The Taser's Edge

Merton on Christian “Experience”

The following is a wonderful passage, but it’s also incredibly dense, and most people who read my blog (I think) get turned off by that.  So to set it up for you, Thomas Merton is writing about the ways in which Christianity and Zen (or Buddhism in general, or other religions in general) can be usefully compared.  He has already talked about revelation as central to Christianity, and now he is talking about what Christian experience of that revelation looks like, before he gets to comparing the experience of Zen with the experience of Christianity.

As you’ll see, his description of the false understanding “For example…What shall such experience be?” sounds a lot like many definitions of Christianity, or many ways that Christianity has been practiced.  Likewise with “but rather a sense of security in one’s own correctness” and following.  You and I have seen (and–gulp–lived, for those of us who are Christians) all those versions of Christianity.  But thankfully, there in the middle is the gold, a beautiful if very limited essential definition: Christian experience is “a living theological experience of the presence of God in the world and in mankind through the mystery of Christ.”

Merton says it better:

Christian experience itself will be profoundly affected by the idea of revelation that the Christian himself will entertain.  For example, if revelation is regarded simply as a system of truths about God and an explanation of how the universe came into existence, what will eventually happen to it, what is the purpose of Christian life, what are its moral norms, what will be the rewards of the virtuous, and so on, then Christianity is in effect reduced to a world view, at times a religious philosophy and little more, sustained by a more or less elaborate cult, by a moral discipline and a strict code of Law.  “Experience” of the inner meaning of Christian revelation will necessarily be distorted and diminished in such a theological setting.  What will such experience be?  Not so much a living theological experience of the presence of God in the world and in mankind through the mystery of Christ, but rather a sense of security in one’s own correctness: a feeling of confidence that one has been saved, a confidence which is based on the reflex awareness that one holds the correct view of the creation and purpose of the world and that one’s behavior is of a kind to be rewarded in the next life.  Or, perhaps, since few can attain this level of self-assurance, then the Christian experience becomes one of anxious hope – a struggle with occasional doubt of the “right answers,” a painful and constant effort to meet the severe demands of morality and law, and a somewhat desperate recourse to the sacraments which are there to help the weak who must constantly fall and rise again.

Some things I would say, however…
1.) I would like a more explicit acknowledgement of the work of the Holy Spirit in this experience, even if that’s not Merton’s concern right here.

2.)  What does ‘experience’ mean for Christianity and for Zen?  If it is something that we actually know about (in some way sense) when it happens, then it is something at least precious and likely rare in both cases.  What does it mean for such an experience to both be utterly important and incredibly rare, even fleeting?

3.) What does it matter that God is “in the world and in mankind through the mystery of Christ?”  It’s important to notice that Merton assumes that the Christian experience does something.  The revelation matters because it does something.  Actually, it may do everything.

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