Absent from Luke Timothy Johnson’s account of mysticism (“Dry Bones,” February 26) are the insights of numerous pre–Vatican II theologians who retrieved the forgotten and ignored reflections of the early church fathers. The theology of Vatican II, which apparently to Johnson’s chagrin did turn Catholics toward the world, is also absent from his article. Nowhere does he mention the movements of living theology to link the mystical and prophetic rather than present them as conflicting.
Johnson succumbs to the conservative account of liberation theology as warmed-over Marxism, asserting that liberation theology epitomizes the “marginalization of the mystical.” A bizarre claim to anyone acquainted with the reflections of Gustavo Gutiérrez (We Drink from Our Own Wells), the six slain Jesuits of El Salvador, or Asian liberation theologian Aloysius Pieris, among others. They demand a certain fidelity to the real that neither dismisses contemplation and prayer nor disparages attention to massive global suffering as distraction from one’s encounter with God. They give a view of an encounter with God found in graced or brutal ordinary events rather than the vagaries of the esoteric.
Writing from twenty years of living with the poor in Brazilian favelas, the late Fr. Dominique Barbe sums up a mysticism possessing a fidelity to the real: “The adventure into God is authentic if it draws the human being at the same time into the Trinity and into the heart of the masses.”
It is simply not true, as Luke Timothy Johnson claims, that Thomas Merton had a late “turn to the world” that “privileges the active over the contemplative, the political engagement over the monastic retreat,” or that the “marginalization of the mystical within Christianity reaches its epitome in movements like the social gospel or liberation theology, for which the esoteric life of the mystic is at best a form of self-indulgence and at worst counterrevolutionary.” While privileging the “mystical,” Johnson seems to confuse the “spiritual” with the “mystical,” and by referring to “exoteric” and “esoteric” versions of religion, he is continuing the false dichotomy variously expressed in the past as the material vs. the spiritual, or prayer vs. action. At the Gregorian University (long before I started reading much Merton, the social gospel, or liberation theology), I was instructed to develop what today we’d call a holistic understanding of spirituality.
Admittedly, it is difficult to formulate an adequate theological account of the “spiritual” synthesis, which now must also take into account the eco-theology of the late Thomas Berry, CP, but Johnson’s slurring of Merton, the social gospel, and liberation theology make it worse by giving ideological aid and comfort to the opponents of social justice and political and economic reform within and without the church. While one may question the scriptural or theological interpretation of one or another social-gospel or liberation theologian, a first principle of any such theology is its foundation in a Christian spirituality based on the liturgy (as spelled out in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), Scripture, and Catholic social teaching. As for Thomas Merton, he is a spiritual master precisely because he exemplifies in his life and writing the very project of the “spiritual” synthesis, even anticipating Berry’s eco-theology, as an ever-evolving experience of a lifetime. Pace Luke Timothy Johnson, just reading Lawrence S. Cunningham’s book Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master and Merton’s own New Seeds of Contemplation, along with Monica Furlong’s and Jim Forrest’s biographies, will satisfy any inquiring mind—whether the more contemplative and less active, or the more active and less contemplative—with the vision and challenge of the “mystical” and the prophetic elements of spirituality.
MICHAEL L. O’NEILL
De Land, Fla.
THE AUTHOR REPLIES:
I struggled with this essay because it involved so many pieces: two major dimensions of religion within three great traditions, plus the threat posed to Islam and Christianity from secular ideologies. The material for a monograph was stuffed into an essay. While it may be vulnerable on many specific points—such as some of those the correspondents identify—I consider the major lines of the argument to be sound and I stand by them.
There are, however, some small points made by the letters that require response. First, I resist the implicit reduction of “Christianity” to “Roman Catholicism,” and reject the premise that the condition of Catholicism represents the state of Christianity as a whole. Second, my point about liberation theology did not concern the piety of individual theologians but the ways in which liberation theology has popularly been received and advanced. Third, I did not in the least “slur” Thomas Merton—whom I have read with admiration and profit since I was thirteen years old—but only characterized a perception of Merton’s turn to the world in the 1960s. Finally, and most seriously, I vigorously contest the suggestion that I have called for a private piety that has no concern for social justice or engagement with the world. My argument made the opposite point, namely, that the practices of devotion (or mysticism) in their robust classical forms participated in, enlivened, and often sponsored movements of reform and social justice.
LUKE TIMOTHY JOHNSON
Thank you for your sensible and principled statement on the clergy sexual-abuse scandal and the pope (“Benedict in the Dock,” April 30). As a lifelong Catholic and mother of two young children who attend Catholic school, the scandal has been hard for me to deal with. Many of my friends and acquaintances believe I am insane to stay. They do not understand my faith, but they make some excellent points!
Knowing that the whole church hierarchy has been essentially complicit in this mess and that it hasn’t the nerve or honesty to face up to these hideous sins is maddening. We pew-sitters are asked, expected, urged to be open and honest about our own sins; I am dumbfounded by the pope’s refusal to take responsibility for his entire church. That’s not leadership—spiritual or otherwise.
I keep hoping for signs of light and transparency from those who administer my church. So far your editorial is one of the few examples I have found, and for that I am grateful.
I’ve spent forty-two years at the University of Notre Dame and three years in Uganda, and my interest in the discussion of the catholicity of Catholic colleges and universities can wane. But a voice like James Heft’s sparks my interest again (“Distinctively Catholic,” March 26). His impressive intellect and extensive administrative experience allow him to know which bases to cover and how to negotiate them. I especially appreciated his distinction between “soft” and “hard” postmodernism. The hard variety simply accepted a Cartesian view of “pure reason,” and so was bereft of any reason when that collapsed, whereas the soft variety recognizes trust as a key ingredient of any inquiry, as did John Henry Newman and Bernard Lonergan. That perspective privileges the quest for understanding in a Catholic milieu attentive to its rich tradition.
DAVID BURRELL, CSC