Merton and the Via Creativa,
part 1

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.”

Prophetic voices: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez perform at the March on Washington, 08/28/1963. Records of the U.S. Information Agency

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

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?

Recommended Reading

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.

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4 thoughts on “Merton and the Via Creativa, <br>part 1”

  1. Avatar

    Was it Christ who was raised from the dead or Jesus? Aren’t we all ‘anointed ones’ whereas Jesus was a single person?

    1. Avatar

      What a wonderful question, Mary. I never thought to ask it. I’m just a reader of these essays, like you. I happen to have Matthew’s book “Stations of the Cosmic Christ,” so I opened it looking for an answer. Here’s how Matthew begins Chapter 13, “The Resurrection.” “Much in the Resurrection story is set in the context of the Cosmic Christ. Those persons who claimed to have encountered Jesus after he died did not claim to have seen ‘the historical Jesus’ but ‘the risen Lord,’ i.e., the Cosmic Christ.” Matthew goes on, “A cosmological victory over the pessimism of death and destruction is announced by the Resurrection events.” Matthew often points out that whenever we read in the Bible of cosmological entities–like angels or stars, the sun or moon–we are in the territory of the Cosmic Christ. (As you may know, Matthew writes a lot about this in his book “The Coming of the Cosmic Christ.”) Another scholar and book interesting in this regard is John Dominic Crossan and his book “Resurrecting Easter.” It’s also interesting food for thought on the question you asked. Thanks for asking it. 🙂

    2. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Mary,
      Your question is a provocative one. In Creation Spirituality, we understand Christ to be a cosmic and creative force that has been transforming life out of death since the birth of our universe. Each time an element was form, every time a star exploded into new stars or galaxies, every time ice melted into rivers, and seeds cracked open in moist soil, the Cosmic Christ was both the principle of resurrection and the element being resurrected. All this was established well before our species came onto the scene. The life of Jesus of Nazareth is a powerful revelation of the Christ principle and participation. The Cosmic Christ was the principle that allowed Jesus to trust the pain that his death required, and the Cosmic Christ was one with the person going through the process. Its an melding of thought and being that was powerful in that moment, but not unique to it.

      It helps me to refer to Jesus as “Jesus,our Christ”, rather than Jesus Christ, which sounds like the word Christ is his last name. This diminishes both Jesus and the Cosmic Christ. Other faiths and other species, and other forms of life express the Cosmic Christ in different ways. But we all live it daily. And the similarity to the shape of the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality and the redemptive action of the Cosmic Christ is no happenstance. It means our spiritual path, and the creativity of our daily lives are in sync with the transformative powers of the universe.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

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