In yesterday’s meditation, we spoke about idolatry.  Thomas Merton offered some insights about idolatry in our day that, with time, have proven to be powerfully prophetic. 

Thomas Merton. Photo by Sibylle Akers / Merton Legacy Trust/

In a letter to Henry Miller in 1962, Merton spoke about spurious religious energy.  Said he: The religion of religious people tends at times to poke out a monster head just when you are beginning to calm down and get reassured.  The religion of half-religious people doesn’t tend: it bristles with heads. 

Is gun ownership a kind of religion for some “half-religious people” in America today?  And is the NRA its church? 

Merton goes on:  This is the greatest orgy of idolatry the world has ever known and it is not generally thought by believers that idolatry is the greatest and fundamental sin.  Thomas Aquinas said that in yesterday’s DM. 

Merton continues: Anyone who sells out to even a small, inoffensive, bargain cheap idol has alienated himself and put himself into the statue and has to act like it, which is he has to be dead.  An idol like an AR 15 is neither small nor inoffensive but potentially dangerous. 

Cartoon showing relation between economic corruption and wall street. Photo originally posted to Flickr by Democracy Chronicles.

Does one render oneself dead to conscience and common sense to worship such an idol—especially when one is in a powerful position be it senator or supreme court judge?  Merton concludes: The time is short and all the idols are moving….Strange that the individual is the only power that is left.

Get big money out of big politics and gun shooting will diminish.  And this incudes the members of the Supreme Court who play “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” while second amendment zealots play lethal games pretending the founders of this country wanted everyone to have access to AR 15 murder weapons.  And access to large, dark monies from the NRA church.

Interfaith protest in Discovery Green outside the George R. Brown Convention center where the NRA was holding their convention. Photo used with permission from Rev. Jerry Maynard aka The People’s Priest.

Where are the so-called “originalists” on the Supreme Court when we need them?  Don’t they know the difference between a musket (the only weapon the writers of the constitutions knew about) and an AR15?

Are people not smart enough to distinguish between guns for hunting deer and rabbits and ducks and guns for hunting human beings?  That assault weapons for war readily available for 18-year-olds whose brains are not fully developed yet might be dangerous to children and others when the buyer is beset by revenge, grievances, racial animosities, self-hatred and the rest?

This is evil.  Idolatry is an evil.  Do politicians and the judges they appoint know these things?  Maybe we need new kinds of politicians and new kinds of judges, the sooner the better.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 203f.

To read a transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: Monument to the abolition of weapons, war, and global violence. Photo by Maria Lysenko on Unsplash.

Queries for Contemplation

Do you agree that getting big, dark money out of politics would break the idolatry of assault weapons in America?  And that, in Merton’s understanding, to worship idols, including a gun, one has to be dead like the idol itself?

Recommended Reading

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

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.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

Passion for Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart

Matthew Fox’s comprehensive translation of Meister Eckhart’s sermons is a meeting of true prophets across centuries, resulting in a spirituality for the new millennium. The holiness of creation, the divine life in each person and the divine power of our creativity, our call to do justice and practice compassion–these are among Eckhart’s themes, brilliantly interpreted and explained for today’s reader.
“The most important book on mysticism in 500 years.”  — Madonna Kolbenschlag, author of Kissing Sleeping Beauty Goodbye.  

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26 thoughts on “Thomas Merton on Idolatry”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, The questions you have for us today in our Queries for Contemplation are: “Do you agree that getting big, dark money out of politics would break the idolatry of assault weapons in America?” I wish they would stop allowing Lobbyists to solicit from Politian’s–doing so, in effect, buys them to vote for their special interest–regardless for the common good or even their own constituents. But it seems, as it is written, “their conscience have been seared with a hot iron”–and they render themselves up to their Idols of money and power… and position.
    “In Merton’s understanding, to worship idols, including a gun, one has to be dead like the idol itself.” Merton also wrote to Henry Miller saying, “The religion of religious people tends at times to poke out a monster head just when you are beginning to calm down and get reassured. The religion of half-religious people doesn’t tend: it bristles with heads.” Then you comment (though I have taken out the question marks): “gun ownership is a kind of religion for some ‘half-religious people’ in America today. And the NRA is its church.”
    Then you end our meditation for today with these clear words: “This is evil. Idolatry is an evil. Do politicians and the judges they appoint know these things? Maybe we need new kinds of politicians and new kinds of judges, the sooner the better.” AMEN !!!
    This is evil. Idolatry is an evil. Do politicians and the judges they appoint know these things? Maybe we need new kinds of politicians and new kinds of judges, the sooner the better.

