Thomas Merton and Karl Barth
Father Daniel Berrigan, in an interview published in the fall of this year by the Merton Center in Louisville, Kentucky, describes 1968 as annus horribilis (a terrible year). The Vietnam war raged on, within a few weeks of each other Dr. Martin Luther King (April) and Robert F. Kennedy (June) were assassinated. With their deaths the Public Square and the Church lost two great leaders.
As 1968 drew to a close, two other great ones died in the Season of Advent on the same date, December 10, 1968: Thomas Merton, monk of the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky and a prophetic voice in a time of the Cold war; and Karl Barth, Pastor and Theologian of God’s sovereignty in a world that is more and more totalitarian. At first glance they seem an odd couple to share a feast day, but on closer observation they are children of the sovereign and compassionate one God.
Merton, in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, begins his book with the observation: “Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart.” In Merton’s dream, Barth (a Protestant) was appointed to examine Mozart (a Catholic) in theology. Mozart remains silent — he won’t speak in his own defense. Merton goes on to muse that “the dream concerns his (Barth’s) salvation, and Barth is striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology.”
Each day, for years, before Barth would write dogma he played Mozart. Why? Merton believes Barth was trying to awaken the hidden ‘sophianic,’ the hidden wisdom that dwells within each of us. Of import is that Barth believed it is “a child, even a ‘divine’ child who speaks in Mozart’s music to us.” Merton closes his observations with this thought: “Fear not Karl Barth! Trust in 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 (a creative child) who will be our salvation.”
This is the season of the Child; the Child who dwells in us, the child who is Christ the Lord. But Christ doesn’t just live in me; no the God made flesh dwells in us all —all persons with whom we come into contact. This leads to a radical inclusion: a radical acceptance of the Other. Karl Barth puts it this way: “To think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous, or miserable as one to whom Jesus Christ is brother and God is Father; and we have to deal with him on that assumption.” (The Humanity of God, Atlanta: John Knox, 1976, p. 53)