What Would God Shout at You from a Cloud?

In the Gospel of Matthew, there are two instances where a cloud appears over Jesus and God shouts two brief, identical messages. I have often wondered what God would shout at me in a similar situation.

Honestly, I tend to think God would shout negative things at me. I imagine God telling me to stop doing something or to do more of something. In either case, the message would focus on the ways I’m falling short and have been inadequate.

I have struggled to imagine a loving and merciful God. It’s much easier to imagine a God who is either disappointed or really, really angry.

Bringing up this disappointed/angry image of God with people tends to strike a nerve.

What would God shout at you?  

volunteer more!

spend less money!

stop obsessing about your body image!

share the Gospel more!

stop lusting!

help more people in need!

read the Bible more!

pray more!

go to a different church!

spend less time on social media!

We can’t imagine that God the Father is for us and loves us. We can only imagine God showing up in a cloud and telling us to get our acts together, to start doing something different.

God the Father isn’t typically imagined as being on our side. God the Father is somehow joined with Jesus in the Trinity but remains disappointed in us and in need of a blood sacrifice to make us acceptable in his sight, working out a loophole in his infinite holiness and justice.

Before Jesus launched his ministry and before Jesus ventured to Jerusalem where he would be killed and then rise from the dead, God the Father spoke the same message over Jesus:

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:16-17

 “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Matthew 17:5

On both occasions, God the Father affirmed the Son. On the first occasion Jesus had not even started his ministry.

I have tended to write off the significance of these moments between the Father and the Son. However, I now think that this was a big mistake on my part.

Jesus came to unite us with God, adopting us in God’s family. Paul writes that our identity is hidden away in Christ. In the midst of this union with Christ, we dare not overlook the love of God for us that goes beyond our comprehension:

“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17-19

Through the ministry of Jesus and our union with him, we have a new way of thinking about God. If God is our Father through our union with the Son, then it isn’t far-fetched to say that God’s first thought of us is love and a desire for deeper union with us. God desires to heal, redeem, and restore his children.

Failing to believe that I am a child of God is the most important obstacle for prayer. Once I believe that God loves and accepts me like Jesus is loved and accepted, prayer becomes a moment to rest in God’s love rather than a game of hide and go seek with God or a proving ground for my spirituality.

For years, I doubted God’s love for me, and my struggles with prayer served as validation for those doubts.

Beginning with the foundational teaching of God’s love and acceptance for his children made it possible to rest in God’s presence and to trust in his love for me. I was finally able to participate in the silence of contemplative prayer that seeks to lovingly gaze at and adore God the Father.

Contemplative prayer relies on resting in this love as the first step in prayer, letting all other distractions fall away in order to be still in God’s presence.

Imagining a God who calls down to us with loving messages before we’ve done a single thing can revolutionize how we pray. This was the God that Jesus wanted to reveal to us, and this is the God that we can pray to when we turn to him in silent adoration.

Take a First Step in Contemplative Prayer

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

 

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N | iBooks

 

Is There Hope for Anxious, Doubting, and Burned Out Christians?

If you’re a Christian who is burned out, falling flat, discouraged, struggling, or doubtful, I have a suggestion based on my own experiences. This suggestion may or may not help, but just consider it for a moment.

What if Christianity is bound to fail you no matter how often you say sincere prayers, no matter how hard you study the Bible, no matter what theology you adopt, no matter how often you attend church, and no matter how sincerely you commit to follow Jesus?

What if your faith can only survive if you approach God in a different way?

I don’t necessarily want to undermine practices such as Bible study, attending church, or praying sincerely. These are all good things in their place. However, one can lean too heavily on these practices, expecting them to provide what they cannot, and then burning out as you continue to come up empty.

That’s where I found myself when I first attended a church service during my seminary days that introduced contemplative prayer, sitting in silent adoration of God. I struggled to sit in silence, I recited the prayers, nothing seemed to happen, and so I gave in to despair for a season.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to see the rich contemplative tradition of the church that teaches the practice of daily silence in order to rest in God, trusting God to work in us. The contemplative tradition of the church teaches that we cannot earn God’s favor or make God love us more. God has already sent Jesus to us out of his deep love for us, and in Jesus we become his sons and daughters.

The foundation of Christianity is God’s love for us. If we miss that, everything else will be a chore, struggle, or burden.

Contemplative prayer doesn’t seek to prove anything or to produce a particular emotion or experience. By sitting in silence and reciting a simple word like “mercy” or “beloved,” we step away from any other thought or conception of ourselves so that we may be present for God.

