Merton Makes a Foray – Exploring Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable as a Third Spiritual Path, With Reference to the Traditional Liberal vs. Conservative Split.

Merton Makes a Foray – Exploring Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable as a Third Spiritual Path, With Reference to the Traditional Liberal vs. Conservative Split.

Increasingly, when one looks at the state of theology as it is today, the contentions that the Liberal vs. Conservative views of doctrine are merely two sides of the same Cartesian coin[1] – seem more and more believable. But are we really forced to choose, in what seems to be an inescapably bifurcated dichotomy, between either one of two sides –  in terms of how we are supposed to apply reason to theology? Can there really be only two ways of seeing Christian spirituality? In the midst of this intersect – there stands a theologian & philosopher  – who for many – serves as a gatekeeper to what some would consider ‘a third way:’ Thomas Merton.  Merton would say that Rene Descartes’ motto “I think therefore I am” is, in today’s mindset, taken in far too simplistic a fashion. Rather then just holding to an idea or concept – Merton would say – ‘In meditation, I find wholeness.’ To all the exactness and ideological certitude inherent to Modernity – Merton would disavow the absoluteness of most decisional knowledge – and would rather welcome to the epistemological table the possibility of not just not knowing all there is to be known about a certain given subject – but also the possibility that it may actually be impossible to know about some things. It is this task that he attempts to take up in his 1960 book, Raids on the Unspeakable.

Raids – as a book – is essentially an embodiment of Merton’s thought & philosophy in regards to both life and theology.  Merton believed that while we can simply know some things, the best – if not the most important things – are those that demand careful and meticulously careful meditation, and not just knee-jerk acceptance. Coupled with this – is Merton’s deep suspicion of epistemological surety: he asserts that that there is a crucial need for the integration of mystery and the unknown/unknowable into anybody’s philosophical/theological framework or worldview.  Against the tide of modernist theology and culture, Merton resolutely sets these twin rocks of contemplation & mystery midstream, eagerly embracing the resultant froth and fury as merely an ongoing part of the process of finding not just truth, but a way to approach that which may in fact – forever be just out of reach. But this is exactly what Merton is doing in Raids – making raids, or incursions into the bounds of the Unspeakable: that which cannot be understood or known in a sense of completeness of understanding. Be they as impenetrable as they might – Merton makes a foray into their boundaries – if not for just a moment; and does not steal from the unspeakables their mysteriousness –but seeks to merely find a way to appropriate their content into his own spiritual mediation – and in sharing these raids or forays – create a conversation that finds a way to express them in such a way that creates meaning without divulging their full content, and understanding – without erasing their intrinsic mystery.

In his book, Merton explores everything from the rain to Nazis. In one of his first essays, Rain and the Rhinoceros, Merton talks about the mysteriousness of a simple rainstorm, and uses it as backdrop for a discussion of personal identity, using Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, in which a character named Berenger awakes to find that all his friends have suddenly become Rhinoceroses – and he alone remains human. In another essay entitled A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichman, Merton explores the unthinkable atrocities of the Nazi regime, and explores the reality that the vast majority of the perpetrators were neither insane nor stupid – but were completely mentally competent and well educated. How could the same nation that brought us such great art and science also bring upon the world such horror and desolation?  How can you wrap your head around the Holocaust or the pedagogs who did it with a perfectly perfunctory sense of it all as just being merely a simple duty to country and fellow German? For Merton – it has to – and, much like the rain remains – will forever be the embodiment of an impenetrable mystery – one that we can think about – but will never fully understand. If we think we understand it – then we have not even begun to genuinely try to.

Various influential theological figures such as Gustavo Gutiérrez[2] and his emphasis on a “theology of liberation,” Dr. Carl F.H. Henry and his emphasis on fundamentalism being an active agent in culture and not being obsessed with legalism[3] and eschatological despair or J. Gresham Machen when he drew lines as well in his distinction between Modernism/Liberalism and Christianity in terms of the radical distinctive between that he proposed; [4] each find an issue that they build their work and subsequent reputations upon. But in almost every case – they each reach back, either into a Scriptural/Soteriological (Conservative), or a Social-centric/Personal-Existentialist (Liberal) foundation. Merton is both of these – but more.  His path is not an ‘either/or’ decision– neither is it a ‘neither,’ but – it is both – through mystery and contemplation. Merton is, for the most part, a scriptural and Christ-centered writer –who also cares very deeply about social action and personal identity.

