“…Churches have traditionally run ‘missions’, hoping that newly-converted people would swell their ranks. Thomas Merton understood conversion to be an important step into the Christian life, but he believed that it demanded more of the church than adding numbers to its congregations and more of the Christian than adopting a new set of beliefs.
Merton was deeply influenced by the trial in 1961 of the Nazi and SS officer Adolf Eichmann, held by many to be the architect of the Holocaust. As he reflected on Eichmann’s testimony, he was struck by his lack of self-doubt or unease.
‘…The tragedy of the concentration camps, of Eichmann and of countless others like him, is not only that such crimes were possible, but that the men involved could do what they did without being in the least shocked and surprised at themselves. Eichmann to the very last considered himself and obedient and God-fearing man!’
Merton came to the conclusion that Eichmann’s example teaches that the Christian faith does not ‘guarantee a sudden illumination which dispels all darkness forever.’ It calls, instead, for a commitment to dismantle destructive illusions. These may lie hidden in one’s self, often beneath devout, religious observance and apparent good intentions.
Conversion and a church full of apparently Christian (even mission-shaped) people is not the end of the goal of the Christian life for Merton. The churches’ mission is to challenge people to embark on the deeper, disturbing conversion from ‘untruth’ and ‘delusion’:
‘We are not good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves – the ones we are born with and which feed the root of sin. For most people in the world, there is not greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.’
- Keith James, Mission-Shaped Hermit: Thomas Merton, Mission and Spirituality (Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd, 2009), p. 7.