Was He a Theologian?

Forty-three years after his untimely death, Thomas Merton remains one of the most compelling American Catholics of the past century. Most of his important books are in print, and he continues to attract new readers who identify with his journey to faith and to the monastic life. In the taxonomy of publishers and booksellers, however, his classification as a “spiritual writer” has tended to suggest that, while his writings might bring spiritual insight, they do not constitute heavy theological lifting. As a result, since his death numerous theologians have taken up the challenge of demonstrating the substance and merit of Merton’s work.

Christopher Pramuk’s Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton is the latest important contribution to this field. It began as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Notre Dame under the tutelage of Lawrence S. Cunningham, a longtime Commonweal contributor and the author of several books on Merton, including Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision, perhaps the best theological introduction to Merton’s life and writings. Pramuk describes his project as one that “looks to Thomas Merton as a classic theologian of the mystical tradition from East to West, and offers a retrieval and interpretation of his mature Christology.” He frames Merton’s distinctive Christology (the monk of Gethsemani was by no means a systematic theologian) as “a unifying thread to be discerned in the larger tapestry of his life.”

Sophia begins by focusing on the “turn” in Merton’s thought in the late 1950s. At this time his writings shifted from a more traditional vein to one more deeply engaged with the world and with non-Catholic and non-Christian sources. Part of this transformation had to do with Merton’s interest in the Russian wisdom tradition, centered on the feminine naming of God as Wisdom exemplified in the writings of Vladimir Soloviev and Sergius Bulgakov. Merton’s interest in these thinkers stems from their theological “recasting of the narrative of salvation in the boldest imaginative and metaphysical terms.” They contributed to what Pramuk calls Merton’s “witness to a different kind of knowledge and rationality, a way of seeing and knowing that is accessible to all through contemplation,” a quality Merton shares with the great twentieth-century Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. Pramuk also draws strong connections between Merton and other thinkers, including John Henry Newman and Abraham Joshua Heschel. These comparisons run throughout the book and come close to making the text more a synthetic analysis of Merton and these other writers than a study of Merton per se.

For Pramuk, Merton was both a man of his times and one who challenged them. He notes that Merton was “much more conservative than conservative caricatures make him out to be, and much more liberal by far than most progressives.” His point of reference is Merton’s essay “The New Consciousness” in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, which laments that just as Christianity was taking up serious dialogue with Eastern religions, many Christians, especially Catholics, were abandoning with embarrassment the very mystical traditions that offer some of the clearest points of connection to those traditions. According to the author, Merton was “concerned that the mystagogical moorings of Christian faith and praxis down through the ages are being cut away, perhaps irretrievably.” Merton’s project of dialogue, then, was not a rejection of the Western Christian tradition but an attempt to revitalize it and to address tensions within it.

Pramuk examines at length Sophia, or Wisdom, a biblical name for God that gives the book its title. He characterizes the theme of Divine Wisdom in Merton’s work as a kind of breakthrough that resulted from his study of patristic and Russian thought (both theologians and his correspondence with novelist Boris Pasternak), as well as his engagement with Zen. Merton’s famous “Fourth and Walnut” moment, described in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, is portrayed as a key point in his growth toward Sophia, and his later relationship with the nurse “M” as something that deepened it. Pramuk writes that for Merton, Sophia “bears the analogical capacity to awaken in the responsive human community an authentic memory of God,” one that “marked not a radical break from Merton’s Christ-haunted past but rather its lyrical consummation.”

The heart of Pramuk’s analysis of Sophia is his discussion of Merton’s poem “Hagia Sophia.” He describes it as a “classic of modern Christian mysticism” and an important part of Merton’s theological poetics. “Hagia Sophia” is a four-part poem structured around the monastic liturgical day. Merton composed it to accompany artwork by Victor Hammer. Pramuk examines how the poem brings the reader “into a mosaic experience of God brimming with positive content, spilling over its linguistic containers.” It represents a culmination of Merton’s engagement with Sophia as naming God.

Pramuk next offers a thorough analysis of the Orthodox sophianic tradition in the works of Bulgakov, Soloviev, and Paul Evdokimov. This understanding, he writes, “proceeds from the intuition that theology today is and must be to some extent ‘the art of apocalyptic times.’” Rather than an exposition of Merton, Pramuk analyzes what Merton saw in these thinkers and what led him to find the wisdom tradition so compelling, particularly “the doctrine of the humanity of God as a basis for Christian humanism, ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and the church’s engagement in the modern world.” It is here also that Pramuk’s own constructive vision is most clearly elaborated. He writes that “the irony of Christ and Christ crucified,” in the terms of Sophia, mediates and intensifies “faith’s most difficult question: whether we have the eyes to see, the faith to shoulder, the contradiction of hope in a sinful, though still hallowed, world.”

The book is strongest when the author discusses the power of Sophia in shaping Merton’s later life and writings. At other times, especially in the concluding chapter, Pramuk moves away from this theme and his focus becomes less clear. This diminishes the impact of the book and raises other issues that a more synthetic theological work on Sophia might have developed—for example feminist issues like those taken up in Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is.

My other concern about Sophia is that Pramuk tries to draw more systematic theology out of Merton’s work than it might be able to sustain. He alludes to this early on when he refers to the mixed bag produced annually by Merton enthusiasts (what he calls the “Merton industry”). This is a legitimate criticism, but Pramuk’s own approach seems only to underscore the fact that Merton comes closest to “doing theology” when his thought is linked to the work of others like Rahner, Newman, and Heschel.

On the whole, Pramuk’s study goes as far as any in outlining the Christology developed in Merton’s copious writings. And by placing Merton in conversation with an eclectic group of theologians, past and present, the book succeeds in underscoring Merton’s Christology and his understanding of the wisdom tradition. A new generation of Merton enthusiasts will appreciate both the effort and the result.

Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: 
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Daniel Rober is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University.

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