Monday Merton 6.17.13

Today’s Monday Merton comes from chapter 10, “Sincerity,” of No Man Is An Island. What Merton means by sincerity is being a person who lives and speaks in a way that is truthful. He opens his chapter with a single sentence that blows my mind: “We make ourselves real by telling the truth” (188). There are so many dimensions to which that is true. In a lot of ways, that is the central problem that Christianity resolves. Jesus makes it possible to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). When we live in the world of masks in which we hide our inadequacies and embarrassments from each other, there’s nothing real to any of it. Even our smiles have more to do with making sure that we’re fitting in with other people than expressing genuine contentment.

We are too much like Pilate. We are always asking, “What is truth?” and then crucifying the truth that stands before our eyes… If I ask, “What is truth?” I either expect an answer or I do not. Pilate did not. Yet his belief that the question did not require an answer was itself his answer.189

In this sense, postmodernity could be described as the Era of Pilate. Of course, many people who don’t believe in postmodernity take full advantage of it. If it doesn’t bother you to uncritically circulate and regurgitate dubious accusations against people you consider your enemies that sound good to your ears and the other residents of your echo chamber, then you are echoing Pilate’s “What is truth?” even if you believe very passionately in the concept of absolute truth.

Our minds are deformed with a kind of contempt for reality. Instead of conforming ourselves to what is, we twist everything around, in our words and thoughts, to fit our own deformity. 190

With regard to truth, all people have an agenda and a public relations team working around the clock inside their heads. That’s basically what we learn from postmodern theory: that try as we might, we can never be purely objective. But it’s really not anything new. It’s the same thing Martin Luther was describing when he said that human nature is curvatus en se, that our perspective is hopelessly “warped in on itself.” The question is whether we consider this reality acceptable or not. Denial of this reality has the same result as nihilistically accepting it. It is those who recognize that our access to the truth of reality is not at all straightforward who know that they need a divine intervention to make them truthful.

Sincerity in the fullest sense must be more than a temperamental disposition to be frank. It is a simplicity of spirit which is preserved by the will to be true. It implies an obligation to manifest the truth and to defend it. And this in turn recognizes that we are free to respect the truth or not to respect it, and that the truth is to some extent at our own mercy. But this is a terrible responsibility, since in defiling the truth we defile our own souls. 191

As part of my sermon series on the cross this past Lent, I preached one week on how Jesus’ cross “speaks truth to power.” The fact that we heard the true story about the state-sanctioned murder of someone who was politically powerless in worldly terms is my basis for believing that the truth will win in the end. It doesn’t get its way by force. It haunts us and corrodes our souls when we try to paper over it.

The sincere man… is one who has the grace to know that he may be instinctively insincere, and that even his natural sincerity may become a camouflage for irresponsibility and moral cowardice. 192-193

There is so much game-playing that goes on with sincerity, so many ways in which we put on a show of pseudo-sincerity as a tactic for winning friends and winning arguments. Oftentimes, we conflate sincerity with naivete and innocence. A sincere person is not innocent or naive; sincere people are intensely suspicious… of themselves.

Sincerity is impossible without humility and supernatural love. I cannot be candid with other people unless I understand myself and unless I am prepared to do everything possible in order to understand them. 194

So often we think that being honest to the truth as we perceive it excuses us from trying to understand where other people are coming from. If we’re not interested in understanding other people, then we’re really not interested in the truth, because we’re really defending ourselves against having to adjust if we’ve been wrong about the truth.

The arguments of religious men are so often insincere, and their insincerity is proportionate to their anger. Why do we get angry about what we believe? Because we do not really believe it. Or else what we pretend to be defending as the “truth” is really our own self-esteem. A man of sincerity is less interested in defending the truth than in stating it clearly, for he thinks that if the truth be clearly seen it can very well take care of itself. 195

Wow, that’s really convicting. But I’m not sure I agree with Merton 100% here. It would be easy to take this as a useful battering ram for attacking all those “angry” fundamentalists. But I certainly get angry about the truth because it seems like the truth gets stepped on by the people who are claiming to be on its side. Truth is like the Jesus who always gets upstaged by our favorite flying man with a cape. What I will say is that my anger gets in the way of my truthfulness. If I could simply state the truth clearly and respectfully rather than letting myself get carried away in snark, then I would be a lot more faithful to it.

In the end, the problem of sincerity is a problem of love. A sincere man is not so much one who sees the truth and manifests it as he sees it, but one who loves the truth with a pure love. But truth is more than an abstraction. It lives and is embodied in men and things that are real. And the secret of sincerity is, therefore, not to be sought in a philosophical love for abstract truth but in a love for real people and real things. 198

The problem is that the “truth” I love can be the ideological system that I’ve decided to submit myself to and declare infallible. If my love is for real people and real things, then the truth that I love will never be neat, easy, and simple. Hence I will never be satisfied with bumper-sticker-sized declarations about the world that feel clever and wise, but force us to omit all the nuance that we see in the reality around us.

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