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    How can one stop the flow of dark money? Moses displayed outrage and anger when he came down from the mountain with the tablets of the commandments and saw his impatient followers, aided by Aaron, worshiping their self made idol, a Golden Calf. The commandments were rules designed to create healthy community; the worship of gold and silver was/is the enemy of community. It has ever been thus. We can write and protest to expose the current reality of dark money flows but our protests have thus far been ineffective. Manufacturing AR15s and other weapons of war is a lucrative business. Some citizens get very rich, while other citizens – including children – are gunned down in their communities and millions of war refugees across the globe leave their homes looking for safe havens.

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      A discerning observation and analysis, Gwen. God allowing us to co-labor with him, (as in the days of Noah, the law, the prophets, and via Jesus in the energy of his Spirit) is like a Father building his own house allowing his 7 year old son to play nearby with scraps of wood and kiddie tools, mimicking his dad, every now and then asking the boy to help by fetching something. Though it causes the boy to feel like he’s contributing to the construction of the house, in reality such is not the case, or is so only in a minuscule way. In reality, only the know-how, energy and efforts of the the dad ALONE gets the project done, without which it will never gets completed. Since time immemorial, evil in all its sinister forms will and has continued to proliferate. The building and coming of the “kingdom on earth as it is in heaven,” however, and with it the overcoming of darkness and evil, appears only and essentially be possible by God ALONE, not, comparatively via the puttering he allows us (his kids) to do as “helpers” in this huge redemptive undertaking vs the “principalities, powers, and the rulers of the darkness of this world.” It is against this “spiritual wickedness in high places,” that the righteous ALONE, via both law and grace, have had no sustained success or chance to overcome, save in minor and short-lived ways. Why? Because in each generation, it seems to reappear, having mutated in ever more virulent and dastardly forms in the process. Perhaps this is the inner meaning of the Covid pandemic in our times.

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    Self-interest in its various forms, gross or subtle, makes spiritual cowards and hypocrites of us all. Especially when the welfare of the whole is compromised, doubly so when children are affected. Such DM’s on the subject, collective public outrage, and activism on the gun law front need to continue and reach critical mass. On the other hand, when a person’s identity is not God-centric, or spiritually moored, it is subject to corruption, compromise and an inability to see and think clearly. Then something other than God will be upheld (as an idol) and take the place of God in their souls. One cannot serve God and mammon simultaneously, or maximize two priorities. One will suffer. God is suffering (grieving and outraged) in Matthew and other sentient beings over the world’s multiple injustices, and the prevailing idols of souls acting with depraved indifference to injustice and cruelty. One cannot be half religious and spiritually attuned, even reasonable, just as woman cannot be half pregnant, or a corpse cannot be half dead — or an assault rifle be half lethal. With God and darkness, there is no compromise. A healthy soul is either all-in, all on board, or not at all. God considers a righteously lukewarm soul as spiritually cold. The lukewarm (half religious, selectively righteous), said Christ, leave a bad taste in his mouth and will be rejected (spit out.) As our heavenly bridegroom, he cannot be half married to us, and expects the same of us as his bride.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Joe, I felt your words, as follows made a powerful point: “One cannot be half religious and spiritually attuned, even reasonable, just as woman cannot be half pregnant, or a corpse cannot be half dead — or an assault rifle be half lethal…” Thank you for your comment !

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    I agree that any automatic weapon should not be in the hands of the people. I also know that the people elected the politicians who are truly, in my opinion, mostly interested in getting the salaries and benefits of their office and not very interested in the welfare of the people unless there is an event that causes a stir in the people- knee -jerk responses from politicians. Also, I do not believe morality can be legislated- laws are made by lawyers not the people.
    So where does this lead us- I believe unless those of us who care about respecting life-human and other-than-human- show by example that violence is destroying all that is created and as long as money is used to sway politicians – we the few must be willing to die to our selfish-indifference- there is little hope that things will change.

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      In the land of the blind, the man with the biggest ego, gun arsenal, wallet, special interest group, political clout, influential cronies, media reach, shrewd lawyers, and word crafting ability is king. In this zero-sum kingdom, where the first shall remain first, and the last remain last, everyone else is a loser.

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    Jeanette Metler

    Dark money has been apart of politics for a long time… slowly eroding and corrupting the conscience, the heart, mind and soul of politicians… doing the same in the judicial arena as well. It’s so ingrained within these systems of power and authority… that they will never be eradicated, in my personal opinion… for it’s roots run too deep. Even if some of it gets cut back and pruned… from its deeply, darkly rooted stump, it will sprout… rising upward once again.

    The half religious, as Mathew and others have called these one’s, caught up in this form of idolatry… are dead and blind… lifeless bones, with hardened hearts, minds and souls of iron and steel… having traded their conscience, ethics, morals, virtues and values… for egocentric power, authoritative position, and financial greed… all for personal selfish gains
    This indeed, is the manifestation of the many faces of evil in this world.

