Israel (Dt 4:1, 5-9)began with the conception that God had picked them from all the nations to be his people. I use “his” advisedly because God was a tribal patriarch who gave commandments to the people. Following God’s commandments led to life. Failure to follow God’s commandments led to death. [Much of religion in many traditions is patriarchal.] It does not seem that following commands leads to prosperity (although advocates of the prosperity gospel think it does) Nor does it seem like acting unjustly leads to death. People who feel especially chosen over other peoples will create structures to set themselves apart-circumcision, dietary restrictions, etc…
Maybe this is what Paul means about the law-structures which bind and block access to others. After all, he featured himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles. The prophets-especially the “minor” prophets-worked to expand Israel’s concept of God. Hosea, loving and forgiving a prostitute wife, taught them that God is always merciful and forgiving. Micah taught them to do mercy, practice justice and to walk humbly before God. Jonah taught them that God is the God of all peoples. Our concept of God emerges and evolves because God is above and beyond all concepts. Our “knowledge” of God grows as we grow. We see in the story of Moses that we will never see God face to face. At best, God will pass by and show us his backside.
Jesus (Mt 5:17-19) did not come to abolish the law and the prophets. We must read this section in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. “They said of old but now I say to you.” Jesus came to advance our knowledge of God. Jesus shows us the face of God. God is a loving God who expects us to love all others. God is a forgiving God who expects us to forgive our enemies. God is a compassionate God who expects us to be like God-compassionate. God is a nonviolent God who expects us to be nonviolent. God is a just God who expects us to do justice.
Jesus makes it very clear that every person on earth is invited to the table. Jesus teaches that God wants our commitment to love and serve others not our sacrifices, not our rites which set us apart from others.
Thomas Merton’s spiritual journey is instructive here. Felling that he had sinned gravely at Cambridge and wasted his life at Columbia University, Merton sought the structure of the Abbey of Gethsemani. Very aware of his sins and feeling very guilty he sought solitude in monastic structures, commandments so to speak.
Initially, Thomas Merton, the Monk, was not in the world. He sought refuge from the world; however, the deeper he went into solitude the freer he became. (Jesus said that he came to set us free.) Merton soon came to realize that he was not ensconced in his God and isolated from the rest of humanity. He was one with every person in the world. From his monastic solitude, he challenged the then sins of the world-racism, war, and poverty. Incidentally, speaking of the development of religious consciousness, there are the very same things that the prophet in the world, Martin Luther King, was confronting. Christians are called to challenge structures (commandments) which bind and oppress.
In spite of being silenced for a period, Merton persevered in proclaiming the Gospel of the Nonviolent God and Jesus. He became the conscience of the peace movement and cautioned them against destroying property. He saw this as violence.
As Merton moved on in his journey, he continued to study other world religions, especially Muslim Sufism and Buddhism. He died while attending a conference on Christianity and Buddhism. His journey came to an end. At frits Merton thought that freedom was “breaking his neck” to do whatever he could as an energetic eighteen year old. Later the four walls of the monastery represented freedom because they provided a structure for gaining control of his life. Ultimately he thought freedom was coming more and more into the true self that he was meant to be in God. Look though at how he moved from structures to freedom, being set apart to becoming a part. Isn’t this our journey into the heart of the living God?
Many Merton scholars speculate whether Merton would have remained a monk at Gethsemani. Perhaps, he would have followed through on building a hermitage elsewhere but his vow of stability bound him to Gethsemani. I have no doubt that he would have remained a Christian monk in a solitude deepened and informed by what he had learned from Sufism and Buddhism. I see absolutely no difference between Merton’s concept of contemplation and Thich Nhat Hahn’s concept of mindfulness. Both concepts teach that we live in union with and in the presence of the Living God every moment of our lives.
This would be syncretism only if we come from the viewpoint that one religion has a corner on THE truth. Unfortunately, the Catholic patriarchy is coming from this perspective right now. Patriarchy likes to ensure its own survival. All people have a valid concept (culturally conditioned as it may be) of the Living God who is beyond all religious conceptions. Gandhi wisely said that every person has piece of the truth.
We are called to live out our truth in spiritual communities where every person’s truth informs the communal truth. The Gospel in Solentiname brings home this truth. Ernesto Cardenal, former student of Merton’s when he was a novice at Gethsemani, formed a base Christian community on the island of Solentiname in Nicaragua. The community gathered not to listen to Cardenal’s sermons but to discuss with one another the meaning of the day’s gospel for their lives. Reading the recorded accounts of these living sermons shows that each participant brought a different perspective to the Gospel message. Communally they grew as the listened to one another. We need to see with the eyes of our minds and listen with the ears of our hearts so that our concept of God can grow in our communities.