living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Thomas Merton: The Basic Sin of Christianity

with 6 comments

Being a Christian has never been easy for me. There have been numerous seasons where I’ve wanted to simply ditch the whole program. Yet, over the years, I eventually came to see that I had good Christian reasons for my dissatisfaction. This morning I came across a wonderful passage by Thomas Merton that helps illuminate what I mean by that. He suggests that Christianity is tempted with a single basic sin. He says that,

The basic sin, for Christianity, is rejecting others in order to choose oneself, deciding against others and deciding for oneself. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 172.)

It is a simple statement with powerful depth. With that single sentence Merton essentially captures all the various elements of my religion that made it nearly impossible for me to remain. From the stubborn defense of cherished readings of the Bible against other truth-seeking discourses (such as the empirical sciences) to the exclusivist theology in which only those who believed the right things would attain true humanity and avoid everlasting torment. All of these things amounted to the choosing and defense of oneself and one’s ideas over against the destabilizing possibilities that others represent.

Merton and the Dali Lama

During my own religious crisis, I would often say that what I wanted more than anything was truth. If my religion, and therefore the meaning of my life, was not in fact truth, I wanted to know that. While I was in seminary I encountered some who seemed much more keen on preserving the meaning of their life in the form of their religion. I was always unsettled and aggravated by such encounters. At the time, I interpreted it as a conflict between truth and Christianity, and as such I felt a growing pressure to leave Christianity. It would be some time yet before I came to see the conflict as having much more to do with the sin of self-justification.

Merton drives the point home powerfully:

Why is this sin so basic? Because the idea that you can choose yourself, approve yourself, and then offer yourself (fully “chosen” and “approved”) to God, applies the assertion of yourself over against God. From this root of error comes all the sour leafage and fruitage of a life of self-examination, interminable problems and unending decisions, always making right choices, walking on the razor edge of an impossibly subtle ethic (with an equally subtle psychology to take care of the unconscious). All this implies the frenzied conviction that one can be [one’s] own light and [one’s] own justification, and that God is there for a purpose: to issue the stamp of confirmation upon my own rightness. In such a religion the Cross becomes meaningless except as the (blasphemous) certification that because you suffer, because you are misunderstood, you are justified twice over—you are a martyr. Martyr means witness. You are then a witness? To what? To your own infallible light and your own justice, which you have chosen.
This is the exact opposite of everything Jesus ever did or taught. (Conjectures, 172.)

In contrast to much of what passes as Christianity in our day, Merton helps us see that the true mark of Christian faithfulness lies not in vigorous demonstrations of certainty, or in a zeal to defend the purity of the faith against the contamination of others (be they political, religious, or otherwise). Such are the machinations of self-preservation. True Christianity is just the opposite. True Christianity, like Christ, exposes our self-preserving tendencies. True Christianity cares little about whether or not it is true Christianity, for its eyes are no longer anxiously searching itself for its own justification. In the power of grace, one’s “self” is allowed to pass away, and others cease to be a threat. A posture of defense turns to a posture of hospitality.

This is not a form of Christianity that I have any temptation to leave. It is not open to my critique, but rather I find myself always exposed in its presence. But not only exposed, also accepted, and called by its beauty. It has been a long road, but I am deeply grateful for thinkers like Merton who have helped me see that what seemed like unfaithfulness was in reality the movement of a deeper stirring. I pray that we all might find such light to live by, beyond pretension, defensiveness, and fear.

Written by Alex

August 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

6 Responses

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  1. I enter this comment with little knowledge of the subject.

    So can internalizing and focusing on one self for a few days, or years, be bad? If it is intended to return from such contemplation much more capable than before.

    Quite like how a monk might enter meditation for a long time, are they rejecting others?


    August 11, 2015 at 10:15 am

    • Excellent question, Ryan. There’s a difficulty in terminology here. There are two concepts that are being designated by a single word: “Self.” Spiritual writers attempt to disambiguate the situation by way of introducing TWO terms. They have various ways of doing this, but one common distinction is between the “false self” and the “true self.”

      Thomas Keating is a genius at laying out this distinction in an easily understood way.

      He says, “The false self is the idealized image of ourselves developed from early childhood to cope with emotional trauma due to the frustration of our instinctual needs for survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control. The false self also seeks happiness through identification with a particular group from whom it can find acceptance and thus build feelings of self-worth. On the social level, it gives rise to violence, war, and institutional injustice.” (Open Mind Open Heart, 2.)

      Our true self, on the other hand, is our life stripped of these false-securities. It is the ability to rest in an eternal security that is beyond our ability to control, or manage. Such a state loses the reactivity that is always present in life as lived from our false self, and as such, it makes possible greater levels of intimacy with others who we would formerly never have been able to be in relationship with.

      Ascetic activities such as leaving society for a time, pilgrimages, fasting, and meditation are designed to make room for the emergence of greater degrees of one’s true self, by denying or renouncing one’s false self.

      The way that such intentional focus can be, as you say, dangerous is if this distinction is missed and one simply leaves society to polish their own cherished image of themselves… i.e., the false self.


      August 11, 2015 at 10:42 am

  2. “While I was in seminary I encountered some who seemed much more keen on preserving the meaning of their life in the form of their religion. I was always unsettled and aggravated by such encounters.”

    In the words of Seinfeld, “Who are these people?” Who are the ones who are keen on preserving the meaning of life in the form of religion? All the more, how are they different from the you in seminary?