    However, in the midst of this darkness… there are other faces… manifesting goodness in this world too. Those whom are overshadowed by the essence and presence of the Holy Spirit… those whom are open in heart, receptive in mind and surrendering in soul… to the movements of love, compassion, mercy and justice… those whom acknowledge, listen and respond to the promptings, leadings and wise counsel of that inner flowing fountain… that speaks truth to one’s conscience… that awakens oneself to the beauty of virtues and the value of morals and ethics… and the sacredness of selfless giving for the greater good of the whole. These one’s faces may be scarred, or covered in dirt, stained with blood, sweat and tears… but they are radiant non the less.

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    Yes, there are many forms of idolatry in human history up to the present day as prophets like Thomas Merton and Matthew Fox remind us, and with its’ consequent and increasingly destructive, deadly effects and suffering on human beings, Mother Nature and all living creation. The root reasons for this idolatry and its many manifestations of evil in human history, in my opinion and those of others, has been the ignorance or lack of spiritual maturity (especially in toxic and unbalanced masculinity) about our intimate relationship/Oneness with-in our Loving Living Source~Creator… Our human eternal souls are still evolving, and fortunately, like I’ve stated previously, there have been many souls and spirit beings (including Angels) in our ‘past’ and ‘present’ (and our mysterious multidimensions) of having this living loving faith/relation with-in our Loving Living Creator~Source Spirit in their compassionate being, relations, and actions with others and all conscious co-Creation — Loving Diverse Oneness~Cosmic Christ Consciousness….

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    Sadly, “fundamentalist christians” and other religious fundamentalists too are greatly influenced by deception and tend easily toward worship of the idols who/which deceive.

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      I think it is partly because they are so fearful and therefore vulnerable to propaganda and hero worship–which seems to me the worse kind of idolatry but which seems to work too well.

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    In reverse order, yes, the worship of weapons of mass destruction can happen only in people who are morally, intellectually, and spiritually dead. Being dead, they are immune to reason and logic. There might be a clue in the subjective cultural consciousness for the fascination over the last several years with zombies–movies and books about zombies—those mindless destructive beings who roam the earth searching for living beings to feed on. The evangelical/republican protection of mindless killers renders them to zombie status, seeking people living real lives, not focused on death, to “steal” that innocence and joie de vivre they have forfeited in favor of the worship of death and its methods.
    As to whether getting dark money out of politics would help subdue gun violence–yes, because it would also subdue the greed and drive for power it both generates and feeds on. But at this point in history, dark money, the corporations and wealthy individuals it incorporates, actually IS the government of the USA and since it will not remove itself, and since the people, thanks to the “supreme” “court” approving case after case of vote-restricting/suppressing laws already enacted; and with members of the evangelical/republican party publicly saying 1) that it cannot win an honest election, and 2) that it is empowering state legislatures and secretaries of state to certify ONLY “Republican” votes, there is little hope that the people any longer have the power to elect representatives who would rid the government of the plutocracy.
    The evangelical/republican party understands with crystal clarity that its minority can control the country through entrenched obstructionism, refusal to negotiate, and 24/7 screaming lies to the country on every available media outlet (and, just note that the Democratic Party can’t get it’s shit together to form a cohesive opposition to all that).
    So, over all, there is no realistic hope of removing dark money from the political spectrum.
    If We The People want a different life, we will have to adopt the pioneer spirit that we claim to admire, withdraw from the economy we’ve been subsumed into as slaves to capitalist greed, expansion, and destruction, create our own economy, and stop giving them money which is the only certain way to destroy their influence.
    I also have little hope that the fortitude for such an undertaking exists.
    (I have studied the overtaking of this government by fascist politics for the last 50 years. I couldn’t count the number of sources I’ve studied, including, aside from books, court cases, judicial argument, precedent, etc. I have wandered the wilderness of a society consumed with triviality crying the danger on the horizon—to no avail. If anyone is interested, I have references for every point I’ve made here.)

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Olive, You offer to share the references for the points that you have made here. If you don’t mind, share them for those who would like to study your points further…

