Merton on the need for a critique of religion.

If in practice the function of organized religion turns out to be nothing more than to justify and to canonize the routines of mass society; if organized religion abdicates its mission to disturb man in the depths of his conscience, and seeks instead simply to ‘make converts’ that will smilingly adjust to the status quo, then it deserves the most serious and uncompromising criticism. Such criticism is not a disloyalty. On the contrary, fidelity to truth and to God demands it.

Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters, p. 273

Compassion in Religion – Some Reflections

Last Thursday, I attended the Compassion in Religion Conference at Iona Pacific Inter-religious Centre (at Vancouver School of Theology) which featured as its keynote speaker, author and scholar Karen Armstrong (whose name, I found out, is pronounced like “Car-in” rather than “Care-in”). Armstrong is the author of a number of books on the subject of God (The Case for God, The History of God), Jerusalem (Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths), and Islam. Armstrong is also the recipient of the TED Prize (an award issued by the TED Talks) which grants the recipient “one wish to change the world” and a nice hefty some of $100,000 to see that wish to fulfillment (or partial fulfillment at least). In 2008, Armstrong wished for a Charter of Compassion. Since then, she has been hitting the road with her message that the religions of the world have at their core, the Golden Rule and that now more than ever, we need to reaffirm this principle of compassion in a cooperative setting.

The evening before the conference, I decided to find out a bit more about what the Charter was all about so I decided to listen to her 2008 TED Talk. I wish I hadn’t because, for the most part, her keynote address was pretty much the same.The conference also included some “storytellers” from Canadian Aboriginals and other major religious traditions on the subject of compassion. Finally, breakout group dialogues were facilitated by members of a class from SFU’s Centre for Dialogue.

A few reflections on the conference from my end…

Just how hard it is to accept the fact that there are other people in the world that think and believe differently from me. Now, I have come quite a long way (if I am able to step outside myself for a moment) in acknowledging and respecting the plurality of opinions and beliefs. In high school, not so much so. Democrats were “useful idiots” (and I had no real idea why, but that was just the buzz phrase that Ann Coulter’s title became). People of other religious traditions were flat out wrong. Even Catholics (who weren’t really Christians) were to be looked at with a degree of suspicion. After going to university for four years, my mind became a bit broader to allow for other people to hold to their convictions. But the problem, I am realizing, was that this broadness is just an idea in my head and I have only put it into practise to a limited degree within my own Western Christian tradition. It is a lot easier to think that respect for others is a good idea than it is to actually respect them and allow them to speak with conviction about what they believe (and to take them seriously, for that matter).

My aversion to certain expressions of liberal pluralistic religion. This is a bit strange considering the fact that I don’t consider myself necessarily conservative or orthodox. And, if one who spend a few minutes talking with me about theology or religion in general, “liberal” is probably the first word that comes to mind. I don’t like using the word “liberal” and “conservative” to describe religious positions because they don’t work very well and tend to ignore the more complex nuances of people’s spiritual and theological stances and journeys. Probably a better way to describe what I’m getting at when I say “my aversion to liberal religion” is that pluralisms’ which like to boil all of the world religions down to a common essence and then use that as some sort of “chief cornerstone” on which to build a new religion that transcends all religions do not sit well with me. I was quite glad, then, to hear Armstrong say herself that the Charter of Compassion is not her attempt to do just that. She stated that we must acknowledge differences while affirming the commonalities. I suppose my realization of this aversion I have emerged more out the storytellers who spoke and some of the group discussions. I am not saying that I think exclusivistic religion is the way to go. By no means! But particularities must be respected and acknowledged and protected. The stranger must remain strange. Inter-religious dialogue often runs to close (for my liking) to collapse the Other into the self, thus turning us into all the same. I don’t think that is realistic when we consider just how different we are from our own friends. Moreover, that removes the actual purpose of and impetus behind inter-religious dialogues. If the stranger is no longer strange, well, what’s the use of talking to ourselves?

My latent exclusivistic inclinations. I still have that desire to be “right” and to show the other that they are “wrong.” My initial feeling (and hope) is that this is a human problem in general. Epistemological humility is very challenging. The setting aside of our personal or communal agendas seems to test our inclination towards self-preservation of our individuality or our community’s uniqueness.

