Thomas Merton, “a man in the modern world” (CNS photo/Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University)

Like much of the country, Commonweal entered the 1960s with a renewed sense of purpose and a cautious optimism for the future. John F. Kennedy would soon be in the White House, the first Catholic president. The Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XIII to address the Church’s role in the modern world, would begin in 1962. 


It was a new era and, in many ways, the culmination of the magazine’s work over its first five decades. Since its founding, Commonweal’s editors had enthusiastically promoted a freer and fuller participation by Catholics in American society. The magazine welcomed the election of Kennedy not only as a milestone for the Church in the United States, but as indisputable evidence that American Catholics, long suspected of greater loyalty to Rome than to their own country, could bear the burdens of political leadership without, as Commonweal editor John Cogley put it, “anything smacking of the sectarian, the complacent, the narrow-minded, or the overly doctrinaire.”

At the same time, the Second Vatican Council ushered in a new era of intellectual openness and ecumenicism. At Vatican II, after centuries of resistance to the modern world, bishops reconciled themselves to religious liberty and the separation of church and state. They also encouraged greater lay participation in the Church, implemented much-needed liturgical and institutional reforms, and began repairing strained relationships between the Catholic Church and other branches of Christianity. Just as importantly, they finally acknowledged the value of other world religions—most notably Judaism, which had suffered greatly from the Church’s traditional anti-Judaism. Celebrating the Council as “the fullest contemporary expression of the Church’s self-understanding,” Commonweal editors concluded that it provided “real grounds for hope.”

As the decade continued, however, this sense of hope began to wane, both within the Church and within the country. The conflict in Vietnam, initiated by President Kennedy before his assassination, escalated into a brutal and unpopular war, while the reforms of the Council deepened old divisions and provoked new ones in the Church. 

Throughout the 1960s, Commonweal continued to wrestle with the unpredictable and often violent events that defined the tumultuous era, and often found itself at odds with  the prevailing views of both the Right and the Left. The magazine’s editors had initially supported the war in Vietnam, but as it dragged on, their position gradually changed. First, they opposed escalation; by the latter half of the decade, they advocated civil disobedience to stop the war. The editors were also critical of the papal encyclical Humanae vitae, which took a hardline position against birth control, but they cautioned against some efforts to push Church reform far beyond what the Council itself had authorized.

The magazine also published important work reaffirming the inviolability of conscience, as the following essay by Thomas Merton demonstrates. Written in an era of profound confusion and great uncertainty, the essay is a joyful reminder of our responsibility as both Catholics and citizens to engage freely and fearlessly with the world, rather than retreating from it—for “it is only in assuming full responsibility for our world, for our lives and for ourselves that we can be said to live really for God.”

Is the world a problem? I type the question. I am tempted to type it over again, with asterisks between the letters, the way H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n used to type his name in the New Yorker twenty years ago. And as far as I am concerned that would dispose of the question. But Commonweal is doubtless too concerned about the question to accept this: a blank page with “Is the world a problem” running down the middle, full of asterisks. So I have to be serious too, and develop it. It is, you see, a topic. And a topical topic.

Maybe I can spell this topic out coherently, admitting that there are still cogent reasons why the question should be asked and answered. Perhaps, too, I am personally involved in the absurdity of the question. Due to a book I wrote thirty years ago, I have myself become a sort of stereotype of the world-denying contemplative—the man who spurned New York, spat on Chicago, and tromped on Louisville, heading for the woods with Thoreau in one pocket, John of the Cross in another, and holding the Bible open at the Apocalypse. This stereotype is probably my own fault, and it is something I have to try to demolish on occasion. This is one of the occasions.

Now that we are all concerned about the Church and the World, the Secular City, and the values of secular society, it was to be expected that someone would turn quizzically to me and ask: “What about you, Fr. Merton? What do you think?”—and then duck as if I were St. Jerome with a rock in my fist.

First of all, the whole question of the world, the secular world, has become extremely ambiguous. It becomes ever more ambiguous when it is set up over against another entity, the world of the sacred. The old duality of time–­eternity, matter–spirit, natural–supernatural and so on (which makes sense in a very limited and definite context) is suddenly transposed into a totally different context in which it creates nothing but confusion. This confusion is certainly a problem. Whether or not “the world” is a problem, a confused idea of what the world might possibly be is quite definitely a problem. So what I want to talk about is this confusion, and what I myself think about it at the moment.

