On this date in 1968 two celebrated theologians died: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth. Both are honored on this date by the worldwide Anglican community even though neither was Anglican, and neither has been beatified or canonized. Merton spent his active theological years (1950s and 60s) as a Trappist monk, and Barth was a member of the Swiss Reformed tradition. Nonetheless, they have both been praised by denominations across the Christian spectrum, largely because they thought outside of traditional ecclesiastical boundaries. For my money, neither went far enough ecumenically, but I’ll give them A for effort.
Barth first came to public notice in the theological community with his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans in the summer of 1916 while he was still a pastor in Safenwil, with the first edition appearing in December 1918 (but with a publication date of 1919). On the strength of the first edition of the commentary, Barth was invited to teach at the University of Göttingen. Barth decided around October 1920 that he was dissatisfied with the first edition and heavily revised it the following eleven months, finishing the second edition around September 1921. Barth argued that the God who is revealed in the crucifixion of Jesus challenges and overthrows any attempt to ally God with human cultures, achievements, or possessions.
In 1934, as the Protestant Church attempted to come to terms with the Third Reich, Barth was largely responsible for the writing of the Barmen declaration (Barmer Erklärung). This declaration rejected the influence of Nazism on German Christianity by arguing that the Church’s allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ should give it the impetus and resources to resist the influence of other lords, such as Adolf Hitler. Barth mailed this declaration to Hitler personally. This was one of the founding documents of the Confessing Church and Barth was elected a member of its leadership council, the Bruderrat. He was forced to resign from his professorship at the University of Bonn in 1935 for refusing to swear an oath to Hitler. Barth then returned to his native Switzerland, where he assumed a chair in systematic theology at the University of Basel. In the course of his appointment he was required to answer a routine question asked of all Swiss civil servants: whether he supported the national defense. His answer was, “Yes, especially on the northern border!” The newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung carried his 1936 criticism of the philosopher Martin Heidegger for his support of the Nazis. In 1938 he wrote a letter to a Czech colleague Josef Hromádka in which he declared that soldiers who fought against the Third Reich were serving a Christian cause.
Barth’s theology found its most sustained and compelling expression in his five-volume (multiple parts) magnum opus, Church Dogmatics (“Kirchliche Dogmatik”). Segments of Church Dogmatics were required reading for me at Oxford as a first year theology student. Fortunately, we did not have to delve into the whole work. Church Dogmatics runs to over six million words and 9,000 pages – one of the longest works of systematic theology ever written.
Thomas Merton followed a much more checkered career path than Barth. As a youth he was a well-known profligate (much like so many legendary saints in early life before conversion). After numerous missteps and false starts he determined to become a Trappist monk perhaps as a counterbalance to his misspent earlier life. By coincidence, on this date in 1941 (the date of his death in 1968), Merton arrived at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and spent three days at the monastery guest house, waiting for acceptance into the Order. The novice master came to interview Merton, gauging his sincerity and qualifications. In the interim, Merton was put to work polishing floors and scrubbing dishes. On December 13th he was accepted into the monastery as a postulant by Frederic Dunne, Gethsemani’s abbot since 1935.
In his time as a monk, and later priest, Merton wrote 50 books, primarily on spirituality and social justice, and became an international celebrity. He recognized many points of contact between other faiths, notably Zen, and Christianity, although he remained a dogmatic Catholic. Here are some quotes, beginning with his famous prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.
You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.
If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.
Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.
Trappist monasteries are noted for their gardens, which they use for their own needs and also to support them financially. They are also known internationally for their beer production. There are numerous cookbooks celebrating Trappist cooking (usually vegetarian), and I have mentioned their soups before. Here is a mushroom and barley dish that I like (https://mepkinabbey.org/mushroom-risotto-with-barley-a-great-dish-with-an-easier-method-using-barley/ ):
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
5 cups broth
1 ¼ cups pearl barley
6 oz. mushrooms
2 teaspoons soy sauce
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Heat olive oil and add onion and garlic. Sauté until softened and beginning to brown. Add broth, barley, mushrooms, and soy sauce and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until most liquid is absorbed and mixture is thickened. This will take about 40 minutes. In the last couple of minutes of cooking, stir in the cheese and season with salt and pepper.