Be Human in This Most Inhuman of Ages...

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...
--Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable

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43 thoughts on “Be Human in This Most Inhuman of Ages...”

  1. My husband (who apparently doesn't know me as well as he should by now) suckered me into watching the movie 'True Grit' last weekend.  "You might like it...yeah, I think you'll like this," he says.  I'm sure he was thinking that I'd connect with the spunky l'il Mattie Ross.  He neglected apparently to consider my feelings in regard to the horse!

    Spoiler Alert...

    'Little Blackie' bit the dust, martyred to satisfy Rooster Cogburn's self-esteem project.  In my opinion, it would have been a perfectly legit ending to the story if Mattie laid herself down right next to her worn out horse and died right there with him.  As it was, Little Blackie got used up, and Rooster Cogburn got credit for being the hero.  So wrong...

    Some aspect of innocence has died for me recently.  It's as if some thick scales have fallen off my "eyes" or the curtain has been pulled back to reveal the "Wizard" behind it operating the "machinery."  I feel as though, in my ignorance and innocence, a little bit of my humanity has been sucked out.  I'm not sure that dead horse can be resurrected.  Probably some things are better left for dead.

  2. "
    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."

    Vaclav Havel, who led the Velvet Revolution in the Eastern Bloc countries under Soviet rule, was asked in an interview how he liked being labeled a "dissenter"; his reply:

    "We're not dissenting in the true sense of the word; we're not merely reacting to a power in place we happen not to like. We see a reality before us that the powers don't see yet- a reality more enthralling. It's for this enthralling reality that we organize ourselves- not the powers." (My paraphrase.)

    I think this from Havel, is implicit in Merton's piece.   Why does the Christian Right feel so thin in comparison?


  3.  Hi Susan,

    Since the John Wayne version in 1969, "True Grit" has been my favorite movie (note it is number one in the list at my blog profile page).  I have seen it more times than any other movie in my life.  I had Mattie's voice going off in my head the whole time I was attending to my late father's final affairs.  It is Mattie, of course, rather than Rooster, who is the one in the story with true grit.

    My father chose to give his life to not one, but two truly evil women rather than his own biological family.  The last two months have been some of the worst I have ever gone through.  There are words we all use to describe women who trade sex for money, and even though Dad is now gone, I still have to deal with his final mistress and her heart of stone.

    Through it all you have been my friend here at ET.  Your words have made a difference in my life as surely as those of Mattie Ross, who never gave up in the face of overwhelming odds.

    Some things ARE better left dead.  This is the part about universalism which sends shudders down my spine: perhaps in a different place and dimension I will again be forced to be with these very same people.  If that is true, it is my greatest desire that I be shown Mercy and Grace THEN, and that it be someone like you, rather than these tormenters, with whom I can share eternity.

  4. Susan, 

    I feel for this haunted moment your in. Still, what I fear most about heaven, is the loss of experience. If heaven is only had by a state of innocence, I don't know that I want to be there. But then, how does a "Stepford Wife" know she is or isn't one? (To use another movie reference.) 


  5. Hi Susan,
    It's overwhelming and scary when you realize the church crowd doesn't have all the answers, as they've always claimed ("death of god"). And we really are "simply walking into Mordor" carrying our own cross.  I keep going back to what Jesus gave as priority commands, to love with heart, mind, soul and strength. It gets easily forgotten in the "just believe A-D to be saved" crowd. Merton is right, that friends are few, especially the ones who give you the freedom to grow, as Alice Walker said. It threatens their safe certainty when you start asking hard questions.

    We saw True Grit at the movies when it came out.  Personally, I liked Cowboys and Aliens better.

  6. Hi Sam, It's a hard thing to face when you realize how truly evil people who were supposed to love you really were or are. My grandmother once dubbed herself "too mean to die," (and believe me, she pulled some frightful stunts) but her predictions to me of others in my family have come true this last year. Or maybe it was always true, but I only came to see it this year. Sort of a reversed prodigal son story, where the parent and favored child oust the youngest and lock the doors, re-entry conditional only upon reassuming the scapegoat role. But "peace at any price" means ignoring what's really true.

  7. Hi Patricia,

    You too have been a good and true friend. 

    Two days ago the eldest son of one of my Fundamentalist aunts stopped by to see me for the first time in 30 years.  He implied that I should not "judge" the Calvinists without reading all of them first (John Calvin, Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, John Piper(??)).

    We ended up agreeing that to "live and love like Christ" is what is probably most important for any person who claims to be a Christian.  Then he stopped and looked at me and asked -- "What about all those times when you don't want to do that?"  I thought that was a very good question, and I really had no answer.

