grist

 

Sunday, July 21, 2002
Woman has tempted me. Wine has tempted me. Food has tempted me. Woman is pernicious, wine is poison, food is death. I must hate and revile them. By hating them, I will please God. . . . These are the thoughts and attitudes of a baby, of a savage and of an idolater who seeks by magic incantations and spells to protect his egoistic self and placate the insatiable little god in his own heart.

This is from Thomas Merton, and to me it hits at the heart of a great deal of the American explorations (especially public explorations) of faith and religious practice in our lives (post the commandments! don't burn the flag! don't teach kids who are already having sex how (and why) to do it safely!). America gets a lot of mileage for its shows of piety (I read an assertion based on the number of churches we have per capita--love THAT way of thinking about our souls), and yet I think it is an intensely unsophisticated and shallow religious affectation on both the side of the believers and the side of the agnosto-athiests. Having spent a fair amount of time in that camp (ag-at), I found a lot of blithe dismissiveness, but very little desire to ask if not this, then what? in a way that is consistently pretty arrogant--and not that the end point is the selection of a monotheistic religion, or any religion, but of a serious engagement with the nature of our existence, its components (self/body/brain/society/nation/species/soul) and their interrelationships, and the responsibilities that reflection and its conclusions might create. Perhaps it is a persistent and universal human trait and I expect too much reflection from people, or waste too much time in it myself. Part of the reason that I moved away from the US (and would again if I could see my way clear to it), is that I didn't find great numbers of intelligent people who were interested in exploring those issues, and that the general run of possible conversations was largely anti-intellectual. Either people were not talking seriously, or they were talking about how they felt, as if that were all. One of the things I love about Merton (and Goyen and Annie Dillard) is their forthright and intelligent engagement--they are not faithful because they are ignorant, or because they lack the intelligence to understand the empty gymnastics of post-post-modernism and its philosophies of posturing, but their intelligence and reading and emotional richness makes their faith rich and complex and profound. This, to me, is a path of interest, and one that seems always before us, but largely unremarked on and ignored. In the moments when you realize this, when it strikes you, it is astonishing.



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