Why Is “God in the Details”?

Walter J. Ong
Walter J. Ong

This quote below from Trappist monk Thomas Merton reminds me of Jesuit writer Walter J. Ong’s fantastic book called Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.

One thing Ong talks about is that when a culture moves from oral tradition to written tradition it gains abstraction. Since you are writing down things you’ve already made one level of abstraction from the real. Then when you convey information to someone not in your locale you have to make symbols that might translate to something that they can recognize.

So if you want to write to your friend about the thing with food and medicine that lives outside your house that you call Generous Joe, you have to find some symbol that will carry to your friend who doesn’t know what you are talking about because she’s never been to your house. So you agree upon the abstract, generic word “tree” as a big living thing that provides fruit and has medicinal leaves. But an intimacy has been lost in the shift.

Merton approaches this issue from the point of view of when we treat people as abstractions rather than unique beings.

Persons are known not by the intellect alone, nor by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action.

To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as another self, we resort to the impersonal “law” and “nature.” That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, its demands. In effect, however, we are considering our nature in the concrete and his nature in the abstract. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused, an evil being.

To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights, integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as accused along with him, condemned to death along with him, sinking into the abyss with him, and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved.–Thomas Merton

From Seeds of Destruction by Thomas Merton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961).

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