Karl Barth, Thomas Merton: 40 Years Later


Karl BarthCambridge, MA. I am in the midst of my “Krsna in Advent” series — the first entry posted a few days ago, the next to come in a few days — but I cannot help but interrupt to remember two great Christian intellectuals and writers who died forty years ago, on December 10th, 1968: Karl Barth and Thomas Merton.


     Karl Barth (1886-1968), one of the very greatest Christian theologians of the 20th century, was a Swiss Protestant theologian in the Reformed tradition. In a series of weighty tomes — most importantly his commentary on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans and his vast Church Dogmatics — he sought to rethink Christian identity in radical fidelity to the Word of God, while rejecting all the distractions and cultural detours into which European Christianity had fallen in the 20th century.

     Thomas Merton (1915-1968), perhaps Catholicism’s greatest spiritual writer in the 20th century, captivated a generation by the story of his conversion and journey into monastic life, The Seven-Storey Mountain. During his years in the Trappist monastery of Gethsemane in Kentucky, Merton returned to writing, winning readers everywhere with his poetry, his meditations on the spiritual life, his search for the true grounding of the Christian life in contemplative wisdom, his growing concern in the 1960s for a socially just Christian witness, and finally, at the end of his life, his turn to the East, his growing interest in the religions of Asia, particularly Buddhism. Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama

     Barth and Barth shared deep Christian concern, a dissatisfaction with bourgeois Christianity, and a sense that we must be radical, given over to faith, if we are to be alive spiritually at all. And of course they are different in so many ways: Barth was Protestant, a professor who died at the end of a long and fruitful life, a stubborn witness to the uniqueness of Christianity; Merton, become Catholic, died tragically in an accident in Bangkok Thailand when he was only 53, a stubborn witness to our need to let go, to go forth from our comfortable Christian security, to find God in real spiritual abandonment, freedom, even beyond what the Church has imagined possible. Barth, though thoughtful and complex in his reflections on religion and the religions of the world, seemed to hold back at the prospect that God could really work in and through people of deep faith in other religions; Merton kept pushing us to be deep enough spiritually that we might be spiritually alive, meeting one another across religious boundaries, unafraid.

     Both died on December 10, 1968. Looking back 40 years, I think it true to say that we need both these versions of Christian witness: deeper, radical Christian commitment, and a fearless g oing forth into interreligious encounter. Our world today does not need simply a repeat of Barth’s view of the Word in the world — while reading Merton, without reading Barth, leaves us in danger of skipping lightly over the radical paradox and scandalous particularity of Christian faith.

     2008 is a different world; on Wednesday, let us honor the memory of both of them, by taking bolder, riskier Christian steps into interreligious learning, without expecting Barth or Merton to tell us what comes next, in our moment of history.



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8 years 10 months ago
Would it not be more helpful to eschew such adjectives as "One of the very greatest" ... and "perhaps Catholicism's greatest spiritual writer in the 20th Century..."? Comparisons, as grandma warns us, are odious. I believe both men would be happy with the thought that their books are worth reading. ["His sins were scarlet, but his books were read"].
8 years 10 months ago
'I think we have now reached a stage of (long-overdue) religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment, and yet to learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist or Hindu discipline and experience. I believe that some of us need to do this in order to improve the quality of our own monastic life and even to help in the task of monastic renewal. ~ Thomas Merton, Calcutta, India, October, 1968
8 years 10 months ago
People who love and are familiar with Mozart's music would understand John Updike's forward to theologian Karl Barth's book 'Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart': 'Above all, it is the *dialectical* character of Mozart's music that Barth admires. In this music, everything comes to expression: 'heaven and earth, nature and man, comedy and tragedy, the Virgin Mary and the demons'. Mozart simply *contains* and *includes* all this within his music in perfect harmony. This harmony is not a matter of 'balance' or 'indifference' – it is 'a glorious upsetting of the balance, a *turning* in which the light rises and the shadows fall …, in which the Yes rings louder than the ever-present No.' '
8 years 10 months ago
While I so deeply appreciate the tribute to both Barth and Merton, I would like to see the typo at the beginning of the fourth paragraph corrected. As a protestant, I am grateful for the generosity in which Barth is remembered. And as a student of both Barth and Merton, I think reading the two together helps inform Christian faithfulness in very helpful ways. Many Thanks.
8 years 10 months ago
'Barth has always been piqued by the Catholicism of Mozart, and by Mozart's rejection of Protestantism. For Mozart said that 'Protestantism was all in the head' and that 'Protestantism did not know the meaning of the *Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi*.' 'Barth, in his dream, was appointed to examine Mozart in theology. He wanted to make the examination as favorable as possible, and in his questions he alluded pointedly to Mozart's masses. 'But Mozart did not answer a word. 'I was deeply moved by Barth's account of this dream and almost wanted to write him a letter about it. The dream concerns his salvation, and Barth perhaps is striving to admit that he will be saved more by Mozart in himself than by his theology...' ~ Thomas Merton
8 years 10 months ago
Thank you-- well said. While I am much more familiar with and inclined towards Merton's vision than Barth's, wouldn't you love to have imagined a dialogue between these two faith-filled people. I hope that the future holds a deeper appreciation also of their contemporary mystic-visionary-theologian-scientist, Teilhard de Chardin. That Christian trio should surely be joined by others to present a challenge to the rest of us who so easily grow myopic in our spirituality and faith.
8 years 10 months ago
Dave P, Two recurring themes in monasticism are renunciation and newness. Yesterday I heard Fr. Bruno Barnhart, OSB, Cam of New Camaldoli Hermitage give a talk about Teilhard de Chardin and Bede Grifftiths. It was exciting to listen to this talk. I believe Teilhard's vision for the future will inform and encourage many new contemplative paths. Perhaps we could also invite Bede Griffiths.


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