Tag Archives: Karl Barth

Merton and Barth

On December 11, 1968, I woke up in my dorm room at the university of Scranton to see the New York Times cover. On the front page were the opening paragraphs of two obituaries – Thomas Merton and Karl Barth who had died on the previous day. The world had lost a great Protestant theologian and a great Catholic monk and spiritual guide.

Though Merton felt closer theologically to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he had an appreciation for Barth, whom he quoted several times in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. As he noted in the preface:

I simply record ways in which theologians like Barth have entered quite naturally and easily into my personal and monastic reflections, indeed, into my own Christian world-view. To put it plainly, the book attempts to show how in actual fact a Catholic monk is able to read Barth and identify with him in much the same way as he would read a Catholic author like Maritain—or indeed a Father of the Church.

Merton notes that Barth played Mozart every morning before writing, perhaps – speculates Merton – “unconsciously seeking to awaken, perhaps, the hidden sophianic Mozart in himself, the central wisdom that comes in tune with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love, yes, even by eros.” Or, as Barth himself wrote, ““it is a child, even a ‘divine’ child, who speaks in Mozart’s music to us.”

Merton suggests that it is not theology that will save us but the encounter as a child with Christ.

And so I wonder how Merton and Barth would greet each other in the presence of God. I think Merton would repeat what he wrote:

“Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation.”

And so we are called to be as little children, approaching the Lord who loves us.

Merton, Barth, and Mozart

Thomas Merton and Karl Barth died on the same day, December 10, 1968. I remember picking up the New York Times on December 11 and seeing their photos and obituaries on opposite sides of the bottom of the first page.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, author of The Seven Storey Mountain and many other books, advocate of peace and racial justice, has been an inspiration for me for decades. I know much less about Karl Barth, a Reformed Church pastor and theologian. But he was a member of the Confessing Church in Germany and one of those responsible for the Barmen Declaration that opposed the Reich Church that professed allegiance to the Nazis.

Many years before their deaths, Thomas Merton wrote about Barth and Mozart in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.

Barth played Mozart each day before beginning to write. One night Barth had a dream in which he interrogates Mozart on his theology (which was very critical of Protestantism). Mozart said nothing in response.

Merton suggested that Barth listened to Mozart

unconsciously seeking to awaken, perhaps, the hidden sophianic Mozart in himself, the central wisdom that comes in tune with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love, yes, even by eros. While the other, theological self, seemingly more concerned with love, grasps at a more stern, more cerebral agape: a love that, after all, is not in our own heart but only in God and revealed only to our head.
Barth says, also significantly, that “it is a child, even a ‘divine’ child, who speaks in Mozart’s music to us.”

Merton concludes his short meditation on Barth, commending Barth (and himself) to the mercy of God:

Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation.

I wonder what Merton and Barth are now discussing in heaven.

Revolutionary prayer: Merton and Barth

On December 10, 1968, two great twentieth century religious men died.

One, Karl Barth, was a Swiss Reformed Church pastor and theologian, who is renowned for his role with the German Confessing Church, which saw allegiance to Hitler as heresy and apostasy.

The other, Thomas Merton, was a Trappist monk, famous for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In his life of silence in the Abbey of Gethsemani, he wrote books and letters that shared his concern for deep love of God and his opposition to war, racism, and poverty.

Both these men shared a sense that prayer is essential for our spiritual life – and for real change in the world.

For Merton, prayer opens us to the new horizons that God is always revealing to us, if we would listen in prayer. In Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton wrote:

Prayer and meditation have an important part to play in opening up new ways and new horizons. If your prayer is the expression of a deep and grace-inspired desire for newness of life—and not the mere blind attachment to what has always been familiar and “safe”—God will act in us and through us to renew the Church by preparing, in prayer, what we cannot yet imagine or understand. In this way our prayer and faith today will be oriented toward the future which we ourselves may never see fully realized on earth.

In prayer, we can be vulnerable enough to lay aside our visions and open ourselves to the vision that God has for us and for our world. God opens us to what is possible – with God’s help and vision.

I think that is why Karl Barth saw prayer as important and wrote:

To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of our uprising against the disorder of the world.

When we pray we acknowledge that the powers of this world are ephemeral and often tied to fear and violence. When we pray we can see that allegiance to Hitler – and to systems of violence and racism – are apostasy, refusals to acknowledge a living God who call us to solidarity and nonviolence.

Prayer does not take us out of the world; prayer takes us where we can see that the world is not as God wants it; and prayer can change us so that we can be signs and agents of God’s vision for this world and for the Kingdom. Prayer can be revolutionary.

Merton to Barth: May Christ remain a child in you.

I was in my junior year at the University of Scranton and had taken advantage of a special student subscription to the New York Times. December 11, 1968, I was astounded as I noted on opposite sides at the bottom of the front page two obituary notices – Thomas Merton and Karl Barth; both had died the previous day.

I had read a lot of Merton and considered his work an inspiration for my life – not only on contemplation but also on facing the challenges of racism and war in the late 1960s.

I had heard of Karl Barth but not read his work. (I must confess that I still haven’t read more than a few pages.)

But I remembered that in the beginning of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton had written about Barth.

Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart.

Barth had always been piqued by the Catholicism of Mozart, and by Mozart’s rejection of Protestantism.…

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…. The dream concerns his salvation, and Barth perhaps is striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology.

Each day, for years, Barth played Mozart every morning before going to work on his dogma: unconsciously seeking to awaken, perhaps, the hidden sophianic Mozart in himself, the central wisdom that comes in tune with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love, yes, even by eros. While the other, theological self, seemingly more concerned with love, grasps at a more stern, more cerebral agape: a love that, after all, is not in our own heart but only in God and revealed only to our head.

Barth says, also significantly, that “it is a child, even a ‘divine’ child, who speaks in Mozart’s music to us.” …

Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will
be our salvation.

There is all too great a temptation among intellectuals (and I have to admit that many would so label me) to try to grasp at our faith in terms of ideas and propositions.  We want the right word, the right phrases, the right arguments.

But Merton reminds us that God is also revealed in our heart. As Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

How often are we people of faith tempted to reduce faith (and orthodoxy) to the right words. But “orthodoxy” might also be translated as “right glory/worship” and orthodoxy is related to “orthopraxis” – right practice. Wasn’t it James who said that “Faith without works is dead.”

But I fear that the divisions and the harsh words and accusations may continue in the Church I love and in the wider Christian community.

And so, in the midst of the struggles in the church, maybe what all sides should do is sit down and listen to some Mozart. I’d suggest Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Mozart’s Requiem.

And then let God awaken the child within us so that we may trust the mercy of God – and let ourselves rest in Christ’s lap.