    I only drink one cocktail per week, though I come from a long line of heavy drinkers.  When reading the Cana poem from the other day, I had to (honestly) ask myself this question:  What if intoxication and Grace are the same exact thing?

  8. I love quotes from Merton! I have the "Portable Thomas Merton" book of quotes and have used it during meditation times in the past. Anyone looking for advice on how to live authentically in these times will benefit from reading him.

  9. It seems telling to me the way he phrased the question,  asking with *you* rather than "What about all those times when *I* don't want to do that?" I don't know, I wasn't there ...

    Drinking is of no account to me. The taste of alcohol turns my stomach, and I've never had any alcoholics in my life. There's a little ice cream shop across the street from my son's dorm that sells non-alcoholic ice cream in flavors like Guiness and Shiner Bock. Of course they wanted to try it. I didn't even like the ice cream.

  10. I think he meant "you" in the general sense, not specifically me in particular.  His question was sincere, and he did not attempt an answer.  It forced me to reassess, if just for that day, the concept of "modeling Christ" which I have recently been considering.

  11. To Sam,
    "This is the part about universalism which sends shudders down my spine: perhaps in a different place and dimension I will again be forced to be with these very same people. "
    Perhaps, this is the strongest argument for UR.  Most church folk who gloat over the alleged prospect of eternal torment in hell for OTHERS dread this the most - what forgiveness? mercy? ... I mean lets not get carried away with this Christian stuff ... btw, Gary when are you coming back to church?    Well said Sam!  I'm battling my own unforgiveness issues.

    To Patrica,
    "It's a hard thing to face when you realize how truly evil people who were supposed to love you really were or are."
    Expecially when this person is a spouse.   It's even more bizarre watching one be "used by God" for years (undeniable answered prayers,
    edification of many others, etc) turn on you with intense, obsessive malice, lying, slander, etc.  It definitely makes one wonder WTF toward God.   I still love my wife ... but I can't co-exist with her. I have failed my wife in many, many  ways - no getting around that.    But can one who argues about "having faith" and "trusting God" behave in this extreme manner, with no apparent conviction?

    So Susan N. and Mike Gottschalk,
    Concerning loss of innocence.   I'd like to think when Jesus declares the first commandment "love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" - 1) I assume He sees right through us and knows our deepest being and can detect whether or not we REALLY "luv" Him.   2) If He is so hung up / insecure regarding our allegience and affection, I'd hope he would be more touched/honored by a critical, cynical, bitter, sarcastic, inquirer with full cognitive capacity being won over rather than a C-3PO (all memory wiped out in Episode 3) being reduced to a mindless, perftect, compliant Stepford Wife  ... for eternity no less.  I agree - the latter seems more like hell than heaven.

    Gary Y.

  12.  Thanks, Jim.  I too watched those recent programs on evil.  The brain scans, the genetic tests, and the scientist himself turns out to be a psychopath!  The reason he did not turn into a serial killer?  Environment -- the third leg of the stool (good childhood -- his conclusion).  Yet even his own family have always wondered about him.

  13.  It does appear that modern medical science is revealing more about the biological basis for all illness -- mental and physical.  What to make, then, of the researchers in Canada who have stimulated the brain using electro-magnetism and found a profound awareness of Other (presence) which is universally interpreted as "'god", such as in "the god helmet"?

    Is all awareness of God, then, an evolved firing of neurons and synapses in the brain?  It points to a complete cessation of awareness and consciousness upon death of the brain.  This is what science tells me, even as I cling to the hope that there is somehow something more.

  14. This is my hope, Jim, that when eyes are opened, healing occurs, and reality seen for what it is, there will be actual sorrow and repentance that restores relationships to what they should have been (ie. MacDonald's story of the watch thief), rather than this pious, dismissive "I'm saved so what I do to you doesn't matter" thinking that's so common now. Rich Man and Lazarus story tells me that there will be an "aha" moment for the Rich Man that may have to  hurt in the process, and some consolation of the injustices over which Lazarus had no power..

  15. Interesting observations Sam. And if they're right, that we just cease to exist, then none of us will have anything to care about, or hurt about, after that. The "big sleep".... sounds good to me too.

  16. Heck, my family wonders about me too. But my daughter insists that I'm not a psychopath because I cry too easily. I can't help that either.

  17. Thanks for your comments Patricia. In addition to the great points you the make about the story, the interesting thing about the PARABLE of the rich man and Lazarus is that it does not support the orthodox view of hell as so many Christians would claim. If we are to use it as examples of salvation and damnation we would have to assume that to get into heaven you must be a diseased beggar, and that all rich people go to hell. No where in it does it ever mention that Lazarus had any faith.