I want to make clear that I speak not as the author of the Seven Storey Mountain, which seemingly a lot of people have read, but as the author of more recent essays and poems which apparently very few people have read. This is not the official voice of Trappist silence, the monk with his hood up and his back to the camera, brooding over the waters of an artificial lake. This is not the petulant and uncanonizable modern Jerome who never got over the fact that he could give up beer. (I drink beer whenever I can lay hands on any. I love beer, and, by that very fact, the world.) This is simply the voice of a self-questioning human person who, like all his brothers, struggles to cope with turbulent, mysterious, demanding, exciting, frustrating, confused existence in which almost nothing is really predictable, in which most definitions, explanations and justifications become incredible even before they are uttered, in which people suffer together and are sometimes utterly beautiful, at other times impossibly pathetic. In which there is much that is frightening, in which almost everything public is patently phony, and in which there is at the same time an immense ground of personal authenticity that is right there and so obvious that no one can talk about it and most cannot even believe that it is there.

I am, in other words, a man in the modern world. In fact, I am the world just as you are! Where am I going to look for the world first of all if not in myself?



As long as I assume that the world is something I discover
by turning on the radio or looking out the window I am deceived from the start. As long as I imagine that the world is something to be “escaped” in a monastery—that wearing a special costume and following a quaint observance takes me “out of this world,” I am dedicating my life to an illusion. Of course, I hasten to qualify this. I said a moment ago that in a certain historic context of thought and of life, this kind of thought and action once made perfect sense. But the moment you change the context, then the whole thing has to be completely transposed. Otherwise you are left like the orchestra in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera where Harpo had inserted “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the middle of the operatic score.

The confusion lies in this: on one hand there is a primitive Christian conception of the world as an object of choice. On the other there is the obvious fact that the world is also something about which there is and can be no choice. And, historically, these notions have sometimes got mixed up, so that what is simply “given” appears to have been chosen, and what there is to be chosen, decided for or against, is simply evaded as if no decision were licit or even possible.

The world is a “problem” in so far as everybody in it is a problem to himself. The world is a problem in so far as we all add up to a big collective question.

That I should have been born in 1915, that I should be the contemporary of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam and the Watts riots are things about which I was not first consulted. Yet they are also events in which, whether I like it or not, I am deeply and personally involved. The “world” is not just a physical space traversed by jet planes and full of people running in all directions. It is a complex of responsibilities and options made out of the loves, the hates, the fears, the joys, the hopes, the greed, the cruelty, the kindness, the faith, the trust, the suspicion of all. In the last analysis, if there is a stupid war in Vietnam because nobody trusts anybody, this is in part because I myself am defensive, suspicious, untrusting, and intent on making other people conform themselves to my particular brand of deathwish.

Put in these terms, the world both is and is not a problem. The world is a “problem” in so far as everybody in it is a problem to himself. The world is a problem in so far as we all add up to a big collective question. Starting then from this concept of a world which is essentially problematic because it is full of problematic and self­-doubting freedoms, there have been various suggestions made as to what to do about it.

At present the Church is outgrowing what one might call the Carolingian suggestion. This is a worldview which was rooted in the official acceptance of the Church into the world of imperial Rome, the world of Constantine and of Augustine, of Charlemagne in the west and of Byzantium in the east. In crude, simple strokes, this worldview can be sketched as follows: we are living in the last age of salvation history. A world radically evil and doomed to hell has been ransomed from the devil by the Cross of Christ and is now simply marking time until the message of salvation can be preached to everyone. Then will come the judgment. Meanwhile, men being evil and prone to sin at every moment must be prevented by authority from following their base instincts and getting lost.

