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Apocalypticism in a Catholic Key: Lessons from Thomas Merton

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Christopher Pramuk
Affiliation:
Xavier University

Abstract

In the wake of Karl Rahner, a range of theologians have made a compelling case that theology cannot afford to dismiss popular fascination with “the End-times,” nor downplay the apocalyptic tenor of the New Testament itself. Nevertheless in Catholic theology apocalypticism remains something of an oddity, a message in search of a credible form. This essay explores the apocalyptic tenor of Thomas Merton's mature period (1957–68) in order to propose some crucial distinctions between apocalyptic in an authentically “Catholic,” “analogical,” or “ironic” mode, and other, more dialectical forms of apocalyptic that have long dominated American religious and popular consciousness. Bringing Merton into dialogue with Russian sophiology, William Lynch, Johannes Baptist Metz, and others, the author highlights Merton's contribution to the difficult question of form: that is, how apocalypticism might be communicated in a way that seizes on the historical urgency of the gospel but also refuses to cede to a mythological, dialectical, or dangerously idolatrous imagination.

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Articles
Copyright
Copyright © The College Theology Society 2009

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References

1 Evdokimov, Paul, Woman and the Salvation of the World: A Christian Anthropology on the Charisms of Women. Trans. Gythiel, Anthony (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1994; orig. pub. as Femme et le salut du monde, 1949), 128, 130.Google Scholar

2 Ibid., 128, 130.

3 The title of Thomas Merton's unforgettable prose poem on the dropping of the first atomic bomb (Original Child Bomb [New York: New Directions, 1962]). The bomb was affectionately named “Little Boy” by its makers; the second they called “Fat Man.”

4 Evdokimov, , Woman, 128.Google Scholar

5 Ibid., 120.

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9 In a journal of March 7, 1964, Merton described realized eschatology as “the trans formation of life and of human relations by Christ now (rather than an eschatology focused on future cosmic events. …) Realized eschatology is the heart of genuine Christian humanism and hence its tremendous importance for the Christian peace effort for example. … The preaching of peace by a remnant in an age of war and violence is one of the eschatological characteristics of the life of the Church. By this activity of the Church the work of God is mysteriously accomplished in the world” (Merton, Thomas, Dancing in the Water of Life: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Vol. 5 (1966–1967), ed. Daggy, Robert E. [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997], 87).Google Scholar

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11 Another possible term would be “sophianic” (or “sophiological”), which evokes the Wisdom christology at play implicitly, sometimes explicitly, in what follows. Merton and the Russian sophiologists witness to an apocalypticism conceived under the light of Wisdom.

12 See Rahner, Karl, “The Hermeneutics of Eschatological Assertions,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 4: More Recent Writings, trans. Smyth, Kevin (Baltimore: Helicon, 1966), 323–46Google Scholar; cf. Rahner, Karl, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, trans. Dych, William (1978; reprint, New York: Crossroad, 1992), 431–47.Google Scholar

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15 Evdokimov, , Woman, 120–21Google Scholar. It is noteworthy that Reinhold Niebuhr, also writing in 1949, cites the parable of the wheat and tares to describe a kind of “double-process” in history: “The perils of freedom rise with its promises, and the perils and promises are inextricably interwoven. … Christian faith expects some of the most explicit forms of evil at the end of history” (Faith and History [New York: Scribner's Sons, 1949], 233).

16 Evdokimov's sophianic vision of the natural world, and especially his celebration of eros as rooted in the very life of God, cast a severe light on the instrumentalization of nature and of human bodies that Merton saw poisoning modern Western society; more personally, it cast a harsh light on his own youthful relationships with women. The influence comes to bear not only in Merton's explicitly sophiological texts—most notably the prose poem, Hagia Sophia (1962)—but also, as I argue here, in his prophetic social essays.

