Monday, March 29, 2010

Unbinding the Lord

Thomas Merton.  Seven Storey Mountain.  New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948.  ISBN 0156010860.

Thomas Merton.  Mystics and Zen Masters.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967.  ISBN 0374520011.

Buddhism was not the only place I looked for insight after my LDS worldview collapsed.  I had several good friends who were Catholic: like the Buddhists, they provided me with a figurative shoulder to cry on, hearing my story and validating it from a neutral perspective.  Talking with these friends confirmed my conviction that there is something good in Christianity, even if Christ is "just" a myth.  I became interested in the possibility of being Christian without believing in a historical Christ.  I was also very interested in learning about Christian attempts to meet other religions affirmatively rather than antagonistically.  Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that I eventually found myself reading Thomas Merton.

I started with Seven Storey Mountain, which tells the story of Merton's conversion from a lackadaisical atheism to a very fervent Catholicism that eventually saw him enrolled as one of the monks at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky.  I found his story compelling on several levels.  First of all, it reminded me of my own journey into faith, which as a teenager I deliberately constructed as an escape from the world (where all was chaos) into the kingdom of God (where divine order prevailed).  It was hard for me to fall from the kingdom back into the world (though the chaos was not as much or as bad as I remembered).  Above all, I did not want to bid an eternal farewell to the bliss that comes from being aligned with some kind of "higher" purpose.  Merton gave me hope that maybe I could find that again.  More importantly, he opened a window onto a different kind of religious experience than the one the LDS church teaches, a religious experience in which the nature and character of God remains an eternal, unfathomable mystery.  Whereas my LDS faith taught me to approach God as a concrete thing defined precisely by direct revelation to human authorities, Merton's faith did not.  His God was always outside precise definition: no formula of words or intellectual concepts could hold him.  As an LDS missionary and a scholar of church history, I had often heard this particular aspect of Catholicism derided as proof of weakness ("How is it possible to relate meaningfully to something or someone without definite characteristics like body, parts, passions?").  Now I experienced it as a bastion of strength.  The unknowable God existed for me (in the untold mystery of life) in a way that my knowable God no longer could (since I was pretty sure that neither Joseph Smith nor any Mormon prophet since ever really saw or handled him in an experience that I could relate to or have for myself).

Coming from a later point in Merton's career, Mystics and Zen Masters deepened my respect for the unknowable God.  Because Merton was willing to acknowledge a God without precise limits, he was open to perceptions and experiences of "the divine" (as formulated by Christians) that came from traditions radically different from his.  Instead of trying to convert Zen Buddhists to Christianity (let alone Catholicism), he asked himself, "What can Christians (and Catholics) learn from Zen Buddhists?"  In Mystics and Zen Masters, the response to this question takes the form of a beautiful tapestry of blueprints for experiencing God (or "enlightenment," if you are a Buddhist).  Merton productively engages Catholicism, eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Zen Buddhism, and even existentialism in a dialogue where all parties have valuable information that they can share without forfeiting their status as equal partners.  The common thread that Merton finds uniting all these variations in human religious behavior emerges as a concern for connecting with reality (which one may call God, or enlightenment, or anything one pleases, as far as I am concerned).  He records two experiences of reality that strike me as being particularly beautiful. 

The first is his impression of the feelings motivating the Irish monk to leave his home on pilgrimage in the eighth and ninth centuries CE: "His vocation was to mystery and growth, to liberty and abandonment to God, in self-commitment to the apparent irrationality of the winds and seas, in witness to the wisdom of God the Father and Lord of the elements" (97-98).  The second comes from the world of Zen Buddhism: "A Chinese Zen master, Hui Neng, said: 'If you cherish the notion of purity and cling to it, you turn purity into falsehood...Purity has neither form nor shape, and when you claim an achievement by establishing a form to be known as are purity-bound [i.e., imprisoned by your limited and illusory concept of purity]'" (221).  Merton follows this story up by observing that "Zen is a full awareness of the dynamism and spontaneity of life" (222).  Both Irish pilgrim and Zen master experience reality as something dynamic and fluid, an erratic, evolving entity that is irreducible to definite form.  Rather than demand order, both ride the wave of chaos with faith that order will appear: spontaneous order, divine order, the order of God.  This is a kind of faith that I can live with because it matches the chaos (and serendipity) of real life as I experience it.  For better or for worse, my world can never again come together around a personal God who is completely knowable (but never chooses to reveal himself directly to me, preferring to speak through corporate handlers).

Merton's final message is a word of warning to organized religion.  Speaking primarily to Catholics, he points to the disasters of the Crusades, to the destruction of the Jesuits' early work in China, and discovers a moral lesson: the church cannot afford to join secular society in suppressing the need of individual human beings for authentic connections with reality.  If it is to exert a positive influence on social trends (rather than slap its label on whatever shenanigans happen to be going on), it must build individual integrity rather than institutional complacency.  Speaking to Buddhists, Merton takes a similar tack, enlisting Thich Nhat Hanh as an ally.  The following quote, while long, is one of the best passages in the book:
"Traditional Buddhism, formal, rigid, doctrinaire, is sterile, fit for a museum, irrelevant to the modern world, not because it is out of touch with current realities, but because it is out of touch with human experience itself [original emphasis]...To set up party, race, nation, or even official religion as absolutes is to erect barriers of illusion that stand between man and himself and prevent him from facing his own reality in its naked existential factuality.  In this case, says Nhat Hanh, the various world views, whether religious or political, may concur in the error of providing man with a refuge, and with stereotyped formal answers which substitute for genuine thought, insight, experience, and love.  One must break through these illusory forms and come directly to grips with suffering in ourselves and in others.  The aim of Buddhism is then the creation of an entirely new consciousness which is free to deal with life barehanded and without pretenses.  Piercing the illusions in ourselves which divide us from others, it must enable man to attain unity and solidarity with his brother through openness and compassion" (286-287).  

Here, in one paragraph Merton (with help from Nhat Hanh) brings together all the elements that went into my disaffection with Mormonism as practiced by the LDS.  The hardest part of coming out of my Mormon shell was recognizing that the LDS church subverted my moral integrity by convincing me to outsource it to them: instead of looking for God in the unknown as I experienced it, I was told to seek it in pronouncements from absolute authorities with power and knowledge that I could never really control for myself.  Like a tree with a wedge inside it, I grew up twisted and warped, with a hole in the center of my ill-developed faith that did not become apparent until "the brethren" could no longer supply me with absolute truth.  Now I find myself struggling to construct a worldview oriented towards the unknown instead of the known, toward God the mystery rather than God the celestial grandpa.  Sometimes it is a happy struggle.  Sometimes it is sad.  Always it is my own, and God (however I see him) is there with me, thanks in some measure to people like Thomas Merton: ordinary believers who experience God without trying to define or control him for others.    

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