They cannot be left to their own freedom or even to God’s loving grace. They have to have their freedom taken away from them because it is their greatest peril. They have to be told at every step what to do, and it is better if what they are told to do is displeasing to their corrupt natures, for this will keep them out of further subtle forms of mischief. Meanwhile the Empire has become, provisionally at least, holy. As a figure of the eschatological kingdom, worldly power consecrated to Christ becomes Christ’s reign on earth. In spite of its human limitations the authority of the Christian prince is a guarantee against complete chaos and disorder and must be submitted to—to resist established authority is equivalent to resisting Christ. War on behalf of the Christian prince and his power becomes a holy war for Christ against the devil. War becomes a sacred duty.

The dark strokes in the picture have their historical explanation in the crisis of the Barbarian invasions. But there are also brighter strokes, and we find in the thought of Aquinas, Scotus, Bonaventure, Dante, a basically world-affirming and optimistic view of man, of his world and his work, in the perspective of the Christian redemption. The created world itself is an epiphany of divine wisdom and love, and, redeemed in and by Christ, will return to God with all its beauty restored by the transforming power of grace, which reaches down to material creation through man and his work. However, this view too is static rather than dynamic, hierarchic, layer upon layer, rather than ongoing and self-creating, the fulfillment of a predetermined intellectual plan rather than the creative project of a free and self-building love.


The Task of Renewal

One of the essential tasks of aggiornamento is that of renewing the whole perspective of theology in such a way that our ideas of God, man and the world are no longer dominated by the Carolingian-medieval imagery of the sacred and hierarchical cosmos, in which everything is decided beforehand and in which the only choice is to accept gladly what is imposed as part of an immobile and established social structure.

In “turning to the world” the contemporary Church is, first of all, admitting that the world can once again become an object of choice. Not only can it be chosen, but in fact it must be chosen. How? If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and the extent of my participation in its ongoing events. To choose the world is not then merely a pious admission that the world is acceptable because it comes from the hand of God. It is first of all an acceptance of a task and a vocation in the world, in history and in time. To choose the world is to choose to do the work I am capable of doing, in collaboration with my brother, to make the world better, more free, more just, more livable, more human. And it has now become transparently obvious that mere automatic “rejection of the world” and “contempt for the world” is in fact not a choice but the evasion of choice.

On the other hand the stereotype of world-rejection is now being firmly
replaced by a collection of equally empty stereotypes of world affirmation in which I, for one, have very little confidence. They often seem to be gestures, charades, mummery designed to make those participating in them feel secure, to make them feel precisely that they are “like participating” and really doing something. So precisely at the moment when it becomes vitally important for the destiny of man that man should learn to choose for himself a peaceful, equitable, sane and humane world, the whole question of choice itself becomes a stark and dreadful one. We talk about choosing, yet everything seems more grimly determined than ever before. We are caught in an enormous web of consequences, a net of erroneous and even pathological effects of other men’s decisions. After Hitler, how can Germany be anything but a danger to world peace? To choose the world therefore is to choose the anguish of being hampered and frustrated in a situation fraught with frightful difficulties. We can joyously affirm the world and its secular values all we like, but the complexity of events responds too often with a cold negation of our hopes.

In the old days when everyone compulsively rejected the world it was really not hard at all to secretly make quite a few healthy and positive affirmations of a worldly existence in the best sense of the word, in praise of God and for the good of all men. Nowadays when we talk so much of freedom, commitment, “engagement” and so on, it becomes imperative to ask whether the choices we are making have any meaning whatever. Do they change anything? Do they get us anywhere? Do we really choose to alter the direction of our lives or do we simply comfort ourselves with the choice of making another choice? Can we really decide effectively for a better world?


Do we really choose to alter the direction of our lives or do we simply comfort ourselves with the choice of making another choice?

The Marxist View

The “suggestion” that has now most obviously replaced that of the Carolingians is that of Karl Marx. In this view, history is not finished, it has just reached the point where it may, if we are smart, begin. There is no predetermined divine plan (although frankly the messianism in Marx is basically Biblical and eschatological). After a long, precarious evolution, matter has reached the point, in man, where it can become fully aware of itself, take itself in hand, control its own destiny. And now at last that great seething mass of material forces, the world, will enter upon its true destiny by being raised to a human level. The instruments by which this can be accomplished—technology, cybernetics—are now in our power. But are we in our own power? No, we are still determined by the illusions of thought patterns, superstructures devised to justify antiquated and destructive economic pat­terns. Hence if man is to choose to make himself, if he is to become free at last, his duty can be narrowed down to one simple option, one basic commitment: the struggle against the (imperialist) world.

