THOMAS MERTON'S UNDERSTANDING OF GOD
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who lived from 1915 to 1968. He became famous as an author of spiritual books, at least thirty-nine of them. These books can be grouped by subject matter into three rather pronounced stages of concentration. The ones published between 1948 and 1960 deal for the most part with ascetical practices useful for escaping the snares of the materialist world. Those published between 1960 and 1965 are taken up with social concern, while the ones that came out between 1965 and 1968 give evidence of a marked interest in oriental mysticism.
Merton's treatment of God in these writings can be subsumed under four headings. These hearings form sets of two: immanent-transcendent and cataphatic-apophatic. The first set describe the way humanity experiences God. The second set deal with the way this experience is expressed.
This dissertation will attempt to demonstrate that Merton concentrates on the transcendence of God in his first, or flight from the world, stage of writing, availing often of apophatic (negative) terminology. It will try to show that immanence is emphasized in Merton's second, or social concern, stage, taking form predominantly in cataphatic language. In the third stage, according to this dissertation, Merton integrates God's immanence with his transcendence, employing both apophatic and cataphatic modes of expression. This third stage is marked by a certain oriental-influenced universalist outlook.
The point of categorizing Merton's understanding of God is to highlight possible developments in any of the four categories. The present investigation uncovered such development in only one category: immanence. Merton's understanding of transcendence went virtually unchanged from the beginning of his writing to the end, and his use of apophatism and cataphatism varied only in frequency. But, his notion of immanence showed a pronounced progression from personal to societal to universal in the three stages of his writing.
It is thus the contention of this dissertation that two factors make Merton's writing significant for contemporary theology: the development in his understanding of God's immanence, and his integration of transcendence and immanence (expressed apophatically and cataphatically) in a universalist outlook conditioned by oriental religious insight.