Dr. James W. Fowler, III, is Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University, Atlanta. He is the author of Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning and To See the Kingdom: the Theological Vision of H. Richard Niebuhr.
THIS has been a rich and challenging conference. Prophetic utterances have been heard in this place. Stimulating and illuminating exchanges have occurred here in these four days of “For the Trumpet Shall Sound.” I am both honored and burdened to be in this position. I find it important to help carry forward toward conclusion the themes of our symposium on Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr. At the same time I want to address the congregation of worshippers who are here this morning, some of whom have not been part of the conference.
Both Dr. King and Father Merton have been rightly understood as prophetic voices and witnesses in this latter half of the twentieth century. No north American has more forcefully taught, lived and died for the principle of the love of neighbor — and for its social expression through justice -than Martin Luther King, Jr. No north American has more authentically witnessed to the transformation of life and consciousness through contemplative prayer than Thomas Merton.
My sermon this morning will be a reflection on the prophetic vocations of King and Merton. We will conduct our inquiry against the dual background of our Gospel reading on the great commandment, and that powerful image Jeremiah gives us of the sovereign, shaping and redemptive judgment of the potter. I will invite you to engage with me in considering how the prophetic vocations of Merton and King are for us parables of the Kingdom — parables of the reign and judgment of God in our history and in God’s future. If this works right, it will lead us to illumination regarding our own vocations in a world grown no gentler since the deaths of King and Merton. And it will lead us to try to bring to vision and word a sense of what God is doing in our time, that we might be in partnership, rather than in enmity, with God’s future.
Let me move us forward, then, by exploring with you three ways in which we can — and interpreters do — view the lives of King and Merton as parabolic, three ways we can approach their lives as parable of the Kingdom.
THEIR LIVES AS TEXTS: MERTON AND KING AS PIONEERS OF THE REIGN OF GOD
Here our camera lens is focused on the unfolding life of King or Merton as a kind of “hero” of faith. From this angle of vision our goal in studying them is to illumine their passages in faith, the shape of their journeys, the dynamics of their becoming subjects before God. So viewed, they become exemplars for us: inspiring, courageous, gifted instances of what Erik Erikson has called homo religiosus.
Such approaches can have different purposes: Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book on Merton, Pray to Live, gives us discerning access to a soul in motion. He helps us feel the depth of Merton’s young adult combination of brilliant and wounded cynicism and his hunger for a grounding in the utterly dependable love of God. Nouwen traces the development of Merton’s faith as it moves from the sweet and overconfident piety of the Seven Storey Mountain, to the paradoxical grace of his Zen period, and on into the quest for the universalizing unity of what Merton called the “final integration” in his last years. Here we have Merton as courageous pilgrim of faith, or as Sister Elena Malits’ title puts it, The Solitary Explorer: Thomas Merton’s Transforming Journey.
Fred Downing’s book on King, To See the Promised Land, gives us a solid psycho-biographical study of his development in selfhood and faith. In the same spirit of viewing King as homo religiosus, Downing takes pains to study the formation of King’s faith in relation to the background of his family, his church and the key persons and relations that helped to shape and awaken his vocation. Here we have a careful and inspiring description of movement in King’s life through stages of growing maturity and authority; stages of growing inclusiveness and universality. Such a study is inspiring; it teaches us not only about the details and dynamics of Dr. King’s growth in faith; it also aims to illumine the path of ongoing transformation in faith which is a potential for all human beings.
But there is an obvious trap, a pitfall we can fall into with this kind of approach to Merton and King as “heroes” or “pioneers” of faith. This trap, this pitfall, lies in the elevation of the subject to mythic dimensions. Subtly we begin to tailor the details of their stories to fit the needs of the faith ideals we hold, and which we believe we find represented so powerfully in their lives and teachings. In making them more than human, we slyly render them less than human. At the same time, we elevate them to a plain where the examples of their utter seriousness about making themselves available to the reign of God, because of the intensity of religious “genius” involved, no longer constitute a possibility or necessity for us. This involves us in domestication through adulation; it allows us to practice an evasion of invitation, through the cheap grace of self-disqualification.
