From Zen and the Birds of Appetite
By Thomas Merton
Is there some new possibility, some other opening for the Christian consciousness today?
If there is it will have to meet the following great needs of men:
First, the need for community, for a genuine relationship of authentic love with his fellow man. This will also imply a deep, in fact completely radical, understanding in approaching those critical problems which threatens man’s survival –war, racial conflict, hunger, economic and political injustice, etc. It is true that the ancient and classic positions, which their counterparts in the East- have too often favored a kind of quietist indifference to these problems.
Second, Man’s need for an adequate understanding of his everyday self in his ordinary life. There is no longer any place for the kind of idealistic philosophy that removes all reality into the realm of the celestial and makes temporal existence meaningless. The old metaphysical outlook did not in fact do this, but in proportion as it was idealistic it did tend to misconstrue and depreciate the concrete. Man needs to find ultimate sense here and now in the ordinary humble tasks and problems of every day.
Third, Man’s need for a whole and integral experience of his whole self on al its levels, bodily, as well as imaginative, emotional, intellectual, spiritual. There is no place for the cultivation of one part of human consciousness, one aspect of human experience at the expense of the others, even on the pretext that what is cultivated is sacred and all the rest is profane. A false and divisive sacredness can only cripple man.
Let us remember that modern consciousness deals more and more with signs rather than things, let alone persons. The reason for this is that signs are necessary to simplify the overcrowding of the consciousness with objects. The plain facts of modern life make this unavoidable. But it is also very crippling and divisive.
But it is wrong to assume that these great needs demand the hypertrophy of self-consciousness and the elephantiasis of self-will, without which modern man tends to doubt his own existence. On the contrary, may I suggest a fourth need which is precisely liberation from his inordinate self-consciousness, his monumental self-awareness, his obsession with self-affirmation, so that he may enjoy the freedom from concern that goes with simply being what he is and accepting things as they are in order to work with them as he can.
For all these needs, and especially the last, the Christian will do well to well to return to the simple lessons of the Gospel and understand them, if he can, not in terms of an imminent second coming, but certainly in terms of a new and liberated creation “in the spirit.” Than he can be delivered from obsessions of a culture that thrives on the stimulation and exploitation of egocentric desire.
But he will also do well, perhaps, to turn Asian religion and acquire a more accurate understanding of its “unworldliness.” Is the basic teaching of Buddhism – on ignorance, deliverance and enlightenment – really life denying, or is it rather the same kind of life-affirming liberation that we find in the Good News of Redemption, the Gift of the Spirit, and The New Creation?