Mysticism and social ethics : Thomas Merton seen in the light of Paul Tillich's theology
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Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the American Cistercian, wrote numerous books and essays on spirituality, including both Christian and Eastern forms of mysticism, and such social concerns as racial injustice, the war in Vietnam, and the depersonalizing tendencies within a technical society. From his position of contemplative withdrawal he spoke a prophetic word to the world in which he lived, recognizing that his monastic, and eventually his eremitic life, was not so much a withdrawal from the world as it was his own place in the world. He provides, therefore, a living example of the close interrelationship between contemplation and action. Morton understood withdrawal to be movement away from the superficial and false attitudes one has of the world and of one's own self, Withdrawal is, for him, a movement away from the sharp distinction between subject and object, and a movement toward the understanding that God is the ground of all being and that all contingent beings, rooted in Him, are united. Withdrawal is the necessary prelude to effective social action, since withdrawal opens one to the truth of man's solidarity in God, who is ultimate Reality, and therefore provides the true basis for moral action. For Morton, moral theology is dependent upon ascetical theology. The closer one is to God, the closer one is to all of God's creation. Paul Tillich, too, saw the necessity for withdrawal, for an immediate apprehension of God, and for social action. Hence, it is not surprising that Tillich and Merton have numerous points of affinity. In fact, Tillich's theology can be interpreted as a theoretical statement of Merton's experience. Tillich's use of ontological language, especially his distinction between essence and existence, provides a methodical approach to the theology behind Merton's mysticism and social ethic. The purpose for withdrawal is to allow essence to become known under the conditions of existence, and one essence is know - how ever fragmentarily - it enriches existence for all, not only for the one who has experienced essentialization. Hence, even the mysticism of a hermit has an indirect effect on the entire world, and, in the case of Marton himself, a direct and explicit effect. Tillich, therefore, helps to explain Merton, and Merton's life-long attempt to balance the poles of individuality and participation provides an experiential example of Tillich's system.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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