These excerpts from Thomas Merton's essay Christianity and Totalitarianism are selfishly chosen to till the ground for an essay I'm writing regards the evolutionary dimension of spiritual practice that has taken hold of so many in this generation and in large part drives this site. The ascending current, the impulse to become, these concepts uncarefully embraced have already brought carnage and ill-repute on what I continue to believe is the primary revelation of our day.
Instead, what is being called, and what I'll argue at length in the coming essay is a profound responsibility for individuals to submit their lives, not at the behest of a movement, a teacher, or even the furor and excitement of a teaching, but by squarely coming to realize their import in service of God. Ultimately alone, of their own free will.
I'm no Christian though consider myself increasingly swayed by the direction and leadership of the man Jesus, and the Christ consciousness to which his words pointed. Thomas Merton as well as any contemporary captures the spirit of these words and makes them relevant to our day.
Joseph Campbell in his book Transformation of Myth Through Time makes the point that the human species being so long dependent on a nurturer assumes a deeply ingrained orientation to authority. Dependency, submission to authority, expecting approval, fearing discipline, he says, is the primary architecture of the psyche. Overcoming this orientation then becomes the imperative of the mature man or woman, what Richard Rohr in his new book Falling Upwards calls the 'second half of life', the willing disintegration and submission of self after the containers of a stable and coherent human life have been build, in the first half of life.
Still young many of us are given to the wild promise of youth, and the immediate and unearned demands of revelation now. It doesn't work that way, not for most of us. My father made the point tonight over a drink about how our primary instrument of intelligence, the body, operates slowly. It incubates. Premature evacuation of this maturing intelligence produces pain for most everything in its orbit. I believe more strongly than ever that the primary challenge among those of our lights is not the speed and degree to which we can network, organize, awaken and impact the world, but rather the degree to which we can hold the urgency in place and incubate the seeds of transformation. Seeds that require uncommon agency, uncontaminated by the dependency and desperation of an unready mind.
Included in these excerpts is another theme that has been aflame of late: the responsibility of serving the world how it is and appears, rather than being disinterested in the particular filth and excrement we have together created ('let the dead bury the dead' is a popular theme among evolutionary zealotry these days). There is a clear link of course. One can't make a coherent choice to submit their faculties without the sound faculties to do so. And the cultivation of those faculties in society is still in large part a social, political matter. Playing the cards as they lay can still be a challenge for the spiritually ambitious.
Without further adieu:
The task of the Christian in our time is the same as it has always been: to build the Kingdom of God in this world. To manifest Christ in individuals and society -- or rather to allow the Savior to manifest His hidden presence in he world by the charity and unity, in one Body, of those He came to save.
This task is of course ultimately spiritual and eschatological, for the earthly manifestation of the Kingdom of God is still only a shadow of the eternal Kingdom that is to come. However, the spiritual character of the Kingdom cannot be made into a pretext for ignoring the temporal happiness and welfare of man in this present life. This may have been a temptation in the past. Those who yielded to it may perhaps have been excusable in their day. But it is no longer permitted to us to close our eyes to the danger of so grave an error. We must plainly and courageously face the fact that 'building the Kingdom of God in this world' in preparation for the ulitmate and eschatalogical revelation of the Kingdom in eternity means in fact building a better world here and now -- a better world for man to live in, and thus save his immortal soul.
Why is this so? Because man is not a pure spirit: his life in the world is a bodily life. He needs food, shelter, protection, comradeship and work. He lives as a member of a visible society. His interior and spiritual life, in a word, his salvation, depends in large measure on his ability to provide a normal and reasonable standard of living for himself and his family, to take part freely in the political, artistic and intellectual life of the world, and above all to serve and love his God.
The Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of Love: but where freedom, justice, education, and a decent standard of living are not to be had in society, how can the Kingdom of Love be built in that society? A starving man has little capacity to think about love. It is true, great saints can live and thrives in conditions that would be impossible for the average man. But the Kingdom of God is not made up exclusively of great saints: it is a living, Mystical organism made up of average men, with their weaknesses, their limitations, their good will, their talents, their deficiencies -- all taken up and divinized by the Holy Spirit, so that Christ lives and manifests Himself in one and all. We who have been called, as average men, to live in this great mystery of the One Christ, must take care to see that we build for one another a world of justice, decent living, honest laabor, peace and truth, fully recognizing that without these conditions we can only with great difficulty protect our weakness against sin, loss of faith, and ultimate despair...
...Those who seek to build a better world without God are those who, trusting in money, power, technology and organization, deride the spiritual strength of faith and love and fix all their hopes on a huge monolithic society, having a monopoly over all power, all production, and even over the minds of its members. But to alientate the spirit of man by subjecting him to such monstrous indignity is to make injustice and violence inevitable. By such means we may indeed increase economic production but in doing so we will only make the world worse...
...The Church...is not an army or a mass-movement in which the individual loses himself. When the prophets preached the Messianic Kingdom of Peace, they based their preaching on justice and mercy which implied a profound respect for the rights and integrity of the human person. And when Christ, in the New Testament, preached the Kingdom of God, He opened the way only to individuals. No one can enter the Kingdom except by his own personal decision.
We are not saved en masse. Masses indeed may be called, but only individuals are chosen because only individuals can respond to a call by free choice of their own. The Church is not, and has never been merely for the mass-man, the passive, inert man who drifts with the crowd and never decides anything for himself.
The mass-man is material for the mass-movement because he is easily transformed into a fanatic. That is why the mass-movement is so congenial to fanatics, and seeks to keep the fanaticism of its members at a high pitch. Indeed, when the members of a mass-movement begin to lose their fanatical hatred of everthing that is not the movement, then that movement itself begins to die...
...Nothing is so harmful to the Church as fanaticism. And it is harmful precisely because it produces an ersatz of Christian fervor and unity. The fanaticim of a mass-movement has the semblance of a unanimous spiritual front -- the dedication of members to a common purpose to resist error and stamp out evil. It is precisely this semblance of spirituality and dedication that makes fanaticism deadly.
Fanaticism is never really spiritual because it is not free. It is not free because it is not enlightened. It cannot judge between good and evil, truth and falsity, because it is blinded by prejudice. Faith and prejudice have a common need to rely on authority and in this they can sometimes be confused by one who does not understand their true nature. But faith rests on the authoirty of love while prejudice rests on the pseudo-authority of hatred. Everyone who has read the Gospel realizes that in order to be a Christin one must give up being a fanatic, because Christianity is love. Love and fanaticism are incompatible. Fanaticism thrives on aggression. It is destructive, revengeful and sterile. Fanaticism is all the more virulent in proportion as it springs from inability to love, from incapacity to reciprocate human understanding.
Fanaticism refuses to look at another man as a person. It regards him only as a thing. He is either a 'member' or he is not a member. He is either a part of one's own mob, or he is outside the mob. Woe to him, above all, if he stands outside the mob with the mute protest of his individual personality! That was what happened at the Crucifixion of Christ. Christ, the incarnate Son of God, came as a Person, seeking the understanding, the acceptance and the love of free person. He found Himself face to face with a compact fanatical group, that wanted nothing of His Person. They feared His disturbing uniqueness. It was necessary, as Caiphas said, that this 'one man should die for the nation' -- that the individual Person, and above all this Person, whould be sacrificed to the collectivity. From its very birth, Christianity has been categorically opposed to everything that savors of the mass-movement.