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Faith seeking understanding: theological method in Thomas Merton's interreligious dialogue.


There are two oft-quoted essays by Thomas Merton on interreligious dialogue: The first is included in his book Mystics and Zen Masters and is titled "Contemplation and Dialogue"; (1) the second is published as "Appendix IV" in The Asian Journal and is titled "Monastic Experience and East-West Dialogue." (2) These two essays, however, can hardly be said to exhaust Merton's thoughts on the subject. It is widely recognized in Merton scholarship that what he wrote for popular use was often previously worked out in a more rigorous manner in less accessible works. This has been verified by the recent and most helpful publication of the Cistercian Publications series, Initiation into the Monastic Tradition, edited by Patrick F. O'Connell. This is true of his approach to interreligious dialogue as well. Although there are glimpses of Merton's theological method in these more popular essays on interreligious dialogue, an important though much neglected aspect of his thought on this subject was constructed by reading Anselm, particularly through the interpretive lens of Karl Barth's groundbreaking study on Anselm's Proslogion. (3) It may sound absurd to suggest that a mystic and broadly thinking forerunner of interreligious dialogue could find any such inspiration in a theologian of mediate truth, one who so famously described all religion as "unbelief," but the truth is that Merton quite liked Barth (4) and suggested that Barth was "not only a diligent student of St. Anselm, but ha[d] done perhaps more than any other one man to stimulate study and discussion of Anselm in the twentieth century." (5) Two caveats attached to this conviction will perhaps make it more understandable: First, Merton thought Barth's interests in Anselm (and in Mozart) were compelling exceptions to Barth's overall theological outlook; (6) second, Merton took some license by reinterpreting Barth's theological stance in mystical terms--certainly unacceptable to Barth. Moreover, it is the content of Anselm's theology--not Barth's--that Merton found helpful; from Barth it is his very definition of theology as "faith seeking understanding," grounded in his study of Anselm and following Augustine, that Merton used. Specifically, Merton applied the theological axiom, "faith seeking understanding," to his study and experience of other religions to avoid what he saw as the two great sins of interreligious dialogue: apologetics and syncretism.

There are two principles of interreligious dialogue that may be extracted from Merton's study of Anselm, both rooted in Barth's explicitly stated theological methodology. These principles are hardly exhaustive; they are merely a sample of the wisdom to be gained from Merton's vast learning and experience. The first is a matter of position and pertains to the believer's location in the search for common ground; the second is a matter of purpose and pertains to the fundamental telos of interreligious dialogue. With respect to one's position in dialogue Merton proposed an empathetic search for common ground with the other while unashamedly remaining committed to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. With respect to the purpose of dialogue Merton easily rejected the defensiveness of apologetics and the irresponsibility of syncretism; rather, by recognizing the distance between faith and full knowledge the believer is free to seek an understanding of the truth of faith in dialogue with the other and to rejoice in the transformation that new understanding brings by participating in Truth.

Two Articles on Anselm

In discussing Merton's thoughts on Anselm there are several relevant sources. Two published articles represent the polished presentation of Merton's research, but there are earlier glimpses into Merton's thought through his various entries in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (7) and therefore also back into his journals. Also, there are Merton's unpublished reading journals that provide some of his early reflections on Anselm, and, finally, a talk on Anselm and one on his "Argument" that Merton gave to the novices in 1963. (8) The thrust of my argument will be drawn from the two articles--his "Reflections on Some Recent Studies of St. Anselm" (1965), (9) and his "St. Anselm and His Argument" (1966) (10) though sporadic reference will also be made to these other sources to help provide a full picture of Merton's appreciation for Anselm.

In his article, "Reflections," Merton discussed various emerging scholarly perspectives pertaining to Anselm's Cur Deus Homo. His primary concern was to rescue Anselm's soteriology from a purely juridical interpretation. He was adamant that it could not be reduced to "tenth-century Lombardic law." (11) This, in turn, meant "that the death of Christ on the Cross was not intended to assuage a supposed divine thirst for vengeance, nor was it simply an expression of the infinite power of God venting itself on the evil of sin in the form of an infinitely virulent punishment." (12) Rather, it is accomplished by the utter liberty and spontaneity of the Son's sacrifice for the Father. (13) "Anselm," Merton claimed, "makes it quite clear that the satisfaction given to God for man's sin was not something that God required for Himself alone but rather for mankind and for the beauty of His cosmos." (14) But, there is also an underlying theme throughout this essay, perhaps one even more pressing to Merton than Anselm's soteriology. Merton consistently works to show that Anselm's perspective is not that of an apologete (or, in more contemporary language, an "apologist"). Despite the fact that many would call Anselm a "rationalist," that is, one who argues on the basis of reason only, Merton strongly rejected this label. His concern resonates with that of Barth who, in his interpretation of Anselm, argued ardently that there is a significant distinction to be made between one who argues according to "reason alone" as opposed to "reason only." (15) It is in this first article on the Cur Deus Homo that Merton's perspective on interreligious dialogue became apparent as he sought in its opening pages to understand exactly who Anselm had in mind in building his argument to prove the necessity of the Incarnation and Redemption.

Then, in 1966, the Cistercian monk shifted his focus toward the Proslogion in his article, "St. Anselm and His Argument," to show that, while Anselm's so-called "argument" for the existence of God is rational, it is at its very core both "theological" because it proceeds from faith to reason and "spiritual" because it springs from the author's contemplative awareness. The reconciliation of the medieval rift in Western Christianity between theology and spirituality was Merton's conscious objective in his second essay on Anselm. This essay concerns our present topic because it is here that Merton really delved into Anselm's method of "faith seeking understanding." Although this method is especially evident in the opening lines of Anselm's Proslogion, (16) it is the key to all of his theological works. (17) Here again, rather than an apology against the unbeliever, Merton saw Anselm's so-called "ontological argument" for the existence of God as an opportunity for reasonable dialogue. Both articles offer significant material for the reconstruction of Merton's views on interreligious dialogue.

