The Taser's Edge


The Moral Theology of the Devil

Thomas Merton, in his Seeds of Contemplation (the contents of which much more easily found in a greatly expanded version as New Seeds of Contemplation), has a fascinating chapter from which this post took its title. The main body of the barely two-page chapter is a harsh condemnation, without ever using the specific theological terms, of TULIP– and Puritan-style Calvinist (which are NOT, as that Wikipedia link fails to make clear, the only Calvinisms out there) soteriology.

(To make one comment on that, while I appreciate Merton for never pulling his punches in naming evil “evil,” his view toward these folks is uncharacteristically uncharitable, attributing evil intentions rather than just good ol’ being-really-wrong-about-some-things-ness to them.)

What struck me most personally in the chapter, however, is how it ends. While I would have tended to think of the following as the cardinal sin of evangelicals (like me), Merton helps me to acknowledge that it’s more widespread than just in my tribe.

I don’t need to try to name it, as Merton already has: “The Moral Theology of the Devil”:

The devil is not afraid to preach the will of God provided he can preach it in his own way.

The argument goes something like this: “God wills you to do what is right. But you have an interior attraction which tells you, by a nice warm glow of satisfaction, what is right. Therefore, if your Superiors try to interfere and make you do something that does not produce this comfortable sense of interior satisfaction, quote Scripture, tell them that you ought to obey God rather than men, and then go ahead and do your own will, do the thing that gives you that nice, warm glow.”

Christ, have mercy on your followers.



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.



Book Haul!

That is, Birthday Haul! (Don’t feel the need to make yourself watch the entire awful thing):

For Bridge Day, the day which falls between Holly’s and my birthday, we headed to Chapel Hill for lunch and to hit a couple stores.  I rarely buy a book.  That is, they come by the many.

From the excellent The Bookshop (and thanks to my excellent Mom, who got me a gift certificate there)

  • The Angry Christian by Andrew LesterI’ve heard good things about this book for a long time, and one of my chaplain supervisors at Duke knew the author while living in Dallas
  • The Lord by Romano Guardini–Ratzinger/Benedict XVI likes Guardini a lot (Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy is titled in an homage to Guardini’s book of the same name), and this looked fantastic
  • Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, edited by Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass–I’ve been looking for this book for several years, both because of everything, and because one of my favorite (now former) Duke profs, Tammy Williams, submitted a chapter
  • Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton–From late in Merton’s life, continuing inter-religious dialogues with the East

And from the excellent resale shop connected to an even better cause, Pennies for Change:

  • An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski–I’ve been interested in the book for a long time out of curiosity, then out of practical questions of the connections between preaching and performing, then because performance and Christian ethics is now a hot topic (including Stanislavski)
  • The Challenges of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex & Power by Richard J. FosterYou would think that I should read Celebration of Discipline first, but no
  • The Crosswicks Journal, Book 3: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle–I have yet to read much of her non-fiction
  • The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil–from the back of the book, “Like his contemporary and rival Sigmund Freud, Robert Musil boldly explored the dark, irrational undercurrents beneath the calm surface of bourgeois life…”
  • Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain–Not normally my genre for reading, but a new movie version is out as an HBO series starring Kate Winslet and directed by Todd Haynes
  • The Myth of the Eternal Return, or, Cosmos and History by Mircea Eliade–Who’s not interested in the eternal return?
  • The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays by E.P. Thompson–Thompson’s most famous book is The Making of the English Working Class (not well-regarded by at least once Wesley historian at Duke), and his second may be this
  • Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life by Patricia Hampl–Interesting-looking book by a well-respected author?  Yes, please.


False Selves and True Selves

Twinned excerpted quotes from Paradox: The Spiritual Path to Transformation on rejecting/destroying/releasing/pushing through/”relinquishing” our false selves and coming to know and be our true selves…

From Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation:

To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self.  I was born in a mask.  I came into existence under a sign of contradiction, being someone that I was never intended to be and therefore, a denial of what I am supposed to be.  And thus I came into existence and non-existence at the same time because from the very start I was something that I was not.

And from Idries Shah’s The Way of the Sufi:

Shibli was asked: “Who guided you in the Path?”

He said: “A dog.  One day I saw him, almost dead with thirst, standing by the water’s edge.  Every time he looked at his reflection in the water he was frightened, because he thought it was another dog.

“Finally, such was his necessity, he cast away fear and leapt into the water; at which the ‘other dog’ vanished.  The dog found that the obstacle, which was himself, the barrier between him and what he sought, melted away.

“In this same way my own obstacle vanished, when I knew that it was what I took to be my own self.  And my Way was first shown to me by the behavior of–a dog.”



Praying the Psalms

On June 1, I will begin my CPE residency at Duke Hospital.  Until then, I have very little to do, but as my mind likes to begin eating itself when left idle, I have been working at creating a schedule for myself for the sake of structure (which is just as healthy for 25-year-olds as for 5-year-olds).

So how do you prepare for a CPE residency, an experience which by definition is something which you can’t prepare for?  I decided that I would try to begin learning the Psalms.  Not memorizing the Psalter yet, but perhaps compiling a memory bank of what Psalms speak to particular situations.  Right now, I have a scrap of paper in my Bible marking the beginning of Psalms, covered with lists of Psalms, verses from Isaiah, and verses from Revelation to be read at people’s bedsides.

But I also thought I would seek out some expert opinion.  I’ve assembled this crack team to begin with:

1. Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton–Words cannot express how much I love Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, a book of which I own multiple copies, because I buy it every time I see it in order to give it away.  A modern saint’s spiritual autobiography seems much healthier to collect than, say, The Catcher in the Rye.  But back to Praying the Psalms, I just read the very brief  book this morning.  In it Merton speaks of how we as Christians need to move through three stages of relating to the Psalms: (1) knowing that the Psalms are good prayers but not really doing anything about it, (2) beginning to pray the Psalms out of that conviction, and (3) “entering into the Psalms,” where we live in their world and they are brought into our hearts as part of the normal furniture.

Wonderful writing as always.  Regarding why the Church still uses the Psalms: “The Church indeed likes what is old, not because it is old but rather because it is ‘young'” (7).  Yes!

And regarding why the Psalms are so important to our prayer lives: “There is no aspect of the interior life, no kind of religious experience, no spiritual need of [hu]man[ity] that is not depicted and lived out in the Psalms.  But we cannot lay hands on these riches unless we are willing to work for them” (44).

And then there are the other three as-yet-unread ones (each of which linked to more info):

Lewis is Christianity's "Stairway to Heaven." Wonderful work but frustratingly popular for my snobbish ways.

Since this is the best edition, I bought it even though I already own a dog-eared copy of Life Together.

Winner of 1985's coveted Hottest New Cover Art Award.