Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams: Thoughts on Trust, Desire, and the Finding of an Orientation

I have recently found myself ruminating over a thought-passage from the always inexhaustible writings of the great American Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-68).  The following text comes from his slim but classic Thoughts in Solitude, first published in 1956.  Indeed, another scholar-priest and poet-mystic, the current Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (b. 1950), has called this text "one of [Merton's] most profound and abidingly impressive books."
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that  am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will no fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone (p. 79).
What I've called a thought-passage is more traditionally labeled a prayer.  What I find so resonate in these words is Merton's brutal honesty: he has no idea where he is headed but rather than despair he emplots his anxiety within a horizon of hopefulness.  His self-doubt and trepidation finds its only security in complementary intuitions about the Divine and a life lived in relation to that fundamental principle: "I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I  hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire."  To comport oneself according to such an eros is to make trust one's most fundamental orienting desire.

Rowan Williams, in his January 29th concluding remarks to the gathering "Building an Ethical Economy" at Trinity Wall Street in New York City, took up the question of trust in a way I find remarkably resonant with Merton, since both men use trust as the horizon of hopefulness to frame an otherwise unclear and perhaps motivationally paralyzing set of experiences (Williams's remarks on trust start in at about 26mins).  Trust, says Williams, is "not only about mutual belief"; rather, at a "slightly deeper level, it's about having some confidence that you are not completely indifferent to my interests.  I trust you to tell me the truth because I believe you have a sufficient concern for my interests not to be misleading me....Trust is a belief that the Other shares something of my interest."  This means that the "charge and challenge" is to ask, "Whose interests do I recognize?"  In the Archbishop's estimation, faith can play a larger part in society and culture by helping individuals "to imagine more deeply and broadly the interests of the Other."  A deficit of trust goes hand in hand with a deficit in relationships.  The "most basic of questions," then, is, "Why should I be trusted, and how do I set my life on a course that makes it trustworthy?"  For Williams, the answer to that question of the form of our relating is necessarily bound up with the theological question of "why we trust God." Admittedly "boiling down" a great deal of theological reflection, Williams concludes:
Christian theology, at its best, has always said we can trust God because God has made us when God didn't need to.  God has created what is other to the Divine Life so that it may be loved.  Because nothing we can do can make God happier, safer, richer, or anything of that kind.  God, as Clement of Alexandria said many centuries ago, is distinctive in that God loves what he has no natural communion with.  Because God is God.  And the miracle is that God has created a world to be in communion with the Divine love.  God, in short, recognizes our interest by the sheer fact of creating us.  We know that God is not in the business of creation and redemption because of God's interest, but because of ours.  And so, because of that selfless outpouring at the root of our very being, we trust God.  And the challenge for any believer in a God of that kind is whether we can, in some small measure, so reflect that selfless outpouring that we may be trustworthy and trust, in turn, neighbor and stranger.
Clearly, Williams is sketching a theology of God as impassible and a doctrine of creation ex nihilo -- positions that have both, and I think rightly, been challenged across a range of theological positions, most especially in Catherine Keller's The Face of the Deep and John Caputo's Weakness of God.  But setting such metaphysical matters aside, what Merton and Williams share, I suggest, is a profound recognition of how peripatetic modern life can be, which they wed to an image of the Divine as that in which one might place one's full trust when all else seems precarious and overwhelming.  The God in whom this trust is placed is said to be a God on whom the believer can lean.  Against the despair prompted by the falling away of worldly security, Merton and Williams offer the outpouring of sheer gift.  Belief, far from being mere propositional content, thus becomes a modality of action: to believe is to abide in the Other.  Our trustworthiness is thus a product of our having already trusted another.  Or, as Merton elsewhere writes in Thoughts in Solitude: "Your life is shaped by the ends you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire" (p. 49).

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