"Faith Seeking Understanding" in Karl Barth's Reading of Anselm

Clearly, Merton's two articles on Anselm cover a range of material too broad for the present discussion. Although Merton wrote at the onset of two new comprehensive studies on Anselm, (18) Barth was always present in his thought. In fact, it would not be a stretch to suggest that Barth was Merton's primary influence in his study of Anselm. Writing on Anselm's Proslogion, Merton proclaimed: "In the twentieth century, when Anselm has been to a great extent taken for granted by Catholics, a powerful stimulus to the study of his thought was given by Karl Barth in a book on 'the Argument' which continues to be much discussed and which amounts to a real rediscovery of the profound religious dimensions of Anselm's thought." (19) In a pair of letters to Hans Urs von Balthasar, Merton described Barth's book on Anselm as "wonderful," (20) and he made the claim that "of all those who have been discussing Anselm these past few years, Barth and the Orthodox P[aul] Evdokimov have appreciated him the best." (21) Moreover, while the two articles focus on different aspects of Anselm's thought, there is continuity with regard to Anselm's theological method, and this is the focus of our study.

While Merton overtly praised Barth and his study on Anselm, he made important adjustments to Barth's treatment of Anselm that offer great insight into Merton's own theology. Without requiring a long and involved excursus, these adjustments may be summarized briefly. On the surface Merton wholeheartedly agreed with Barth. Merton repeatedly affirmed the theological scheme that Barth developed: "faith seeking understanding." (22) However, below the surface there is a notable discrepancy between the authoritative perspective that Barth aligned with revelation and the intuitive perspective that Merton proposed. (23) Two key words modify Barth's perspective: "religious experience." (24) For Barth "faith seeking understanding" was the reasoned response to a confrontation with the revealed Logos, soaked in the ardor of prayer; for Merton, "faith seeking understanding" was this same theological faith linked to an ontological experience that Merton called an "intuition of being." (25) It was not a matter of either/or for Merton but one of both/and. (26) The revelation to which faith adheres is to be found both in the Word made flesh and in an inner experience of the ground of Being. (27) The difference here between Merton ("intuition") and Barth ("prayer") seems to be only a matter of terminology.

When Barth set out in 1931 to defend the medieval monk, he boldly declared that "Thomas Aquinas and Kant were at one in their misunderstanding and denial of that very aspect of Anselm's theology which is to be our special concern here." (28) Barth's "special concern" was to show that Anselm's argument is couched in the theological scheme of "faith seeking understanding," making it specifically theological in nature. He argued that Anselm's theological scheme is consistent throughout his many works and thus that it is absolutely necessary to conceive the argument within the context of his larger theological framework. Although Anselm proceeded by way of reason alone, the fact that he began in prayer, was moved by adoration, and was obedient to the specifically stated Augustinian axiom, "faith seeking understanding," all provide evidence that his argument is no proof at all; rather, Anselm's primary concern was understanding. Barth did not completely deny a will to prove in Anselm, but he defined proof as "the polemical-apologetic result of intelligere." (29) For Barth, proof was a byproduct or, at best, the fruit of faith understood.

Obvious Objection

For those fluent in Merton's writings, there is an obvious objection to such a thesis. In a letter written by Merton to the Zen scholar Masao Abe on May 12, 1967, Merton seemed completely to reject Barth's theology as a basis for inter-religious dialogue:
      In discussing Christianity you take Barth as more or less
   normative. That is not unreasonable, since Barth is an
   uncompromisingly Biblical theologian and certainly takes a
   characteristically "Christian" stand upon the revealed Christian
   message of salvation. In other words Barth is clear-cut: indeed
   uncompromising. But precisely because he is so clear-cut, it seems
   to me that he makes dialogue between Christianity and non-Christian
   religions very difficult, since he himself is hostile to such
   dialogue. Or at any rate his teaching sharply divides the Christian
   revelation against any other form of religion. You are perhaps
   right in tackling the problem of communication at its difficult
   point, and not where it is easy. But I feel that at this point
   there is not much hope of real progress. One remains blocked. (30)

In place of Barth's objective and revealed theology, Merton offered several more productive avenues, or as he called them, "meeting grounds," for dialogue between East and West including: (1) Christian mystical experience (pointing specifically to Eckhart, the Rhenish and Flemish mystics, and St. John of the Cross); (2) ontology or metaphysical experience; and (3) "the Islamic mysticism and metaphysics of the Sufis." (31) So, it would seem that Merton had little interest in Barth's theology as the basis for dialogue. However, there are a few qualifications that can be made here that will perhaps leave the door open. (1) Merton was writing to a Zen scholar; his work on Anselm through Barth focused entirely on Western religions. We should expect that the particularity of various religious traditions would require unique "meeting grounds." In dialogue with Jews and Muslims, reason might be a perfectly acceptable common ground, whereas in dialogue with Zen a more sapiential or experiential ground was certainly Merton's preference. (2) Merton had a very particular agenda in his positive appraisal of Barth's book on Anselm. He sought to reconcile--particularly in his article, "Argument"--Barth's dogmatic approach with his own contemplative approach. In many respects Merton did not accept Barth's theology "as is" but tried to reinterpret it in a favorable light. In other words, Merton's articles on Anselm were influenced heavily by Barth, but they nonetheless took on a strong Mertonian hue in their final form. Certainly, he could not expect everyone who reads Barth to see these same possibilities. (3) He appreciated in Barth's theology a "method" more than a "meeting ground." In this respect what he found in Barth is explicitly for the Christian. This does not mean that it is necessarily hidden or secret, but it is of little use to anyone except the Christian. "Faith seeking understanding" is a methodology for Christians who participate in dialogue with other religious traditions.


