Excerpts from Thomas Merton's “The Other Side Of Despair”

If in practice the function of organized religion turns out to be nothing more than to justify and to canonize the routines of mass society; if organized religion abdicates its mission to disturb man in the depths of his conscience, and seeks instead simply to “make converts” that will smilingly adjust to the status quo, then it deserves the most serious and uncompromising criticism. Such criticism is not a disloyalty. On the contrary, fidelity to truth and to God demands it. One of the most important aspects of our current biblical-existentialist theology is precisely the prophetic consciousness of a duty to question the claims of any religious practice that collaborates with the “process of leveling” and alienation. ... The false community of mass society is in fact more individualistic than the personalist community envisaged by the Gospels, the koinonia of intersubjective love among persons, which is the church. Mass society is individualistic in the sense that it isolates each individual subject from his immediate neighbor, reducing him to a state of impersonal, purely formal, and abstract relationship with other objectified individuals. In dissolving the more intimate and personal bonds of life in the family and of the small sub-group (the farm, the shop of the artisan, the village, the town, the small business), mass society segregates the individual from the concrete and human “other” and leaves him alone and unaided in the presence of the Faceless, the collective void, the public. Thus, as was said above, mass-man finds himself related not to flesh-and-blood human beings with the same freedom, responsibility, and conflicts as himself, but with idealized typological images: the Führer, the president, the sports star, the teen singer, the space man. ... It is by rigorously confining him within the limits of his own individual nonentity that mass society completely integrates the individual into the mass. The function of the church is, then, not to intensify this process, giving it an inviolable religious sanction and tranquilizing the anguish of the alienated mind by injunctions to obey the state. It is precisely to strengthen the individual person against the one great temptation to surrender, to abdicate his personality, to fall and disappear in the void. “Man,” says Heidegger, “wants to surrender to the world. He tempts himself. He flees from himself and desires to fall into the world. In his everyday talking and curiosity he prepares for himself a permanent temptation to fallenness. ... If in fact the church does nothing to counter this “temptation to fallenness” except call man to subscribe to a few intellectual formulas and then go his way with the rest of the crowd, she will have failed in her gravest responsibility. If, on the other hand, she misunderstands the seriousness of modern theology and lets herself be carried away with a specious enthusiasm for a space-age image of herself, she will equally fail.

Further reading: 1. “The Other Side Of Despair” by Thomas Merton