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  • Borgmann on MertonExploring the Possibility of Contemplation in a Technological Age
  • Aaron K. Kerr (bio)

In what follows I attempt to do two things. First, I want to explore the relationship between contemporary technology and the possibility of contemplation today. To appreciate technology I have relied upon Albert Borgmann, particularly his insistence that our current technological culture and way of life is conditioned almost exclusively by what he calls the device paradigm, a pattern of commodification and consumption that leads to disengagement. To appreciate contemplation, I have relied primarily on Thomas Merton, a prophetic American voice of religious consciousness and practice who invites the non-specialist into the depth dimension of human experience by way of his writings on contemplative life and vision. Though contemplation can be an obscure term, it resonates with both philosophy and theology and can serve as a bridge between the two diciplines. Second, I hope to illuminate in an explicit way the enduring inter-relationship between prophecy and philosophy. Albert Borgmann begins an essay on Merton with a brief yet concise set of propositions about that relationship and in what follows, I hope to demonstrate the important relationship between the prophet and philosopher, between faith and reason. [End Page 57]

Contemplation and a Human Future

The word contemplation is a compound word, literally translated as “with an open space.” It can mean to think or observe with an open space, a space marked in the sky, a temple—to think with the heavens. The way of contemplation, the intentionality of contemporary forays into its orbit, brings with it these two derived metaphors from the Latin compound: contemplation involves openness and ultimacy. The vitality of contemplation for both Merton and Borgmann is the conjunction, “with” (con). To think with God is the classical province of contemplation, but for Borgmann and the later Merton to be with others in a contiguous arrangement or relation resulting in deepened awareness of self and the world is also contemplative being-with. Merton and Borgmann share a concern about the deterioration and possibility of contemplation in a constantly changing culture conditioned by technology. They are not alone. Annette Holba shares this concern, focusing particularly on how the structuring of our time might develop in us contemplative modes of being for the purpose of becoming responsible engagers in the communicative task of political process and democracy. Josef Pieper, a German philosopher writing after the fall of Nazism and the anxious malaise of German reconstruction, warned of the tendencies to reduce life to the drudgery of work and production, dehumanizing the population because of the dearth of moments of celebration and contemplation. His considerations describe in great detail the modes of thinking operative in those times of celebration and contemplation and he pursues an explication of receptivity as understanding, distinct from rational striving and deductive precision. For all of the above thinkers and writers modes of openness resulting in knowledge and understanding of ultimate things have been, or are, squeezed, mitigated, or nearly eliminated from culture. In each author we find varying degrees of analysis expressing the problem.1 For both Merton and Borgmann there is an interactive relationship between technology and contemplation. Not only do Merton and Borgmann share a grasp of the dynamic between [End Page 58] contemplation and the use of technology, they are partners in their different modes of prophetic and philosophic expressions, thus demonstrating distinct domains of speech and thought, and perhaps more importantly, the historical-intellectual economy between the prophet and philosopher, faith and reason. For a more human future, one in which the breadth and openness of reason and spiritual longing might remain mutually enhancing and life-giving actions of learning, it is necessary to understand how technology and contemplation interact—technological action and its effects, and contemplative space or time and its fruit. Thus we connect concretely and realistically to the modes of being that secure a reasonable future of capable human actors and speakers.

Borgmann’s Work: An Overview

Though Albert Borgmann has self-identified as a Christian, I sense that he sees his work in strictly philosophical terms. In postmodernity, the term “Christian philosopher” could have multiple, complex meanings, so it...


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