Merton began his analysis of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo by reflecting on the historical circumstances of Anselm's writing. For Merton, this late-eleventh-century dialogue was no mere antiquated theological discourse but a model for contemporary interreligious dialogue. He wrote:
      The thirtieth chapter of Eadmer's Vita Anselmi describes how
   Anselm, in exile in Italy, in 1098, withdrew into solitude to
   complete the Cur Deus Homo on which he had been working
   intermittently since 1094, that is to say since the year after he
   became Archbishop of Canterbury.

      A few pages later (chapter 33), a very interesting passage of
   the Vita Anselmi shows that at this time Anselm also had contact
   with the Moslem soldiers in the army of Roger of Sicily, and that
   he made a deep spiritual impression on them. This is an important
   fact because it explains who precisely were the "gentiles" that
   Anselm had in mind in marshalling his arguments from reason to
   prove the necessity of the Incarnation and Redemption in the Cur
   Deus Homo. (32)

Audience matters in any sort of serious exchange of ideas. In this case, Anselm was writing not only with his imaginary Christian interlocutor Boson in mind, but he was also writing with real flesh-and-blood Muslims in mind. Therefore, we should certainly expect a form of communication that differs from a sermon delivered within the ecclesial community.

A significant question then becomes: On whose ground are we to meet? Where do two disparate religious groups find common ground when faith commitments seem irreconcilable? Of course, in this case the common ground of reason was Anselm's preference, and Merton heartily agreed. However, the ground itself is insufficient; also important is one's manner of approach. The difference between an apologist and one who seeks to engage in dialogue is, first of all, a matter of position: The apologist, Merton said, "stands in a position of invincible authority from which he delivers hammer blows to crush all arguments, irrespective of their worth." (33) On the other hand, the one who participates in dialogue with the other begins on the basis of "empathy." Merton carefully and specifically chose the word "empathy" over "sympathy" to emphasize the fact that the difficult process of understanding is a universal experience. Too often faith is conflated with theological understanding, the result being a disastrous mixture of arrogance and ignorance. No one has full possession of the truth. Instead, Merton suggested that Anselm and his disciple Boson "in effect place themselves in the Moslem's position in order to inquire whether they can, by reason alone, discover a clue to the mystery of man's eternal salvation apart from Jesus Christ." (34) It is not the case that one party fully understands the truth and then, out of pity for the other, shares this truth, as a parent does with a child; rather, both parties recognize a shared state of humanity and the fundamental difficulty in intellectually grasping that which they believe. (35) Merton went on to oppose "[s]uch apologetics" because they "tend to assume from the start that the opponent is absolutely wrong no matter what he may say, and that therefore there is not much point in trying to understand his argument except in so far as may be necessary for an expeditious refutation." (36) The position of dialogue is one of search for common ground, always coupled with an attitude of humility and shared humanity. Merton called this outlook "ecumenical" (37) and gave credit to Paul Evdokimov for recognizing it in Anselm. (38)

Merton more thoroughly explicated this notion of position in his article on Anselm's Proslogion. Although the context is different--Anselm writing with the "unbeliever" in mind rather than Muslims, and to "prove" the existence of God rather than showing the necessity for the Incarnation and Redemption--the principles remain. For Merton, Barth, and Anselm, the notion of "common ground" was never neutral ground and certainly not ground that Christians could not rightly call their own. "Common ground" Merton here called "spiritual ground." (39) "Anselm," he argued, "refuses to speak to those who do not come at least part of the way to meet him on this spiritual ground." (40) In this regard he noted that Anselm distinguished clearly between "the fool" (insipiens) and the "unbeliever" (infidelis):
   The fool is one who refuses to believe what is not immediately
   evident to his mind here and now. He is a "fool" precisely because
   he does not seek any truth beyond what conforms to his present
   prejudices. He mocks all that he does not understand. The infidelis
   however is seeking the truth, but by reason alone, without faith.
   He is not a fool, because he seeks the truth, and it is not his
   fault that he has not received the gift of faith. Anselm will
   therefore enter into dialogue with the "unbeliever" who seeks the
   truth by reason. He will share with this unbeliever the
   understanding of the ratiofidei which he himself has acquired in
   theological meditation. Those who are, so to speak, on the same
   "wave-length" will, without difficulty, admit his reasons as
   necessary. Those who are not will never be able to see what Anselm
   is talking about. (41)

In this distinction between the "fool" and the "unbeliever," Merton argued for a common ground that in no way is torn from the revealed faith or the ontological experience of the believer. Merton, explicitly following Barth, went so far as to call the "Anselmian experience" a theological meditation on the "Name" given to Moses in Exodus, rather than merely a logical deduction of God's existence from God's essence; in this sense the argument has a "prophetic" character. (42)

For the believer reason cannot be separate from faith for it is always and everywhere grounded in the revealed Logos.

