For one of my classes, I wrote a little paper on a new book that just came out, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, by my old friend Chris Pramuk, now a professor of systematic theology at Xavier University in Cinncinnati. We were in a class on Merton together years ago, when he was just starting his doctoral work and I was just starting my master's work. He is writing about Merton's prose poem "Hagia Sophia," which draws on the image of Sophia, the Greek word for Wisdom, a figure who shows up in several of the late books of the Old Testament (e.g. Proverbs and Wisdom of Solomon). So, here goes...
I’ll just say it up front: I am in love with this book. Apart from making me realize how much of Thomas Merton’s corpus I have NOT read, I didn’t want to put it down. Pramuk uncovers the influences upon Merton’s “sophiology,” particularly the Russian Orthodox theologians for whom Sophia was a much more accepted category than in the Christian West, which has no real tradition of sophiology of which to speak, and the ramifications of this kind of theological thinking for the concerns of a world facing such moral and theological disintegration as did the world Merton inhabited, the world of the 20th century, particularly the world of Hiroshima and Auschwitz, Vietnam and Watts, the Cold War and the revolutions of the global south. Where Thomas Merton has been dismissed as not a real theologian on the grounds that he is only writing spirituality or poetry, Pramuk argues that, far from being mere wordsmithing, the form of his writing is essentially linked to its content. In a way very similar to Walter Brueggemann, for whom the primary category for understanding the prophet is as poet, Pramuk argues that poetry is a means of avoiding the “prosing” of the world. That is, paradoxical though it sounds, the poet is not swept up in devout idolatry of language the way that “the businessman, the propagandist, the politician” (78) are; the prosing of the world makes for a single, unquestionable Procrustean narrative into which all people are to be stuffed, whereas the poet knows that the elusive, allusive power of language opens up possibilities for “otherwise.” Rather than draw the ineffable down into fixed categories, the poet allows language to be unfixed by being drawn up into higher, more playful and unsettled meanings. “Imagination, in other words, the realm of the symbol, is not separate from reason but enables us ‘to reason differently by enlarging and reordering our powers of perception.” (108)
While it is more or less inevitable, given the workings of language, that those who are condemned to speak about God make God an object, an “out there,” Merton sees this as a tragedy that ends both in the death of God and in the death of the true self, that which we seek but which will never be found “out there” without being simultaneously being tasted as one’s inmost self, what Hopkins would call one’s “inscape.” Thus one angle on Merton’s understanding of mysticism as “the re-centering of subjectivity from the self to God.” (99) He refers to this “God’s-eye view” with the Pauline category of “the mind of Christ,” a lens through which we see that seeing the world, other people, God as “others,” “objects” to be related to, is a falsehood, and a violent and alienating one at that. In truth, we are already one, but we imagine that we are not, so the objectified world and other and God become instrumentalized products of exchange. The problem, it seems (stepping a bit outside of Merton and Pramuk’s arguments for a moment) is that this lens, this atomizing mode of looking at the world is, in Merton’s terms, horrifically Promethean (a literary figure that, while never explicitly stated as such, would stand for Merton as the foil to his figure of Sophia): I must capture what I want from others and from God who are striving to keep it from me. I can have only what I can take, because nothing will be given freely. “War, of course, is the bitter harvest of Prometheanism on a global scale, a centrifugal struggle against life spinning tragically around the poles of ‘heroism and despair.’” (141)
“Peace, then, and healing, begins with poverty of spirit,” (198) with a view of the world that does not pit “us” against “them,” that does not depend on defending myself from the world that is endlessly seeking to take what is mine. While nothing the theological influence that Russian Orthodoxy had on Merton, Pramuk connects Merton’s poetic/imaginative sensibilities with those of Abraham Heschel and Boris Pasternak, both of whom Merton admired and befriended: “‘In the face of our own almost hopeless alienation,’ Pasternak is proof that the poet can help us ‘get back to ourselves before it is too late.’ In him, poetry becomes one with prophecy.” (152) Merton’s repeated theme of the urgency (but nigh-impossibility) of simply being human in an age of mass inhumanity echoes Pasternak’s theme in his writings, “‘the protest of life itself, of humanity itself, of love’ against the ‘reign of numbers,’ against the alienation and anonymity of mass society.” (207)
