I apologize for that distraction. Because he was evangelizing a secular intellectual audience, he doesn’t always fortify his paragraphs with scriptural proof-texts. This will make it difficult to accomplish my purpose, which is to evangelize evangelicals out of some of the more poisonous aspects of our theology. Those of you who fall in that category will hear things you don’t like that will be easy for you to dismiss as “un-Biblical,” but I urge you to be open to what God might be saying to you through the words of someone who pursued God relentlessly.
Merton is probably most significantly the one who helped me recognize that Christian salvation is rescue from the eternal isolation of our delusion of individualism. The death that Adam and Eve choose in the Garden of Eden is self-reliance, which happens to be the greatest secular virtue of American society. One of the tragedies of popular American evangelicalism is its attempt to come up with a Christian salvation that champions self-reliance instead of rescuing us from it, which is why we have made God’s perfectionism the “problem” that salvation “resolves” rather than our ruthlessly imprisoning self-justification which corrupts our relationships with others and makes us enemies to love itself. Here are a couple of passages from the preface to Merton’s No Man Is An Island that speak about salvation in a way that some of you have never contemplated.
The salvation I speak of is not merely a subjective, psychological thing… It is an objective and mystical reality–the finding of ourselves in Christ, int he Spirit, or, if you prefer, in the supernatural order… This discovery of ourselves is always a losing of ourselves–a death and a resurrection. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The discovery of ourselves in God, and of God in ourselves, by a charity that also finds all other men in God with ourselves is, therefore, not the discovery of ourselves but of Christ. First of all, it is the realization that “I live now not I but Christ liveth in me,” and secondly it is the penetration of that tremendous mystery which St. Paul sketched out boldly–and darkly–in his great Epistles: the mystery of the recapitulation, the summing up of all in Christ. xv-xvi
Before we know Christ, we are all already part of the thoroughly interconnected body of humanity and even technically speaking the body of Christ since every person is an image of Christ, which is the word Christians use for the ordering principle of the universe, or Word of God, that we believe was incarnated in the person of Jesus. The problem is that our existence within this interconnected body is cancerous. We are disconnected, self-enclosed tumors because we are perversely invested in protecting the myth that we are the center of the universe. This myth is our default position; that is why we call it “original sin.” As long as we remain trapped inside that myth, we will never enjoy true communion with other people; they will always be useful objects in a universe of one rather than fellow reflections of the divine light that is the source of our life. Salvation from this eternal separation comes when we allow ourselves to be incorporated into Christ’s body; one might also say this is the moment when we actually become human.
This matter of “salvation” is, when seen intuitively, a very simple thing. But when we analyze it, it turns into a complex tangle of paradoxes. We become ourselves by dying to ourselves. We gain only what we give up, and if we give up everything we gain everything. We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others, yet at the same time before we can go out to others we must first find ourselves. We must forget ourselves in order to become truly conscious of who we are. The best way to love ourselves is to love others, yet we cannot love others unless we love ourselves… But if we love ourselves in the wrong way, we become incapable of loving anybody else. And indeed when we love ourselves wrongly we hate ourselves; if we hate ourselves we cannot help hating others. Yet there is a sense in which we must hate others and leave them in order to find God… As for this “finding” of God, we cannot even look for Him unless we have already found Him, and we cannot find Him unless he has first found us. We cannot begin to seek Him without a special gift of His grace, yet if we wait for grace to move us… we will probably never begin. xvi-xvii
It is indeed a complex tangle of paradoxes. Merton pulls these paradoxes together from different sayings of Jesus. They are true if you consider each of them. Having a real, rich existence depends upon my ability to forget myself like a dancer who is completely absorbed into the music. Otherwise the neurosis of my tyrannical self-observation will hold me back from really living. Love is a paradox too. I learn that I am someone to be loved from people whom I love and who love me back. Love doesn’t make any sense in a universe of one. The wrong way of loving myself is self-indulgence which doesn’t have to do with valuing myself but with obeying compulsively whatever urges come over me.
What paradoxes like these reveal is the problem that needs to be solved by Jesus through His cross and resurrection. We need to be given the means to assume our true identities and learn how to love. Otherwise we persist in a universe of one whose loneliness and anxiety is the basis for all hate. These are not skills that we can acquire within ourselves; they must be given to us by grace. And they cannot be programmed into us by divine decree the way that you might install the circuitry of a computer motherboard; they need to be narrated into us by our experience of living within the compelling story of “God with us” that was written through the ancient God-wrestlers (Israel) whose legacy of prayer and prophecy was completely absorbed into the divine human Jesus Christ that God’s Word enfleshed. Jesus shows us how to be human and how to love. He gives us the resources through His teaching, life, sacrifice, and resurrection to become the people He has showed us how to be. We’ll see how Merton describes these things in the coming Mondays.