For Merton, then, finding "common ground" was never a matter of bracketing off one's faith. Reason, entirely apart from faith, is the ground of the "fool" who is without any "sense of God." But, "common ground" might be sought and found with any who honestly sought truth and therefore were, in Merton's mind, in some sense attuned to the reality he called God. He argued:
      By apologetics, we must understand an appeal to arguments and a
   way of reasoning which goes out to meet the insipiens on his own
   ground. It is quite true that Anselm proceeds sola ratione as if
   there were no revealed explanations. But he never proceeds as if
   revelation as such were to be temporarily set aside as irrelevant.
   Yet this is what he would have to do to meet the "insipiens" on his
   own ground and bring him by logical, historical and other arguments
   to admit the relevance and credibility of revelation. This Anselm
   never does. He starts from the fact of revealed truth, and then
   goes on to show that if his imaginary interlocutor were really
   consistent he would be able to recognize that he already held some
   truths which implicitly point to the evidence which Anselm is
   trying to show him.... The unbeliever is not brought into the
   picture as an adversary to be "effectively reduced to silence."
   Anselm is not concerned with "silencing" the objector (to whom be
   barely accords the most transient and indirect attention) as with
   showing believers (his monks) that the very proposition "God is
   not" is self-contradictory to anyone who is fully aware of the
   meaning of God--that is to say to anyone who has a "sense of God"
   which preserves him from being "insipiens." (43)

This approach ultimately recognizes that the dualistic approach of "nature" and "supernature" is insufficient. Although Merton was formed in this neoscholastic theological framework, he was making significant steps toward an incarnational approach to the world that saw all creation grounded and transfigured in the gratuity of the Word made flesh. However, it is precisely faith (implicit though it may be) (44) that makes the incarnational approach fruitful.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton described the position of the Christian in dialogue with the world by opposing Bonhoeffer, who, Merton argued, approached the world from the perspective of "only ... faith," and in equal opposition to Bonhoeffer's followers, who approached the world from a secular perspective that seemed to disregard faith altogether. Instead, Merton held in theandric tension both revelation and reason:
   I hold to the Catholic view which makes an Encyclical like Pacem in
   Terris possible and logical. Pope John could very well have called
   the world to peace purely and simply in terms of the Gospel of
   Peace. Instead he called it to peace in the name of humanity and
   reason. But was this a contradiction of the Gospel? No. Since
   Christ is fully and truly man, since the world, society, humanity,
   human and social life have been taken up and sanctified in the
   Incarnation, the Church can speak to the world in terms of a
   humaneness, a reason, a compassion which both the Church and the
   "world" are capable of understanding, but of which the Church also
   has a much deeper, theological understanding than the world.

      Pope John's approach, traditionally Catholic yet completely open
   to dialogue with the world in human and reasonable terms, represents
   at the same time an explicitly religious position in which,
   however, religion is not forced on anyone. In his very humaneness
   and reasonableness he is bearing witness to the Gospel. This also
   was the spirit of the Catholic reasonableness of Thomas Aquinas.

"Faith seeking understanding" as theological method for interreligious dialogue recognizes the distance between the gift of faith received and the rigor of faith understood. It therefore empathetically and humbly seeks after common ground for the purpose of mutual understanding, but it cannot reduce its reasoned faith to the level of reason only, or what Merton calls "banal argumentation," (46) for it always recognizes creation "taken up and sanctified in the Incarnation."

In opposition to the other danger facing the believer, that of secularism, or perhaps it could be argued, relativistic pluralism, Merton argued in Conjectures that "It is ... a problem for the believer who is too eager to identify himself with [the unbeliever's] unbelief in order to 'win them for Christ."' (47) Merton identified this attitude with the "danger of heresy [that] exists for the Catholic today precisely in that 'believing' zeal which, eager to open up new aspects and new dimensions of faith, thoughtlessly or carelessly sacrifices something essential to Christian truth, on the grounds that this is no longer comprehensible to modern man." (48) In opposition to this heretical stance Merton proposed the following:
      I think a Catholic is bound to remember that his faith is
   directed to the grasp of truths revealed by God, which are not
   simply accessible by reason alone. That these truths are not mere
   opinions or "manners of speaking," mere viewpoints which can be
   adopted or rejected at will--for otherwise the commitment of faith
   would lack not only totality but even seriousness. (49) The
   Catholic is one who stakes his life on certain truths revealed by
   God. If these truths cease to apply, his life ceases to have
   meaning. (50)

Very clearly, Merton followed Barth on the order of faith's preceding understanding through reason, and they both found this order paramount in any discussion pertaining to witness or dialogue. Merton accepted the challenge to meet the "modern man," the unbeliever, "on his own ground," but at the same time Merton recommended that "we must also be truly what we are." (51) Balancing these requirements was, for Merton, a matter of compassion. (52) Merton concluded this two-page pericope by pointing to the Incarnation and Redemption as the revealed basis both for a "'Christian humanism'" and for the "Christian mission." "What is the use of coming to modern man with the claim that you have a Christian mission--that you are sent in the name of Christ--if in the same breath you deny Him by whom you claim to be sent?" (53) Merton's both/and approach to the believer's position in dialogue is clear: Revelation and reason, faith and common ground, commitment and empathy, giving and receiving, speaking and listening, witnessing and learning. He summarized his perspective clearly in Faith and Violence: "[W]hile I certainly believe that the message of the Gospel is something that we are called upon to preach, I think we will communicate it more intelligently in dialogue. Half of talking is listening. And listening implies that the other speaker also has something to say." (54)


After position, it is important to discuss the purpose of dialogue. Once again, it is important to affirm that the following purpose is in no way restrictive. Certainly, one may speak of other goals for interreligious dialogue that will not here be addressed--with respect to Merton one can certainly speak of peace and the preservation of the sapiential tradition as recurring goals. But, here, in Merton's essays on Anselm another end is dominant; nor is it too strong to suggest all other goals are relative to, or dependent upon, the one Merton proposes here. Once again, the theological method of "faith seeking understanding" is central.