Over time, contemplative prayer can shift our understandings of ourselves, seeing ourselves as we are as God’s beloved children. We can also develop a greater capacity of love for other people as we learn to see them as God sees them.

There is an effort to remove distractions in contemplative prayer, but it’s not up to me to produce a spiritual transformation. I can’t save my soul or make myself more loving. I can only rest in God and enter God’s presence with faith that he is faithful in caring for his children.

When the love of God comes first, I no longer have to prove myself or work to find God’s love. God’s love is something to rest in and to gradually experience over time, rather than something I have to frantically or anxiously work for.

Out of a foundation of God’s love, the Christian faith becomes restorative and regenerative. We all come to God with our struggles, baggage, and religious backgrounds that can complicate matters.

There aren’t simple formulas and I never want to suggest that contemplative prayer is a quick fix. Rather, this is a lifelong practice that is challenging to learn and requires a significant commitment. Monks would devote their entire lives to this practice of contemplation, so one can hardly jump into it after a kind of short term boot camp.

I can’t speak for every person or situation, but I do know that the people who have passed through similar seasons as my own share similar experiences of God’s love and presence. Contemplative prayer isn’t the only way to make ourselves aware of God’s love, but it has a strong tradition that is rooted in the history of the church. This is hardly a gimmick or a “culturally relevant trend.”

If everything else in Christianity has left you uncertain, anxious, or struggling to believe in God, you may not have anything to lose.

What if God loved you deeply and completely as a beloved child?

What if you only need to take that love on faith and rest in it?

 

Learn More about Contemplative Prayer

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N | iBooks

Is Contemplative Prayer Dangerous? Evangelicals and the Fear of Contemplation

I first learned about contemplative prayer from Christian radio shows, particularly, the dangers of contemplative practices such as centering prayer. Mind you, Christian radio shows told me that lots of things were dangerous and wrong, such as Catholics, liberals, and Harry Potter.

The Bible study expert on this call-in show railed against contemplative prayer because it made two grave mistakes:

  1. Contemplative prayer borrows from Eastern Religion.
  2. Contemplative prayer empties the mind and leaves it vulnerable to demonic influences.

Ten years after hearing these warnings, I finally practiced contemplative prayer and found both assessments to be inaccurate.

My book Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer shares my journey out of anxious evangelicalism and the many barriers to this ancient Christian prayer practice. I still consider myself an evangelical today, at least in its historic sense, but I have come to rely on this interior prayer tradition that relies on God’s indwelling Spirit as the bedrock of my spirituality. Far from emptying one’s mind in a pointless manner, contemplation aims to remove distracting thoughts in order to adore God and to surrender to God’s presence. Some have said that the “prayer” of contemplation is God’s work in us.

Arriving at a point where I was willing to try contemplative prayer required a season of spiritual despair and a major rethinking of Christian spiritual practices. It wasn’t easy to overcome my fears of contemplative prayer and the significant misinformation available, and I wanted to offer a few explanations for evangelicals who may be fearful of contemplative prayer or uncertain about the benefits of this spiritual practice.

Few Christian Contemplative Prayer Mentors and Models

I don’t blame church leaders for passing along anxious evangelicalism, and it’s hard to get too angry at the radio personalities who misrepresented it. They all lacked mentors and models to guide them in contemplative prayer.

I became more open to contemplative prayer after a pastor from my seminary introduced me to several contemplative practices. If I had access to contemplative prayer training like I had access to Bible study training, I would have certainly embraced it and benefitted from it sooner. It remains challenging to find spiritual directors for many seeking to practice contemplative prayer.

Unnecessary Animosity Toward Catholics

While contemplative prayer has a robust presence outside of Catholicism in the Orthodox and Anglican/Episcopal traditions, many of the leading contemplative authors are Catholics. Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and Thomas Keating are all Catholics who are widely read and sought-after, and Keating’s Contemplative Outreach network has made significant strides in spreading contemplative practices such as centering prayer.

Evangelicals who are already jumpy or wary about Catholics will have a hard time trusting what they say about contemplative prayer. In some cases, evangelicals may treat Catholicism as a completely different religion altogether. When I compare a visit to a cathedral vs. a suburban megachurch, I suppose I can see where they’re coming from. While I remain a committed evangelical, Catholic writers have provided some of the most constructive spiritual direction in my life.

Misinformation about Contemplation Prayer

Despite all of the misinformation about contemplative prayer, the truth is that the Christian contemplative tradition dates back well into the 300’s, making it as old or older than the final New Testament canon. The practitioners of contemplative prayer also saw their practices as deeply dependent on scripture.

