Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Mertonian Meditation on a Divisive Day

On days like today, when the vicious divisiveness of political dialogue in this country (and in my own church) is so prevalent, I'm reminded of the following passage from Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which I offer without commentary:
We are all convinced that we desire the truth above all.  Nothing strange about this.  It is natural to man, an intelligent being, to desire the truth. (I still dare to speak of man as "an intelligent being"!) But actually, what we desire is not "the truth" so much as "to be in the right." To seek the pure truth for its own sake may be natural to us, but we are not able to act always in this respect according to our nature.  What we seek is not the pure truth, but the partial truth that justifies our prejudices, our limitations, our selfishness. This is not "the truth."  It is only an argument strong enough to prove us "right." And usually our desire to be right is correlative to our conviction that somebody else (perhaps everybody else) is wrong.
Why do we want to prove them wrong?  Because we need them to be wrong.  For if they are wrong, and we are right, then our untruth becomes truth: our selfishness becomes justice and virtue: our cruelty and lust cannot be fairly condemned. We can rest secure in the fiction that we have determined to embrace as "truth."  What we desire is not the truth, but rather that our lie should be proved "right," and our iniquity be vindicated as "just."  This is what we have done to pervert our natural, instinctive appetite for truth.
No wonder we hate.  No wonder we are violent.  No wonder we exhaust ourselves in preparing for war!  And in doing so, of course, we offer the enemy another reason to believe that he is right, that he must arm, that he must get ready to destroy us.  Our own lie provides the foundation of truth on which he erects his own lie, and the two lies together react to produce hatred, murder, disaster (72-73).


  1. Stephen BlakemanJuly 5, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    To equate, as Merton does here, without qualification or nuance, the search for truth with a mere desire to be “in the right” is a remarkably cynical and woefully incorrect understanding of (1) the role of the intellect, enlightened by faith, (2) the nature of the human person, and (3) truth itself.

    Did Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, whose feast day was celebrated four days before your post, fall to the executioner’s axe for the sake of truth, or to be merely “in the right”? To say the latter is to make a mockery of their martyrdom.

    The impetus for your post was quite obviously the Supreme Court decisions regarding same-sex marriage.

    To claim as a matter of truth, i.e., not as a matter of opinion or doxa, that marriage can only be established between one man and one woman, and that civil society should reflect this truth in its laws and culture, need not be done to be merely “in the right” and to make enemies of those who are “in the wrong.” It is a truth claim that can substantiated by right-reason and confirmed by faith, as articulated by the Church. (While those who reject this truth are, per logical force, wrong, this does not render them enemies, fit to be crushed underfoot. It means those of us who accept this truth have a formidable challenge ahead of us in persuading others, in charity and prudence, of their errant understanding.)

    If all truth claims were fundamentally relative, i.e., shifting according to context, culture, or categories such as time, place, or manners, then Merton may have a point. But the fact of the matter is, not all truths are relative; there are certain truths, such as the dignity of the human person and the nature of marriage, that stand firm no matter prevailing opinion or civil powers.

    I could go on and on, but I won’t try you or your readers. Suffice it to say, and to take another angle on Merton’s inept words, if Merton were right, then the undertaking of theology is, at root, a fruitless and worthless exercise. Under Mertons’ view, at least as articulated here, one who adheres to fundamental truths of the Christian faith, such as God’s triune nature and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, does so merely to be “in the right,” with a view to making enemies of those who are in the wrong. What a paltry and cynical, not to mention confused, view of things. Ironically enough, if Merton were correct, there isn’t a principled reason to read him in the first place. After all, anything he claims to be the case, including his passage here, is really nothing more than a selfish desire to be in the right, to bolster hatred for those who are in the wrong.

    I have a good deal of respect for Merton, but as far as this passage is concerned (which I accept may have been taken out of context), he has missed the mark.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Stephen. But I think you've misread Merton, as well as my purpose in quoting his words. Merton is not talking about whether or not truth claims can be made; he vry clearly thought that truth claims can and should be made. His comments, rather, are specifically about how and why someone would pursue truth, and about the danger of pursuing truth only to be in the right and therefore only to prove the other wrong. He is preaching, in other words, against the kind of prideful pursuit of truth that is focused primarily on theological or political oneupmanship. Merton's comments seemed apt given the kind of truly uncharitable comments I read on various forums from those on both sides of the DOMA debate on the day the ruling came down.