In a strange way, this capacity for non-duplicity, for simplicity, for humanness, is Sophia, but less as a “thing” and more as a trajectory, a reality already present in each person but so buried under falsehood as to be invisible, that into which we are invited (quietly) to grow. The symbol itself for Merton jumps around, both in the poem and in his other sophianic writings: Sophia as Mary, as Logos, as the ousia of God, as the linkage of Logos and Spirit, who are together the presence of the Father (Mother) God in the world, as the “pivot” of nature playing alongside God from the beginning of creation. “Perhaps most of all, Merton’s Sophia is our ‘true self,’ when we allow Christ to be birthed in us, and so realize the hidden ground of mercy, creativity, and presence in our very selves, the mystical Body of Christ.” (207) This mysterious, “empty” placeholder, marked only by humility and kenosis, is obviously also connected to “le point vierge,” a phrase Merton borrowed from the French Islamicist Louis Massignon to refer to that meeting place of the divine reality with our own, endlessly humble and with nothing to hold on to by way of naming oneself, and hence both absolutely vulnerable and absolutely beyond insult and injury: there is nothing there to insult, since the only “thing” there is the non-object, the Absolute Subject, God, or better, Sophia, who is closer to me than I am to myself, who in the final accounting is my self.
Lest this seem to float off into the ether, Pramuk asks what good it does to bring Sophia-language into the discourse of Western theology and especially the discourse of the post-Christian era. “[W]ith deepest respect for the theodicy question, it is at the point where the analogical imagination ruptures, as in Auschwitz, or present-day Darfur – where all analogy between God and the world is rendered horrific and absurd – that the irony of Christ and Christ crucified intervenes from within, as it were, to mediate and intensify (I do not say ‘answer’) faith’s most difficult question: whether we have eyes to see, the faith to shoulder, the contradictions of hope in a sinful, though still hallowed, world.” (268) This is not simply another theodicy, arguing that the unspeakable realities of our times disappear in the light of the gloriously risen Christ: instead, rather than answering prose with prose, certitude with certitude and power with power, “Merton sets the poverty and humility of Christ, from nativity to the cross, against the Promethean climate of the times.” (262) This takes shape in what some would call “weak” categories: memory, imagination, hope, poetry, but as Merton says in the poem, “She [Sophia] crowns Him not with what is glorious, but with what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty.” (305)
Does this Sophia as dark ousia of God, as the weakness of God, the unpolluted self of humanity, work? Does it end up inscribing weakness into femininity, reinforcing artificial and harmful gender roles? That remains as yet for me an open question, but I suspect there is more to it than that: Sophia opens up imaginings of God that transcend the associations of power and masculinity that usually accompany Western God-images. Merton argues, “The ‘desecration’ of man begins when symbols are emptied of meaning and are allowed to survive precisely insofar as they are patronizingly admitted to be misleading but still ‘necessary for the ignorant.’” (275) There is still something within us, however, that has not been corrupted by the need to defend itself (like the “Uncarved Block” of The Tao of Pooh, perhaps), and the form of subversive imagery (God as Sophia) and subversive rhetoric (poetry, in this case) has the capacity to convey the mystical in a new key: the renewal of imagination, the un-prosing of the world. Such allegedly “weak” categories put theology where it ought to be: in touch with the weak, “intensifying our awareness of the critical present moment for those who have no name, no presence, no value whatsoever on the world stage.” (290) The very hiddenness of this sophianic vision is its power – it is too weak to be brought to the center of a system of control, even a theological system, so it remains on the edge where it belongs, pushed out of the world, uncompromised by abstractions that lose sight of the real people who are chewed up by the machinery of power. This is the Christ (and, one can hope, the Christianity) of today: “Christ is Lord of history in the manner ‘of His entry into Jerusalem: in a concealed, kenotic matter (behind a veil of humility), which is imperceptible to the senses, but more than visible, and absolutely evident to faith’…the Christ of our times is ‘the Christ of the bombed city and of the concentration camp.’” (215)