  18. I am stealing that Merton quote! Very apt as it appeared here the day after I wrote about the death penalty and the image of God.

  19. Oh Sam, my heart breaks with you for the atrocities done in the name of love.  My dad married a deeply disturbed woman.  To give you a taste of the degree of instability I'm talking about (without writing a book about "me"), when I was in kindergarten, my step-mother, for reasons unbeknownst to me or my mom's side of the family to this day, went berserk one day and called in a bomb threat at my dad's place of employment.  The call was traced, and she was arrested and tried in a court of law for this crime.  Apparently, she got off on a plea of insanity, because she never did any jail time.  Instead, she was required to receive psychiatric treatment.  She was a scary woman, and I was rightly afraid of her when I was little.  As an adult, in an attempt to "love my enemies," "make peace," and all that jazz, I learned after a very short while of interacting with her that she had not changed.  Still scary!  One of these days, Sam, I expect to receive word through an extended family member that my dad has passed away.  He's in his 70's now.  This is the stuff of the messes that constitute our lives, isn't it, Sam.  My heart goes out to you, because I know how it feels.  Bad.  Real bad.  Impossible.  Irreconcilable grief.  Miserable.  It is really hard to go on in the day-to-day sometimes, living with this kind of heavy burden, and have any shred of hope.  Sometimes, the only hope I have is in the fact that I'm not alone in this.  And, at the moment, I don't mean God (or "god" in all its permutations).  I mean people like you, Sam.  I'm very sorry to let you down just now, by being such a loser when you are needing encouragement.  I've mostly spent my life being strong for other people, who I felt needed grace more than me.  Occasionally, I fall down too.  That is the miserable truth, and I know it.

    'True Grit' -- I didn't like that movie much, I'm afraid.  Do you know who I think was the real hero of the story?  The poor, damned horse.  The story is not a simple, cut-and-dried one, for sure.  Mattie's love for her murdered father, her sense of justice in bringing the murderer to trial, and her perseverance in seeing it through with courage are admirable.  Rooster Cogburn's heroism is less clear to me.  He's probably the least heroic in the drama, imho.  He took the case, and Mattie's money, when he knew that he couldn't shoot straight to save his life.  That Mattie had to end up saving both men by shooting Tom, which ended up in her falling into the snake pit and getting bitten, which ended up in Rooster's cruel use of the faithful little horse, and his compulsive drive to save Mattie at all costs, is a convoluted situation.  But the horse...I can't quit thinking about the horse, and the way it was used and thrown away, as if so much garbage, against Mattie's wishes even, is the part that pierces my soul.  Precisely because that is the cruelty that is inflicted on human beings (as if they are less than human) in the systemic evils of this world.

    Sam, I'm sorry that this is so long.  I have a hard time saying anything briefly.  Hopefully (cynical snort!), if we really do end up in a hell wherein we share space with those who have been our enemies in this earthly life, then we (you and I, and others like us) will have the benefit of one another's comfort and companionship there in that place as well?  Maybe what is good and true will survive, and what is better off dead will more easily fall away.  And I'm not talking about human beings; just the stuff that we're made of, be it good or not-so-good.  Thank you, Sam.  I needed to hear your voice today.

  20. Thanks, Patricia.  I liked Cowboys and Aliens better, too!!!

    Yesterday, while my kids worked on science, I had to just go upstairs and lie on the floor for an hour or so.  I couldn't stop crying, and didn't want to explain (can I???) my distress.  It does me good to acknowledge (at least to myself, every now and then) my griefs and let myself cry about it.  I felt a little better for it.  Confirmation at least that I haven't completely lost touch with my humanity, and the humanity of others.  That is the scary part, really.  How easy it is to do that.

  21. I don't know the answers...  I am running for dear life from the Stepford "gated community" and I am not going back to rescue, expose, or otherwise change the status quo there.  My teen daughter recently noted a common trait among "good" Christian women who don't complain or challenge...who are wholly submitted to, trusting in, and letting go concerning their understanding of God.  She calls it the "dead fish eyes syndrome."  A certain outwardly apparent numbness is necessary to coexist without going completely insane in this environment.  A lot like the manifestation of mind control in the Stepford Wives, I'd say.  I must confess that recently I have been vacillating between believing that I am an ignorant fool and a candidate for the insane asylum.