We can interpret King and Merton in terms of the romantic myth of explorers and pioneers of faith, triumphant, even in death, because of their courage and the unselfishness of their spending and being spent. Or, we can interpret them in terms of the genre of tragic myth. We can see them as the visionary, spirit-inspired messengers of transforming faith, cut off, or shunted aside, by the hard structures of a brutal and heartlessly fallen world.
In looking at Merton and King as “heroes” of faith, in succumbing to the spell of individualism in these matters, we can inspire thousands. We run the risk, however, of missing the principle point of their lives, which would require us to turn our eyes in quite another direction. Let me invite you to look at a second way we can approach the vocations of these two prophetic figures as parables of the kingdom of God.
THEIR LIVES IN CONTEXT: KING AND MERTON DE-MYTHED AND IRONIZED
In Northrop Frye’s great circle of types of western literature and movement around the circle from the romantic and tragic genres of myths leads toward the genre of the ironic. Romance pits innocent good against obvious evil in high noon adventure. Tragedy pits a noble but flawed hero against the intractable structures of a harshly realistic world. In the ironic approach, on the other hand, heroes are shown to be all too human. As Jim Hopewell says in describing the ironic vision: “In ironic stories, reputedly worthy persons come to naught and what seem to be good plans go sour. Irony challenges heroic and purposive interpretations of the world …. Miracles do not happen; patterns lose their design; life is unjust; not dignified by transcendent forces …. Instead of expecting such supernatural outcomes, one embraces one’s brothers and sisters in camaraderie.” (Congregation, p. 61)
Intended or not, great studies of both Merton and King, which have emerged only near the end of the two decades since their deaths, have had the effect of reinterpreting their lives in something of the ironic mode. I refer to the study by Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton and David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross, which appeared in 1984 and 1986, respectively. We are immensely in the debt of both these authors. The research and synthesis underlying their magnificent studies are monumental. Neither will soon — indeed, if ever — be surpassed.
The student of King and Merton interested in their prophetic vocations, however, finds more in the studies of Mott and Garrow than he or she necessarily can use. Maybe more than he or she even wants to know. These studies each have access to a wider range of personal and private documents than have previous studies. Both authors have interviewed more widely than their predecessors, the persons who knew and were associated closely with their subjects. Both writers have determined that the reading public are entitled to have access to their subjects’ offstage and private lives. Not just access to the private domains of their professional and personal relationships, but also to the vicissitudes of their offstage hearts and wills. In the service of a kind of cinema verite, Garrow and Mott, to a significant extent, have broken down the barriers between the public and the private in the lives of King and Merton.
In doing so — intentionally or otherwise — we participate, as we read their books, in a demythologization of the heroic in the stories of Merton and King. Through Mott’s eyes we see Merton struggling with the illusion that his confreres might elect him abbot upon the retirement of Dom James, and posting a foolishly adolescent letter to the community denying his willingness to serve. We see in great detail Merton’s important but sad confusion about S., the nurse who cared for him in hospital, reawakening and focusing his suppressed and sublimated eros for the feminine. We participate in his fantasies that he might, through Buddhist contacts in southeast Asia, play a negotiating role in reconciling the United States with Ho Chi Min.
In King’s life, in the last year and a half, we see the ever more prophetic public persona, speaking against the Vietnam war and brilliantly unmasking the connections between violence in that war and violence in our society and economy. At the same time, Garrow shows us an ever more exhausted King. He is hounded by the FBI and its nasty secrets, baffled by the resistance to non-violent methods in northern cities, and beset by dissension and competitive disunity in the ranks of SCLC. We see and identify with the King whose dream has turned to nightmare, and who fantasizes seriously how he can escape the terrible burdens of his public role and move to Geneva or Africa, or take a professorship or a church.
I only half mean it when I say that Garrow and Mott tell us more than we want to know about their subjects. The ironic mode puts us in unmistakable solidarity with our brothers Tom and Martin. How like our offstage fantasies and anxieties are those that beset these great figures. How vulnerable they were — in their great giftedness — to some of the same disequilibrating fears and anguishes, hopes and guilts, distractions and evasions, to which we are subject.
