Thomas Merton and The Shack

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Five million copies of The New York Times Best-Seller, The Shack, have now sold, and the book is still going strong. Considering that the average popular book is passed around to three or four people (by some estimates), there could be as many as fifteen to twenty million readers of The Shack. For those who are familiar with the spirituality of Thomas Merton, you’ll know that he was a Catholic monk who had strong spiritual affinities to eastern mysticism. And so what we are about to say may take The Shack followers by surprise. But we believe we can back up the following statement with solid documentation: Thomas Merton could have written The Shack because it reflects his view of God succinctly (i.e., Merton’s views on God resonate with the views expressed in The Shack).

First, to understand Merton’s view of God, we can read what one of his biographers (and incidentally someone very sympathetic to Merton’s view) says that makes this very clear. William Shannon explains:

If one wants to understand Merton’s going to the East, it is important to understand that it was his rootedness in his own faith tradition [Catholicism] that gave him the spiritual equipment [contemplative prayer] he needed to grasp the way of wisdom that is proper to the East.1 (from ATOD, pp. 60-61)

Researcher and author Ray Yungen further explains:

Merton expressed views such as, “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity … I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.2

It is essential to really understand why Merton said things like this in order to understand why the contemplative prayer movement presents such a potential danger to evangelical Christian churches. Merton’s conversion was spiritual, not social or political, as clearly revealed in one of his biographies:

His [Merton’s] change of mind with regard to the higher religions was not the result of tedious comparison and contrast or even concerted analysis. It was an outgrowth of his experience with the Absolute [God].3

In other words, Merton found Buddhist enlightenment in contemplative prayer. (ATOD, p. 77).

One New Age scholar who admired Merton said: “The God he [Merton] knew in prayer was the same experience that Buddhists describe in their enlightenment.”4

How does this fit in with The Shack, you may be asking. In his book Thomas Merton My Brother, Catholic mystic Basil Pennington relates:

The Spirit enlightened him [Merton] in the true synthesis [unity] of all and in the harmony of that huge chorus of living beings. In the midst of it he lived out a vision of a new world, where all divisions have fallen away and the divine goodness is perceived and enjoyed as present in all and through all.5 (emphasis added, ATOD, p. 138)

In other words, Thomas Merton came to believe (as most long term mystics do) that God is in all things and in all human beings. This is clear to see from the following quote by Merton:

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, … now I realize what we all are … If only they [people] could all see themselves as they really are. I suppose the big problem would be that we would bow down and worship each other…. At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth….This little point … is the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody.6 (ATOD, pp. 58-59)

It is intrinsically obvious that Merton’s spirituality is the same as what one finds in The Shack. Listen to William Paul Young’s “Jesus”:

“I have no desire to make them [people of other religions] Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.” (p.182).

The reason The Shack’s “Jesus” doesn’t want to make anyone a Christian is illustrated in the following statement by The Shack’s father-god, Elouisa: “God, who is the ground of all being, dwells in, around, and through all things” (p. 112). In his book, Silence on Fire, William Shannon defines the two pillars of contemplative spirituality: 1. God is the ground of all being; 2. man becoming aware of that reality. So we see here that both The Shack and Thomas Merton come from the exact same spiritual perspective.

The Bible refers to such a perspective as “doctrines of devils” (I Tim. 4:1) because it makes man connected to God without the Cross and without faith in Jesus Christ (i.e, the Cross is not necessary then because man is already part of the divine).

For those who may still be un-persuaded, consider the case of Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees . In the 1990s, Monk Kidd was a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher in small town South Carolina. Someone gave her a book by Thomas Merton, which began her walk on the contemplative path. Eventually, she came out with a book titled The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, in which she reveals that she now worships the Goddess Sophia. Monk Kidd’s Sophia offers us the holiness of everything (i.e., panentheism). She explains:

We also need Goddess consciousness to reveal earth’s holiness…. Matter becomes inspirited; it breathes divinity [“ground of all being”]. Earth becomes alive and sacred…. Goddess offers us the holiness of everything. (pp. 162-163)

Now in The Shack, we have God, the Holy Spirit as “Sophia” whom, the book says, shares the same essence as Elouisa, (“Sophia is a personification of Papa’s wisdom,” p. 171) who says God is “the ground of all being.”

Interestingly, on the best-seller list of a New Age bookstore in Portland, Oregon, The Shack is number four. Note that this store is strictly a New Age bookstore, even offering regular classes on metaphysics subjects such Taro Card reading, Shamanism, Astrology, etc. Ironically, this bookstore has a whole section devoted to Thomas Merton. Would The Shack be at the top of the best seller list of a prominent New Age bookstore if it had a biblical message of the Gospel that rejects the notion that all paths lead to God? Definitely not. At that same New Age bookstore, Sue Monk Kidd’s book, When the Heart Waits (a contemplative book) has also been on their best-seller list!

In this serious matter, where so many proclaiming Christians are resonating with the spirituality of both Thomas Merton and The Shack, let us soberly bear in mind the words of the Apostle Paul, when he said: “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils (I Corinthians 10:21). And also: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you (II Corinthians 6:17). This is the essence of Christianity – we are in the world but not to be embracing it’s belief systems. This does not mean we are to be hateful to those who do not adhere to biblical truth, but we are no longer tied into nor resonate with the world’s spiritual understanding after being born-again. There’s no way around this for the true believer.

We pray that those who have read The Shack and are impressed with it will give this article serious and prayer consideration.

1. William Shannon, Silent Lamp, The Thomas Merton Story (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), p. 281.
2. David Steindl-Rast, “Recollection of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West” (Monastic Studies, 7:10, 1969).
3. Raymond Bailey, Thomas Merton on Mysticism (Image Books, 1987), p. 191.
4. Brian C. Taylor, Setting the Gospel Free (New York, NY: Continuum Publishing, 1996), p. 76.
5. M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Merton, My Brother (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1996), pp. 199-200.
6. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander ((Garden City, NY: Doubleday Publishers, 1989), pp. 157-158

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