With a shock we find ourselves in a familiar pattern: a predetermined struggle against evil in which personal freedom is viewed with intolerance and suspicion. The world must be changed because it is unacceptable as it is. But the change must be guided by authority and political power. The forces of good are all incarnate in this authority. The forces of evil are on the contrary incarnate in the power of the enemy system. Man cannot be left to himself. He must submit entirely to the control of the collectivity for which he exists. “Man” is not the person but the collective animal. Though he may eventually become free, now is not the time of freedom but of obedience, authority, power, control. Man does not choose to make himself except in the sense that he submits to a choice dictated by the authority of science and the messianic collective—the party which represents the chosen eschatological class. Though there are in theory all kinds of possible choices, in reality the only basic choice is that of rejecting and destroying the evil “world”—namely capitalist imperialism and, in the present juncture, the United States. Hence the ambiguities of Communist dogma at the moment: the choice of peace is of course nothing else than the choice of war against the United States. In other words, we have turned the page of Aida and we are now playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but it is the same crazy Marx Brothers’ opera. Freedom, humanism, peace, plenty and joy are all enthusiastically invoked, but prove on closer examination to be their opposites. 

There is only one choice, to submit to the decision handed down from on high by an authoritarian power which defines good and evil in political terms.

This, as I see it, is the present state of the question. The Church has finally realized officially that the classic worldview, which began to develop serious flaws five hundred years ago, is no longer viable at all. There is something of a stampede for security in a new worldview.

In this endeavor the dialogue with Marxism is going to be of crucial importance not only for Christians but for Marxists. For if it is a true dialogue it will possibly involve some softening and adjustment of doctrinaire positions and an opening to new perspectives and possibilities of collaboration. Obviously, however, the dialogue with official and established Marxism—the Soviets or Red China—is not to be considered yet as a meaningful possibility. But the conversations that have begun with the type of revisionist Marxism represented by the French thinker Roger Garaudy may certainly have some effects. But what effects? Good or bad? It is all too easy for enthusiastic Catholics, having tasted a little of the new wine, to convince themselves that “turning to the world” and “choosing the world” means simply turning to Marx and choosing some variation, Maoist, Soviet, Castroist, of the Communist political line. There is no question that since the Council a few Catholic thinkers and publicists in Europe and South America are tending in this direction. Their tendency is understandable, but I do not find it altogether hopeful.

The majority of Catholic thinkers today are, however, working in the direction of a modern worldview in which the demands of the new humanism of Marx, Freud, Teilhard, Bonhoeffer and others are fully respected and often heartily endorsed. For them, the tendency is no longer to regard God as enthroned “out there” at the summit of the cosmos, but as the “absolute future” who will manifest himself in and through man, by the transformation of man and the world by science oriented to Christ. Though this certainly is not a view which conservative theologians find comforting, it represents a serious attempt to re-express Christian truths in terms more familiar to modern man. It demands that we take a more dynamic view of man and of society. It requires openness, freedom, the willingness to face risks. It also postulates respect for the human person in the human community. But at the same time it seems to me that it may have serious deficiencies in so far as it may ignore the really deep problems of collective technological and cybernetic society.

The fact that man can now theoretically control and direct his own destiny does nothing to mitigate the awful determinism which in practice makes a mockery of the most “realistic” plans.

To assume, for instance, that just because scientific and technological humanism can theoretically be seen as “perfectly biblical” (“nothing is more biblical than technology,” says Pere Daniélou) does not alter the profound dehumanization that can in fact take place in technological society (as Daniélou also clearly sees). The fact that man can now theoretically control and direct his own destiny does nothing to mitigate the awful determinism which in practice makes a mockery of the most “realistic” plans and turns all man’s projects diametrically against their professed humanistic aims. The demonic gap between expressed aims and concrete achievements in the conduct of the Vietnam War should be an object lesson in the impotence of technology to come to grips with the human needs and realities of our time.


