Remembering Barth and Merton
I have younger colleagues who speak with fondness of their graduate school days. Mine I prefer to forget. I studied at Yale during a time of intense turmoil in Society, in Church, and in University. The Religious Studies Department was in disarray. And my last “public” act was as a student marshal on the New Haven Green in May 1970, while the National Guard patrolled the streets and tear gas made the air acrid.
The nadir, of course, was 1968 with the assassinations of King and Kennedy. But two deaths, in December of that year, also caused great grief. Karl Barth and Thomas Merton died on this day, worlds apart physically, but sharing much spiritual kinship.
To my mind, on December 10th 1968, they appeared symbolically as spokesmen for God’s transcendent mystery, in a culture that was fast trivializing that sense. They also spoke realistically about the human plight when such talk seemed to run counter to a facile celebration of human potential.
I was taking that semester a reading course on Barth with Hans Frei, later to go on to fame as a stellar member of the “Yale School,” but then an aspiring Associate Professor. Frei, who together with George Lindbeck was later to be one of the readers for my doctoral dissertation, insisted that Barth was the Protestant theologian that Catholics, in the wake of Vatican II, should most read. When I asked “why?”, he replied: “lest they repeat in 20 years all the mistakes that it took Protestant liberalism 200 years to make!”
Here is a quote from Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation that I think Barth might second:
Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.
With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please.
We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.
If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it!
A positive sign of the times: both Barth and Merton are commemorated in today’s edition of L’Osservatore Romano.