Today I came across a quote attributed to Thomas Merton: “If the you of five years ago doesn’t consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.” I’m a little leery to pass it along because it doesn’t have a specific reference to one of Merton’s writings. It wouldn’t be the first time someone came up with a provocative quote and attributed it to a spiritual giant to give it more punch. It certainly seems like something Merton could have written, or said. A devout Trappist monk, he was one of the leading 20th century figures who pioneered integrating Eastern religions and philosophy into Christian thought and practice.
Authenticity of the quote aside, it’s something worth pondering.
The thing about one approach to orthodoxy is that it draws a boundary around what is good and true and sacred. Everything outside of that boundary is considered dangerous, unholy, evil, wrong – heresy.
So what happens when those boundaries get pushed outward, and what was previously considered heretical or wrong is now seen as part of the good? What happens when those boundaries dissolve altogether and one perceives the holiness of the whole?
What I think Merton (or whoever) is suggesting here is a reversal of what we mean by heresy. Rather than seeing heresy as something too broad, heresy becomes that which is too narrow. That which leaves out something, or someone, who ought to be included. Expanding the circle becomes akin to spiritual growth, and the wideness of what that circle might be five years from now might seem a whole lot like heresy (too broad) at this point.
The beautiful thing about this, and something that Merton himself lived out, is that growth is not a leaving behind of one thing for another – Merton remained a committed Catholic even has he became more Buddhist. The previous perspective is always included in the present. Language that previously held one meaning to us is not discarded (e.g. “Jesus is Lord”), but takes on a deeper and richer meaning. This connects in some ways to the conversation that got started last Sunday about what it means to be “saved.”