I was listening to the Homebrewed Christianity Podcast while running, just after finishing up Merton’s book. The Podcast was a question-and-answer time with the influential German theologian of the cross, Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann’s theology emphasizes the pathos of God. While the Greek philosophers envisioned a dispassionate Deity, Moltmann (in line with the Old Testament) speaks of a passionate God who is angered, loves, suffers, and even repents!
It was during this discussion that I realized what bothered me about Merton.
Before I get there, let me start with praise. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk, a man dedicated to cloistered contemplation. This book is a collection of advice about contemplation. What does contemplation mean? Do you need to be isolated to be a contemplative? What sort of obstacles do contemplatives face? What is the role of spiritual experience in contemplation?
Each of the 39 chapters are full of insight into the human condition—insight only grasped by someone who has spent his life in the contemplation of God. The more I grow in the Christian life, the more Merton’s observations resonate with my own experience. He is a wise spiritual director.
Now back to the problem. For Merton, the ideal contemplative is not a person who is passionate but one who lets feelings, even religious feelings, flow across the surface of her mind without being moved. These consolations are mere distractions:
Many contemplatives never become great saints, never enter into close friendship with God, never find a deep participation in His immense joys, because they cling to the miserable little consolations that are given to beginners in the contemplative way. (206)
I wholeheartedly agree that experience-chasing is devastating to true Christianity. That said, if our God is passionately engaged with his creation, if he created us with passions and emotions, how could ignoring that part of our being honour God? Could this emphasis of Merton be the result of his interfaith dialogue with Buddhism adjusting his anthropological insight?
In the end, I value and will continue to read Merton. Much of this work was pure gold. However, I fear that his dispassionate view of humanity suggests a deity more like the Greeks envisioned than the Hebrew writers of scripture!
—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1972).