Some wisdom from Thomas Merton

I have been reading ‘The Ascent to Truth’ by Thomas Merton. In the book he discusses the theology of St John of the Cross. The following is an excerpt from the chapter entitled ‘Concepts and contemplation’

‘…there are two dangers to be avoided. First, we must not take our knowledge of God for what it is not. Second, we must at least take it for what it is. It must neither be underestimated nor overestimated. Both these excesses end in a practical atheism. If we attribute too much power to out “clear ideas” of God, we will end up making a god of our own image, out of those clear ideas. If we do not grant concepts any power to tell us the truth about God, we will cut off all possible contact between our minds and Him.

I do not know which of these paths is the more fatal weakness. Both are path to false mysticism.’

It seems to me that Merton’s invitation is to a middle way. A path where certainty of any kind is problematic precisely because there is no room for surprise in certainty. There is no humility in certainty. And yet we must build on some foundation.

It is the path of discernment. Each day stepping forward in faith, but each day being open to the possibility that I may be wrong.

With the attack on faith by the new atheists, there can be a temptation to try and nail down what faith is. To be drawn into the mire of ‘proofs’ – but such a path leads to what Merton calls practical atheism. The ‘proof’ will be an abject failure – it will never satisfy the scientist, and it will lead the person of faith up the blind alley of false mysticism. Here prayer will be the echo chamber of human projection, rather than encounter with God.

2 thoughts on “Some wisdom from Thomas Merton

  1. “Here prayer will be the echo chamber of human projection, rather than encounter with God.” This statement is very thought-provoking. Humility is required in our relationship with God and if we think we can nail down God, then humility is not present. Thank you for this post.

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