Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A book review of “No Man is an Island” by Thomas Merton/musings about alternative Christianities

First things first I want to thank Kevin for buying me this book as a going away present.
"No Man is an Island" is a very well thought out book. It consists of 16 essays about various concepts involved in the spiritual contemplative life. I will draw out the overall logic that runs through all of his essays, then I’ll mention a few thoughts about ethics that this book invoked, his view of pre-destination and free-will, and finally speculate about the philosophical underpinnings of his argument (I warn you I’m not a philosopher in any sense of the word).
I want to give a brief caveat about Merton’s worldview. At various points he writes some things that made me as a Lutheran/protestant cringe. For example "I exist to save my soul" and "God’s will for me is that I should shape my own destiny, work out my own salvation." Yeah, its that Faith/Works thing.
Merton’s basic framework that is found throughout the various essays goes something like this. Most of life’s anxiety and strain comes from dependence on self. But once we start to shake off the blinders of huberious we recognizes that we are all human, all fallible, all fall short. Therefore we need to love one another in spite of our shortfalls. If we don’t, no one will love us. If we are going to love others we needs to love them well.
To love someone well we need to first know ourselves. Merton admonishes us that we should not self examine too much (think of Luther’s thoughts about "bellybutton gazing") because we start to question everything and at its extreme "disfigure our whole personality."
We must not see ourselves totally in our actions, as they are often not our actions, but the actions of our unconscious or of societal compulsions.
To find ourselves we need to "take up our cross" and not the cross we want (for example who wouldn’t want to be beat up defending a higher truth, boatloads of starving refugees, etc [or maybe that’s just me] but who would want to suffer ailment or illness or a dead end job?), but the cross destined for us. Suffering is the most personal act that exists. It asks us "who are you?" It asks what were we, what have we become, what do we want to be. And in this suffering we will realize the contradictions in our answers. We will give up the idea that we are objective, as we often twist facts and information to fit what we know. We need to be humble and accept ourselves for who we are, because if we are not at peace with ourselves all our interactions with others will be rooted in falsity and only spread our internal conflicts into external ones.
Once we know ourselves we must be honest and truthful to the other, we will wear no masks, and be humble. And then we can enter into relationship accepting the other for who they are. We can, to quote Merton "respect their solitude." The other becomes more than a mirror of our own soul. Our love is no longer narcissistic; it isn’t simply creating people in our own image. We are no longer a painter creating a self-portrait out of the other. At base we are recognizing the right of the other to be an autonomous person; we allow the other to have secrets.
Now here is the kicker, apply all that I wrote about the other to God as well as our neighbor. We need to be honest with Him, as He knows us better than ourselves and before we were formed in the womb. Approach God, but allow God to be God,
"If I find Him with great ease, perhaps He is not my God./ If I cannot hope to find Him at all, is He my God?/ If I find Him wherever I wish, have I found him?/ If He can find me whenever He wishes, and tells me Who He is and who I am, and if I then know that He Whom I could not find has found me: then I know He is the Lord, my God: He has touched me with the finger that made me out of nothing."
Reading this got me thinking about ethics. Merton wrote, "We obey people not for their sake, but because we believe their will is the will of God." This kind of blew me away, what does that say about voting, about having bosses, about… everything! I think, I could be wrong, but I think, it means we have to ask ourselves "If Jesus was me, how would he act?"
Merton’s take on the conflict between predestination and free will is all wound up in the idea of Hope. (warning I may butcher his thinking) They are both brought together with the idea of Hope. By our hoping that we are predestinated for salvation we freely choose our salvation.
Finally, I noticed constant sideways references to Plato in Merton’s work. For example, our actions are a shadow of us, but we need to focus on the light that created the shadow, and of course his view of heaven, much like C.S. Lewis’ espoused in the Narnia Chronicles, is that of us (and all of creation) moving from the state of being Emanations to being Form. In heaven a horse will become the perfect Horse, a man will become Man. Nietzsche calls Christianity Plato for the masses, I think this is why. It makes me think. What is Hell then? The first thought of course is Sheol, "the grave", becomes "the Cave" of Plato’s Republic. Another thought I had was that we become the totality of a corrupt and imperfect emanation of ourselves.
A larger question this brings up is what if Christianity had a different philosophical tradition as the background to its history (baring the argument that all philosophy is simply a critique or counter critique of Plato)? I think we can see some generations of this in some present presentations of Christianity.
For example Liberation Theology does in some ways points toward an engendering of Christianity that takes Marxist thought rather seriously. At base it says that God has a preferential view of the poor. There are also Post-Modern Christians that I’ve read about some. The solution to the problem of "a lack of connection between things" is that we need to weave snippets of scripture into a quilt of new thoughts that fit into new contexts. We also need to further democratize theology. How to do this is rather nebulous.
What about a very Eastern Christianity? (I am thinking a little of Borg’s view of a sage-like Jesus) Perhaps like Buddhism there would be a recognition of suffering throughout the Bible (eg Cain, the exile, the destruction of the Temple) culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus. Then there would be an end to the cycle of suffering through the teachings and re-birth of Jesus in… the pure land.
Of course this is REALLY academic. Still, its interesting, I remember a while back there was a historical fiction series where Christianity was spliced with Norse religion and Scandinavia took over Europe… Uffdah!

1 comment:

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