I’ve been reading an important book by Parker Palmer, “On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old,” where he quotes Thomas Merton a lot. Merton was an important mentor for Palmer and Palmer for me. Merton also influenced many others that I read, most notably Henri Nouwen. I’m learning that Merton in turn was deeply influenced, by way of Louis Massignon, a French scholar who introduced Western readers to al-Hallaj, a 9th century Muslim mystic. All of which is to say, a deep connection to some important mentors in my life go way back to a 9th century Muslim mystic, probably with a Sufi flavor.
I’m offering here below two quotes that resemble each other. One from Thomas Merton. Another from a popular book when I was growing up by J.B. Phillips entitled “Your God is too Small.” They are driving me deeper in my reflection about how we engage those religiously different, or even those who claim no religion. They actually point to what I believe should be part of our theology of the character of God, what we believe and say about God among others. I believe deeply that they also point us back to the portrait of Jesus in the New Testament and may also show up in stark contrast to the view of God offered today by the more vocal evangelical church in America. Or at least some parts of that tradition. Many so called Christian leaders today lay out ideas about a Christian faith that I think is so dissimilar to anything I read about Jesus in Christian scripture. Some may be offended by the following quotes and by inference how I approach those outside of the church. I don’t really care. I’d prefer to rescue the portrait of Jesus today from the church than subscribe to some rather ugly ideas about Jesus presented by some sectors of the church. Nuff said. Here are the quotes.
1) “The cross is the sign of contradiction–destroying the seriousness of the Law, of the Empire, of the armies…But the magicians keep turning the cross to their own purposes. Yes, it is for them too a sign of contradiction: the awful blasphemy of the religious magician who makes the cross contradict mercy! This is of course the ultimate temptation of Christianity! To say that Christ has locked up all the doors, has given one answer, settled everything and departed, leaving all life enclosed in the frightful consistency of a system outside of which there is the intolerable flippancy of the saved–while nowhere is there any place left for the mystery of the freedom of divine mercy which alone is truly serious, and worthy of being taken seriously.” ~Thomas Merton
2) “The man who is outside all organized Christianity may have, and often does have, a certain reverence for God, and a certain genuine respect for Jesus Christ (though he has probably rarely considered Him and His claims with his adult mind). But what sticks in his throat about the Christianity of the Churches is not merely their differences in denomination, but the spirit of “churchiness” which seems to pervade them all. They seem to him to have captured and tamed and trained to their own liking Something that is really far too big ever to be forced into little man-made boxes with neat labels upon them. He may never think of putting it into words, but this is what he thinks and feels. “If,” the Churches appear to be saying to him, “you will jump through our particular hoop or sign on our particular dotted line, then we will introduce you to God. But if not, then there’s no God for you.” This seems to him to be nonsense, and nasty arrogant nonsense at that. “If there’s a God at all,” he feels rather angrily, “then He’s here in the home and in the street, here in the pub and in the workshop. And if it’s true that He’s interested in me and wants me to love and serve Him, then He’s available for me and every other Tom, Dick, or Harry, who wants Him, without any interference from the professionals. If God is God, He’s BIG, and generous and magnificent, and I can’t see that anybody can say they’ve made a ‘corner’ in God, or shut Him up in their particular box.” ~ J.B. Phillips