The ironic mode, with its demythologizing power, is a necessary correction to our heroic romances and tragedies in the remembering and study of Dr. King and Father Louis. The breaking of our myths and the qualifying of our too neat developmental schemas press us to ask the question about prophetic vocations and parables of the Kingdom in more chastened and cautious ways. Is there a third alternative that neither negates nor ignores the ironizing of the heroic? Is there a perspective from which to consider the vocations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Thomas Merton, which may, in deeper and more faithful ways, help us to discern in them parables of a Kingdom — that is to say, parables of God judging and reigning — which we are also called to serve? This brings us to the possibility of a third way of interpreting and finding revelatory power in the memories and lives of our subjects.
TOWARD A THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE: KING, MERTON, AND GOD’S PRAXIS
Moving beyond the categories of Northrop Frye there is, compositely taken, a genre of literature which promises to hold together the heroic and the ironic, but to transmute both into another plane of interpretation. This is the plane of interpretation offered by biblical theology. From this standpoint, to approach the revelatory luminousness of the lives of these two faithful servants properly, we need to see their stories as intertwined with a much larger and longer story already long in process. Both King and Merton understood this: they knew that whatever depth or meaning their life wagers manifested derived from their linkage and grounding in the divine praxis — the purpose and working of God in and through the processes of creation and history.
Dr. King saw and said this in profound ways throughout the meteoric movement of his ministry. Let me read from his early formulation in Stride Toward Freedom. He has asked the question “Why did this event take place in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955?” Then he answers:
Certainly, there is a partial explanation in the long history of injustice on the buses of Montgomery. The bus protest did not spring into being full grown as Athena sprang from the head of Zeus; it was the culmination of a slowly developing process. Mrs. Parks’ arrest was the precipitating factor rather than the cause of the protest. The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices …. There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by oppression …. The story of Montgomery is the story of fifty thousand such Negroes who were willing to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery until the walls of segregation were finally battered by the forces of justice …. But neither is this the whole explanation …. Nor can it be explained by the appearance of new leadership. The Montgomery story would have taken place if the leaders of the protest had never been born ….
There is something about the protest that is suprarational; it cannot be explained without a divine dimension. Some may call it a principle of concretion, with Alfred N. Whitehead; or a process of integration, with Henry N. Wieman; or Being-itself, with Paul Tillich; or a personal God. Whatever the name, some extra-human force labors to create a harmony out of the discord of the universe. There is a creative power that works to pull down mountains of evil and level hilltops of injustice. God still works through history His wonders to perform. It seems as though God had decided to use Montgomery as the proving ground for the struggle and triumph of freedom and justice in America.
With the help of the excellent studies of Merton and King which I have mentioned in both of the previous sections of this sermon, we can see the subtle but firmly clear movements of a convergent providence in the shaping — we might properly say the election — of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of Thomas Merton to their vocations, and in the unfolding and waves of energy, imagination and influence which flow from their lives. Do not try to tell me that the divine praxis does not draw together long lines of convergent faithfulness in order to bring about redemptive transformation in the midst of peoples and history!
From the standpoint of biblical theology King and Merton are symbols and signs and articulators of something far more primal and vast. In ways that neither the heroic nor the ironic modes can capture, they are story-formed and story-borne masks of the Spirit of a creating, governing and liberating God. In their struggling gracefulness we see the combination of an unmistakable individuality and a God-given newness in history. And this newness opens, as parables at their best always do, new pathways of being. In and through them, in quite distinct modalities, God opens a way where there is no way. In their vocations the divine praxis brings judgment, brings liberation and redemption, and brings forth new creation.