The tax collector’s prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” formed the foundation of prayer used by many contemplatives in the desert who meditated on this prayer while going about their work. Contemplative prayer, which is entered into through a practice such as centering prayer, uses a simple word to teach the mind and body to be still before God. Just as Jesus told his followers to enter a private room to pray, centering prayer helps practitioners enter the secret place of prayer.

Contemplative Prayer Defies Explanation

The authors of contemplative prayer books are generally hesitant to describe what goes on during contemplative prayer. It’s a private, intimate moment of communion with God. Most importantly, descriptions of this type of prayer tend to fall short because it isn’t an intellectual or analytical practice.

That may be an instant turn off for evangelicals, but it’s also an essential point of caution about dismissing contemplative prayer. Can you dismiss something as dangerous based on the hearsay of people who aren’t even engaged in practicing it in the first place?

Leaders Cannot Control Contemplative Prayer

Christian leaders have attacked contemplatives on and off for centuries, banning their books and threatening contemplatives with prison, exile, or death. The more concentrated church power became, the more it opposed contemplation. This type of prayer is beyond the scope of leadership’s control because it is interior and personal, even if it is cultivated and supported in community or through spiritual direction.

Throughout church history the mystical expressions have either come under attack or been conveniently forgotten in place of the easier controlled dogmas and doctrines.

It’s Impossible to Measure the Results of Contemplative Prayer

I can tell when I have missed time practicing contemplative prayer, but I can’t exactly tell you what the “results” of contemplative prayer are. They are difficult to quantify, such as a greater awareness of myself and of God. These aren’t the typical measuring sticks that evangelicals are used to in their talks about spiritual growth and holiness.

It’s true that those who practice contemplative prayer will enjoy a greater awareness of God’s love and will, therefore turn away from sin. In fact, this growth in holiness is an essential aspect of contemplative prayer, but it defies the simple formulas that evangelicals use in testimonies. Since contemplative prayer relies on God’s indwelling Spirit to guide us into prayer, the transforming that happens is also a fully miraculous work of God’s Spirit that we cannot define on our own.

Contemplative Prayer Relies on Tradition, Not Chapter and Verse

It’s true that contemplative prayer relies on the indwelling Spirit and has roots in scripture, but practices, such as centering prayer, are passed down through traditions, not chapter and verse. That not only means many evangelicals lack access to contemplative teachings, but they are naturally suspicious of them.

While there are many Bible experts saying that contemplative prayer is dangerous, there have been few mentors in evangelical circles who can counter that narrative. In addition, contemplative prayer isn’t the kind of spiritual practice you can sample or test to get quantifiable results of any kind. Rather, contemplative prayer is a long-term practice where it’s impact will be gradually noticed over time. It may take a while to reach that point as well!

Beginning Contemplative Prayer Takes Practice

My early days of contemplative practice were agonizing as I confronted all of my negative thoughts and learned how to practice silence before God. It ran counter to everything I’d learned about prayer as an evangelical. In contemplative prayer I had to let go of control, completely surrendering to God’s loving presence rather than pleading with a supposedly disinterested deity.

I didn’t have incredible spiritual experiences, and the actual “rest” or peace with God didn’t come until I had a better grasp of how to approach silence before God. I felt the void of not having a spiritual mentor at the beginning who could guide me into this spiritual practice. Websites such as Contemplative Outreach became a lifeline over the years, as well as other spirituality apps that guided me into the practice of daily silence and surrender before God.

Take a First Step in Contemplative Prayer

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N | iBooks

 

 

 

Jesus Is King, America Is in Chaos, Now What?

American-crisis

Each afternoon I set aside time to pray in as much privacy and quiet as my children will permit. I pull myself out of my social media feeds, away from my growing list of work projects, and away from the stuff around the house that I often put off until things pile up into a state of chaos.

I have needed this prayer time because it has felt like the one stable thing in life right now. What I am called to do beyond that in the midst of America’s crisis continues to concern me.

I am a white evangelical man who grew up in a very conservative family. I fit the profile of many Trump voters. Without white evangelical support, there most likely would not be a president Trump, save for the real possibility of hacking and voter suppression. I cannot emphasize how opposed I am to just about everything that our current president stands for.

I feel the weight of this, knowing my evangelical tribe played a key role in electing a man who ran for election as a racist demagogue and governs like a petty dictator. The injustices of this man have already impacted people I know. Hate crimes are rising, immigrants live in daily fear, cuts to essential programs are looming, and all along there is mounting evidence that a foreign power may have our government under its control, and who knows where the suffering and injustice will end at that point.

I am committed to justice. I am committed to protecting the full humanity of my neighbors–and I mean that in the broad, Christian sense of the word.

