|Returning to Reality. Thomas Merton’s Wisdom for a Technological Age.
by Phillip M. Thompson.
Lutterworth Press, P.O. Box 60, Cambridge CB1 2NT. 2013. 978 0718892951. Paperback. 22 + 112pp. £15
Our attitudes to the unstoppable advance of technology have always been ambivalent. While we welcome all that makes human life safer, healthier and more comfortable, we also tend to skate over the moral issues that these advances raise. We may be uneasy about technology that enables lives – healthy or otherwise – to be prolonged indefinitely, or that intrudes upon our genetic structure in a quest for physical perfection, but we rarely, if ever, reflect upon the relationship between new technologies and spirituality. Or more precisely, how we can balance the demands of mechanistic culture in this era of secular supremacy against our social responsibilities as Christians and our yearning for a rich and rewarding spiritual life.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who was perhaps the greatest Christian spiritual writer of the twentieth century, engaged increasingly with these issues as he observed the emergence of new technologies in the immediate post-war era and recognised their potential for both good and ill. His keen insights into the spiritual and moral threat of the dehumanising nature of the dark, shadow side of technology have lost none of their force since his death in 1968 and it is the urgency of our need to address these questions that underpins the message of Phillip Thompson’s timely and important book.
Thompson’s familiarity with and deep understanding of Merton’s work enables him to convey Merton’s insight and wisdom through a deft and intelligent use of his lucid and elegant prose. And this prose resonates with the reader, for even those unfamiliar with Merton become rapidly aware that this was a contemplative who lived apart from the world and yet was able to engage fully with it. His was no life-denying retreat into isolation, but a true union of individual and community, in both a narrow and a broad sense.
Against what Thompson calls “the false collectivity of the technological society”, Merton set the authentic Christian community, in which technology is welcome when it can “provide means for the expression of Christian love, and prepare the way for the unity of the human family in peace and reconciliation.” In one of his essays, ‘The Other Side of Despair’, Merton considered the principles of both community and collectivity, and these are neatly tabulated by Thompson so that we can see the richness of the one set against the barrenness of the other.
Elsewhere Thompson gives us seven ‘guidelines for nurturing a contemplative life’ (from Merton’s The Inner Experience) that will enable us to harmonise our social, familial and spiritual responsibilities as truly practising Christians.
Merton was particularly concerned with the growth of military technology and the bland public acceptance of potential mass annihilation. Such acceptance showed “almost total passivity and irresponsibility on the moral level, plus demonic activism in social, political and military life.” His strictures apply equally well to other, more recent technologies that also have a terrible potential for our general dehumanisation. It is all too evident in our obsession with the technology of instantaneous, universal communication and entertainment, which leads all too easily to ‘mental numbing’ and social isolation. For Merton the antidote included redeveloping our sense of community, engaging with others in articulate discussion and, by way of contemplative practices, the restoration of our connection to our “inmost truth – the image of God in [our] own soul.”
What is perhaps a graver threat to our humanity is the ‘biotechnological revolution’. This offers, through genetic and molecular manipulation, the possibility of ‘human self-design’ and the ‘complete control of our genetic destiny’, which ‘could well mean the end of the human species as we know it’ (these are quotations from Thompson’s sources). The end result of all this ‘reproductive manipulation’, cloning and consciously sought ‘extension of human life’ would be our transformation ‘into a new entity – the transhuman’. The individual human being is then no longer of significance and such ‘progress’ endorses Merton’s comment that “modern secular humanisms are so fair and optimistic in theory and so utterly merciless and inhuman in practice.”
Having set out the problems and potential nightmares of the ‘Technological Age’, Thompson devotes his final two chapters to discussing the ways in which we can provide solutions and alternatives. We would benefit immensely by taking up Merton’s ‘philosophy of solitude’, recognising ‘the falsity created by endless technological diversions and temptations’, and by seeking a “spiritual and simple oneness” in ourselves. This oneness allowed for a connection to all other people in a form of solidarity that rejected the special interests and ideals of a narrow group. Unlike the collective delusions of modern society, this unity was connection on a “deeper and mystical level” that pursued a purity of love. (p. 85.)
Thompson also emphasises that for Merton, silence and solitude were only part of the answer. We are also required ‘to proclaim the truths of God and to experience the divine’. In Merton’s words, “The message of God’s mercy to man must be preached. The word of truth must be proclaimed,” and yet, “The mercy of God is not heard in words unless it is heard, both before and after the words are spoken, in silence.”
There is much more, of wisdom, warning and consolation, to be found in this rich and necessary book, and I would urge all of you who read this to take it up, to absorb its message and to give it out to the world.
Robert A. Gilbert