There was never a prophet who was not also an artist — what I call a “social artist” or an artist at organizing and awakening the people. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann established this in his classic work The Prophetic Imagination, writing:
“Every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”
As Ross Labrie commented:
“Merton saw the prophetic role of the artist as a natural one for the contemporary artist to assume amidst the decline in the authority of religion.”
This is a significant observation — that Merton was attuned to the lesser role that religion was playing in contemporary culture.
Merton pointed to Faulkner and Camus as two examples of prophetic artists, and he wrote to poet Nicanor Parra in 1965 that contemporary artists tended to fulfill many of the functions that were once the monopoly of monks. Thus, Labrie commented that for Merton, “a writer like Faulkner could be profoundly biblical in his work without being a churchgoer or a conventional believer.”
It was the artist, ‘facing the problems of life without the routine consolations of conventional religion,’ who experienced in depth the ‘existential dimensions of these problems.’”
According to Labrie, for Merton, solitude was necessary for the artist to do his or her prophetic work, which includes anticipating “the struggles and the general consciousness of later generations.”
Among the artist’s important role as prophet is to, as Labrie wrote, “show finally ‘where everything connects,’ a reflection of Merton’s own passionate role as a unifier of different kinds of experience. . . . Merton saw the artist’s creation as both analogous to the freshness of paradise and a sign of its possible recovery.”
As Merton put it, “Here the world gets another chance. Here man, here the reader discovers himself getting another start in life, in hope, in imagination.”
As I do in my book Original Blessing (and I cite him there), Merton links creativity to a theology of the Holy Spirit and to the “image of God” in all people when he writes: “The theology of creativity will necessarily be the theology of the Holy Spirit re-forming us in the likeness of Christ, raising us form death to life with the very same power which raised Christ from the dead. The theology of creativity will also be a theology of the image and the likeness of God in humanity.”
Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 108f.
Also see Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, pp. 230, 178-249.
Banner image: Thomas Merton with Camera. Photographer unknown. From Catholica.com
Queries for Contemplation
Do you agree with Brueggemann that the prophet “keeps alive the ministry of imagination?
Do you agree with Merton that “Here—with art– the world gets another chance.” Do you agree that art gives us a “second chance” whether we are making it or receiving it? If so, what are the implications of this? Does the “decline in the authority of religion” move you to make art or search it out more actively? Or to make “social art” which is the work of justice and compassion in the world including of course eco-justice and environmental action?
Do you see creativity as a work of the Holy Spirit and proof of the “image of God” in humanity?
In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality
In this book Matthew Fox lays out a whole new direction for Christianity—a direction that is in fact very ancient and very grounded in Jewish thinking (the fact that Jesus was a Jew is often neglected by Christian theology). Here Fox lays out the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality, the Vias Positiva, Negativa, Creativa and Transformativa in an extended and deeply developed way.