- The Secular as a Spiritual Worldliness
Perhaps it is an irony that the figure who has meant the most to me in my own understanding of secular writing is the religious author Thomas Merton. While he is most well-known for his spiritual autobiography from 1948, The Seven Storey Mountain, where he tells the story of his religious conversion to Catholicism and eventual entrance into the cloistered contemplative Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, he went on to live a full life not only as a leading voice in the ecumenical movement and proponent of the mystical traditions, but also a very public life as a man of letters. There are echoes of St. Augustine's Confessions throughout. Yet, while Merton's autobiography tells the tale of the inner peace he found once his desperate worldly wanderings were resolved by faith, it was as if once his religious vocation was set, once his vow of obedience was made, and once his retreat from the world was made complete, his attention again turned outwards back towards the world. In this way, he models a secularity that is in fact a critical and engaged spiritual worldliness.
From the confines (or was it a perch?) of his self-imposed exile, Merton read, wrote, and commented on contemporary poetry and literature. Though certainly not a systematic theologian himself, one can discern a theology of non-violent resistance, a critique of state power, and an argument against the violent normalcy of human civilization. In the midst of the fury of the anti-Vietnam war movement in the United States and the anti-colonial revolution worldwide, he was not shy in taking a side with the anti-war protestors—not, he was careful to add, either for or against either the United States or Communism, but instead on "the side of the people who are being burned, cut to pieces, tortured, held as hostages, gassed, destroyed."
Though a believer in the Christian message of nonviolence (while still acknowledging the history of violence perpetrated by the Church and in the name of Christ), he nevertheless sought to understand— and in his way, to affirm—the broad sweep and appeal of the global anti-colonial revolutionary movement generally and the role of the Black Power movement in the struggle for racial justice in the US more specifically. Beyond the pacifist ideals of racial integration and its promise of racial harmony, he saw in the Black Power movement a necessary affirmation "for revolutionary self-liberation." As such, he saw through the shock and fear of white liberal sensibilities and their charge of reverse racism. He accepted the critique of the historic conflation of western culture with the so-called "Christian order," and thereby, anticipated what would later come to be theorized as the decolonial, post-Christian, and post-liberal.
In the midst of the ideological warfare which rendered the Vietcong the nameless and faceless other, Merton boldly called the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and his interfaith co-conspirator Thich Nhat Hanh his brother. For Merton, Thich "represent[ed] the young, the defenseless, the new ranks of youth who [found] themselves with every hand turned against them except those of the peasants and the poor." Though separated by religion, language, and nationality, he proclaimed Thich his brother, because what they shared was so much more:
We are both monks, and we have lived the monastic life about the same number of years. We are both poets, both existentialists. I have far more in common with Nhat Hanh than I have with many Americans, and I do not hesitate to say it. It is vitally important that such bonds be admitted. They are the bonds of a new solidarity and a new brotherhood which is beginning to be evident on all the five continents and which cuts across all political, religious and cultural lines to unite young men and women in every country in something this is more concrete than an ideal and more alive than a program. This unity of the young is the only hope of the world.
Though he took a vow of obedience, it is well-chronicled how often Merton strafed against religious...