As the situation becomes increasingly serious, I genuinely worry if I am drifting too much toward political advocacy, leaving my contemplative writing in public aside. The truth is that it’s easy to write in reaction to politics. It’s much harder to dig into the depths of contemplative prayer, to live in the reality of my true self under God, and to write out of that identity. Perhaps the message we need most of all is that God is a benevolent King who is higher than all powers in this world, and who entrusts his Kingdom to the meek and humble.

The Kingdom of God empowers the powerless and mocks those who fight for power and control. It’s hard to believe in that Kingdom during times like these as injustice and Constitutional violations appear to run rampant in my nation’s government.

Perhaps my greatest fear in the midst of this current crisis is my privilege as a white evangelical man. People like me largely supported Trump, and so the people who look like me are the least likely to be victims of injustice. I won’t suffer under many of his policies, or at least any discomfort I feel will be less than those of poor, minority, or immigrant groups. Stepping out of political advocacy when my neighbors have so much to lose feels like the most unloving, unneighborly thing I can do right now.

Politics feels like a black hole nevertheless. It could suck me in and consume me with frustration and rage at the low moments, while offering an exhilarating high when investigators reveal what they know about those who colluded with Russia. This can be a consuming endeavor that can pull anyone away from the loving presence of God and confidence that Jesus is king no matter how chaotic our politics may be right now.

I can’t step away from advocating against the injustice taking place in my country right now. The full image of God in each person demands as much. This is where I have been placed and where I must work for the best of my neighbors. My life’s calling is prayer and writing, and I must use them for the benefit of those suffering injustice or who may be vulnerable under an authoritarian government.

At the same moment, I feel the tug to step back, to remember that God is King, and that the calling of the Christian is to be internally shaped and directed by God’s indwelling Spirit rather than by current events. I can feel the tug of this anger, fear, and energy pulling me further from the Spirit’s loving presence, and that is when I know how deeply I need to continue resting before God.

The Psalmist assured us, “Trust in him at all times, oh people. Pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”

Now what? I’m not sure. That Psalm strikes me as a good place to start today. I can’t step back from advocating for justice, but I won’t do that well without a strong contemplative foundation. That is what I fear losing at this time of  political crisis. May we experience the words of the Psalms anew even today as we trust God to guide us through this time.

Monday Merton: Is the Church Redemptive or Self-Serving?

The mission of the church can lead us to our true identities in Christ or it can become grossly distorted. Thomas Merton writes about both the high calling of the church and tragic distortion of this mission into a self-centered mechanism for proving who is in and who is out:

“The basic Christian faith is that he who renounces his delusive, individual autonomy in order to receive his true being and freedom in and by Christ is ‘justified’ by the mercy of God in the Cross of Christ. His ‘sins are forgiven’ in so far as the root of guilt is torn up in the surrender which faith makes to Christ. Instead of my own delusive autonomy I surrender to Christ all rights over me in the hope that by His Spirit, which is the Spirit and life of His Church, He will live and act in me, and, having become one with Him, having found my true identity in Him, I will act only as a member of His Body and a faithful citizen of His Kingdom…

 

But now, supposing that, instead of confessing the sins of the world which she has taken upon herself, the Church–or a group of Christians who arrogate to themselves the name of ‘Church’–becomes a social mechanism for self-justification? Supposing this ‘Church,’ which is in reality no church at all, takes to herself the function of declaring that everyone else is guilty and rationalizing the sins of her members as acts of virtue? Suppose that she becomes a perfect and faultless machine for declaring herself not guilty? Suppose that she provides men with a convenient method of deciding when they do or do not need to accuse themselves of anything before God? Supposing that, instead of conscience, she provides men with the support of unanimous group approval or disapproval?”

 

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 111-112

 

Monday Merton: Why We Wish to Destroy Our Enemies

While some men may be more committed to deception than others, Merton rightly identifies the tendency to believe in the deception of others, while believing that we alone are committed to the truth. This word speaks quite directly to the present situation in America:

“We are living under a tyranny of untruth which confirms itself in power and establishes a more and more total control over men in proportion as they convince themselves they are resisting error.

 

Our submission to plausible and useful lies involves us in greater and more obvious contradictions, and to hide these from ourselves we need greater and ever less plausible lies. The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error.

