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Thomas Merton’s Apologies to an Unbeliever

Believing means liberating the indestructible element in oneself, or, more accurately, being indestructible, or, more accurately, being.
Kafka’s Diaries

In the year he died, the Trappist monk and best-selling author, Thomas Merton, published an essay addressed to “Unbelievers” apologizing for the inadequacy and impertinence of what had been inflicted upon them in the name of religion. It was not just because the manipulative antics and “vaudeville” of the defenders of the faith embarrassed him but also because it seemed to him that their “defenses” constituted “a falsification of religious truth.”1

“Faith comes by hearing, says St. Paul, but by hearing what?” he asked. “The cries of snake-handlers? The soothing platitudes of the religious operator? One must be able to listen to the inscrutable ground of (one’s) own being, and who am I to say that (the atheists’) reservations about religious commitment do not protect, in [them], this kind of listening?”2

“While I certainly believe that the message of the Gospel is something that we are called upon to preach,” Merton wrote,” I think we will communicate it more intelligently in dialogue.”3

Merton asserted that the religious problem of the twentieth century was not only a problem of the growing number of unbelievers and atheists. It was also a problem of “Believers” who had substituted comfortable, cultural illusions and cheap grace for authentic discipleship. The faith that has grown cold, he wrote, is not only the faith that the Unbeliever has lost, but the sentimental, false “faith” the “Believer” has “kept.”

We do not have to choose between faith and science, Merton argued, nor between Christ and the World. In fact, we can only choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him and encountered by us in the ground of our own personal freedom and love. God is not an object, thing, external reality, or Gran Dame, but being itself—one with the ground of each us. “Atheists” exist in God, just as Christians do; they just do not call the ground of their being God—if they call it anything. This is where a dialogue with them might begin.

In his essay “The Contemplative and the Atheist,” Merton wrote that “Many who consider themselves atheists are in fact persons who are discontented with the naïve idea of God which makes him appear to be an ‘object’ or a ‘thing’ in a merely finite and human sense.”4 But, “those who are familiar with the apophatic tradition in theology and mysticism are fully aware that the temporary or permanent inability to imagine God or to ‘experience’ him as present, or even to find him credible, is not something discovered by modern man or confined to our own age.” The literature of the mystics is filled with such observations, and the life of the Christian contemplative is not a life of willful concentration upon a few clear and comforting ideas but a life of inner struggle in which the monk, like Christ himself in the desert, is tested. In fact, Sam Harris, in the last half of his book End of Faith, acknowledges the possibility of an agnostic “spirituality” that takes religious experience seriously in the form of a secular phenomenology.

Unfortunately, Merton died before he could open up much of a dialogue between believers and unbelievers—although he had an in-depth correspondence with Eric Fromm, whose works reflect an equal openness to such a dialogue. But in the years following his death—the late seventies and eighties—religious people launched an offensive against secular society, science, and atheism. Their primary weapon was a rigid, reductive, Biblical literalism. This new passionate, doctrinal rigidity ultimately gave birth to the backlash of militant atheisms we are now currently experiencing.

In recent years Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others have published best-selling polemics challenging Christianity with little or no recognition of the apophatic tradition. The combative tenor of these books is no doubt a response to the onslaught of twenty-plus years of know-nothing pop apologetics that has so polarized and “dumbed down” the national conversation concerning faith that when I read these books, I find myself agreeing with everything they say. And yet at the same time, I also find in them the flawed logic of the straw man fallacy. The God they do not believe in is not a God I ever believed in, and the “believers” they attack are insecure, faithless souls who use religion as a drug to sooth their anxieties or as a club to beat those who disagree with them. True persons of faith do not reject scientific discoveries, secular wisdom, or open dialogue. In fact, such things can be seen as the very fruits of faith—not its antitheses.

“What [the Christian contemplative] learns,” Merton explains, “is not a clearer idea of God but a deeper trust, a purer love, and a more complete abandonment to One he knows to be beyond all understanding.”5 Yet in this “abandonment,” the contemplative has access to values which the contemporary atheist tends to forget, underestimate, or ignore. These “values” include a healthy skepticism toward abstract reductionism and scientism, a sympathy for the paradoxical nature of truth and its existential and experiential expression, not to mention an appreciation for the literary and figurative nature of mind.

The apophatic experience of God as unknowable does, to some extent, verify the atheist’s view that God is not an object of precise knowledge and so consequently cannot be apprehended as a thing to be studied. But the difference between the apophatic contemplative and the atheist is that, where the atheist’s experience of God is purely negative, that of the contemplative is, as Merton puts it: “negatively positive.” That is to say, the believer responds to our cognitive limitations with an inward turn; whereas, the non-believer redoubles his calculative ambitions. It is almost as if the believer is more skeptical than the skeptic in that he suspects concepts per se. Relinquishing any attempt to grasp God in limited human terms, faith reveals itself as the ground of human experience in the ground of being. “Here,” Merton notes, “we enter a realm of apparent contradiction which eludes clear explanation, so that contemplatives prefer not to talk about it at all. Indeed in the past, serious mistakes have been made and deadly confusion have arisen from inadequate attempts to explain this mystery.”6 This is why the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao, and why St. John of the Cross finds the fullest expression of his experience of the divine in nothing.