By now it should be clear that Merton's purpose was in no way apologetic. He did not set out on the basis of reason to disprove the arguments of those who did not share his faith. Specifically, Merton set forth his perspective in his article on Anselm's Cur Deus Homo against that of Dom F. S. Schmitt, who argued that "where we join ratio with belief, we have apologetics"; he easily dismissed this definition as "too sweeping," one that rendered "all theological science [as] nothing more than apologetics." (55) Rather than apologetics, Merton proposed Anselm's method as a model for reasonable interreligious dialogue. In Conjectures Merton poignantly stated that "St. Anselm and his group were open to a more tolerant and reasonable dialogue with the Jew as well as the Muslim." (56) Likewise, in no way did Merton see in Anselm any sort of hidden agenda: The pragmatic use of reason for the purpose of converting the other is as futile practically as it is unsound theologically. (57) According to Merton, Anselm's agenda was far more modest and humane:
      Anselm's ratio always begins and ends with a religious
   experience of the truth of faith concerning which his reason
   meditates and inquires. He seeks indeed to "convince," perhaps
   better to "satisfy," the unbeliever, but he does so in two ways.
   First of all, by implicitly declaring the intense fervor of his own
   faith, and then by showing that this faith is in no way irrational
   but is, on the contrary, perfectly consonant with reason, and more,
   that it fulfills all the inmost aspirations of reason itself. This
   means that the Cur Deus Homo is something much more subtle than an
   attempt to convert the unbeliever sine die, bludgeoning his
   intellect with "invincible" arguments. Without abandoning the level
   of faith, and yet without demanding that the unbeliever place
   himself on the level of faith, Anselm institutes an intelligent,
   sympathetic dialogue in which the truth of faith makes itself
   accessible and highly attractive on the level of reason. Here is
   the genuine essence of ecumenical dialogue in which, without one
   interlocutor trying to establish that he alone is "right" on all
   points, both strive to share as much as they can of a truth they
   possess to some extent in common. (58)

It is tempting to assume that truth is the primary purpose of interreligious dialogue. This is not entirely false insofar as the truth one seeks is an increased understanding of the faith one has already received. We cannot deny that faith is, after all, seeking to attain greater understanding. This, however, is really just a matter of "fleshing out" the truth of faith. The knowledge gained in dialogue (as in theological discourse) never reaches beyond the limits set by the faith that is received as gift. For Merton, then, there was a purpose in dialogue that went beyond even truth. Immediately continuing, Merton explained:
      But Anselm's dialogue is actually for Boson and himself even
   more than it is for the hypothetical Moslem. His purpose is to
   increase, by reason, their Christian joy in revealed truth.
   Intelligible joy is regarded by Anselm as one of the characteristic
   fruits of monastic study and prayer. The understanding which faith
   attains by meditation, study, prayer and intuition stands half-way
   between the obscure assent of faith and the pure light of the
   beatific vision. (59)

The purpose of dialogue, according to Merton, is joy. This same purpose was expressly forwarded by Barth in his book on Anselm: "As intelligere is achieved, it issues--in joy." (60) This can hardly be called a purpose, for there is nothing calculating about it; joy arises out of spontaneous desire (intellectual and volitional) for the triune God. Similarly, in his article on Anselm's Proslogion, Merton wrote:
   In Anselm's mind, therefore, dialectic does not precede conversion,
   but follows it....

      ... Actually, the Anselmian method is not a method "for"
   anything. He is not seeking to prevail in any argument, and the
   word "probate" must not generally be taken to imply "putting over"
   his point and "winning" the argument. The Anselmian proof has no
   utilitarian purpose: it merely adds to the joy and serenity of
   belief the further joy and clarity of understanding the evident
   truth. (61)

This agenda (or lack thereof) for theology and for interreligious dialogue may be found in Anselm when he wrote: "I pray, O God, that I may know You and love You, so that I may rejoice in You" (Pros. 26). Truth is already apprehended in faith; the purpose of interreligious dialogue is somehow to narrow the gap between belief and understanding and, in the process, experience the joy of participating in Truth.


Although we have laid out a Christian's position in dialogue prior to that of his or her purpose, in reality this order should be reversed. The Christian's position in dialogue is, in fact, dependent on her or his purpose for dialogue. "Faith seeking understanding" as the theological method for interreligious dialogue guards against the defensiveness of apologetics and the irresponsibility of syncretism. But, it does not try to do this: These two extremes are avoided quite naturally when faith is held humbly yet unashamedly, when it is not conflated with understanding, and when it is not carelessly set aside. Ultimately, this method serves no purpose; it is the spontaneous desire of each Christian's seeking to love God with all one's heart, soul, and mind (Mt. 22:37). Establishing this, it is perfectly evident that faith may not be sacrificed in the search for understanding, for this would completely undermine all authentic and honest dialogue. The more difficult question for the Christian becomes where we might find meaningful and theologically stable "common" ground for dialogue. Merton himself pondered other "meeting grounds," including metaphysical experience and even the theological ground of the Trinity. (62) Neither of these needs to alter his basic theological method of "faith seeking understanding." From an incarnational approach the most obvious "meeting ground" is, of course, reason rooted in the Logos, but Merton's own preference was certainly not on the level of reason but rather on the level of religious experience. It is significant in this light that Merton was certainly willing to go beyond the more traditional Logos-Christology by affirming at least the beginnings of a Wisdom-Christology. Perhaps this is the basis for Merton's move eastward--in search of a greater understanding of his faith in the Sophia of God.

(1) Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961-1967), pp. 203-214.

(2) Naomi Burton Stone, Patrick Hart, and James Laughlin, eds., The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1975), pp. 309-317.

(3) Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum--Anselm's Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of His Theological Scheme, tr. Ian W. Robertson (London: SCM Press Ltd.; Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1960 [tr. from German 2nd ed.--Zurich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1958; orig., 1931]).

(4) For one example, see Merton's letter to Kilian McDonnell in Patrick Hart, sel. and ed., The School of Charity: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction (New York: Farter, Straus, Giroux, 1990), p. 189 (12/20/63).

(5) Louis [Thomas] Merton, "Reflections on Some Recent Studies of St. Anselm," Monastic Studies, vol. 3 (1965), p. 221.

