UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Through words and silence: a comparative study of William Johnston and Thomas Merton, Roman Catholics in dialogue with Zen Kendall, John James


Cultures have always influenced one another to some extent. Yet never before has the confrontation of cultures been as extensive as it is today. Never before have we had such sophistication for considering that interpenetration as we have today. These two developments leave us with a heavy responsibility to evolve an understanding of humankind, which will help prevent a ravishing of the world by people of all cultures who remain too locked into views of reality that" lead to misunderstanding and violence rather than to that compassion which more than ever is demanded by the nature of our times. This thesis will explore the development of one form of intercultural confrontation: the meeting between Zen Buddhism and Roman Catholicism, from the perspective of Roman Catholicism. It seeks to unravel some of the implications of this confrontation. It examines various dimensions of spirituality found in selected works of two Roman Catholic writers, William Johnston and Thomas Merton. Themes common to the thought of both men will be used as a background against which the thrust of my argument will be made. A radical difference between.the approaches of the two consistently colours their respective stands, on each of the major themes considered in the individual chapters, of this study, on their views of Christianity, their attitudes towards Zen and their approaches to symbols and realities found in different traditions. This difference will be traced ultimately to their different epistemologies, examined in my final chapter. Out of the work of the two men two contrasting creative approaches to dialogue will be expounded. The confrontation with Zen Buddhism leads to a great enrichment of understanding in the writings of Johnston and Merton, an understanding both of eastern spirituality and of Catholicism. Johnston develops a perspective which uses the study of Zen for the elaboration of meanings implicit in Christian life and thought; he also develops an overview of human spirituality which allows an essential role for all religious traditions. Merton develops a radical attitude towards all expression which finally emerges from his sensitivity to the bottomless depths from which all expression emerges and to which all expression finally points. This leads to a liberation from the need for absolute involvement in any one religious tradition in preference to any other. I believe that this view of Merton's thought, consonant with much that is presently being undertaken in the area of literary criticism, has not been elaborated before. It represents a new approach to Merton and helps to explain some of the difficulties Catholic writers have had in dealing with this startling man. Merton uses the ideas and symbols of religion with poetic freedom, Johnston with rational commitment. Their positions can be viewed as contradictory or as complementary. Either way, they serve as useful models for further exploration of one of the most exciting developments in modern man's unique cultural situation.

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