The great Bell continued to sound during the next 45 years in Barth’s lectures
discussions and books, and particularly in his massive and unfinished Church Dogmatics. Controversy continued as well.
Emil Brunner, another distinguished German Protestant thinker, denounced Barth for his rejection of natural theology. In the United States, Reinhold Niebuhr, a Lutheran, called Barth’s denial of natural ethics irresponsible and irrelevant. Karl Barth continued to preach, mostly to those in prison.
Barth once thought of the Reformation as a necessary split in Christianity. The Reformers had to reject a Roman Catholic theology that was based on what Barth saw as Thomas Aquinas’s misunderstanding of the analogy of being. But two Swiss Catholics made him reconsider this judgment.
Hans Urs von Balthasar showed him that Aquinas and the Catholic Church taught a theology close to his own. From Hans Kung Barth learned with “shock” and “considerable amazement” that he and the Council of Trent said almost the same thing about justification-the central doctrinal issue of the Reformation.
While Barth was re-evaluating Catholicism, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk in the hills of Kentucky, was re-evaluating Protestantism-which as a youthful writer he had called a “well-meaning stupidity.” Merton read Barth and became, as he said, “very fond” of him. In fact he called Barth “almost the one among theologians alive today that I like best.”
Thomas Merton was four years old when Barth began ringing his great Bell. But Merton knew nothing of this, and with no religious training he grew up to consider himself an atheist. Later he would renounce his atheism to become a Catholic and, at the age of 26, a Cistercian monk in the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
When this young Trappist wrote his autobiography
, it too rang out over the Christian world. Baptist seminarians and Episcopal bishops were among the visitors to his monastery; and Eldridge Cleaver, the black activist, read “Brother Merton” in prison.
The Seven Storey Mountain quickly became a best-seller. In it, Merton recalled his restless journeys across Europe, his troubled life at Cambridge University and his academic probings in the classrooms of Columbia University in New York City.
He went on to tell of becoming a Catholic and then entering the Kentucky monastery, where he found spiritual joy and vowed to spend the rest of his life. But his final phrase suggested that he remained a restless believer: “Let the book come to an end, but not the search.” As additional books appeared, the troubled search continued.
Like Barth, Merton also wrote of climbing a church tower at night. His essay “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952″ has always been one of his most popular. While struggling to understand his vocation, he had taken his turn on the nightly fire-watch in his monastery. “The fire watch,” he wrote, “is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light, a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.”
As he walks the darkened halls, the divine scrutiny reduces his human motives to nothing and his human desires to empty illusions. He climbs the broken stairs of the church tower and, coming to the belfry, asks, “Will it come like this, the moment of my death?” But God transcends the human world, and the only response is silence. Yet the silence seems to lift him up so that he can continue:
“A dialogue with you, uttered through the world, always ends by being a dialogue with my own reflection in the stream of time. With you there is no dialogue unless you choose a mountain and circle it with cloud and print your words in fire upon the mind of Moses. What was delivered to Moses on tables of stone, as the fruit of lightning and thunder, is now more thoroughly born in our own souls as quietly as the breath of our own being.”
This was at the center of his theology: We know the transcendent God only when this God reveals himself. For Merton that night, God’s revelation was his silence, yet out of the silence came “Mercy within Mercy within Mercy.”
That passage could have been written by Barth. Both of these men were part of a human church community. Both spoke to their fellow believers of a God who was among them, yet had revealed himself as radically other, as hidden in mystery beyond them. What better image could they find to deliver the message than that of ascending a darkened tower above the friendly church community?
The political figures of the world have changed since that day in 1968 when Richard Nixon announced his choice for Secretary of State. But the writings of both Merton and Barth, who died that day, are still studied and taken to prayer. Their books have become testaments of a sort left to the Christian churches, and by reading them Christians can still discover the vanity of their motives and a hunger for the unknown God. Then, beyond human vanity, they can enter the silence in which is found the mercy of God. After reading Barth or Merton, Christians can be less complacent about themselves and more confident about what God is doing.
Merton once reflected on the laborious quality of Barth’s prose, but added: “Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to be a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think!”
I believe Karl Barth would have appreciated that advice. For, like Thomas Merton, he knew the Mercy, and even his massive volumes of Church Dogmatics are not as solemn as they appear. Barth and Merton left behind them an eloquent testimony to the transcendence that we easily forget. Thirty years after their passing, the image of climbing at night into a church tower still reminds the churches that the transcendent God dwells in a darkness above all the images we might devise. The great Bell and the great Silence continue to be heard.