Skip to content

The right thinking man

The right thinking man is like the poor: we always have him with us. He is the unbelieving believer: that is to say the religious man who lives, in practice, without a god. He is the one who pretendes to believe, who acts as if he believes, who seems to be moral because he has a set of rigid principles. He clings to a certain number of fixed moral essences but at the same time he takes very good care never to ask himself wither or not they may be real. He will rob you and enslave you and murder you and give you a plausible reason for doing so. He always had a reason, even though his reasons may cancel one another out by a series of contradictions. That does not matter at all, since he does not need the truth, nor justice, nor mercy, least of all God: all he needs is “to be a right thinking man.”

Thomas Merton, The New Man, 31.


  1. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Merton’s description sounds like a resume for most “Christians” in the over-developed world.

    Friday, January 21, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  2. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Indeed, as well as for most of those that call themselves “theologians,” “Christian philosophers,” and the like.

    Friday, January 21, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Permalink
  3. Jeremy wrote:

    Why are theologians always so self-effacing? One always here’s this sort of self-depricating talk amongst theologians, yet I’ve rarely come across pastors who readily admit to being worthless and hypocritcal.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  4. It helps them feel holy.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  5. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Just remember when we point our finger, there is always four pointing back ;-).

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  6. Nate Kerr wrote:

    I think Anthony is probably exactly right. If you can be shown to see clearly enough as to acknowledge a certain general fact of the matter, you can rhetorically disambiguate yourself from that fact of the matter just enough so as to evade judgment.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  7. Jeremy wrote:

    I agree with Anthony and recognize the rhetorical move being made. I still don’t understand why it is assumed to be a “general fact”.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  8. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Maybe part of the problem with theologians vs. pastors is that theologians (by profession) write; and pastors typically just preach and engage in more “applied” modes of ministry.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  9. Bobby Grow wrote:

    In other words, there might be more pastors who are “self-critical,” and the general populace just doesn’t hear about it since their sermons and notes aren’t usually as available is published writings per theological journals etc.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  10. Jeremy wrote:

    Maybe theologians (who have strong ties to the church) are self-deprecating because of some unresolved guilt they have for not having gone into the ministry. Instead, they opted for the ivory tower and the “comforts” of academia.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  11. Bobby Grow wrote:

    penance, then.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  12. saint egregious wrote:

    I’m still hung up with both Gene and Nate using the qualifier ‘most’.
    Ahh, I smell a loophole!

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  13. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Yeah, I noticed that too; which what was kind of inspired my point on finger pointing.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  14. Saint egregious wrote:

    And putting yourself under judgment in no way means posturing about how ‘unholy’ you are:
    See stringfellow’s remarkable letter to the berrigans while they were in jail for a great example

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  15. Nate Kerr wrote:

    That’s the problem, isn’t it Jeremy — presuming “general facts”? It is what allows one to make an exception of oneself.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink
  16. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Agreed, Saint Egregious. Part of the problem is presuming we are in a position to put ourselves under judgment in the first place. It is the Word of Christ that places us under judgment, precisely as the Word that justifies the godless. So judgment is surely to be thought as an event within the event of “holiness,” whatever we take that finally to mean.

    Of course, part of the problem with these kinds of conversations, as well as with the kind of comment I made above, is that they are more often than not just ways of evading such judgment — i.e., such conversations and comments turn out to be self-justifying. I mean, the really “right-thinking man” is probably the one who does not recognize oneself at all in any of what Merton says above. How could he?

    Should we ever forget that “one must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology”?

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    St. Egregious,

    Just so you know, I’ve lately instituted a policy on my blog against pseudonymous comments. While I realize that many people have their reasons for commenting pseudonymously online, I have experienced too many negative uses of pseudonymity, some of which have been abusive. This is in no way a reflection on you or your comments, which I always appreciate. But I do feel an obligation to be consistent in this policy. I do hope you understand. I will of course leave your most recent comments up as I have recently instituted this policy. Again, please understand this is not a reflection on you. Sorry if it is an inconvenience, its just the way I’ve felt things need to go.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  18. Jeremy wrote:

    I was asking my question in good faith. I honestly don’t understand why theologians tend to be self-deprecating. Although I’m training to be clinical psychologist and am not pursuing theology as a vocation, I guess I just feel as if it is unhealthy to continue to be self-effacing. Especially when I don’t understand what about the vocation warrants such remarks.

    I guess I don’t buy the whole “theology is the greatest heresy” or “one must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology” position. Why? Is there something wrong with writing about God? I understand people have abused that privilege, and theology has certainly had destructive effects (e.g. certain doctrines of the atonement and violence). Furthermore, the very theologian whose theology support harmful social institutions would likely never admit such a thing. Is this self-effacing posture unique to the left-leaning male theologian?

    Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Permalink
  19. Jeremy I suspect this partly a methodological move. A way of keeping the dialectic or paradox open. But in practice there is probably more of a tracking towards self-deprecation as you mention (which is the manifestation of what simply feels overwhelming). who will deliver me from this body of death . . . as Paul would say.

    Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink
  20. roger flyer wrote:

    @ Jeremy–Anybody in mind? ;)

    Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink
  21. Jeremy wrote:


    I’m not sure what you’re asking. Do I have any theologians in mind who have furthered destructive social agendas? I’m not talking about anyone at this blog, as I don’t find anyone’s position here to be particularly oppressive or harmful. This partially explains my confusion about the self-deprecation. The very assholish theologians who should probably be repenting have no clue that they are in the wrong.

    Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink
  22. mshedden wrote:

    This quote reminded of something Amy Laura Hall said (adapting something Rowan Williams wrote) about the desire the to be right being subtlest mechanism of self-destruction and to cling to it in the face of grace is a thinly veiled self hatred and an offense to anarchic mercy of God.

    Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink
  23. Nate Kerr wrote:


    This is very helpful. And I think this is the kind of humility that is truly to underlie statements like, “One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology.” At issue is the temptation of the theologian always to get in the way of God, to forget that she is only a witness, to forget that “I must decrease in order that he may increase.” It seems to me that, when rightly spoken and rightly heard, such statements are less about one’s own theological self-deprecation, and more about the simple fact that we are all justified before God as godless, unrighteous.

    Of course, the fact that such statements can turn into the kind of self-deprecation that Jeremy warns us about is a very real and insidious possibility. Such self-deprecation is not about the justifying God at all, but is rather, as a refusal even in the face of such a God to get off of oneself, a most perverse form of the will-to-power.

    Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink
  24. Marvin wrote:

    In the spirit of not being self-effacing, I’ll say that Merton is certainly talking about the laity, not the clergy, much less academics. Good God Almighty, don’t any of you people go to Church? If you did, you would have met him by now. His name is Legion.

    Monday, January 24, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink
  25. Amen to the new policy! it’s about time the mask was ripped off St. Egregious! (though I hope he’s not some kind of superhero and this is going to cost some folks in Gotham their lives). Next, what about those cartoon pictures some folks use with their posts? Shouldn’t one have to use a ‘real’ photo? (maybe accompanied by a birth certificate?). Obliged.

    Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site