Merton on American and English religion

I spend a lot of time inside the hermetic seal of Methodism, which can be good and bad.

In part to break up the bad parts of that, I picked up a copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain this week and started reading it. The other part of my reason for picking it up is that I have heard so many people speak and write so highly of Merton that I thought it would be good to see what they saw.

I’m only through the first two chapters so far. Merton is about to enter Oakham school in England in a chapter enticingly titled “The Harrowing of Hell.” Sounds like high school as I remember it.

Reading the book as a Protestant, my ears are tuned to comments he makes about non-Catholics.

Here is his take on his grandparents’ religion:

My grandparents were like most other Americans. They were Protestants, but you could never find out precisely what kind of Protestants they were. I, their own grandson, was never able to ascertain. They put money in the little envelopes that came to them from Zion church, but they never went near the place itself. And they also contributed to the Salvation Army and a lot of other things: so you could not tell what they were by the places which they helped support. Of course, they had sent my uncle in his boyhood to the choir school of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on the rock above Harlem, which was then a peaceful bourgeois neighborhood. And they sent John Paul there too, in due course. Indeed, there was even some talk of sending me there. Yet that did not make them Episcopalians. It was not the religion that they patronized, but the school and the atmosphere. In practice, Bonnemaman [Merton’s grandmother] used to read the little black books of Mary Baker Eddy, and I suppose that was the closest she got to religion.

On the whole, the general attitude around that house was the more or less inarticulate assumption that all religions were more or less praiseworthy on purely natural or social grounds. In any decent suburb of a big city you would expect to run across some kind of a church, once in a while. It was part of the scenery, like the High School and the Y.M.C.A. and the big whale-back roof and water-tank of the movie theater.

And here is his description of the Church of England:

Prayer is attractive enough when it is considered in a context of good food, and sunny joyous country churches, and the green English countryside. And, as a matter of fact, the Church of England means all this. It is a class religion, the cult of a special society and group, not even of a whole nation, but of the ruling minority in a nation. That is the principal basis for its rather strong coherence up to now. There is certainly not much doctrinal unity, much less a mystical bond between people many of whom have even ceased to believe in the grace of the Sacraments. The thing that holds them together is the powerful attraction of their own social tradition, and the stubborn tenacity with which they cling to certain social standards and customs, more or less for their own sake. The Church of England depends for its existence almost entirely on the solidarity and conservatism of the English ruling class. Its strength is not in anything supernatural, but in the strong social and racial instincts which bind the members of this caste together; and the English cling to their church the way they cling to their King and to their old schools: because of a big, vague, sweet complex of subjective dispositions regarding the English countryside, old castles and cottages, games of cricket in the long summer afternoons, tea-parties on the Thames, croquet, roast-beef, pipe-smoking, the Christmas panto, Punch and the London Times and all those other things the mere thought of which produces a kind of a warm and inexpressible ache in the English heart.

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7 thoughts on “Merton on American and English religion

  1. Ouch…And, yes. For Methodists, our social principles are a reaction to the sort of religion of which Merton speaks, but our ethos is perhaps more Anglican than we would prefer to admit. We are both churches that routinely turn a blind eye to our stated doctrinal and/or theological convictions, which means we have to be about something else. The something else for Anglicans, from my observation, is the life of prayer (as they define it). The something else for Methodists is populism. In both cases, our theological center is a sort of laissez-faire pietism.

    I would offer to Merton, however, that his faith practice is not significantly different than that which he seems to criticize above. There is a reason Methodists tend to love him, and it is not because of his Catholicism. It is because he is a pietist at heart, often at the expense of living out the Catholic faith he espoused.

    • Adam, thanks for the comments and perspective. This is my first serious exposure to Merton, but I do see indications of the pietism of which you write.

    • I don’t understand, having read but not studied Merton. How dis he ” a pietist at heart, often at the expense of living out the Catholic faith he esposed”?

      • Wow.Sorry about not checking my “typing”. I meant to ask, How is he a pietist……..faith he espoused”

        • Hi Frank. His focus on the individual’s experience of faith gave him room for a number of activities that cannot be reconciled with his Catholicism, though he was most certainly Catholic. For example, he was heavily involved in Buddhism at the time he died, to the point that it is difficult to distinguish whether he thought himself more the Buddhist or Christ-follower. He offered in his diaries explanations of how he personally reconciled the two, but a person who is married to the authority of the church, as Roman Catholics see the church, does not see such activities as having even the possibility of validation. That would have been most especially true for a person who did most of his living Pre-Vatican II.

          I have read that “Seven Story Mountain” is compared to Augustine’s “Confessions,” but I think there is a very different spiritual approach between the two writers. Augustine wants to eventually get the reader’s eyes off his own spirituality and back to Christ. Merton seems content to encourage the reader to gaze at his/her personal spirituality and just sort of stay there. Merton seemed to place more value on the journey, whereas Augustine was focused on the destination. This is why I find Merton superficially wide and Augustine grounded and deep. At the end of Augustine one always finish thinking “God is good.” At the end of Merton, I get a sort of “Isn’t God so lucky to have someone so enlightened on his team” sort of thing.

          I think Merton’s spirituality appeals to contemporary pietism. We like our eyes on our response, perhaps even more than the object of the response (Christ). I wouldn’t say that a person should not read Merton, but I would encourage people to ask where Merton ultimately leads. Is he grounded in Christ, or could you simply replace the Christian words with Buddhist words and come out with the same thing?

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