Sunday, August 22, 2010

Thinking the Right Thoughts, Wearing the Right Hats

I've been reading Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, a collection of brief journal entries from the early 1960s, coinciding with, among other things, Vatican II, the Cuban missle crisis, the early Civil Rights Movement and the "death of God" movement. One of the many reasons I love reading Merton is his punk profundity--he loves people, even those many people who annoy him, and he is wildly inventive in the ways he calls out their inconsistencies. He's passionate about his times while maintaining the "contempt for the world" appropriate to his office as a monk. From Merton I learn to think of contempt not as an emotion but an interior action--opposing ("con") temptation--and I likewise see the difference between condemnation (an all too easy word used to denounce the other) and contemnation (the costly act of discipleship).

In Conjectures Merton is rightly observing that (a) the mid-twentieth century is a time of significant turmoil and historic change; and (b) the mid-twentieth century is not, and must not be, what defines us. I'm left to wonder what Merton would think of the cultural, religious and geopolitical changes that came after his death in 1968, but I suspect that he would continue to be consistently contemplative, persistently prophetic, annoyingly astute, insert superlative alliteration here.

Today's reading is focused on "worldliness," something we tend to think of only in the form it takes in us and among us: the "worldly," in the eyes of the church today, view Internet pornography and subscribe to Showtime and play softball on Sunday mornings. They smoke and drink and chew, and go with girls who do. But the idea of "worldliness" is meaningless without considering the reality of who we are and the reality of how that links us both to the world and to God. If we take "worldly" to be bad, we need to immediately ask what it then means to be persons in the world, made of the dust of the earth. If, on the other hand, we take "worldly" to be good--to be sophisticated and well-traveled and liberated from archaisms such as "church"--we are quickly confronted with the question of what the world delivers us from, and what the world delivers us to.

Both sides of this equation, however motivated by pious faith, are kind of missing the point. Merton is happy to make sense of "worldliness," not in a way that simplifies it as a concept, but in a way that keeps us vigilant:

The "wordly" attitude which I think is nefarious is not simply the "turning to the world" or even the total and would-be uncompromising secularism of the "honest to God" set. Still less is it the noble concern for social justice and for the right use of technology. . . . What I mean by "worldliness" is the . . . cultivation of the ability to redefine one's identity day by day in concert with the self-definition of society. "Worldliness" in my mind is typified by this kind of servitude to care and to illusion, this agitation about thinking the right thoughts and wearing the right hats, this crude and shameful concern not with truth but only with vogue. To my mind, the concern of Christians to be in fashion lest they "lose the world" is only another pitiable admission that they have lost it.

1 comment:

Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

Dang, that hurts. Right to the heart, as usual.