Democracy ceases to be an objective fact: Thomas Merton read post-Brexit

merton-photoWriting sometime in the 1950s or 60s (hence the non-gender-inclusive language), Thomas Merton had this to say about democracy:

… democracy assumes that the citizen knows what is going on, understands the difficulties of the situation, and has worked out for himself an answer that can help him to contribute, intelligently and constructively, to the common work (or ‘liturgy’) of running his society.

[…] Democracy cannot exist when men prefer ideas and opinions that are fabricated for them.

Indeed, he worried that, if the above is not realised, ‘democracy ceases to be an objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word’.

These thoughts by Merton, published in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, illustrate why it is profoundly problematic to assert that democracy has been served in the recent referendum leading to a narrow majority in favour of Brexit.

When politicians and a certain sector of the media do everything they possibly can to spread fabricated ideas, thus making it extremely difficult for citizens to know what is going on or to understand the difficulties of the situation, then democracy has NOT been served; indeed, as Merton rightly saw, it ‘ceases to be objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word’, which is exactly what we are witnessing at present.

For a society to move forward in healthy and life-giving ways, it is essential that this is acknowledged and that properly democratic steps are now taken as it seeks to negotiate its future.

Perhaps it is only a monk who can think of this in terms of ‘liturgy’, alluding to the original meaning of the term, but a coming together, a common work, is precisely what we now need.

The one and only test

The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience or devotional practice [is] that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine [makes] you kinder, more empathetic and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness this [is] good theology. But if your notion of God [makes] you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it [leads] you to kill in God’s name, it [is] bad theology.

Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase

Litmus test

Nick Spencer, in his book Asylum and Immigration: A Christian Perspective on a Polarised Debate, talks about compassion for the vulnerable being the critical litmus test of a society’s social health – a truly sobering reminder of the state of our society’s declining social health, I thought. Spencer goes on to say that

a nation should be proud rather than grudging in its acceptance of the truly vulnerable, There are few higher callings than to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and house the homeless.

Of astonishment and the necessity of exile

I was struck by these two thoughts of Anne Dufourmantelle today:

  1. Her talking about ‘the audacity that leads a philosophical utterance to make us desert those dwellings of the mind where reason lives as master, when for an instant astonishment makes reason a guest’. That’s just brilliantly put.
  2. Her insight into ‘the necessity of exile in order for “oneself as another” … to come into being’. No experience of exile – no deep transformation; that, too, makes sense to me.

Both thoughts are from Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond.

Women (according to Mary)

Women come off pretty badly in Christianity. Through Original Sin they are held responsible for everything in the world since the Garden of Eden. Women are weak, unclean, condemned to bear children in pain as punishment for the failures of Eve, they are the temptresses who turn the minds of men away from God; as if women were more responsible for men’s sexual feelings than the men themselves! Like Simone de Beauvoir says, women are always the ‘other’, the real business is between a man in the sky and the men on the ground. In fact women only exist at all as a kind of divine afterthought, put together out of a spare rib to keep men company and iron their shirts, and the biggest favour they can do Christianity is not to get dirtied up with sex, stay chaste, and if they can manage to have a baby at the same time then they’re measuring up to the Christian Church’s ideal of womanhood – the Virgin Mary.

This, it has to be said, is a pretty good summary of what has unfortunately and for far too long been a prevalent attitude within Christianity. Intriguingly, this summary is offered by Mary, one of the characters in Ian McEwan’s short story ‘Psychopolis’.

Being very careful not to say what he does not mean

No matter where in the world he may be, no matter what may be his power of protest, or his means of expression, the poet finds himself ultimately where I am. Alone, silent, with the obligation of being very careful not to say what he does not mean, not to let himself be persuaded to say merely what another wants him to say, not to say what his own past work has led others to expect him to say.

Thomas Merton, Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage