Setting Theology Free
: The Shaping of an Alternative Language for Theology in the Work of Thomas Merton through a Poetics of Place

  • Elizabeth M Rainsford-Mcmahon

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


In this thesis, I show how Thomas Merton creates an alternative language for theology, shaped by the aspirations for language of the mid-20th century ressourcement theologians, and further deepened through the distinctive quality of his engagement with place. I outline the character of the ressourcement movement in its concern for revitalising theological expression and provide a parallel survey of mid-20th century interrogation of the theme of place. Through this dual focus on language and place, I identify a paradigm, in which language, place and intimations of divine presence form a tripartite nexus. I name this paradigm a poetics of place.
The thesis considers the evolution of this poetics of place in Merton’s work, through four chapters of analysis of primary texts. I then reflect on Merton’s poetics to suggest that he not only provides an alternative language for theology to the scholasticism of his time, but that his work also provides a model which responds to ongoing self-critique within the discipline of theology, concerning theological genre and the side-lining of place as a theological category.
The title signals in part the freedom which emerges when place, as a shaper of theological understanding, is prioritised. If theology is not only rooted in the traditions of respective faiths but also in spatial context, it is forced to evolve and engage with that context. Place thus takes on the role of partner to theological enquiry, as a focus which is multiple and subject to constant evolution. This ‘setting free’ also refers to the release of theology from unanalysed stylistic conventions and emphases within scholastic methodology, sought for by the ressourcement theologians. Both ressourcement endeavours and later interrogations of language and place generate a more capacious and, I suggest, a more theologically shaped field for the discipline of theology, than is evident in scholastic methodology. I shall argue that it is within such wider and theologically determined parameters, that Merton’s theological genre is located.
Date of Award30 Nov 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorGavin G D'Costa (Supervisor)

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