The mystery and contemplative components of Merton’s thought – introduced and explored in Raids – are arguable becoming more and more important, as in the American theological culture, it is increasingly more and more easy to see the ‘Cultural Christianity’ that Kierkegaard railed against, when he addressed his fellow Danes. There are many individuals in almost every theological tradition, who have become so accustomed to their own doctrines that they cease to have any wonder or to any longer hold to any mysteriousness intrinsic to what they believe in at all. In it’s most crude forms – there is a total ignorance of almost all substantive content; individuals guilty of such, having embraced the notion that they are Christians, merely because they are Americans – or because they go to church 3 times a week. Against this mindless, automaton-like spiritual existence Merton takes great exception and seeks to make his greatest impact. This is perhaps Merton’s gift to the ‘theological conversation:’ he strives to bring back a degree of wonder, meditation, and the depth that the unknown brings.

But can we go too far? And did Merton, himself, go too far in his own quest? This is a topic that enjoys a lot of discourse both among both Merton admirers and his detractors. Towards the end of his life, he arguably drifted closer and farther into Eastern Religions – and some say – too far from an emphasis on Christ and His salvation. There is also a good argument to be made against misapplied or overused mysticism. If one takes revealed truth and push it back into mystery, then the result is neither mystery, nor truth – but merely yet another contrived spiritual invention created by one’s own hands.

In all of our lives, we each come across things that are unspeakable. They are not evil – or wrong – they’re just not communicateable. They exist in that space and place that exists beyond the limits of not just language – but more importantly – understanding. They exist – but cannot be described. They can be appropriated intellectually – but cannot be understood. They exist within language – but cannot be explained. It may be something deceptively simple like the rain, the Triune concept of the Trinity, or the Holocaust – they will forever defy any attempt to completely understand them or explain them. We can try, though. We can – make a raid; a foray into them –and find at least, in part, an understanding: one that coupled with thought and imagination, we can find something to grasp hold onto – even if just for a moment; it can be ours. It was what Merton did best – and it would do us well, to learn how to do it as well, lest we lose our own identify and merely become just another part of another theological rhinoceros herd. It takes bravery, courage – even responsibility – to make a raid. But we can. We should. We must.



Matthew Lipscomb








Helmut Theilicke. The Evangelical Faith. Volume One: Prolegomena, The Relation of Theology to Modern Thought Forms. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmands Publishing Company, 1974.


Carl F. H. Henry. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmands Publishing Company, 2003.


Paul C. McClasson. Invitation to Dogmatic Theology, A Canonical Approach. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2006.


Gustavo Gutiérrez. A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, New York:
Orbis Books, 2007.


[1] Helmut Theilicke proposes this dicotomatic split between Liberal & Conservative Christian factions using Cartesian reason as a dividing line between the two in his The Evangelical Faith. Volume One: Prolegomena, The Relation of Theology to Modern Thought Forms. He argues that liberal social directives and the conservative soteriological emphasis is merely reason applied two different ways to the same question. Paul C. McClasson echoes this in his own book, Invitation to Dogmatic Theology, A Canonical Approach, in which he argues against reason as a central loci to theological formulation, in lieu of a more canonical or scripture-based foundation – for not just a source, but a guiding process of interpretation for doctrinal formulation & belief.

[2] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation

[3] “It is not fair to say that the ethical platform of all conservative churches has clustered about such platitudes as ‘abstain from intoxicating beverages, movies, dancing, card-playing, and smoking,’ but there are multitudes of Fundamentalist congregations in which these are the main points of reference of ethical speculation. In one of the large Christian colleges, a chapel speaker recently expressed amazement that the campus newspaper could devote so much space to the all-important problem of whether it is right to play ‘rook,’ while the nations of the world are playing with fire.” Dr. Carl F.H. Henry The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, page 6.

[4] Machen makes this case in his book Christianity and Liberalism, which he later said would have been more aptly titled Christianity and Modernism.


About hollerscholar

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