      1. Avatar

        Thanks for your interest. At the entry level, you might investigate Marbury v. Madison (1803 [I think]) which will explain the foundational duty of the Supreme Court. You can extrapolate from there the justification used in today’s “supreme” “court” overrulings and its invasion of the parameters of congressional duty; and also the danger of the shadow court.
        Look at Timothy Snyder, then read the conservative responses to Snyder. (In order to understand the full picture, it’s imperative to read the conservative positions on various social points—many of which, on the surface sound entirely reasonable and sensible, and have potential, but there appear no reasonable, sensible conservative politicians willing to put such policies into practice and certainly none who will consent to an open discussion to negotiate compromises.)
        And, of course, there’s “Dark Money,” its newest revision which is exhaustive in explanation of the route taken by the Right.
        I don’t mention court cases and opinions because these are tedious and usually contain numerous references to other cases as justification and can be really hard to follow if you’re unfamiliar with the process. I don’t even recommend particularly that you read the actual decision in Marbury (around 160 points) even though it’s concise and doesn’t cite any previous cases (mainly because at the time there were none!) But if you’ve got time to kill, the opinion offers an excellent study in the way a court reasons and comes to a decision; and it provides food for perpetual thought on the meaning of the “original” Constitution, which is used as justification today by the “supreme” “court” majority. You can find the text on the Cornell Law site, type into your search line, “Marbury decision text” and you’ll get a thousand hits, Cornell among them. Be careful whose site you look at because there are numerous rightwing sites that offer nonprofessional and unresearched opinions. Cornell is the real deal.
        The Brennan Center has excellent sources. “The Atlantic” has some great articles which trend Left, but can offer avenues of investigation. Other than, possibly, Snyder, I don’t mention strictly liberal sources in the interest of objectivity.
        There are a hundred more books, articles, and studies that are impossible to name, but if you look at the sources I mention, they will lead you to other inquiries and the path, as Tolkien says, goes ever on and on.

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      I agree with you, Olive. Brian McClaren’s free podcast series explains the biases that allow us to blind ourselves to the truth (Learning How to See There is the bias that prefers a simple lie to a complex truth, one that denies the onset of catastrophe despite many warning signs until it is a fully blown disaster, etc. These are clearly operative in our “leaders”, who are mostly led by greed for money and for power, and the checks and balances set up to protect our government has been completely suborned with a mainly bought and paid for Congress and Supreme Court. With all their faults, the founding guys did have a vision (albeit limited to white men) of the need for a balance of power in government and the danger of the marriage of state and church. I also agree with Matthew that they would be beyond appalled to imagine the truly twisted use of the 2nd amendment to justify weapons of mass destruction. All they knew were muskets, as pistols were available but too expensive for most people to have.

      I don’t expect a Messiah to come thundering out of the sky to the rescue or major changes in the dark waves upon us. But we can do what faithful people have always done. Have the courage to keep trying to reach these seemingly impervious government “public servants” in whatever way is appropriate from donating to good causes, calling and writing your “representatives”, protesting in person, etc. We never know what seeds may be planted or where, we just need to keep throwing them out there–and loving and supporting one another–and loving even those most unlovable.

      1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
        Richard Reich-Kuykendall

        Sue, Thank you for your comment. I just wanted to say something with reference to one line you wrote:
        “I don’t expect a Messiah to come thundering out of the sky to the rescue [us].” Well, you never know… Years ago I believed in a literal Second Coming of Christ, though I also had my doubts. Then I hear Matthew lecture on his book THE COMING OF THE COSMIC CHIRIST, and it gave me a whole new perspective, and it brought me to the only form of Christianity I could live with–Creation Spirituality. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do. Happy reading !!

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        I completely agree with your assessment and with the methods we have as citizens. Brynn Tannehill recently posted a concise observation of our current situation. I don’t think it’s online (posted on Twitter I think), but I copied it and if you want to read it (full disclosure: Tennehill is unabashedly liberal on all points, particularly passionate about women and LBGT+ matters, but also ruthlessly precise in observations) I can get it to you PM.
        Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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    Susan alice Mufson

    Why is it more acceptable to murder innocent “deer, rabbits, and ducks”? This is an example of speciesism, what I call human supremacy.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Susan, Its not more acceptable to me and a lot of other people involved in Creation Spirituality–it certainly isn’t to Matthew.

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    Jeanette Metler

    The half religious, reminds me of Allan Watts… a twentieth century philosopher of Eastern Religion… referenced to in Brian McLaren’s book, Faith After Doubt… in which he states the difference between belief and faith… which I have paraphrased.

    “Belief is defined as a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, is the insistence that the truth is what one would desire it to be. The half religious, only open their mind to the truth, on the condition that it fits in with their own preconceived ideas and desires… which is highly influenced by self-deception.

    Faith on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind, to the truth… whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions, as it is a plunge into the unknown. Faith let’s go of all preconceptions, self-deceptions, and personal agendas of one’s own ideals and desires… descending into the deeper mysteries of truth… and the wisdom their, awaiting to be discovered… and responded to.

    The half religious insist on clinging to maintaining and sustaining their own beliefs… their own distorted version of truth… founded on their own preconceptions, self-deceptions, personal agendas, ideals and selfish desires.”

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      I think each person must hold her own feet to the fire in order to remain true to Truth. You have to maintain a mind open to the possibility that you are, after all, not infallible!
      A wonderful observation. Thanks for posting.

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    I think each person must hold her own feet to the fire in order to remain true to Truth. You have to maintain a mind open to the possibility that you are, after all, not infallible!
    A wonderful observation. Thanks for posting.

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