These mystics are not making the skeptics’ point—as tempting as it may be to misunderstand them. Rather they are announcing an ontological turn. To the question, “How do you know God exists?” They reply “Who is asking?” This is not as much of an evasion as one might first think, but a call for a shift away from epistemological priorities to psychological and ontological ones. As we can see in any good poet, psychoanalyst, or Zen master, the first step in any deepening of awareness is to question the illusory ground upon which the Cartesian egos hold forth. If the skeptic fails to take this move seriously, or the “believer” refuses to acknowledge the validity (albeit narrow range) of the skeptic’s reductionist alternative—then the dialogue is over and the polemics ensue.

When Merton wrote this essay in 1968, he believed that it was time for the Christian consciousness of God to be expressed in more contemporary language. The medieval ideas of God formed in accord with medieval ideas about the cosmos, earth, physics, and the biological and psychological structure of man were clearly out of date, but “the reality of experience beyond concepts, however, is not itself modified by changes of culture.”7 This focus upon experience reflects the views of our best cognitive scientists and brain researchers, who have revealed the psychopathology of everyday life to be a biological given and gives the contemplative an advantage over the theologian in mapping the wisdom of the New Testament against the conceptual structures of our contemporary arts and sciences.

By focusing upon the reality of experiences that lie beyond conventional dualistic thinking is overcome, Christ becomes a living, inclusive, existential Messiah—not a cipher in a questionable cosmological construct. And faith ceases to be “embracing superstitions” but a healthy recognition of a mystery within which both our language and our intellects must humbly submit. “If the deepest ground of our being is love,” Merton writes, “then in that very love itself and nowhere else will I find myself, and the world, and my brother, and Christ. It is not a question of either/or but all-in-one.”8

So, in the end, Merton would agree with those atheists who deny God’s existence as some sort of super “decider,” concept, or “thing,” but he would disagree with those who then draw the conclusion that God, therefore, does not exist. What does not exist is the Cartesian God-object. What does exist is a presence revealed in and through the love that rises in us out of a ground that lies beyond us.

“My own peculiar task in my Church and in my world,” Merton explains, “has been that of the solitary explorer who, instead of jumping on all the latest bandwagons at once, is bound to search the existential deaths of faith in its silences, its ambiguities, and in those certainties which lie deeper than the bottom of anxiety. In these depths there are no easy answers, no pat solutions to anything. It is a kind of submarine life in which faith sometimes mysteriously takes on the aspect of doubt when, in fact, one has to doubt and reject conventional surrogates that have taken the place of faith. On this level, the division between Believer and Unbeliever ceases to be so crystal clear.”9

He concludes:

“The most hopeful sign of religious renewal is the authentic sincerity and openness with which some Believers are beginning to recognize this (need for the faithful to doubt cheap grace and pop theology). At the very moment when it would seem that they had to gather for a fanatical last-ditch stand, these Believers are dropping their defensiveness, their defiance, and their mistrust. They are realizing that a faith that is afraid of other people is not faith at all. A faith that supports itself by condemning others is itself condemned by the Gospel.”10

Robert Oppenhiemer, father of the American H-Bomb, once said that he knew a new idea in physics by the fact that it terrified him. The same could be said for a new experience of the divine in prayer, for faith, like science, is not always comforting. As the Gospels make clear, it is demanding, challenging, and open to paradigm-shattering revelations. As the poet says, “we fling our emptiness out of our arms into the spaces we breath so that the birds might feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.”11 This courageous self-giving—open to believer and unbeliever alike—represents the new culture emerging on the far side of the modernist divide between atheism and superstition. This is the culture where every practicing contemplative, mystic, and true scientist has always labored, and now that the skeptics have vented some of their resentments and the magic Christians have had their say, perhaps a real conversation about our place in the cosmos can begin—free from invective, straw man arguments, and polemical grandstanding.


1. Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence (University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 205-206.

2. Ibid., 210.

3. Ibid., 212.

4. Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 168.

5. Ibid., 163.

6. Ibid., 168-169.

7. Ibid., 172.

8. Ibid., 155-156.

9. Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence (University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 213.

10. Ibid., 213-214.

11. This is a paraphrase from Rilke’s first Duino Elegy.

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Robert Inchausti :
Robert Inchausti is a Professor of English at California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. He is the author of Subversive Orthodoxy, The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People, Spitwad Sutras, and Thomas Merton's American Prophecy.
  • Martinheywood

    What a tragedy that Merton died when he did. His voice could have been immensely powerful in these times.