Cambridge, 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.
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.