The Danger

When “the world” is hypostatized (and it inevitably is) it becomes another of those dangerous and destructive fictions with which we are trying vainly to grapple. And for anyone who has seriously entered into the medieval Christian, or the Hindu, or the Buddhist conceptions of “contemptus mundi,” “Mara” and the “emptiness of the world,” it will be evident that this means not the rejection of a reality, but the unmasking of an illusion.

The world as pure object is something that is not there. It is not a reality outside us for which we exist. It is not a firm and absolute objective structure which has to be accepted on its own inexorable terms. The world has in fact no terms of its own. It dictates no terms to man. We and our world interpenetrate. If anything, the world exists for us, and we exist for ourselves. It is only in assuming full responsibility for our world, for our lives and for ourselves that we can be said to live really for God. The whole human reality which of course transcends us as individuals and as a collectivity, nevertheless interpenetrates the world of nature (which is obviously “real”) and the world of history (also “real” in so far as it is made up of the total effect of all our decisions and actions). But this reality, though “external” and “objective,” is not something entirely independent of us, which dominates us inexorably from without through the medium of certain fixed laws which science alone can discover and use. It is an extension and a projection of ourselves and of our lives, and if we attend to it respectfully, while attending also to our own freedom and our own integrity, we can learn to obey its ways and coordinate our lives with its mysterious movements.

The way to find the real “world” is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self. But there I find the world to be quite different from the “obligatory answers.” This “ground,” this “world” where I am mysteriously present at once to my own self and to the freedoms of all other men, is not a visible objective and determined structure with fixed laws and demands. It is a living and self-creating mystery of which I am myself a part, to which I am myself my own unique door.

When I find the world in my own ground, it is impossible for me to be alienated by it. It is precisely the obligatory answers which insist on showing me the world as totally other than myself and my brother which alienate me from myself and from my brother. Hence I see no reason for our compulsion to manufacture ever newer and more shiny sets of obligatory answers.

The questions and the answers surely
have their purpose. We are rational and dialectical beings. But even the best answers are themselves not final. They point to something further which cannot be embodied in a verbal formula. They point to life itself in its inalienable and personal ground. They point to that realm of values which, in the eyes of scientific and positivistic thought, has no meaning. But how can we come to grips with the world except in so far as it is a value? That is to say in so far as it exists for us?

There remains a profound wisdom in the traditional Christian approach to the world as to an object of choice. But we have to admit that the habitual and mechanical compulsions of a certain limited type of Christian thought have falsified the true value-perspective in which the world can be discovered and chosen as it is. To treat the world merely as an agglomeration of material goods and objects outside ourselves, and to reject these goods and objects in order to seek others which are “interior” and “spiritual” is in fact to miss the whole point of the challenging confrontation of the world and Christ.

Do we really choose between the world and Christ as between two conflicting realities absolutely opposed? Or do we choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him, that is to say created and redeemed by Him, and encountered in the ground of our own personal freedom and of our love? Do we really renounce ourselves and the world in order to find Christ, or do we renounce our alienated and false selves in order to choose our own deepest truth in choosing both the world and Christ at the same time? If the deepest ground of my being is love, 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 of all-in-one. It is not a matter of exclusivism and “purity” but of wholeness, wholeheartedness, unity and Meister Eckhart’s Gleichheit (equality) which finds the same ground of love in everything.

The world cannot be a problem to anyone who sees that ultimately Christ, the world, his brother and his own inmost ground are made one and the same in grace and redemptive love. If all the current talk about the world helps people to discover this, then it is fine. But if it produces nothing but a whole new divisive gamut of obligatory positions and “contemporary answers” we might as well forget it. The world itself is no problem, but we are a problem to ourselves because we are alienated from ourselves, and this alienation is due precisely to an inveterate habit of division by which we break reality into pieces and then wonder why, after we have manipulated the pieces until they fall apart, we find ourselves out of touch with life, with reality, with the world and most of all with ourselves.

This article was originally published in the June 3, 1966 issue of Commonweal.

Thomas Merton was the author of "Man in the Divided Sea," and many other books. He was a member of the Trappist Community at Gethsemani, KY. He died December 10, 1968.

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