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21 The essay appears in Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), a collection of thirteen pieces published between 1958 and 1965, and to my mind, the book that most unforgettably captures Merton's “voice in the wilderness” in an era spinning out of control. The volume's title is presumably a variant on T. S. Eliot's description of poetry as “a raid on the inarticulate,” with Merton substituting “the Unspeakable” to emphasize the vocation of the poet (artist; intellectual) to resist the horrors of an age of apocalyptic violence. Cf. O'Connell, Patrick F., “Raids on the Unspeakable,” in The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, ed. Shannon, William H., Bochen, Christine M., and O'Connell, Patrick F. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 379.Google Scholar

22 Merton, , Raids, 73Google Scholar; compare Evdokimov: “Our overcrowded cities have become frightening deserts of loneliness where Christ and Satan continue their devastating dialogue; more than ever, it is here that the preaching of St. John must continue ‘with its power’ (Lk. 1:17)” (Evdokimov, 245). The characterization of modern cities as “deserts of loneliness” resonates with Boris Pasternak's image of modern existence (particularly under communism) as a “reign of numbers.” The influence of Pasternak on Merton's literary and theological sensibilities probably cannot be overstated (see his pivotal study of 1959, “The Pasternak Affair,” Disputed Questions [New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960], 3–67). “In the face of our own almost hopeless alienation,” Pasternak is proof that the poet can help us “get back to ourselves before it is too late” (Literary Essays, 340).

23 Boeve, Lieven, “God Interrupts History: Apocalypticism as an Indispensable Theological Conceptual Strategy,” Louvain Studies 26 (2001): 195216, at 199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 Merton, , Raids, 91107, at 105.Google Scholar

25 Metz, Johann Baptist, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. Smith, David (New York: Crossroad, 1980), 170Google Scholar. On Metz's shift from “a focus on the incarnation as the proper doctrinal locus in which to work out the autonomy proper to the world” to an apocalyptic eschatology, which underscores “the God who can interrupt history, who sets bounds to history,” see Ashley, J. Matthew, “Johann Baptist Metz” (hereafter “JBM”), in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, ed. Cavanaugh, William and Scott, Peter (Cambridge: Blackwell, 2003), 241–55, at 250–51Google Scholar; also idem, Interruptions: Mysticism, Politics, and Theology in the Work of Johann Baptist Metz (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1998).

26 Merton, , Raids, 73Google Scholar. Biblical memoria, writes Metz, “always takes into account the suffering of others, the suffering of strangers.” Respecting “the authority of those who suffer” and articulating the suffering of others “is the presupposition of all claims to truth. Even those made by theology” (Metz, Johann Baptist, A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity, trans. Ashley, J. Matthew [New York: Paulist, 1998], 134Google Scholar; on apocalyptic as a recovery of an Israelite or biblical sense of history, see ibid., 63–69; 81–85).

27 Merton, , Raids, 71.Google Scholar

28 Evtuhov, Cited in, The Cross and the Sickle, 138.Google Scholar

29 Merton, , Raids, 70Google Scholar. In anticipation of our discussion below of form in apocalyptic discourse, it is fascinating to compare Merton's “The Time of the End” with the recent film Children of Men (Universal, 2006), released, not incidentally, on Christmas Day by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. By contrast to innumerable Hollywood films, where apocalyptic is dangerously untethered to memory, Cuaron gives us—uncannily like Merton's essay—an apocalyptic rendering of the New Testament birth narratives, evoked in hidden details throughout the film. Like Merton's prose poetry, Cuaron's filmic vision of apocalypse aims to wake us up to the gift of life, not least the life of the despised “other.” Both texts offer highly credible, mystical-political, and disarmingly non sentimental interpretations of the Nativity; both, I have found, can be brought into very fruitful conversation with undergraduate and graduate students.

30 Merton, , Raids, 71.Google Scholar

31 Merton, Thomas, The New Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), 27.Google Scholar

32 Merton, Thomas, The Behavior of Titans (New York: New Directions, 1961), 15.Google Scholar

33 Merton, , Raids, 67.Google Scholar

34 Merton, Thomas, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions, 1968), 30Google Scholar. At the end of this essay (“The New Consciousness”), Merton lays out a kind of charter for any approach—philosophical, literary, theological, scientific—that would seek to address the “great needs” of humanity today. This is a critical passage in Merton's late writings, reflecting his extraordinary attunement to the wisdom of other traditions and to the signs of the times.

35 Merton, , Raids, 6Google Scholar; citing Berdyaev.

36 Merton, , “The Pasternak Affair,” Disputed Questions, 11.Google Scholar

37 The following discussion is much indebted to John Kane's monograph on Lynch, , Passion, Polarization, and Imagination: William F. Lynch, SJ, and a Spirituality for Public Life (unpublished, 2009)Google Scholar, especially Chapter V, cited below with permission of the author.

