The Very Seat of Sin

Even Christianity is often idolatrous without realizing it: The sin of having a god who is other than he who cannot be made an idol, i.e., an object.

                                                                                                --Thomas Merton 

Merton makes those remarks in A Vow of Conversation: Journals 1964-1965, in his closing lines of his entry for November 7, 1964. In that entry he returns to an issue that he first addressed four months before, in an entry for July 14 of that same year. That earlier entry recounts part of a lengthy conversation Merton had with Abraham Heschel, the great 20th century Jewish thinker and spiritual leader, when Heschel paid Merton a visit at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, where Merton was a Trappist monk. Merton’s account of that point in their conversation centers around the issue of idolatry—and what idolatry has to do with God. 

Taken in the depth and seriousness they deserve, Merton’s remarks above entail that whoever does not worship God worships an idol, and whoever does not worship an idol worships God. Thus, worshiping God would effectively consist of just this, abandoning the worship of idols; and idol worship in turn would effectively consist of nothing save betraying the worship of God. To worship God would be to cease to worship idols, and worshiping any idol would be to cease to worship God.

Park of Idols—Paul Klee, 1939

Park of Idols—Paul Klee, 1939

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To worship truly is to honor what absolutely or unconditionally deserves to be honored. It is to attend to the call of that which, set apart from all purposes to which it might be put, calls out to be venerated for itself alone. Today, to be “worshipful” means to give or express worship or veneration—to be filled with the spirit of worship, as it were. However, the archaic sense of woshipful was not to be filled with worship, but instead to be worthy of worship. In its archaic sense, the word harks back in its derivation to the English wordscipwurdscip in Anglian dialect—meaning the state or condition of being worthy, dignified, or glorious, and therefore to be given renown. Only around the beginning of the 14th century is there evidence of the word being used in its modern sense, where it applies to the reverence paid to what is worthy of reverence, rather than to what is itself worthy of such reverence. 

“To worship” in our modern sense is to give the “worshipful” in the archaic sense its due. It is to pay reverence to that which calls for reverence to be paid it--to venerate the venerable.

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At the point at issue in the conversation between Heschel and Merton in 1964, they address together which of the two commandments, the one enjoining love of one’s brother or the one prohibiting idolatry, is the most basic.  In recounting that part of their conversation, Merton writes:

I would be inclined to think that the prohibition of idolatry was the more fundamental, since when one has an “idol” (and any god that stands in the way of loving one’s brother is an idol) one can permit oneself to sacrifice everything to it, including truth, love, justice, and one’s brother.* The function of this idol is to permit everything, provided that the idol itself receives unconditional adoration. 

 A few lines later, Merton in effect adds another item to his list of what an idol demands one be willing to sacrifice to it. An idol demands not only that its worshippers be ready to sacrifice “truth, love, justice, and one’s brother,” but also that they be ready to sacrifice themselves to it. “To have a god other than the true God,” Merton writes, “is to be alienated; an idol is a principle of alienation.”

In fact, when God is turned into an idol—which is to say, by Merton’s remark at the very beginning of this post, into some sort of “object”—then it is not only God who is subjected to such denaturing “objectification.” So, too, is one’s very self. Thus, as Merton writes some five months earlier in his journal, in an entry for February 7, 1964:

Simone de Beauvoir in her ethic of ambiguity, a harsh ethic where faults are never expiable, sums up Christian ethics thus: “The divine law is imposed upon the believer from the moment he decides to save his soul.”

This is exactly the opposite of the New Testament. There is no law for the just man.

Let us see whether Paul is not as good an existentialist as she is! Do we “decide to save” anything? If we do, we soon find out how much we are capable of saving! To save one’s soul as object is in fact to cease to have it as an object to save. (“He that would save his soul must lose it.”) One must see that “a soul” is not a “thing” one “has”—or “saves.” One “saves his soul” by discovering that the soul is what one is. Nothing else! To see the soul as “object” or “other” is nothing, zero.

 It is a matter of coming to see and, in seeing, to know that our “soul,” which it to say we ourselves, are always already “saved,” as Merton’s opening lines of his entry for March 15 of the same year say: “The concept of realized eschatology is very important. It means the transformation of life and of human relations by Christ now,” which is to say the transformation of life into one of full freedom. As Merton writes in the last line of the same journal entry: “Death is in ‘living’ by the Law, which constitutes me as separate, isolates me in my own judgment and justification, and confirms my isolation by giving me a ‘standard’ with which to judge and reject others”--as well as for judging and rejecting myself, so far as that goes.

To return to where I started, with Merton’s entry for November 7 of 1964, here is the full passage that ends with the lines with which I began: ”Reading Ezechiel 6. This is about our idolatry as much as Israel’s. Idolatry is the basic sin, therefore, that which is deepest in us, most closely related to Original Sin—therefore most likely to deceive us under the appearance of true worship or integrity or honesty or loyalty or idealism.” Then come the lines I cite at the beginning of this post. 

Not long after making that entry, Merton makes another, this time for January 31, 1965, his 50th birthday, in which he takes note of “[t]he unutterable confusion of those who think that God is a mental object and that to ‘love God alone’ is to exclude all other objects and concentrate on this one!”

That is the very seat of sin. 

$100 bills.jpeg

*It is worth remembering that “principles” themselves can be just such idols, impeding rather than facilitating love for others. As I used to tell students in my own classes: “Beware ‘men of principle,’ since they will be glad to sell you out for the sake of maintaining their cherished ‘principles.’ “