The inadequacy of many (mostly Christian) theologies of pluralism (that is, Christian explanations of the presence of and relationship with other religious and spiritual traditions). The exclusivistic interpretations of Christianity provide a rather simplistic explanation of the presence of other traditions: simply, other religious traditions are almost entirely untrue (though at the surface, they may have a truth like a belief in one God). Extreme forms of this interpretation may chalk the presence of other religious traditions as the work of Satan who is out to confuse the world and distract people from Christianity. This doesn’t sit well with me for reasons that are not worth going in to. It’s the more nuanced inclusivistic and pluralistic interpretations that still don’t seem to jive with personal experience and observations. On the one hand, inclusivistic interpretations still are exclusivistic in that they necessarily think of a particular group as having the fullness of truth while others have parts of the truth. There is still one truth, but all others participate in this truth. This is great from a theoretical perspective. But attempt to tell this to a friend from another tradition and you will still sound like the fundamentalist. On a practical level, inclusivism is patronizing (“Your tradition has truth in it!”) and at the same time hostile (“But only hints of it!”). We pay lip service to the Other with our left hand (or with the left side of our mouth!) and in one swift breath we rebuff the Other (with our right side of the mouth). Inclusivism is great within religious traditions but still bears the marks of being dictatorial and unbending outside. Inclusivism still views the Other as lacking something that we have. We have something that they don’t and we are in a position to point that out to them. We have power. And, if the other is really interested in truth, they will become one of us.

But if inclusivism is still unsettling to me, the opposite of exclusivism is still problematic in my thinking. It reduces difference to sameness. Many forms of pluralism like to acknowledge the diversity of religious traditions but at the same time they reduce religion to a few generalized, universal concepts that can all too often ignore the categorical differences between traditions. The Other is lessened, boiled down, contracted, pruned of their otherness. Pluralism expects the Other to trim themselves to fit into a pluralistic perspective of the world. Pluralism becomes the new exclusivism in that it excludes those that want to maintain their otherness. In the name of inclusivity, some have to be excluded.

Still reflecting; that is all for now.

Meeting Aquinas along the Via Negativa – Pt 4

Question 13 in Aquinas’ Summa wrestles with the question of theological language. How do we use words, of human construction and origin, to speak about transcendent realities? Can we use words to speak of God? Can we name God? Do our words describe God’s essence? Does a word that is applied to a human or a thing mean the same when applied to God? What does the word ‘God’ even mean?

Article 1. Can we use any words to refer to God?

  • Aquinas quotes Pseudo-Dinoysius’ radical statement: “Of him there is no naming nor any opinion…” (Divine Names, 1)
  • Aquinas differentiates between two types of nouns: the concrete and the abstract. Both types of nouns cannot be adequately and properly used to speak about God.
    • Concrete nouns are said to be “inappropriate” because God is “altogether simple.” (1a, 13, 1)
      • While I don’t quite understand what Aquinas means by this, I did a little bit more reading elsewhere and a concrete noun is often used to refer to a physical object that is sensible. (At least this is the contemporary usage.)
    • Abstract nouns are equally problematic because they “[do] not signify a complete subsistent thing.” (1a, 13, 1)
      • Abstract nouns refer to ideas, not an actual existent reality. God is not just an idea. God is a “subsistent thing.” (Though he’s not a thing.)
  • Aquinas then talks about other grammatical considerations one should be aware of with theological language: “A noun signifies a thing as coming under some description, verbs and participles signify it as enduring in time, pronouns signify it as being pointed out or as in some relationship. None of these is appropriate to God…” But why? (1a, 13, 1)
    • Nouns are not appropriate because we don’t have a definition of what God is and any “accidental attributes” (that which we see God do?) are also not available to us.
    • God is also outside of time so verbs and participles break down in their use when applied to God.
    • Pronouns also are problematic because a pronoun requires some other descriptor (like a verb and noun) to be applied.
  • Thus, it seems as if God is so far beyond speech that we are left speechless.
  • But, what about Scripture’s statement that “The Lord is a great warrior, Almighty is his name.”
    • Aquinas quotes Aristole’s idea that words signify a thought and thoughts bear the “likeness of things.”
    • Thus, Aquinas writes that “how we refer to a thing depends on how we understand it.” (1a, 13, 1, Reply)
  • Aquinas refers back to his already decided upon beliefs that “we do not see the essence of God, we only know him from creatures…”
    • God is known as the source of all creatures who is beyond them.
    • “It is the knowledge we have of creatures that enables us to use words to refer to God, and so these words do not express the divine essence as it is in itself.” (1a, 13, 1, Reply)
    • Words are dim indicators of the essence of God and should (perhaps?) not be taken as literal statements of God’s essence.
  • Thomas concludes that “God is said to have no name, or to be beyond naming because his essence is beyond what we understand of him and the meaning of the names we use.” (1a, 13, 1, 1)
  • Moreover, we know God through creatures (analogy of being), and we use language that refers to creatures to refer to God, with the caveat that the words we use are limited and analogical.
  • God is a composite of the form and the subsistent (the abstract and the concrete). This means that we are able to use both concrete and abstract nouns to refer to God. “…though neither way of speaking measures up to his way of being, for in this life we do not know him as he is in himself.” (1a, 13, 1, 2)
  • Because we can use these nouns, we are also free to use verbs, participles, and pronouns because we are speaking of God as a definite form that is subsistent.
  • Verbs can be used because even though God is not bound by time, he contains time within himself.