(6) Thomas Merton, Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage, Journals of Thomas Merton 5, ed. Robert E. Daggy (San Francisco, CA: HarperSan Francisco, 1997), p. 22 (10/4/63).

(7) Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1965 and 1966).

(8) Thomas Merton, "St. Anselm and the Ontological Argument for God" (audio recording, 10/23/63); "St. Anselm" (audio recording, l/6/64)--both available at the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY.

(9) Merton, "Reflections," pp. 221-234.

(10) Louis T[homas] Merton, "St. Anselm and His Argument," The American Benedictine Review 17 (March, 1966): 238-262.

(11) Merton, "Reflections," p. 226.

(12) Ibid., p. 228.

(13) Ibid., p. 229.

(14) Ibid., p. 230.

(15) Barth wrote: "This formula [sole ratione], which as we have explained precludes collision with authority, is as liable to be understood or misunderstood as was Luther's sola fide in its context. It cannot be understood as if Anselm had written solitaria ratione. Authority is the necessary pre supposition of Anselm's ratio, just as works are the necessary consequence of Luther's fides" (Barth, Anselm, p. 44).

(16) Anselm's argument begins with this prayer: "I do not try, Lord, to attain Your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that ! may understand For I believe this also that 'unless I believe, I shall not understand' [Is. vii.9]" (Proslogion, chap. 1, from M. J. Charlesworth, tr., intro., and commentary, St. Anselm's Proslogion with a Reply on Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilo and the Author's Reply to Gaunilo [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965]).

(17) It can also be found preceding Anselm's Cur Deus Homo in the "Commendation of the Work to Pope Urban II."

(18) Merton's first footnote in the article "St. Anselm and His Argument" directs the reader's attention to his two main sources: David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (London: Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1962); and R. W. Southern, St. Anselm and His Biographer: A Study of Monastic Life and Thought, 1059-c. 1130 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1963). At the same time, he also made special reference to Barth's Anselm.

(19) Merton, "Argument," p. 239.

(20) On 7/3/64, in Hart, School of Charity, p.219.

(21) On 9/12/66 in ibid., p. 312.

(22) E.g., "Anselm himself never starts from 'reason alone' in order to arrive at faith. It is With faith as his starting point that he embarks on his dialectical and metaphysical meditations upon the content of revealed truth. He does not reason in order to believe. He believes in order to understand" (Merton, "Argument," p. 247). Also, Merton argued, "Here is a tract on the mystery of the Redemption, and though it explicitly procedes by 'reason alone' (ratione sola), it is certainly not an attempt to establish a proof of the central mystery of Christianity that would enable us to get along without faith" (Merton, "Reflections," p. 224).

(23) From Merton's perspective this discrepancy should not be seen as opposition but more as a matter of emphasis.

(24) Merton, "Reflections," p. 225. For Barth, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ meant the "abolition" of religion; see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F Torrance (1939; repr., London, U.K.: T & T Clark International, 1980), chap. 17, pp. 280 ft. However, Garret Green has argued for a more accurate interpretation of Barth on religion in his translation of this section from Church Dogmatics, titled On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion (New York: T & T Clark, 2006). Green argued that the German word "Aufhebung," which was previously translated "abolition," is more correctly translated "sublimation," which implies that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is both the "abolition" and the "elevation" of religion. Religion is not destroyed but transformed by the gospel. On the notion of "experience," Barth demoted subjective and immediate experience of God in his rejection of Augustine's mysticism; see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1: The Doctrine of God, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F Torrance (1940; repr., London: T & T Clark International, 2004), chap. 25, pp. 10-12. For Barth, human knowledge of God is always mediate. First and foremost, God is revealed through Jesus Christ, who is the "image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), and then also through the Bible, which is really the sign of a sign: The Bible points to Christ as Christ points to God.

(25) This notion of ontological intuition has been described clearly and succinctly by Christopher Pramuk: "[B]ecause of humanity's ontological kinship in the creative life of the Trinity 'from the beginning,' Christians share at least potentially with non-Christians an intuitive, existential illumination that is not merely epistemological, nor stuck on this side of an impenetrable dualism, whether Kantian, historicist, empiricist, agnostic, or otherwise. We share, rather, an existential communion that is 'naturally' theological, so to speak, i.e., 'ontologically suspended from the life of God'" (Christopher Pramuk, "Hagia Sophia: The Unknown and Unseen Christ of Thomas Merton," Cistercian Studies, vol. 41, no. 2 [2006], pp. 180-181). Merton made his interpretation of Anselm's argument (and by implication his method of theology) explicit in his reading journal #56: "To understand [the argument] we must--1) Accept the primacy of being. 2) Recognize that we have a natural intuition of being & are thereby naturally disposed to recognize the existence of God. 3) We see that A[nselm] is linking up his theological faith with his natural intuition of being. This is the basis of his ratio fidei." (The reading journals are a collection of unpublished journals in which Merton kept rough notes on the books he was reading; they are in the archives of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY.)

(26) This both/and approach for Merton is most clearly seen in his 1961 lectures to the monks on "Ascetical and Mystical Theology," now published in Thomas Merton, An Introduction to Christian Mysticism, ed. Patrick F. O'Connell (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2008), where he wrote: "Without mysticism there is no real theology, and without theology there is no real mysticism" (p. 16). Moreover, "By 'mysticism" we can mean the personal experience of what is revealed to all and realized in all in the mystery of Christ. And by 'theology' we mean the common revelation of the mystery which is to be lived by all. The two belong together. There is no theology without mysticism (for it would have no relation to the real life of God in us) and there is no mysticism without theology (because it would be at the mercy of individual and subjective fantasy" (p. 65).

