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

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Thomas Merton: The Basic Sin of Christianity

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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.

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Written by Alex

August 11, 2015 at 9:19 am