    August 11, 2015 at 11:32 am

    • Hey John,
      Thanks for the question. There are a number of ways I could answer this question. In one sense “they” are all of us at some stage in our life. I know that the “me” in seminary was actively struggling with that side of myself. It is no flippant thing to say, in earnest, that one would accept that one’s life was in fact meaningless if that’s just what the facts were. I can’t even venture to guess all the ways that “seminary me” differed from “them,” but I’m quite sure that at least one thing made the crucial difference in my own life. I encountered someone who modeled for me a horizon of faith beyond the horizon that I could currently see.

      As you know, it was Paul Tillich that first had that effect on me. He helped me see that my critical doubt was more essential to my faith than my desire to remain secure in my beliefs. That was my first vivid encounter with the paradox of Christian salvation, that salvation came through the intensification of my doubt, not its resolution. It’s one aspect of the flip-side of what Merton is pointing out as the basic sin of Christianity. The basic virtue of Christianity is the choosing of what is real in others, even at great risk to one’s self.


      August 11, 2015 at 1:53 pm

  3. As always Alex, I find your words poignant and troublesome. Since we’re buds, allow me to focus on the latter. I think the trouble I’m having is what you mean by “true/truth,” b/c for me the straining for truth via conceptual tools, specific beliefs, etc., does not have to = “anxiously searching for justification.” As you know from our previous discussions, statements like the one in bold near the end hit my ears as an example of Welker’s “subjectivist faith,” which leads to a kind of vagueness wherein Christianity cannot say anything about current and crucial cultural issues (MW has a handful of chapters devoted to this issue).

    Maybe a couple illustrations will help. Sometimes basketball players actually hurt their cause by trying too hard, like by playing too many minutes, b/c it often leads to either injury or exhaustion later in the season when they need to be at their best. That said, as coaches often say, just “letting go of the rope,” i.e. surrendering and no longer trying, doesn’t win any games either. Put another way (and sticking with rope): If one is trying to use a rope to climb, I understand how clenching the rope too tightly (out of fear of falling) actually inhibits one from making progress and after awhile leads to exhaustion and the exact outcome the climber fears. At the same time, just letting go of the rope isn’t a good idea either! You may not be doing this, but if in this illustration the rope represents conceptual tools, frameworks, and specific understandings of them, I am (probably wrongly) hearing you say that the best thing to do is just let go of the rope.

    Also, if i may dare to let a little of my inner workings show: reading and thinking on this post made me realize part of why I sometimes get a bit “fidgity” w/r/t your thought. I hear this as providing me a no-win situation, meaning that if i disagree that just means I’m trying, to use the specific language of this post, to justify myself, avoid truth, commit the basic sin of our faith (yikes, talk about anxiety-inducing!), etc. Maybe I am, I’m certainly not above that ;). That said, as Caputo once simply put it in a heated public exchange, “I do not like the box you’ve put me in!” It is tricky and confusing for me b/c I’m championing certain frameworks and approaches, and therefore in a sense the utility and importance of concepts, frameworks, and beliefs in general, PRECISELY to get beyond reducing everything to the self and its motives, so it is hard to know how to take a post like this, despite its eloquence and the fact that it is pointing toward something important. It seems like there is no middle ground here. Is there a middle ground?

    To return one last time to my weird rope fixation today: The act of climbing a rope is a constant give and take, grasping and releasing as we move. Without both we either fall or become frozen in place. I hear you well on the releasing aspect, but how, where, when, etc. are you grabbing?


    August 11, 2015 at 3:28 pm

  4. Derek,

    Forgive me for interjecting a comment here, as I clearly can’t speak for Alex. But Alex and I hope to carve out a time to converse about some closely related points to those you make (there are always far too many things to talk about and far too little time to do so, so identifying a priority for conversing is an achievement in itself when talking with Alex).

    The dynamic you speak of was lived out in the friendship and intellectual work of William James and Josiah Royce. To simplify way too much, James opted for the well known–if not so well understood–pragmatic approach to philosophy, which he called “philosophical protestantism” in a popular lecture on the subject. Royce–the alter ego–espoused a form of idealism/theism then popular called “Absolutism.”

    Royce’s first major philosophical work was an extended argument for the existence of God. He argued (close to 500 pages) that seeking to live the best possible life, in the widest possible sense of “best,” is everyone’s moral obligation. But “best” is no one’s sole possession to define, and there is wide disagreement about it. His solution was to bring in the “proof” that–since widespread disagreement entails much error–the idea of “error” is incoherent apart from a larger context that allows us to separate the true from the false in a present stalemate of opinions–as ancient sailors would have had to wait for the North Star or a landmark to clearly appear through a fog to then know which of several opinions about the best course to set is correct. So Royce’s view was that our ideas–partial and error prone though they be–assume a transcendent perspective.

    James built some of Royce’s ideas into his work–he credits his influence in his first major work, without specifying. That influence comes out clearly in the section on the self in James’ Principles, which portrays the dialectic inherent in Royce’s first work as “…the true, the intimate, the ultimate, the permanent Me which I seek.”

    But James held that we can’t ever grasp that permanent, ultimate perspective by which all “Truth” is divined. Hence his pragmatism. We grasp what clues we can, but not so tightly that we make no room for others’ views. To do so, if I may venture a guess, is a core aspect of what Alex has shared through this post (Merton’s view of the most basic sin for a Christian).

    But then the answer to your dilemma (how tight do I hold the rope) is entirely pragmatic: tighter, if you’re losing resolve to love as your faith directs, but looser if your grip is making you mean.

    Of course, I’ve done an inadequate job of relating this, but I’ve already blathered on too long for this space.


    Trust me, I haven’t spilled the beans. The conversation will be worthwhile–and this will serve as a helpful intro.

    Tracy Witham

    August 16, 2015 at 11:12 am

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