  22. (((HUGS))) Susan.
    There's a book I'm looking at trying to get right now, titled "Spiritual Bypassing," by Robert Augustus Masteres, Ph.D., about "the use of spiritual beliefs to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs—is so pervasive that it goes largely unnoticed. The spiritual ideals of any tradition, whether Christian commandments or Buddhist precepts, can provide easy justification for practitioners to duck uncomfortable feelings in favor of more seemingly enlightened activity." I think your daughter is exactly right about the "dead fish eyes," and I'm thinking that this book may be talking about the same thing.  Churchianity is so much Stepford, squashing individuality, that I can't go back to it. You don't get to be who you are, and if God didn't mean for you to be an individual, why did He bother to make each of us so unique?  Why is it so unnatural to try to fit ourselves into groupianity?

    I am so sorry for what you went through at the hands of your stepmother. For myself, everything I learned about being a parent is a matter of doing the opposite of my own mother. The wounds for each of us are real, and slapping some spiritualized (and premature) forgiveness on it doesn't make things right.

  23. Thank you for sharing this quote, Richard.  I am still astounded by many recent things, most recently the horrific acts in Afghanistan - the US military staff sergeant Bales who is charged with murdered sleeping children and families.   I am left wondering what to do - what can be done.  If Bales had a name like Aashif and killed children with names like Olivia and Annie as they slept...he would be labeled a terrorist and some may feel totally justified in waging a war against others who share either country or creed with Aashif.  So I decided to see what, if anything, was here on your website to help provide reflection and course of action - and here you provided a very relevant quote.  I hope others have more suggestions about concrete things to do.

  24. Mr. Beck,

    This is really random but I was wondering if you could, at some point, weigh in on the "free will" debate or maybe even a book review of Sam Harris's new book titled so.  I read a post on the Universalism forum where you said that choice happens but usually over long periods of time (similar to phyletic gradualism) and I was curious on your opinion, given your interest in psychology, if free will is actually an illusion or if choice and change can happen but just over long periods of time.

  25. Hi Brandon,
    I'm agnostic on the issue of free will. My hunch is that the concept is incoherent.

    The basic facts, as I understand them, are these:

    1. Humans possess the capacity to deliberate over choices and those deliberations can affect our course of action.

    2. That process of deliberation is limited and constrained in various ways (e.g., upbringing, genetics, situational factors).

    3. These deliberative capacities, while limited, can be expanded or constricted (e.g., education, political freedom). The "degrees of freedom" aren't fixed (though there is, due to human limitations, some theoretical limit).

    4. Much of human decision making is unconscious and automated. Changing these deeper structures (habits) is difficult, but possible.

    That's what we know and I tend to restrict my thinking to these sorts of things, taking them as empirical givens. Whether any of this is "free" or "determined", well, I've no idea.

  26. " Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God."

    If I am an image bearer of my creator then "just to live is holy" so " Be human...for it is the image of God"

    Thank you Richard for all your hard work and insightful thinking. I am better for discovering your blog and thrilled to be on this faith journey.

  27. Those hugs mean a lot.  Thank you.  Yes, my stepmother was influential to me, as you have also experienced, in what *not* to do as a parent.  I have forgiven my stepmother, but I cannot invite her into my life, or let her get near my kids.  The spiritual bypassing as a coping mechanism is just denial of the stuff of life that is hard and painful.  (Denial of death?)  That stuff feels like death (at least I feel like death warmed over when life's hard edges intrude).  Yeah, I doubt that I can be "cured" of my individuality, which is to say all that I have seen, heard, and done that shaped who I am today.  Unless I get a lobotomy (Shutter Island comes to mind! Oy!)  It is important to me that I find a way to care about others, and use what I've been given to do some good on this earth.  Some days, it's more difficult than others to see (imagine, hope) how that is or will be.  Wishing you a restful weekend with your family, Patricia.  Your kindness has been a gift.

  28. Thank you so much for taking the time to give me your thoughts on the issue.  It's just been a very confusing one for me and I guess I look up to you when it comes to matters of Christianity and the mind. 

  29. It's real confusing. That's the good news. No one out there has the right view. Everything is disputed. So enjoy the conversation and don't sweat getting it right. No one knows what the right answer is.

    For my part, the most writing I've done on this (in the early days of this blog) can be found on the sidebar under the Preparing for the Cartesian Storm. Start with the posts under Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology Series.  

  30. I agree. Religion is especially disputed. I wrote an article on thye confusion and how God hasn't done a very good job of revealing Himself called "Looking In The Mirror":

  31. Good observations Cole: "Christians need to take a look in the mirror and see that their beliefs are just as ridiculous sounding to other rational people as these other religions are to them."

    It's always the "other guy" who is delusional, stubborn, disobedient, unbelieving, closed-minded... but never the Christian. They've got it "right," and they know it.