GOD’S PRAXIS AND OUR VOCATIONS
Is God’s providence still acting in our world? Can we trace the subtlety and power of the Spirit of God in the affairs of nations? Let me share a story:
On August 30,1983, Russian fighter jets shot down a Korean Boeing 747 jetliner bound for Seoul. Sixty one Americans died in the crash, and for a time after that incident communications between the Russian and U.S. governments were almost completely broken off. Mrs. Susanne Massie, an American novelist, popular historian, and a specialist on Russian folk traditions and religion, was in Moscow at the peak of the blackout of communications between the two superpowers. She was approached by a Russian friend who worked in the Kremlin and told that it was essential that a message be gotten to President Reagan. Was she, he asked, going home soon? And if so, would she take the message to the president? She agreed to try. Through her Maine senator, Mr. Cohen, she got through to the White House and got agreement from the president’s office that she could have a brief meeting with him.
Expecting to have at most ten minutes with the president, Mrs. Massie, who is an accomplished story teller, was surprised to find not only President Reagan awaiting her, but also some of his key national security and foreign policy advisors. Her ten minutes turned out to be nearly an hour. Her conveying of the message turned out to be a fullscale briefing in which she had an opportunity to convey to the president her sense of what the Russian people, as distinct from the government, felt about the United States, about the nuclear threat, and about their profound and genuine desire for peace in the world. She reported on conversations she had had with taxi drivers and university people in Moscow. She told President Reagan about how Christianity had been preserved through the Revolution and had continued underground during the Stalin years. And for the first time, apparently, President Reagan was made to understand that there are large numbers of practicing Christians — both Orthodox and Free Baptist — in Russia. This made a strong impression on him. She tried to make the case that though he might disagree with the form and practices of the Russian government, there is much to admire and much good will to be found among the Russian people.
She was a hit with the president. One who had frequently characterized the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire began to learn Russian history and folklore. Some months later, when the Reykjavik summit between Reagan and Gorbachev on nuclear disarmament began to take shape, the president called Mrs. Massie to come and brief him for his meeting with the premier. It was from her that the president learned the Russian proverbs he began to use and exchange with Gorbachev in their conversations. Some of the president’s alarmed advisors credited Mrs. Massie’s briefings with leading to the favorable response of Mr. Reagan to Mr. Gorbachev, and to his almost “giving away everything,” as they put it, in the negotiations.
Between the Reykjavik summit and the Geneva meeting, leading eventually to the signing of the accords between our countries, Mrs. Massie returned to Russia. In a shop in Kiev, she found a beautiful traditional wooden Easter egg decorated brightly in the manner of the Russian Orthodox. About six inches in length, it had painted on its side in Russian, a proverb, “Save the World.” She bought the egg, planning to give it to her son, Robert, who is a Christian ethicist. Knowing of her work with the president, Bob resisted accepting the egg, saying she should give it to Mr. Reagan. She insisted that Bob take it.
But then President Reagan, now looking toward the Geneva meeting, with the planned private talks with Mr. Gorbachev in the cottage, asked her again to help him prepare. Mrs. Massie called her son and said, “Bob, I need the egg!” When she carried it to the president she said to him, “I want you to take this as a gift to Mr. Gorbachev. He often uses religious language. If he is religious it will touch him. If he is not religious, likely he is superstitious, and he will take it as an omen. Either way, the gift of the egg will have a positive effect.” And it did.
God certainly has a sense of humor. It is ironic that Mr. Reagan will go down in history as the American president who proved responsive to the new initiatives of the courageous and resourceful Russian leader who risked proposing a beginning of the stand-down of our nuclear arsenals. The confluence of events that occurred in order to bring Mrs. Massie and the president together, and the transforming impact of her passionate story-telling and teaching upon him, bear all the marks of the subtle power of divine providence quietly and effectively “making a way where there is no way.”
Such a story, like the prophetic vocation of Dr. King and Father Louis, provides a parable of the Kingdom. As parables do, it shows forth the contours and dynamics of the divine praxis. At the same time, as parables do, it makes apparent the way a person, while being faithful and resourceful in her or his own vocation, can be made a crucial linkage in the surprising network of the divine Spirit’s energy and will for the preservation, healing, and redemption of God’s world.
Martin Luther, 475 years ago, was asked, “How do we love and serve God? How do we love and serve our neighbors?” and Luther answered, “In commune per vocatione.” We love and serve God, we love and serve our neighbors, in community, through vocation. And let it be so with us.