(27) It is my opinion, however, that Merton was in no way rejecting Barth's theology. Rather, he was reinterpreting Barth's objective theology in a way (certainly untenable to Barth) amenable to religious experience. What Barth called "prayer," Merton called an "intuition of being"; when Barth called Anselm's argument "prophetic," Merton wholeheartedly agreed--though Merton was content to view prophecy as the Protestant correlative to Catholic contemplation. He attempted to reconcile the Protestant "prophetic" view with the Catholic "contemplative" view under the heading of "religious experience" in Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters, pp. 204-205. He also argued that the "prophetic" and the "metaphysical" should not be set in opposition, in Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions, 1968), p. 25. This is how Merton was able to uphold Barth's interpretation of Anselm as "a real rediscovery of the profound religious dimensions of Anselm's thought" (Merton, "Argument," p. 239).

(28) Barth, Anselm, p. 8.

(29) Ibid., p. 14.

(30) Thomas Merton, Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis, sel. and ed. William H. Shannon (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994), p. 331.

(31) Ibid., p. 332.

(32) Merton, "Reflections," p. 223.

(33) Ibid., pp. 223-224.

(34) Ibid., p. 224.

(35) Merton proposed this sort of empathetic dialogue with the unbeliever in his essay, "Apologies to an Unbeliever": "Without prejudice to the truth of the Gospel and to the Church's authority to teach and interpret the message of Christ, that message still demands to be understood in an authentic human situation. In this situation, men meet one another as men, that is to say as equals, as 'fellow servants.' Equals listen to one another because they have a compassionate respect for one another in their common predicament.... It is not that some are all right and others are all wrong: all are bound to seek in honest perplexity" (in Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice [Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1968], p. 213; emphasis in original).

(36) Merton, "Reflections," p. 224.

(37) Merton used the term "ecumenical" with respect to all religious traditions, not merely the "whole house" of the Christian faith. See also Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters, pp. 203-204.

(38) Merton enthusiastically cited Paul Evdokimov, "L'aspect apophatique de l'argument de Saint Anselme,'" in Spicilegium Beccense, vol. 1: Congres international du 1Xe centenaire de l'arrivee d'Anselme au Bec (Paris, 1959), pp. 233-258 (see Merton, "Reflections," p. 224).

(39) This "spiritual ground" in his "Argument" is parallel to the notion of "a religious experience of the truth of faith" in his "Reflections." It can in both cases be described as an "intuition of Being." The contextual distinction between dialogue with the unbeliever as agnostic (Proslogion) versus dialogue with the unbeliever as religious other (Cur Deus Homo) is simply that in the latter case this "spiritual ground" that is "at least part way" to the revealed faith Merton described may be assumed.

(40) Merton, "Argument," p. 249.

(41) Ibid.; emphasis in original.

(42) Ibid., p. 248. Once again, it is important to point out that Merton saw deep similarities between the "prophetic" and the "contemplative" experience.

(43) Ibid., pp. 250-251; emphasis in original. Barth wrote: "Anselm gives credit to the unbelievers to the extent that the ratio of faith which they lack and for which they ask is one and the same ratio as the one which he himself is seeking" (Barth, Anselm, p. 66), and then closely following says: "In face of the unbeliever's rock of offence thus understood, the Christian theologian does not feel himself powerless. Thus understood, it is in fact identical with the rock of offence by which he himself was driven and continues to be driven from credere to intelligere. Therefore all he has to do is to lead his opponent along his own path and thus be able to give him the answers to the questions that even he himself is asking. If such is Anselm's interpretation of the quest of the 'unbeliever' then we can understand how he comes to engage in a discussion with him without either accepting the unbeliever's criterion, such as universal human reason, or stipulating that the unbeliever in order to become competent to discuss must first be converted into a believer. Anselm assumes his own ground, the ground of strictly theological (we would nowadays say dogmatic) impartiality, to be likewise a ground on which the 'unbeliever' could quite well discuss and would want to discuss. Thus he summons him on to his own ground; or rather he addresses him as one who by his questions has already accepted this ground and therefore he is able (without renouncing the credo ut intelhgam or his predestinarian background) to discuss with him as if he were a Boso or a Gaunilo" (Barth, Anselm, pp. 66-67). Despite the fact that Barth said that we meet the unbeliever, "on our own ground," once again the semantic similarities between Barth's view and Merton's are striking. Both were willing to dialogue (or theologize) on the basis of reason alone, and neither was willing to part from the preeminence of faith that gives a "'practically unlimited confidence' in the power of reason" (Merton, "Argument," p. 247).

(44) Merton pondered this possibility in his journal: "Our very creation itself is a vocation to union with Him and our life, and in the world around us, if we persist in honesty and simplicity, cannot help speaking of Him and of our calling. But the trouble is that there are no "pure" natural traditions and everything gets overlaid with error. Still, there is truth there for those who are still able to seek it, even if they are few. Ought it to be called "theology"? That is a technical question. Certainly it implies--and can develop--a definite personal relationship to God in faith (cf. the Proslogion). Barth's interest in Anselm is very revealing (Merton, Dancing, p. 279 [8/12/65]). Also, in a letter to Eric Fromm he responded to the possibility of "unconscious faith" that he was in perfect agreement (Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, sel. and ed. William H. Shannon [New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985], p. 321 [10/08/63]). However, there is evidence that Merton did not view the implicit faith of religious experience in the same light as the explicit faith in revealed truth. For instance, in distinguishing the insipiens and the infidelis, he argued that the latter has come "at least part of the way to meet [the believer] on this spiritual ground" (Merton, "Argument," p. 249; emphasis added). This "spiritual ground" Merton also called a "spiritual experience" of truth and a "religious experience" (Merton, "Argument," p. 249; emphasis in original). So, while the distinction between "believer" and "unbeliever" is not as pronounced as perhaps it was earlier for Merton, it is by no means erased.

