An Appreciation: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth

Thomas Merton and Karl Barth died on this day in 1968, Barth in Basel at the age of 82, and Merton in Bangok, Thailand at the age of 53. They couldn’t have been more different, but they both were powerful influences on me.

I was a sophomore in college when they died, and I doubt that I had ever heard of either one of them. It must have been a year or two later, during a time of great personal soul-searching, that I first read Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. It was at the height of the Vietnam war, and I had recently resigned from Air Force ROTC, left college to work in New York, and was applying for Conscientious Objector status.

I was also seeking authentic voices about God, and Merton, along with others such as Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel, and Daniel Berrigan, spoke powerfully to me.

William James speaks about the natural mysticism of adolescence, and I suppose I was no different. I didn’t just want to read about God, I wanted to know God.  Merton’s popular autobiography The Seven Story Mountain portrays a troubled young man who finds peace with God through contemplation and ends up happy in a Trappist monastery.

There was a deep romantic mysticism in Merton’s writing that resonated with my own search for God. Much like poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, another convert to Roman Catholicism, Merton sensed God all around him in the natural world. I wouldn’t have known it then, but reading this passage from Merton today I hear echoes of Hopkins (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”):

“By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.”

I discovered Karl Barth several years later, not in seminary as one might expect, but in my first pastorate. The challenge then was not to know God, but to figure out what this God might want to have me say to his people from week to week.  I didn’t dive right into the monumental Church Dogmatics, but started with smaller works, the wonderful Word of God and Word of Man,  and Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.

If Merton, the Catholic, found God in contemplation and in nature, Barth, the Protestant, found him elsewhere.  Barth’s God was the wholly Other, who breaks into our world through the revelation in Jesus Christ as attested in Scripture.  There was no natural theology here, and Barth saw religion itself as a false alternative to faith. He said, “Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way.

I had a group of young pietists in my first church, and it was Barth who gave me the language of Christian faith with which to speak with them.

I rarely read Merton anymore, but I owe him a debt for writing words that brought me closer to God at a critical time in my pilgrimage. I still read Karl Barth all the time and find new delights each time.  Both deserved to be remembered by the church on this day.

(Jim Gordon wrote a thoughtful response to this post on his blog Living Wittily. I commend it to you. Find it here.)

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