38 By the “absolutizing instinct” Lynch means the instinct in human beings that tends to “make absolutes out of everything it touches and to pour floods of fantasy into the world about it. … [It is] a world of false hopes which counterfeits the reality of hope. … [It] magnifies. In its presence each thing loses its true perspective and its true edges. The good becomes tremendously good, the evil becomes the absolutely evil, the grey becomes the black or white, the complicated … becomes, in desperation, the completely simple” (Lynch, William, Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless [Baltimore: Helicon, 1965], 105–8).Google Scholar

39 Kane V, 35–36.

41 Lynch, , Images of Faith: An Exploration of the Ironic Imagination (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1973), 84Google Scholar; (emphasis original).

42 Ibid., 85.

43 Kane V, 40. Like Evdokimov and Niebuhr, Lynch cites the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Mt. 13:24–30) to underline the point: “It seems to be the teaching of Christ that good and bad must stay together until the final judgment. Imagine the horror of separating out the good in this life” (Lynch, , Images of Hope, 93).Google Scholar

44 Kane V, 41.

46 Ibid., 42.

47 Lynch, , Images of Faith, 101Google Scholar. Is this, we may ask, the strange “power of powerlessness” that so perplexed Nicodemus, which could not be “understood,” still less “realized,” until he had seen it play out not only in Jesus' enigmatic words but in the horrific manner of his death? Comparing John 3:1–21 to John 19:38–42, the transformation of Nicodemus suggested in the latter (and in so few words) is unexpected, and disarmingly poignant.

48 David Tracy describes apocalyptic as a “corrective genre signalized by principles of intensification and negations”; it is evoked “in times of crisis” as a challenge “of the sheer intensity of the ‘pain of the negative’ in the cross needed as an intrinsic moment in any adequate theology of incarnation. …” (Tracy, David, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism [New York: Crossroad, 1981], 265–66)Google Scholar. Ashley describes Metz's appeal to apocalypticism as “a rhetorical device to inspire hope and creative political action” (“JBM,” 252). I take Ashley to mean “rhetorical” in the sense that it “does not … culminate in an attempt to calculate the time and events of the last day” (ibid.); yet it is not “merely” rhetorical, I take Ashley to mean, in the sense that Metz aims to retrieve the biblical sense of God as the one “who can interrupt history, who sets bounds to history,” and further, as the one who “has a very fresh and living memory of the smallest and most forgotten” (las Casas). Significantly, both Metz and Merton appeal to the same authority when speaking from this nettlesome divine perspective: the authority of those who suffer, engendering what Metz calls a “mysticism of open eyes” (Ashley, , “JBM,” 252Google Scholar; Metz, , A Passion for God, 133–35).Google Scholar

49 Kane V, 45.

50 Lynch, , Images of Faith, 161.Google Scholar

51 Evdokimov, , Woman, 130.Google Scholar

52 Ibid, 129.

53 “In Mozart's Mass, one hears the voice of Christ; the solemnity of the music attains the liturgical value of a Presence. Mozart's Mass is an icon written in sound” (ibid., 132).

54 Ibid, 128.

55 Thus the audacity of Evdokimov's insistence, even in the shadow of Auschwitz, on affirming the “positive goal” of history set down at Chalcedon, i.e. “to actualize humanity in the form of ‘the fullness of Christ’” (ibid., 120).

56 Merton, , Faith and Violence, 163Google Scholar. Compare Evdokimov, who describes the breakdown of meaningful communication in Christianity, both ad intra and ad extra, as “more distressing than the first Tower of Babel”: “[W]hat we now have is no longer the confusion of tongues, but the confusion of minds—the impossibility of hearing each other speak the same language. The world is withdrawing into itself, and will perhaps hear the voice of Christ no more. Christianity is withdrawing into itself, and no longer has any impact on history” (Evdokimov, , Woman, 128).Google Scholar

57 I resist the inclination to characterize Merton too rigorously as an apophatic theologian. This would overlook the degree to which his mature work in fact reflects a positive theology of divine-human presence, a lyrical (if increasingly ironic) vision of the world redeemed in Christ/Spirit/Sophia.