(45) Merton, Conjectures, pp. 289-290; emphasis in original. Merton seems to have missed the fact that in the encyclical Pacem in terris Pope John XXIII addressed the dignity of the human person on the basis of nature and then continued on the basis of grace: "When, furthermore, we consider man's personal dignity from the standpoint of divine revelation, inevitably our estimate of it is incomparably increased. Men have been ransomed by the blood of Jesus Christ. Grace has made them sons and friends of God, and heirs to eternal glory" (Pacem in terris, no. 10; see xxiii_enc_11041963_pacem_en.html).

(46) Merton, "Reflections," p. 225.

(47) Merton, Conjectures, pp. 306-307. See Merton's discussion of this topic in his Faith and Violence, p. 207.

(48) Merton, Conjectures, p. 307.

(49) There is strong evidence in Merton's journals to suggest that his use of the term "serious". was often directly related to his study of Barth. The continuity becomes entirely clear in Conjectures as Merton strings together his various meanderings on Barth into a sequence of thought culminating in this discussion on heresy (Merton, Conjectures, pp. 303-307). See Thomas Merton, Turning toward the World: The Pivotal Years, ed. Victor A. Kramer (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), p. 48 (9/16/60). Also see Merton, Dancing in the Water of Life, p. 20 (9/30/63); p. 26 (10/24/63); p. 27 (10/26/63 and 10/27/63). Further, see Merton, Conjectures, p. 317; and a letter to Julien Green (in Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth: The Letters of Thomas Merton to Writers (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), p. 273 [9/22/1966]). Generally, Merton's "seriousness" opposed what he called a "naive optimism" or "heresy," but it also opposed a deterministic pessimism (a caricature of Calvinism) that Merton wrote about in his article on Julien Green's Chaque homme dans sa nuit (1961); see Thomas Merton, "To Each His Darkness," in his Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp. 27-33. Barth's "seriousness" was grounded in both God's justice and God's mercy and therefore refused to take either perfection lightly.

(50) Merton, Conjectures, p. 306.

(51) Ibid., p. 307; emphasis in original. Barth wrote, in a slightly more abrasive tone, "The dialogue form and the desire for proof in no sense indicate that Anselm has accepted a position where faith and unbelief, the voice of the Church and every other voice, have equal rights" (Barth, Anselm, p. 60)--as long as Barth meant by "equal rights" that, in dialogue, for the Christian, "truth" is not for sale to the greatest intellect or the most convincing argument. But, as we shall see, Merton agreed with Barth that dialogue is not for the sake of truth; therefore, the implications of both their positions are the same.

(52) Merton, Conjectures, p. 307.

(53) Ibid.

(54) Merton, Faith and Violence, p. 212.

(55) Merton, "Reflections," pp. 224-225, quoting F. S. Schmitt, "Die Wissenschaftliche Methode in Anselms Cur Deus Homo," in Spicilegium Beccense, p. 367.

(56) Merton, Conjectures, p. 121.

(57) Barth himself wrote that "the aim of theology cannot be to lead men to faith, nor to confirm them in the faith, nor even to deliver their faith from doubt" (Barth, Anselm, p. 17). This reversal in methodology negates the crucial work of the Holy Spirit.

(58) Merton, "Reflections," pp. 225-226.

(59) Ibid., p. 226. Here, Merton followed Barth exactly as he described the "medial" character of knowledge in Anselm: "So we shall have to interpret the medial character of knowledge in Anselm's sense by saying that knowledge stands between faith and vision in the same way as we might say that a mountain stands between a man looking at it from the valley and the sun. Intelligere is a potentiality for advancing in the direction of heavenly vision to a point that can be reached and that is worth trying to reach. It has within itself something of the nature of vision and it is worth striving for as similitude of vision, just because it leads men, not beyond, but right up to the limits of faith. This is the ratio of credo ut intelligam--independent of all objectives and so of all attempts at proving or at finding joy: the God in whom we believe is causa veritatis in cogitatione. Knowledge at once combines with that love of God on which faith is set. Intellectus is also involved in actualizing the imago Dei as this occurs in faith. Intellectus is the limited, but fully attainable, first step towards that vision which is the eschatological counterpart of faith. Therefore fides is essentially--quaerens Intellectum" (Barth, Anselm, p. 21).

(60) Barth, Anselm, p. 15. He continued: "The dominating factor in Anselm's mind is that even the Church Fathers wrote about it in order to give the faithful joy in believing by a demonstration of the ratio of their faith. This reason, which the intelligere seeks and finds, possesses in itself not only utilitas (by which Anselm may have been thinking of a polemical proof) but also pulchritudo.... Is it mere coincidence that in a work like Cur Deus homo, which on its own admission is so set on proving, its chief end should be given as, first, this delectari and, secondly, the polemical obligation of I Peter 3.15?" (Barth, Anselm, p. 15).

(61) Merton, "Argument," p. 252.

(62) Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, pp. 42 and 58, respectively.

Ryan L. Scruggs (Christian Churches/Churches of Christ) has been an instructor in theology and church history and the director of student development at Alberta Bible College in Calgary, since 2008. He received a B.R.E. from Alberta Bible College, a B.A. in religious studies from the University of Calgary, and an M.A. in religious studies (2010) from McGill University, Montreal, where he wrote a thesis on Merton and Barth under Dr. Maurice Boutin. His articles have been published in The Merton Seasonal: A Quarterly Review (2008), Evangel (2010), and Partner: Canadian Association for Christians in Student Development (2011), as well as a book review in The Merton Seasonal (2010). He has presented papers to the International Thomas Merton Society and the Thomas Merton Society of Canada, in both of which he holds membership. While at McGill, he served as a teaching assistant and a research assistant.
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Date:Jun 22, 2011
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