Paul Dekar on the New Monastics and the Old Monastics

Thanks to The Merton Seasonal editor Patrick O’Connell for inviting me to review Paul Dekar’s new book Thomas Merton: Twentieth-Century Wisdom for Twenty-First-Century Living.

The Merton Seasonal is a quarterly joint publication of the International Thomas Merton Society and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.

Dekar’s book is fantastic and has all kinds of hidden gems. Below is a portion of my review.

…The exciting find in Dekar’s book is previously unpublished lectures by Merton on technology. These lectures have been available on audio tape, but haven’t been used in print before. They make a worthy contribution to a critical current conversation. In a 1997 lecture at Stanford University, anti-civilization theorist and former Catholic John Zerzan said, “Technology claims to be neutral, merely a tool, its value or meaning completely dependent on how it is used. In this way it hides its end by cloaking its means.” Zerzan has resurged in popularity among some of the new monastics and other young radical Christians experimenting with intentional community and new ways of living. The excerpts from three previously unpublished Merton lectures on technology show Merton anticipating anarcho-primitivist philosopher Zerzan by more than 30 years. While Zerzan outright denies the claim that technology is neutral, Merton asserts with novices what he considered an overlooked insight from the Second Vatican Council. “Created goods may be perfected by human labor, technical skill and civic culture for the benefit of all men according to the design of the Creator and the light of His Word,” Pope Paul VI  wrote in Lumen Gentium, the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. “May the goods of this world be more equitably distributed among all men, and may they in their own way be conducive to universal progress in human and Christian freedom.” In other words, products and technologies are neutral tools, but may be perfected if they are used to serve the common good and Christian freedom.

As Dekar displays in his excellent chapter “Thomas Merton, Guide to the Right Use of Technology” (85), Merton pushes home a paradox in his lectures: the monastery is being revolutionized by technology, whether recognized or not, but the material nature of technology is not nearly as threatening to the contemplative life as is “the technological society” (208), the way technology molds thinking, social relationships and the inner life. Merton forces critical questions about “the essences of things” (211), about the value and meaning in technology. “You can save your soul in a technological environment,” said Merton, “but there is no machine for saving your soul” (211).

Merton’s speaking on technology is more middle-of-the-road than his private letters and writings. While publicly he defines technology as a tool whose end use justifies its existence, in his April 1963 journal entry he raises much more serious concerns about “technologism that separates man from the world and makes him a kind of little god in his own right” (118). At a conference in September 2011 on Merton and technology at Bellarmine University, Albert Borgmann described Merton’s perspective on technology in this way: “He was clear about the effects of technology as a cultural force and could see that the effects were both dynamic and stultifying at the same time. It was an energetic and transforming force, but in the end it leaves us with experiences that are ultimately joyless.” When Anne Ford sent Merton a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring shortly after it was published, he began to put together the consistent pattern of thinking that ran through developing the atom bomb, indiscriminate use of DDT, and various other technological “remedies” that are “expressions of the sickness itself” (120), as he put it.

By focusing the insights of these previously unpublished lectures, Dekar has made a wonderful contribution of Merton wisdom to a very real contemporary issue. “The Christian in a Technological World” (205) resurrects early writings by Karl Marx on the purpose of the machine, as well as looks at monastic experiments in the 1960s that were bringing more technology into monastic life. Merton’s lecture titled “Marxism and Technology” is an amazingly prescient look at the role of computers in society and the process of depersonalization. Merton begins to probe the questions about who owns the means of technological production and what does it mean when those owners have no Biblical values. “For industry,” says Merton, “it doesn’t matter if it is safe, what matter is to sell it … and make some money out of it” (217). To industry, Merton says, morality “is regarded as sentimental” (217).

Read the whole review.

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