The strong word at work in the title carries two meanings. Usually it refers to something morally and socially repugnant, as in "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable," Wilde's merry quip about men and women who dress up in scarlet jackets and ride huge horses to hunt the fox. It may, however, mean something deeper, much more elemental and dangerous, as in Thomas' Merton's use.
According to Merton the unspeakable is exactly what is not spoken, what in fact may not be spoken, what may not be raised to the level of human discourse. In his book Raids on the Unspeakable it applies to the vast empty space at the heart of language where the true character of our public world resides. It is the guilty collective violence and murder on which society thrives, plunged in the abyssal silence on which the rest of our inconsequential conversation depends.
It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. It is the void out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience ...
The amazing truth, however, is that exactly here with Merton's "raids" the blocked realm of the unspeakable is now--at least partially--accessible and open to speech. The information of our systemic violence is available and transmissible because the figure of Jesus has made it so. The Crucified and Risen has entered the pit of the unspeakable with an equal and answering compassion, a movement which both discloses the abyss of murder and in the same moment fills it with the endless possibility of nonviolence and forgiveness. Merton says as much about the cross in the same book, commenting on the way the "magicians" of official Christianity have always tried to turn the shock of divine mercy back to the cosmic order created by violence.
The cross is the sign of contradiction--destroying the seriousness of the law, of the Empire, of the armies, of blood sacrifice, and of obsession.
But the magicians keep turning the Cross to their own purposes. Yes, it is for them too a sign of contradiction: the awful blasphemy of the religious magician who makes the Cross contradict mercy!
This of course is the ultimate temptation of Christianity! To say that Christ has locked all the doors, has given one answer, settled everything and departed, leaving all life enclosed in the frightful consistency of a system outside of which there is seriousness and damnation, inside of which there is the intolerable flippancy of the saved--while nowhere is there any place left for the mystery of the freedom of divine mercy which alone is truly serious, and worthy of being taken seriously.
We can usefully apply some of this profound insight to contemporary events.
In a casual remark on his radio show the Monday after the tusnami in Japan, Glenn Beck proved himself to be just such a religious magician, speaking with "the intolerable flippancy of the saved".
He said, "I'm not saying God is, you know, causing earthquakes," and then he quickly added, "I'm not not saying that either."
In other words he casually invoked a crushing divine violence, because invoking and channeling violence is his stock in trade as a T.V. and radio broadcaster. He also thought it a cute thing to say because he feels untouchable from a "theological" point of view. After all who can know what God really is or does? But there is also a more visceral sense in which he feels he's on safe ground. The received "God" of Western Christian tradition can very easily be understood as the sort of maniacal revenge freak who would occasionally flip and send a tsunami on a random human target who, in this latter instance, happened to be the Japanese.
This is of course "unspeakable" in the first old-fashioned riding-to-hounds-in-velvet sense. It's plainly disgusting, and plenty of other commentators have expressed outrage at Beck's remarks. But Beck is also treading on the other sense of the word and this is where both his game is truly played and where in fact his game is up.
Beck, and other media personalities like him, are always maneuvering for the right leverage point to establish the void, to find the vantage place from where they can tip an individual or a group into the bottomless abyss of justified violence. They have an instinct that this is how power and the everyday world are created, how in this tried and trusted way the cosmos is divided comfortably between the saved and the damned, and how many people long for it to be that way again. But as Merton in fact demonstrates, and theology derived from Girardian anthropology shows, it is not possible anymore completely to cover up the abyss. The victim, of whatever race, nation, creed or orientation, will always return to visibility because of the extraordinary action of Jesus shining the light of compassion in the void.
This means that Beck and his ilk are fighting a losing battle. Rant and rave as much as they may, the face of the victim will appear behind them like the Risen Christ behind the soldiery of Rome on Easter morning, filled with the gentle splendor of a creation alive with compassion.
It is not important to come to God's defense and say, "Glenn you've got it wrong, God is nothing like that..." This is a pointless and self-defeating argument because at that level, truly, who can know? What is much more relevant is the way the argument has been outmoded by the agency of the gospel itself. What is at stake in the gospel is not primarily the nature of God but the nature of humanity, and the way that is changed by Jesus. And with that change progressively the nature of our understanding of God changes. We see God with the lens that Jesus has provided, and that lens is a new human possibility of a universe based in compassion.
And it is the change in humanity that Beck is resisting. His very bluster and braggadocio are testimony to the impact of compassion. He has to offend against it grossly and clownishly in order to try and turn back its power. He and Limbaugh and O'Reilly and others have to keep up a continual barrage of bully-boy and thuggish talk in order to stem the counter tide of compassion. They are terrified of the silence itself, from which wells the tears, the cries, the peace of Christ.
Merton's comment of blasphemy is then appropriate, in the way Jesus himself described it. Jesus said the unforgivable sin was "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" and this is precisely the Spirit of forgiveness and compassion let loose in the world. You cannot be forgiven for such a sin because precisely you reject forgiveness! What you ladle out to others must inevitably be inside your own heart, the intolerable flippancy of the saved which in truth rejects salvation. We must therefore have compassion for Beck, even as we reject his words and his way. He is basically terrified of the tide of compassion sweeping the world because of Christ, and in seeking to hold it back he is standing outside of history, outside of time, outside of creation itself. Even if he call down nuclear annihilation on his enemies it is annihilation of himself that he is bringing.
Tony Bartlett, Theologian in Residence