  32. Each day, learn something new, create something, and show love to someone.  Pondering the simple beauty in this humble way of living fully, being human.

  33. "But can one who argues about "having faith" and "trusting God" behave in this extreme manner, with no apparent conviction?"
    From what I've seen, they do it all the time. And there's this dance of trying to A. Not be like them, as in eye for an eye. B. Realize and heal from what you've been through C. Protect yourself from their kind and D. Go forward and do differently to those you meet. None of it simplistic, as Christians in spiritual bypassing mode would make it.

  34. Richard, would it change your reflexive animus toward the use of "free will" as a category of reality if its adherents simply substituted "the capacity to choose [among available alternatives]" for the problematic phrase?  It looks to me as though that's precisely what the ordinary person has in mind when he or she uses the term "free will," not some hyperphilosophical _reductio ad absurdum_.  Somewhere in us is an instinctive sense that such a concept is the _sine qua non_ of virtue, anyway, and given that much of your blogging leads us in the direction of virtue, losing the concept of ordinary free will would render this happy place an exercise in futility.

  35. If people were just using those as synonyms (free will = voluntary action) then, no, I woudn't and don't have a problem. The trouble comes, in my opinion, when people make that move but then go on to suggest that voluntary actions means more that what it actually means. Because no one, free willer or determinist, disputes the fact that we possess voluntary action. This isn't contested territory. What is contested is what the experience of voluntary action implies about our ability to act independently of prior causal forces. So I don't mind the use of the tag "voluntary action," in fact that is my beginning place. But I do start to quibble when people using the term "voluntary action" use it in a way that really means "free will." I'd argue that when I speak of voluntary action I'm making inferences about human volitional capacities that are appropriately humble and limited and consistent with causality. But when some people makes claims about voluntary action they tend to get grandiose about what that means regarding things like causality, behavior change, and moral accountability. In short, we're now disagreeing about what voluntary action implies or doesn't imply about the nature of causality involved in human volition.

  36. To stick with pop culture references, I feel it's better at this point to be part of the walking wounded rather than "the walking dead".  ;-)

    Also, just to be clear, when I speak of the movie "True Grit", I am referencing only the original (1969) John Wayne version.  Not in the scheme of things a great movie, just, for numerous esoteric and idiosyncratic reasons, my favorite.  And I fully appreciate your empathy for Little Blackie, even as mine is with Mattie.

    Finally, you are living out your faith/beliefs here.  What you have given me is more than I deserve.  I am a direct recipient of your concern and love.  As my sister sat in my living room four days ago and cried her eyes out as my cousin and his wife questioned her about her "backsliding", all I could do was try to emulate you.  Our father's death has drawn us closer, even as we must continue to deal with the carnage in his wake.

  37. Sam, I hear you...  Some days I plod along, one-armed and limping, so to speak.  Every once in a while, though, I'm down for the count, next to the dead "horse" and weeping.  I thought the recent re-make of 'True Grit' was entertaining enough, but I have a thing about animals being martyred in a story.  By the way, Sam, I visited your blog and read a few recent entries.  Your writing is so poignant and honest.  Wonderful!  I guess I should set up a user account so I can comment directly...

    Your sister is fortunate to have you with her, through her grief.  I am also glad that the encouragement you have found here has given you strength to get through the hard work of facing the loss of your dad.  Your wife sounds like a treasure, too, Sam.

    As Patricia has written regarding the concept of "spiritual bypassing," I agree that it isn't good to pretend as though all is well, when it isn't.  You help me to have hope too, Sam, as I see your courage through the hard places of life.  You're doing real good, to focus on comforting your sister, even when faced with uncharitable "voices" like those of your cousin and his wife.  It would be too easy to get distracted by all that "noise."  Peace, friend.  Thank you.

  38.  I have my blog set up so that anyone can comment without (even) my moderation, and I did away with the captcha (sp?) code.  If you cannot post a comment there, I'm not sure why, but I will re-check my settings.  You should not have to join Blogger to comment.

    Anyway, Peace to you as well.

  39. Yep. That's why I'm not as sure as some Christians. I am sure of this though. Any being that requires blood from innocents in order to forgive others is an insane bloodfreak and anybody who follows and looks up to such a being is just insecure about themselves and death. I'm not all there mentally but I'm not that insane to require the bloody torture and murder of someone just so I can have blood to forgive.

  40. Susan, you write,
    "I must confess that recently I have been vacillating between believing that I am an ignorant fool and a candidate for the insane asylum."

    I know with grief the pain behind your words. From another place, I know with hope what it means for someone to be able to lament these words which you've lamented so well.

    I feel for your suffering.

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