Rowan Williams: Bonhoeffer, Lent, and Freedom

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Anglican Archbishop of Cantebury, Rowan Williams, preached at King’s School Canterbury on the first Sunday of Lent this year. He took his text from Confessing Church theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the nature of true freedom and what it means that “the truth shall set you free.” Quiet contemplation and learning to release the “fictions” of our lives are part of the Lenten practice.

You can read Williams’ entire sermon or listen to it here. Below is the opening section:

In 1939, the young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was in New York, exploring whether he should stay there as pastor to the German emigrants in the city and considering a string of invitations to lecture in the United States.  He had made himself deeply unpopular with the German regime, making broadcasts critical of Hitler and running a secret training institution for pastors in Germany who could not accept the way that the Nazi state was trying to control the Church.

But, after a draining inner struggle, he decided to sail back to Germany.  In July 1939, after just over a month in New York, he left – knowing that he was returning to a situation of extreme danger.  Six years later, he was dead, executed for treason in a concentration camp, leaving behind him one of the greatest treasure of modern Christianity in the shape of the letters he wrote to family and close friends from prison.  He had left behind the chance of freedom as most of us would understand it and plunged into a complex and risky world, getting involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, living as a double agent, daily facing the prospect of arrest, torture and death.

But freedom was one of the things he most often wrote about.  In a famous poem he wrote in July 1944, he sketched out what he thought was involved in real freedom – discipline, action, suffering and death.  Not quite what we associate with the word – but with these reflections, he takes us into the heart of what it is for someone to be lastingly free.

The freedom he is interested in is the freedom to do what you know you have to do.  The society you live in will give you all sorts of messages about what you should be doing, and, far more difficult, your own longings and preferences will push you in various directions.  You have to watch your own passions and feelings and test them carefully, and then you have to have the courage to act.  When you act, you take risks.  You seemingly become less free.  But what is really happening is that you are handing over your freedom to God and saying, ‘I’ve done what I had to; now it’s over to you.’  Freedom, he says, is ‘perfected in glory’ when it’s handed over to God.  And this finds its climax in the moment of death, when we step forward to discover what has been hidden all along – the eternal freedom of God, underlying everything we have thought and done. … —Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Cantebury

Read Rowan Williams’ complete sermon.

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.

Sheena Iyengar: Health-care Debate and ‘Different Views About Freedom’

artofchoosingI was listening this afternoon to social psychologist Sheena Iyengar interviewed on the Diane Rehm show. Iyengar, who has a new book out called The Art of Choosing, made a very insightful comment on President Obama’s role as mediator and consensus-builder between Republicans and Democrats in reforming the American health-care system. She said:

The job of the mediator or the leader becomes how do I make sure that I surface all these ideas and take them in a constructive direction and don’t allow this group to disintegrate into a dysfunctional conflict. …

“[The leader’s role is] is to create a truly phenomenal choice that will work. And that’s actually Barack Obama’s challenge right now. If you think about the Republicans and the Democrats in terms of the health care debate. What they are really arguing about at its essence is the different views they have about freedom.

On the one hand, the Democrats are saying the only freedom that’s fair, the only freedom that I value, is one that gives everybody the same outcomes, the same health care. The Republicans are saying the only freedom that’s fair, the only freedom I value, is one that ensures equal opportunity, not equal outcome. So that means that anybody who’s worthy or who has more money or who has better health, whatever the criteria is for greater merit, the people who are more meritorious should get better health care and the people who are less should get less.

Neither position is particularly right or wrong but they are so fundamental to the two parties different views that Barrack Obama has this major challenge on his hands as to how is he going to come up with a health care option that will speak to both models such that people believing in either one of those models will believe in the choice he’s providing.”–Sheena Iyengar

Sheena Iyengar, researcher and S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia University, is the author of The Art of Choosing.

Church as Training Ground for the ‘Good Life’?

contemplationMany American are starting to ask questions about the “quality” of life as opposed to the “quantity” of stuff. I hope people of faith will step in to this questioning time with the “good news” about lives lived with simple joy, free from undue anxiety, bound by relationships of deep fidelity, and fueled by an economy of grace.

We need to be running classes in this stuff. We need to be leading the trainings – this is what Sunday worship should be about, a training ground for the Good Life in God.

Here’s a quote from Catholic hermit and spiritual writer Thomas Merton:

The life of contemplation in action and purity of heart is, then, a life of great simplicity and inner liberty. One is not seeking anything special or demanding any particular satisfaction. One is content with what is. One does what is to be done, and the more concrete it is, the better. One is not worried about the results of what is done. One is content to have good motives and not be too anxious about making mistakes. In this way one can swim with the living stream of life and remain at every moment in contact with God, in the hiddenness and ordinariness of the present moment with its obvious task.–Thomas Merton

From The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation (edited by William H. Shannon, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003)