    The quotation above emerged out of Merton's observations regarding the tenuous political and ecclesial divisiveness of the 1960s, and is not, to my reading, advocating the kind of theological or moral relativism about which you are justifiably concerned. Does my reading hold water for you?

    P.S. Forgive any typos. I'm on my ipad in a cafe.

  3. Stephen BlakemanJuly 5, 2013 at 1:37 PM

    My trouble with Merton’s words is that, standing alone (and as I mentioned, perhaps out of context), they do not contain the qualifications you read into them. Merton states that “It is natural to man, an intelligent being, to desire the truth.” (We can all agree to this, as it’s a first principle of theoretical reasoning; see Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I.)

    However, he then proceeds immediately to say (and here's the point of contention), “But actually, what we desire is not ‘the truth’ so much as ‘to be in the right.’”

    He doesn’t say what we “sometimes” desire, what we “often” desire, or what we “frequently” desire -- all on account of pride. These words, or words like them, that would provide the necessary qualification you provide, but Merton himself does not, are noticeably absent.

    This is no facile or merely semantic criticism.

    Unqualified statements like Merton’s bolster the view that truth claims are really nothing more ideological statements of power fashioned to oppress those who disagree and that any assertion of truth is therefore a Nietzhean exercise of the will to power, i.e., in Merton's words, to “be in the right.” Hence: to claim marriage can only between one man and woman is to subjugate homosexuals, or, within, the Catholic Church, to claim a male only priesthood is to repress women.

    There is no doubt that pride gets in the way of reasoning, and left to our own devices, reasoning to the truth is an arduous exercise. But that doesn’t mean our reasoning is so tainted by our economic desires (as in Marx) or our sexuality (as in Freud) or by original sin (as in Luther) that we are unable to arrive at any fixed truth, such as the truth of marriage.

    Charity has perhaps been lacking on both sides of the DOMA debate, but we shouldn’t let our desire for charity and good will cloud the truth claim that is at stake. Indeed, charity and good will oblige us to demonstrate to others the truth of marriage and its inherent constitution and dignity.

    As applied to this debate, it seems to me that the passage from Merton you quote does not constitute a call to preach the truth of marriage in love and humility (as, of course, we should), but to question whether we can claim there is a truth of marriage at all.

  4. I've read and re-read the passage in question, & I simply do not see how it could be interpreted as you interpret it. On a side note, it appears to me that the marriage debate is not nearly as black and white as you seem to interpret it to be.

  5. Stephen BlakemanJuly 5, 2013 at 5:12 PM

    Thanks, Greg. We’ll just have to agree to disagree, but I can’t help but point out that your side note proves my very point.


  6. Merton is often profound; often squishy. This is one of his more squishy moments.

  7. LOL. How does one purport to be a Catholic theologian and suggest that marriage (defined, inter alia, as a union between one man and one woman) is not a black and white issue? The Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage (not to mention history, reason, and a sound philosophical anthropology) is crystal clear. Are there any other well-established doctrines of the Church that are not in your view “black and white,” or is this the only one?

  8. What I mean, specifically with reference to marriage, is that it does not at all seem clear to me that the church should strive to make normative for society its definition of marriage. In terms of your broader question, Joe, I think there is a healthy tension between revelation and the unknowability of God, an unknowability predicated both on human weakness and divine otherness. This is a tension the Cappadocians, for example, lived within; Pseudo-Dionysius, who heavily influenced Thomas, is another example. This does not mean that doctrines are not true doctrines, but it does mean that we approach the task of theology prayerfully and humbly, recognizing the limitation of language to express the inexpressible. Moreover, theology as a discipline, both academic and spiritual, cannot be limited solely to the 'true' as if that exhausts the full import of what is being articulated. It must also be beautiful and good, and be expressed as such. What you all seem to miss in the Merton quotation above is that Merton does not see an opposition between humility and truth.

    My experience, limited though it may be, is that American Catholics, for whatever reason, are very uncomfortable with the kind of theological nuance that is so much a part of the Church's 2000 year tradition. I often here American Catholics refer to this as 'squishy'. But such nuance doesn't call into question the truth of what we believe and articulate. It does, however, recognize that the Spirit continues to guide us into all truth, an idea that takes seriously that we may not actually have total purchase on that truth, and will never given the inexhaustibility of God. Squishy this may be to you. But it is central to the Church's theological tradition.

