Thursday, August 9, 2018

Musings on Merton: Faith and Wisdom

            One of my favorite passages from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is where he defines faith as a “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.[1] While I resonate with Calvin’s definition, I think the Reformed Tradition has too often emphasized its aspect of the mind while more or less neglecting its characteristic of the heart.
From new seeds, a new garden grows and spreads.
            Merton, while asserting that “The beginning of contemplation is faith,”[2] qualifies his comment by stating that  “faith is not an emotion, not a feeling. [It] is first of all an intellectual assent. … It gives us certitude concerning God.”[3] I think Calvin and many Reformed Christians would agree with Merton in this regard.
            For Merton, however, knowledge or intellectual assent, was not the end all and be all of faith. Faith also “has to be something more than an assent of the mind.”[4] Faith is also “an opening of an inward eye, the eye of the heart, to be filled with the presence of Divine light.”
            I understand Merton to be arguing that while an intellectual assent may be the beginning of contemplation, contemplation leads to a deeper, more profound, more intimate, more mystical faith, perhaps more mystical than Calvin or his theological children, sometimes referred to as the “frozen chosen,” may have been and sometimes still are comfortable with.
            While Merton says that faith is both an intellectual assent and a heart filled with Divine light, he also asserts that God is “not a philosopher’s abstraction” and “lies infinitely beyond the reach of anything our eyes can see or our minds can understand.”[5] It is here that Merton embraces the via negativa or apophatic spiritual tradition that teaches any knowledge of God is obtained through negation, which I mentioned in my last post about the true self and false self. Thus “to find God we must pass beyond everything that can be seen and enter into darkness. Since nothing that can be heard is God, to find [God] we must enter into silence.”[6] This is what I understand to be the essence of contemplative faith.
            Merton writes “The function of faith is not to reduce mystery to rational clarity, but to integrate the unknown and the known together in a living whole, in which we are more and more able to transcend the limitations of our external self.”[7]  It is here that I think many theologically conservative Reformed Christians would cry heresy, for Merton next claims “Faith is what opens to us this higher realm of unity, of strength, of light, of sophianic love where there is no longer the limited and fragmentary light provided by rational principles, but where the Truth is One and Undivided and takes all to itself in the wholeness of Sapentia, or Sophia.”[8]
            Some Presbyterians will never forget the 1993 controversy generated by the “Re-Imagining God” women’s conference where “Sophia” was identified, lifted up, and celebrated as a feminine aspect or expression of God and as a corrective to the over-use of masculine images of God and masculine language about God.  I think Merton would have had no problem with that and would have, in fact, celebrated it.
            In a church that has long suffered from patriarchy, exclusively governed by Apollonian men from Mars while excluding leadership from Dionysian women from Venus, Merton’s emphasis of a contemplative spirituality that embraces and celebrates head and heart, Christ as well as Sophia, can serve as a healthy corrective. Merton calls for a healthy balance between the poles of a “purely emotional worship” and a “merely rational life,” neither of which are a spiritual life, but rather calls for a life of wisdom that through contemplation founded on the intellect leads one to an affectional experience of God. I could not agree more.

              Here is the link to the introductory post in the series.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.7
[2] New Seeds of Contemplation, 126.
[3] Ibid., 126-127.
[4] Ibid., 128.
[5] Ibid., 131.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 136.
[8] Ibid., 141.

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