Merton on the word “World”

Reading notes from Merton, “Love and Living”


  • The perennial question of many Christians is “How do I live in but not of the world?” The answers have, of course, been numerous, and some have been positive and others negative.
  • What is the “world”?
    • Merton first states that the world takes on personal and subjective dimension: “We are the world.” (120)
      • We are connected to the world, bodily, sensually, intellectually, emotionally.
      • We have the power to change the world, but also to be changed by the world.
      • “From the moment we sit down at the table and put a piece of bread in our mouths, we see that we are in the world and cannot be otherwise than in it, until the day we die.” (120)
    • Next, Merton claims that while we are in the world, and are indeed a part of the world, we are able to “distinguish between ourselves and the world.”
      • We are capable of making the distinction between “I” and the “Other.” Or, between “myself” and “the rest of the world.”
      • We have our own identity apart from the world, but it is also necessary to recognize that our personal identity lives in relationship with the world that informs our identity. There is a dialogue between the “I” (me) and the “Thou” (the rest of the world).
    • “Contempt for the world” was in many ways an affirmation of the freedom of the human person. But this also meant that the human person was free to “make new ways and new attitudes…and to make new discoveries which changed the world.” (121)
      • Thus, “contempt” was actually, paradoxically, “love.”
      • …the great religions which taught flight from the world also laid the foundation for world views which established man int he world as its master and its renewer.” (121)
      • It appears that Merton is equating “contempt,” in this context, with detachment.
    • What is the world, then?: “Simply the human and non-human environment in which man finds himself, to which he is called to establish a certain definite relationship.” (121)
      • What is this “definite relationship”?
        • A relationship of submission to the norms, expectations, and identity provided by the world.
        • A relationship of dialogue between “I” (me) and the “Thou” (the world) in which we are able to critique the world, and offer constructive ideas for renewing it.
      • The dialogue between the individual and the world is one that is defined as work.
        • This is not work in the sense of a 9-5 job (although it may take that form for some).

One of the greatest problems of our century is not merely that of finding work for the unemployed but that of developing a new concept of work that will prevent practically everybody from becoming unemployable. (122)

  • The worlds within the World.
    • It would be problematic to see the World as one monolithic entity as there are many spheres and dimensions that are a part of the World, but not the World as it really is in its totality.
    • The World is not just “natural and physical forces, [or] societies moved by orderly economic laws…” (122)
    • (Merton only talks about one world within the World, but I made it plural here.)
    • What is this other world that Merton is referring to?

This world is a complex dynamic of power, of need, of ambition, of obsession with gain and with lust. It is particularly marked by obliviousness to and contempt for all that does not fit in with its own peculiar power constellation. It has no patience with anyone who does not totally submit to and identity with that constellation. (122)

    • This world within the World that Merton speaks of “offers an easy solution to the man who wants to fabricate a crude identity for himself without too much trouble and with a minimum of personal responsibility.” (122)

This world says, “Work for me and I will take care of your identity.”

    • This world insists that we offer ourselves to it in “total submission,” giving up our freedom.
    • This is precisely the world that the New Testament calls upon Christians to reject.
    • In his redemptive framework, Merton calls attention to the “true world” that is preached by Jesus and His Church: a world that is being reformed, refigured, renewed, and redeemed.

The Christian’s dialogue with the world can, then be summed up as followers. First, he is created in the world. The world of his time is the place of salvation to which he has been called by God, in which God has put him, in which God has a task for him to accomplish. If he merely rejects and disparages the world of matter in which he is, the Christian can never really begin to understand his task in it, and he will not be able to do the work God asks of him. (123)

  • But, this dialogue also requires a certain level of detachment which allows the Christian to be differentiated from the “power constellation” of the world.
  • Without detachment, the Christian can become an accessory to the “power constellation” (as the Church has done in the darker moments of its history).
  • When the Christian realizes that the world is the redeemed venue of Christ, then they are able to relate to the world and the people within the world in a way that sees these people “as loved and sought by Christ.” (124)

There is no simple ‘ethical’ answer to the problems arising from this attitude. The Christian does not learn a new set of unworldly laws which he opposes to the ways of the world, but by the Cross and Love of Christ and the indwelling Spirit of freedom, he learns to live in the world as Christ did, in perfect liberty [detachment?] and with unlimited compassion and service. (124)


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