Short and Sweet.

Some good stuff from Merton and others.

The Jewishness of the Bible

One has either got to be a Jew or stop reading the Bible. The Bible cannot make sense to anyone who is not ‘spiritually a Semite.’ The spiritual sense of the Old Testament is not and cannot be a simple emptying out of its Israelite content. Quite the contrary! The New Testament is the fulfillment of that spiritual content, the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, the promise that Abraham believed in. It is never therefore a denial of Judaism, but its affirmation. Those who consider it a denial have not understood it.

Merton, CJB, 14.

Believe in order to be.

We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to be.

Merton, CJB, 15.

Reunion begins in oneself.

If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and Latin Fathers, the Russians with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we can not do so by imposing one division upon the other or absorbing one division into the other. But if we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.

Merton, CJB, 21

The Natural is Sacred or Profane. We choose which it will be.

Whatever is done naturally may be either sacred or profane, according to our own degree of awareness; but whatever is done unnaturally is essentially and irrevocably profane.

A.K. Coomaraswamy, in CJB, 25.

If I have not love, but all the knowledge in the world, then I am a clanging gong.

Gandhi once asked: “How can he who thinks he possesses absolute truth be fraternal?”

Commenting on Gandhi, Merton writes:

Only he who loves can be sure that he is still in contact with the truth, which is in fact too absolute to be grasped by his mind. Hence, he who holds to the gospel truth is afraid that he may lose the truth by a failure of love, not by a failure of knowledge…Knowledge expands a man like a balloon, and gives him a precarious wholeness in which he thinks that he holds in himself all the dimensions of a truth the totality of which is denied to others. It then becomes his duty, he thinks, by virtue of his superior knowledge, to punish those who do not share this truth. How can he ‘love’ others, he thinks, except by imposing on them the truth which they would otherwise insult and neglect?

Merton, CJB, 44.

Christians are a minority. Now get over it.

Christians stand to gain more in the long run by accepting their minority position and looking for quality rather than quantity.

Christopher Dawson, in CJB, 55.

Frivolous News is nothing New.

Every time [President] Kennedy sneezes or blows his nose an article is read about it in the refectory.

Merton, CJB, 58.

Oil: The Sacrament of American Folk Religion. The car: the chalice that contains it.

We waste our natural resources, as well as those of undeveloped countries’ iron, oil, etc. in order to fill our cities and roads with a congestion of traffic that is in fact largely useless, and is a symptom of the meaningless and futile agitation of our own minds. The attachment of the modern American to his automobile and the symbolic role played by his car, with its aggressive and lubric design, its useless power, its otiose gadgetry, its consumption of fuel, which is advertised as having almost supernatural power…this is where the study of American mythology should begin.

Merton, CJB, 76.

Dialoge on the Hidden God – Nicholas of Cusa – Pt 3

Read part one and part two.

Cusa’s dialogue between the Christian and the Pagan presents some challenging questions for contemporary Christians’ language about knowledge, certainty, faith, and how one speaks about God. I find the Christian in the dialogue to be very different from mainstream Christianity’s desire for certainty, rational proofs for the existence of God, and other efforts that inadvertently express to the wider world a degree of epistemological arrogance. (I recognize that to some degree this is a generalization.) More to it, admitting that one does not know something about God (or any other matter of faith) is seen as weakness, laziness, a lack of faith, a rejection of the Bible as a source of knowledge, and a lack of confidence in God. At worst, admitting that one doesn’t know something is seen as a sinful ignorance. Additionally, agnosticism is a target of polemical apologetics. Agnostics are, like atheists, people who’ve got it all wrong. They need to be corrected. To be shown true knowledge. While I’m not disputing the fact that agnosticism is often a mask for apathy or disinterest, I am saying that the inherent value of agnosticism for the Christian faith is underestimated. Again, some observations.

So, back to the Christian and the Pagan.

Where I last left off, the Christian had said something very peculiar about his God: “I know that everything I know is not God and that everything I conceive is not like God…” That is to say, the Christian recognizes that his intellect cannot conceive of anything like God on its own. Even if faith, which amplifies and enlightens reason, allowing one to go beyond reason, is brought into the equation, I think that this simple detail, God’s incomprehensibility, remains true.

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