    I'm now on holidays, so I may not be able to respond again for a number of days. I do very much appreciate the interaction!

  9. Hey, Dude, I’m not sure what you mean by “American Catholics.” Growing up in New England, I came across a lot of Canadian drivers who couldn’t drive a car worth beans. I wouldn’t publicly aver, however, a broad statement like Canadians, such as yourself, can’t drive.

    As a student of the great Henri de Lubac, who along with Danielou, Balthasar and others, read widely and deeply in the great tradition of Catholic theology, including of course the early Church Fathers, I have a small clue about “theological nuance that is so much a part of the Church’s 2000 year tradition.” Too bad you haven’t had much experience with “American Catholics.” Try and get out some more. :)

    If I may defend Mr. Anonymous for a moment, just because he finds this one passage of Merton “squishy” doesn’t mean he’s ignorant of, or disagrees with, millennia of Catholic theology, as you more than imply. (He did say he finds much of Merton profound.) I wouldn’t suggest someone is ignorant of what is “central to the Church’s theological tradition,” because a paragraph of Merton (or for that matter, Balthasar, Maximus the Confessor, or Therese of Lisieux), isn’t to one’s liking. (I myself enjoy the early Merton, but the later Merton only so-so.)

    Though Duns Scotus may object, you are, of course, correct that speech about God must necessarily proceed apophatically. That does not mean, however, we are unable to speak about the created order, such as marriage, and arrive at certain immutable truths concerning it. (Even when speaking of God “negatively” we can come to the reasonable conclusion that God is one, eternal, perfect, omnipresent, etc.)

    Also, instantiation of one transcendental (truth) doesn’t preclude instantiation of the other transcendentals (goodness, beauty, etc.). In fact, because the transcendentals are fundamentally one, they are convertible.

    You like the passage from Merton; Stephen and Anonymous do not. Though Stephen has some reasons for disagreeing with its substance (with qualifications that you fail to note), it strikes me that the dispute is one of style rather than substance. (As I read it, Stephen’s criticism of the Merton passage was not that truth is opposed to humility, but that we can humbly arrive at truth, and share it with others in charity.) If so, I wouldn’t go accusing these guys as being dumb American Catholics who are ignorant of the Church’s theological tradition.

    I’ll leave for another day your point about whether the “church should strive to make normative for society its definition of marriage.” If the church should strive to make normative the preferential option of the poor, the defense of the vulnerable and weak, and social justice in general (as I think it should), then it should strive to do so for marriage and family. (Ever read Bl. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio or Letter to Families? How about that great Canadian, Cardinal Marc Ouellet?)

    No need to respond. Enjoy your vacation.

  10. Actually, as a Canadian, I can affirm your observation about Canadian drivers! :)

    My apologies for the generalization in my previous comment. I by no means intended a) to lump all American Catholics into one homogenous group and b) insinuate that Stephen, Mr. Anonymous, or yourself were characteristic of the kind of thing I was criticizing. In no way was I suggesting that you or they are "dumb American Catholics who are ignorant of the Church’s theological tradition", though I completely understand how my comments could have been taken as such. For that, I apologize.

    My comment about "American Catholics" should have been rephrased as "American Catholicism", though that too is a generalization. What I was pointing toward was a general tone that I've noticed among *certain* segments of the church that tend not to appreciate the kind of theological nuance that you identify in de Lubac, Balthasar, Danielou, etc (all of whom have played, and continue to play, a central role in my formation theologically and spiritually). But, again, as you rightly point out, any such criticism is really a generalization that is not very helpful. I recant!

    As to your last point, I'd love to have a more in depth conversation about political theology, perhaps on here. My specialty is patristics, but I spend a great deal of time thinking about political theology, and am under no illusions that I have the complicated relationship of church and politics figured out. If I'm being entirely honest, for various biographical reasons I'm very much influenced and persuaded by Anabaptist political theology, some of which has parallels in Catholic political theology (though there are, as you know, substantial divergences). While I agree that the church should strive to make normative issues of justice, etc., the question for me really revolves around *how* this is done, and I think the answer to that question makes all the difference.

    All this to say...I truly do appreciate the engagement here, even if it does mean that I am (justifiably) called out on the carpet :)