Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Martin Marty, November 9, 2005

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:05 - Thomas Merton in the context of post-World War II America

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Partial Transcript: Who was Thomas Merton? My audience probably won't know, so give them a little primer as to who this man was.

Segment Synopsis: Marty says America was in a spiritual vacuum after World War II, and Merton provided an answer to that with the publication of his autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain." He talks about Merton's conversion to Catholicism, and how he joined a monastery and chronicled his own spiritual journey. Marty says Merton attracted people because he was a "mensch," with a fully rich life channeled through the rigor of monasticism, and his writings were attractive to ex-GIs, and people familiar with the East.

Keywords: "Mensch"; Pilgrimages; The Seven Storey Mountain (book); WW2; WWII; World War Two

Subjects: America; Autobiographies; Barth, Karl, 1787-1853; Catholicism; Catholics; Conversion; Great Depression; Monasteries; Religions; Spirituality; Veterans; World War II

00:02:45 - Merton's relationship to other twentieth century spiritual thinkers and writers

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Partial Transcript: This is all very subjective, but place him in the pantheon of twentieth century thinkers and spiritual writers.

Segment Synopsis: Marty recalls a1967 American Academy of Arts and Sciences meeting of young theologians and secular scholars. Marty wrote an article in response, "The Search for a Spiritual Style in Secular America," where the word "spiritual" was used differently at the time, a new concept, written about by Teilhard de Chardin, Pope John XXIII, Heschel, Buber, and Merton. Marty discusses Merton's similarity to Dorothy Day. He says memorable figures of the twentieth century like Schweitzer, Gandhi, and Buber were all deeply rooted in single traditions but could reach to one another and that Merton was the "prime bridger" of these diverse religious worlds through his devotional, prophetic and mystical writings.

Keywords: Catholicism; Journal of a Soul (book); Martin Luther King Jr.; Pope John XXIII; Second Vatican Council; The Search for a Spiritual Style in Secular America (book)

Subjects: American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Buber, Martin, 1878-1965.; Catholic Worker Movement; Civil rights movement; Day, Dorothy; Death of God theology; Gandhi, Mahatma, 1869-1948.; Heschel, Abraham Joshua, 1907-1972.; King, M. Luther (Martin Luther), 1899-1965; Mysticism; Religion; Schweitzer, Albert, 1875-1965; Secularism; Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre.; Theology

00:05:23 - Was Merton a prophet?

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned the word "prophet." That term can be bounced around too glibly sometimes. Can I presume to call Merton a prophet in this film?

Segment Synopsis: Marty reflects on whether or not Merton was a prophet, and says it's better to wait a century to decide because people's motives and protections matter. He says that prophets have to risk things, and Merton risked enough, from friendship ties, criticism from other Catholics, and the Vietnam War, but he was a poet, devotionalist, and a writer with a prophetic voice in the tradition of Bonhoeffer's idea that prophecy is hope projected backward.

Keywords: Antiwar movements; Catholicism; Colonialism; Protests

Subjects: Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, 1906-1945; Civil rights movement; Imperialism; Peace movements; Racism; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

00:07:43 - Disagreement with Merton on the government's role in the Civil Rights Movement

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Partial Transcript: Can you recount the incident where you took issue with some of his prophetic writings about Civil Rights? And then, a few years later, said, "You know, you had a point there"?

Segment Synopsis: Marty says he never met Merton, but they did review each others' books. Marty thought Merton's critique of the U.S. government's treatment of African Americans went too far by drawing a comparison to concentration camps, and Merton favorably reviewed Marty's book in the magazine "Commonweal." Marty remembers that they resolved their differences through written correspondence, and years later, many of Merton's criticisms came true, like the U.S. government's role in counterrevolutionary movements.

Keywords: Commonweal (magazine); Concentration camps; Counter-revolutionary movements; Father Louis; Meliorism; Mother Mary Luke; Sister Joan Chittister; William James

Subjects: African Americans; Book reviews; Chittister, Joan; Correspondence; Historians; Holocaust; Internment camps; Journalism; New York herald tribune; Newspapers; Racism; Sisters of Loretto

00:10:22 - Was Merton a pioneer in Ecumenism or interreligious dialogue?

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Partial Transcript: You are known, among other things, for your work with Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. If Merton was a pioneer in that field, would you speak to that?

Segment Synopsis: Marty describes the growth of different religious movements during Merton's time, and how none of these movements in the West focused on Eastern religions, which fascinated Merton. Marty says he was not a pioneer within Christian Ecumenism, but he was in interfaith relations and that it was Merton's work in Asia that produced books like The Asian Journal.

Keywords: Catholicism; Ecumenism; Interfaith movement; Interreligious relations; Second Vatican Council; The Asian Journal (book)

Subjects: Buddhism; Christianity; Hinduism; Protestantism

00:12:14 - Was Merton ahead of his time?

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Partial Transcript: If I could ask one more question, I've heard, I've heard you refer to your colleague David Tracy.

Segment Synopsis: Marty talks about the theology he absorbed during the years he had an office next door to David Tracy, and Tracy's idea of the "analogical imagination." He also talks about how the Second Vatican Council's "Nostra aetate" document later also shifted Catholicism towards neighborly acknowledgement of other religions and how, for the American Catholic public, this was new and came from Merton.

Keywords: Analogical imagination; Catholicism; Interreligious relations; Nostra aetate (Vatican declaration); Second Vatican Council

Subjects: Prophets; Protestantism; Theology; Tracy, David