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Merton's "Unspeakable"

A correspondent sent me the following passages from Raids on the Unspeakable by Thomas Merton:

The Unspeakable. What is this? Surely, an eschatological image. It is the void that we encounter, you and I, underlying the announced programs, the good intentions, the unexampled and universal aspirations for the best of all possible worlds. It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. It is the void out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience, the void which drawls in the zany violence of Flannery O’Connor’s Southerners, or hypnotizes the tempted conscience in Julien Green.

It is the emptiness of “the end.” Not necessarily the end of the world, but a theological point of no return, a climax of absolute finality in refusal, in equivocation, in disorder, in absurdity, which can be broken open again to truth only by miracle, by the coming of God. Yet nowhere do you despair of this miracle. You seem to say that, for you, this is precisely what it means to be a Christian; for Christian hope begins where every other hope stands frozen stiff before the face of The Unspeakable. I am glad you say this, but you will not find too many agreeing with you, even among Christians.

….The goodness of the world, stricken or not, is incontestable and definitive. If it is stricken, it is also healed in Christ. But nevertheless one of the awful facts of our age is the evidence that it is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable.

Those who are at present so eager to be reconciled with the world at any price must take care not to be reconciled with it under this particular aspect: as the nest of The Unspeakable. This is what too few are willing to see….

You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God. You agree? Good. Then go with my blessing. But I warn you, do not expect to make many friends. As for the Unspeakable—his implacable presence will not be disturbed by a little fellow like you!

I found the passage suggestive if a bit obscure. (I’ve never read the book or anything by Merton.)

The idea seems to be that in previous times everyone thought and felt that there are real goods and evils, and the problem Christianity solved was how to make sense of that.

In modernity it seems Christianity is needed to believe in a world in which meaning is possible, so that good and evil can be real. So it’s needed to get us to the position we used to start from.

I think Merton may exaggerate the point because he’s an avant garde intellectual. For most people living everyday life and reflecting on it is enough to convince them that meaning means something and goods and evils are really such. But it’s an important point nonetheless, and has a great deal of force. Nihilism is encoded in our public philosophy, the outlook that determines what seems to make sense in public discussion, and that is enormously important in a bureaucratic and media-ridden age like ours. Also, there aren’t many people who fully accept the meaningfulness of reality who aren’t Christian or on the way to becoming so.