58 For a provocative discussion of the tensions and pitfalls facing Catholic theologians with respect to a more vigorous exercise of the eschatological imagination, especially in the wake of Rahner, see Thiel, John, “For What May We Hope? Thoughts on the Eschatological Imagination,” Theological Studies 67 (2006): 517–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

59 From Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, cited by Merton, in Disputed Questions, 1617.Google Scholar

60 Matt. 11:28; cf. Sir. 51:23–26. Biblical scholars have long recognized the Hebrew Wisdom foundations of New Testament Christology, and almost certainly of Jesus' selfidentity. Amid an enormous body of literature, Dunn, James D. G.provides a balanced overview of the issues and texts at play in his Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 163212Google Scholar; and idem, “Jesus: Teacher of Wisdom or Wisdom Incarnate?,” in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, ed., Barton, Stephen C. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 7592Google Scholar. The relationship between wisdom and apocalypticism is a frequent theme of biblical scholar John J. Collins. See his study and related essays in e.g., In Search of Wisdom: Essays in Memory of John G. Gammie, ed. Perdue, Leo G., Scott, Bernard Brandon, and Wiseman, William Johnston (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993).Google Scholar

61 In an essay pivotal to his mature period, Merton links the wisdom of Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures with the “obscure” wisdom of Herakleitos, a pre-Socratic philosopher whose enigmatic “fragments” captured Merton's imagination. See Merton, Thomas, The Behavior of Titans, 75106, here at 96, 103.Google Scholar

62 Merton, , The New Man, 241.Google Scholar

63 Ibid. 238, 241–42.

64 Merton, Thomas, Seasons of Celebration (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), 6364.Google Scholar

65 O'Connell, Patrick F., “Eschatology,” in Merton Encyclopedia, 140.Google Scholar

67 See the luminous passage on Julian, of Norwich, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 211–12.Google Scholar

68 Merton, , Bread in the Wilderness, 37 (emphasis added).Google Scholar

69 Merton, , Raids, 159.Google Scholar

70 Ibid., 159–60.

71 From “Atlas and the Fatman,” Raids, 106; cf. “The Climate of Mercy,” in Merton, Thomas, Love and Living, ed. Stone, Naomi Burton and Hart, Brother Patrick (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), 203–19.Google Scholar

72 Merton, , Raids, 106Google Scholar. Merton's mature christology is best characterized as a thoroughgoing Wisdom christology, a kenotic christology of Presence realized most sublimely in the 1962 prose poem, Hagia Sophia (see Pramuk, Christopher, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009]Google Scholar; idem, “‘Something Breaks Through a Little’: The Marriage of Zen and Sophia in the Life of Merton, Thomas, Buddhist-Christian Studies 28 [2008]: 6789).Google Scholar

73 Boeve writes: “Movies that exploit biblical images of pending destruction and of the ultimate struggle between good and evil are reaping in the box-office dollars,” citing as examples Apocalypse Now, Independence Day, End of Days, Armageddon, and Judge Dredd (Boeve, , “God Inturrupts History,” 197Google Scholar). The film Transformers (2007), wildly popular with young boys, is just one of a burgeoning class of films reflecting the strange fluidity in pop culture between technology and theological anthropology—calling to mind the ominous words of Psalm 115: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands… Their makers shall be like them, all who trust in them.” Or, as Merton wrote in 1965, “The machines are meditating on the most arbitrary and rudimentary of essences, punched into IBM cards, defining you and me forever without appeal” (Dancing in the Water of Life, 201). Cf. Metz, , A Passion for God, 80Google Scholar, on the robot as “successor to the person.”

74 Merton, , Raids, 159–60.Google Scholar

75 Merton, Thomas, Opening the Bible (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1970), 39Google Scholar; referencing The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Hollywood, CA: Hollywood Home Theatre, 1964) by the Italian filmmaker and avowed atheist Pier Paolo Passolini. Merton had seen the film in October of 1966 during an extended stay in Louisville for medical tests. See Merton, Thomas, Learning to Love: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Vol. 6 (1966–1967), ed. Bochen, Christine M. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 151.Google Scholar

76 Merton, , Opening the Bible, 40.Google Scholar

77 Ibid., 41–43.

78 Ibid., 43.

79 Merton, , Disputed Questions, 67Google Scholar. It should be clear at this point that Merton was no biblical literalist, but sought to discern “the theological content of the Bible” in the context of the “atmosphere of proclamation and liturgy [in which] the sacred texts themselves took shape” (Love and Living, 223).

80 Merton, , Disputed Questions, 65.Google Scholar

81 “[The] crude symbolism of violence has gained its power precisely from the fact that the symbolism of love has been so terribly debased, cheapened, and dehumanized” (Love and Living, 64). “Not only are we idolaters, but we are likely to carry out point by point the harlotries of the Apocalypse. And if we do, we will do so innocently, decently, with clean hands, for the blood of the victims is always shed somewhere else!” (Faith and Violence, 153).

82 Merton, , Love and Living, 75.Google Scholar

83 See Metz, , “Theology as Theodicy?,” in A Passion for God, 5471, at 69Google Scholar. The point recalls Metz's famous statement about the difference between his theology and his beloved teacher Rahner's: “Some day Rahner will die, and he will be greeted by God the Father with this question: ‘My dear great Karl Rahner, what have you done to the apocalyptics of my son?’” To which Rahner replies: “You may be right, you may be right; but, how are you going to get this across?” (Ashley, , Interruptions, 251Google Scholar, n.58, citing a study by Mary Maher). Ashley elegantly frames Rahner's and Metz's differences in terms of the four “weeks” of St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises (ibid, pp. 187–91).

84 Sergei Bulgakov, cited in Valliere, Paul, Modern Russian Theology: Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 339Google Scholar; the present study is deeply indebted to Valliere's masterful reading of Russian sophiology.

85 Ashley, , “JBM,” 251.Google Scholar

86 See, e.g., Zen and the Birds of Appetite, 39, where Merton laments that the “obsession with doctrinal formulas, juridical order and ritual exactitude has often made people forget that the heart of Catholicism, too, is a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations. What too often has been overlooked, in consequence, is that Catholicism is the taste and experience of eternal life.”

87 See Zen and the Birds of Appetite, 15–32, at 25.

88 Ashley, , “JBM,” 250.Google Scholar

89 For a scathing critique of theodicies proclaimed by religious leaders after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, see Dyson, Michael Eric, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (New York: Basic Civitas, 2006), 178201.Google Scholar

90 In a prefatory note to “The Time of the End,” Merton writes: “We live in an age of two superimposed eschatologies, that of secular anxieties and hopes, and that of revealedt. Sometimes the first is merely mistaken for the second, sometimes it results from complete despair of the second. In point of fact the pathological fear of the violent end which, when sufficiently aroused, actually becomes a thinly disguised hope for the violent end, provides something of the climate of confusion and despair in which the more profound hopes of Biblical eschatology are realized—for everyone is forced to confront the possibility, and to accept or reject them. This definitive confrontation is precisely what Biblical eschatology announces to us” (Raids, 65).

91 The theodicy question clearly represents the greatest challenge to the intelligibility of a thoroughgoing incarnational (Wisdom) theology, and its correlative in a robust doctrine of divinization or theosis. Hence the insistence of political and liberation theologies on the cor rective role of the memoria passionis, “the sheer intensity of the ‘pain of the negative’ … needed as an intrinsic moment in any adequate theology of incarnation” (Tracy, n. 48 above). Or, as Ashley writes, citing Bonaventure and summing up the inner “logic” of a spirituality of liberation, “There is no other path but through the burning love of the Crucified,” where reason must finally be surrendered “by an act of reason” itself (Ashley, “Apocalypticism in Political and Liberation Theology,” 41). Merton, Cf., Bread in the Wilderness, 117–24.Google Scholar

92 Metz, , A Passion for God, 105Google Scholar; for Metz's most cogent discussion of “the myth of an evolutionistically unbounded time,” of time “as an empty continuum … which dominates modernity's background,” see “Theology versus Polymythicism: A Short Apology for Biblical Monotheism” (idem., 72–91).

93 Merton, Thomas, The Living Bread (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956), 152–53Google Scholar. Cf. Rahner: “The whole is a drama, and the stage itself is also part of it. It is a dia logue between spiritual and divinized creatures and God, a dialogue and a drama which has already reached its irreversible climax in Christ” (Foundations, 446).

94 Evdokimov, , Woman, 132.Google Scholar

95 Cited in Valliere, 343–44.

96 Merton, , Raids, 75.Google Scholar

97 Evdokimov, , Woman, 130Google Scholar. In remembering the cross of Jesus, we realize (darkly) “what is to come” for ourselves, if we follow. In remembering the resurrection, we realize (joyfully) that even now we can taste and see “something of the glory of Kingdom” which is to come. “Thus contemplation and eschatology are one, in Christian faith and in surrender to Christ. They complete each other and intensify each other” (Merton, , Dancing in the Water of Life, 182).Google Scholar