 

We then convince ourselves that we cannot preserve our purity of vision and our inner sincerity if we enter into dialogue with the enemy, for he will corrupt us with his error. We believe, finally, that truth cannot be preserved except by the destruction of the enemy – for, since we have identified him with error, to destroy him is to destroy error. The adversary, of course, has exactly the same thoughts about us and exactly the same basic policy by which he defends the “truth.” He has identified us with dishonesty, insincerity, and untruth. He believes that, if we are destroyed, nothing will be left but truth.”
― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

 

Monday Merton: Love Is Never Silent Before Injustice

In the 1960’s, Thomas Merton wrote about the Christian response, or failure to respond, to segregation and racism. After addressing a situation in New Orleans where some of the congregation walked out because the priest applied “love of brother and sister” to racial injustice, Merton didn’t mince words:

“We are so concerned with ‘charity’ that we will find every possible excuse for men who have no respect for the law of love, who angrily and rudely separate themselves from the community of the faithful assembled for the Eucharistic feast of Christian charity, and who do so in defense of a society whose customs admit and palliate repeated acts of cruelty, of injustice, of inhumanity which gravely violate the Law of Christ, and crucify Christ in His members.

 

To excuse such men entirely would be to participate in their violation of charity. Their sin must be pointed out quite clearly for what it is. The pseudocharity that shrinks from this truth is responsible for an awful proliferation of injustice and untruth, under the guise of Christianity. The best that can be said of these poor men is ‘they know not what they do.'”

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 106

 

My Next Book: The Art of the Seals: How to Profit from the Apocalypse

Art of Seals

Are you tired of winning with President Trump? I bet you’re not. Now it’s time to start winning for all of eternity with my new book: The Art of the Seals: How to Profit from the Apocalypse, releasing April 1st. It’s going to be beautiful. You’re gonna love it.

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Everybody’s telling you the end times is going to be a mess. Blood moons. Death. Plagues. Wars. Frogs. They’re wrong. Those people aren’t smart. They don’t know how to make deals with the AntiChrist. They aren’t winners. They’re losers. Losers end up in the lake of fire.

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Why I Wrote This Incredible Book

Evangelicals helped make Donald Trump president by huge margins. Biggest inauguration ever. A bigly victory. Democrats are embarrassed. Sad.

America’s government is a mess. We can’t even figure out how to give rich people tax breaks any more. It’s terrible. We’ve got terrorists and bad people pouring over our borders. And worst of all, our president, who won by huge margins, hasn’t even started a war yet.

I’m telling you, the end of the world is coming. It’s going to be huge. Explosions, fire, and monsters. The smart people are going to cash in on their knowledge of the Bible while they can.

Don’t miss this opportunity. Be smart. Don’t settle for less, like having Schwarzenegger hosting the Apprentice. Bad host. Not a ratings machine.

The smart people are going to read the book of Revelation to cash in before things get really bad. This book is going to show them how to do it. Don’t miss out.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing things. I’ve been helping people think about the Gospels in amazing new ways. My book about Revelation got the highest review ratings on Amazon ever–did Obama do that? NO! Don’t believe me? I guess you like FAKE NEWS. Bad President. Can’t even get more than four stars.

Christianity is a disaster. Christianity will get all five stars in its Amazon reviews because of me. We’ll make it happen, believe me. I’m going to win.

You’re going to win too. My new book is going to show how Revelation can make you rich. It’s simple. Anybody can do it, but only winners do it because losers don’t do it. Losers lose. Winners are smart. They do things. Like me. I do things.

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Is this a real book? Oh, it’s real, alright. You can take that alternative fact to the bank… in Russia. **Swallows gum**

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Monday Merton: Paradise Is All Around Us

monday-merton-blog-header

Thomas Merton converted to the Christian faith because of the possibility to find God today, not just a promise of getting into heaven one day. Experiencing the full presence of God requires overcoming the many obstacles that often appear as necessary or unavoidable once the day gets going. As people who spend so much time in motion, simply stopping may be the hardest practice to learn. Merton writes:

“Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand. It is wide open. The sword is taken away, but we do not know it: we are off ‘one to his farm and another to his merchandise.’Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static. ‘Wisdom,’ cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.”

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 128

Monday Merton: Freedom Needs Truth

monday-merton-blog-header

Thomas Merton writes that Democracy relies on the education of the population, getting a large majority of people more or less on the same page. If the people are able to see the issues of the time with clarity, political discourse about solutions becomes possible.

However, as propaganda and alternative partisan versions of reality take hold on certain news channels and in the American White House, Democracy may face one of its greatest challenges according to Merton’s criteria:

“Democracy cannot exist when men prefer ideas and opinions that are fabricated for them. The actions and statements of the citizen must not be mere automatic ‘reactions’–mere mechanical salutes, gesticulations signifying passive conformity with the dictates of those in power.

 

To be truthful, we will have to admit that one cannot expect this to be realized in all the citizens of a democracy. But if it is not realized in a significant proportion of them, democracy ceases to be an objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word.”

 

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 96