Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

by Thomas Merton

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1240

Preeminently, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is a Catholic work in two regards. First, it bears the imprimatur of the Church and stands both as Merton’s reflections on the essence of its beliefs and as a reaffirmation of his own accepted faith in man’s need to transcend his delusive self-love and egotistical preoccupations and to devote himself to comprehending what is in the heart of Christ. Second, the work is catholic—universal, open-and broad-minded—in its ecumenical reach. Merton warmly acknowledges the perceptiveness and wisdom as well as the errors of good intention in writings that address the deep questions of human nature and the modern predicament. Notwithstanding his own critical reservations about the meanings such authorities placed upon their observations, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is organized as a series of implicit dialogues with these other minds. Some of them, such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are Protestant theologians; some, such as Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and the Old Testament prophets, are Jewish; some, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Chuang-tzu, Confucius, and Mencius, represent various Oriental beliefs; others—Jacques Maritain, Louis Massignon, Cardinal John Henry Newman, and Saint Thomas Aquinas—are Catholic; and still others—Karl Marx, Lewis Mumford, Edmund Wilson, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre—are proclaimed secularists. In the somewhat episodic passages of the work, none of these figures, nor any of the dozens of others mentioned, is subjected to a detailed intellectual examination by Merton. Rather, they are collectively deployed as exemplars—as a supporting cast whose briefly recapitulated views lend a richer dimension to his own considered opinions.

These views are ordered by Merton around three major themes. He addresses each of them with an essentially controlled passion and, despite some expressions of disgust and occasional sighs of despair, with a qualified meliorism. That is, while the world of the 1960’s, perceived in the light of his criteria, was not (as was generally believed) continuously improving, but in fact seemed bent upon selfdestruction, the means by which to correct its fundamental weaknesses were at hand; indeed, they had been for more than nineteen hundred years.

Foremost, Merton repeatedly emphasizes that the historical distinctiveness of the Western world lies in its Christian (he allows Judeo-Christian) tradition; writing in the 1950’s and 1960’s, however, he must acknowledge the substantial abandonment of that tradition. Ignorance, the glamour and simplifications of ideologies and nationalisms, the false worship of science and technologies, societies’ unblinking dedication to materialism, and a general misapprehension of the real nature of freedom are all, in his judgment, responsible contributors to this disastrously erosive course. So long as there exists a scant general appreciation of Christianity’s unique approach to man, particularly man in conflict with himself and his society, Merton suggests, the abyss separating Soviet Communism from the anti-Communist United States will remain far less great than has been generally believed. Each nation— however self-righteous its proclamations of moral superiority—in practice reflects a debilitating addiction to debasing materialism. The United States appears to him more successfully materialistic than the Soviet Union and its satellite states because the former is at once freer and more affluent. Yet each society, in his judgment, is fundamentally wrong, and therefore each is destined for moral disaster, if not for its concomitant, nuclear destruction.

Although he had flirted with Communism as a young man in New York, the Merton of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander had long since categorically rejected it as false and pernicious. He depicts Marx as a cynical, mentally ill, and guilt-ridden Jewish bourgeois whose delusions, masquerading as official truth, had sent millions to gratuitous deaths and millions more to imprisonment, while condemning still vaster populations to lives filled with fear. Soviet totalitarianism, like all ideologically driven mass movements, is simply anathema to him, not only for its atheism, lies, and hypocrisy but also for having alienated its citizens by inflicting a pre-Christian form of slavery upon them. Yet despite his rejection of many elements of Marx’s thought and his condemnation of their devastating consequences, Merton characteristically praises Marx’s (not Marxism’s) basic humanitarianism and accepts Marx’s denunciations of nineteenth century liberalism for its paternalism and its blindness to social evils. Thus, while Marx was a false prophet, Merton believed that he had affected the Church positively by helping to modify its traditional otherworldliness (its willingness to wait until the end of time for man’s redemption) and by encouraging it to apply the message of Christ’s Crucifixion to mankind’s transformation within time and in this world.

American that he is, Merton is troubled by an Americanism that, in his estimate, promotes an evasion of individual and social responsibilities. He readily concedes that conditions had once been supportive of the popular notion that, having developed on a new continent, America had escaped history by distancing itself from the Old World and had enjoyed renewals of its pristine state through a succession of frontiers. Yet even allowing that there had once been a modicum of truth to this perception, he insisted that long before the 1950’s and 1960’s it had ceased to be either a viable or an accurate perspective. America’s continuing racism, Merton explains, initially resulted from a sense of guilt among whites over slavery; this guilt eventually degenerated into anger, since the black’s presence constantly reminded the dominant white society that in reality it had escaped neither sin nor the obligations of history. Worse yet, Merton asserts, was the fact that as the general belief in America’s innocence became less tenable, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were helping a new generation to substitute an equally immature myth: namely, that because America was a success, everything that it had undertaken must therefore have been justified.

In the era of the continuing Cold War, Christendom was divided between two superpowers which, though qualitatively distinguishable in Merton’s view, nevertheless behaved as if their immense power had deranged them. The Soviets were obsessed with power, the United States with money. Both staked their claims to humanism; in both societies, however, the individual’s life and death depended upon everything except his own intellectual and moral integrity.

Further tying together the broadly ranged observations in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is Merton’s third fundamental theme: the character and source of the free, hence fruitful, Christian life. For Christians, he emphasizes, the older religious posture of contempt for worldly things (contemptus mundi) must be replaced by a humble compassion for a transient world: a world in which everyone and everything—cultures, nations, and all of their accumulated baggage, as well as the institutional structure of the Church itself—are ephemeral. When this is fully understood, according to Merton, people can begin to comprehend that God is not a matter of the next world. For Merton, God is not an unknown, otherworldly object to be praised and worshiped from the outside. Instead, the world is God’s theater; in this setting, man is God’s glory, and that glory is best revealed in the life lived through love. Only faith in this reality, which Christ, eschewing divine power, demonstrated by suffering in this world as a man, can allow man to fulfill and to free himself. Ideologies, causes, mass movements, the love of power or of gain, and the elevation of science and of material well-being, regardless of their passing merits, offer no substitutes for this realization.

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