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Thinking Out Loud

Thomas Merton, Karl Barth, and Salvation by Grace

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 03, 2017

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Merton and BarthCoincidences of the calendar are simply amazing. I recall my surprise, many years ago, discovering that C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963. The whole world's attention, of course, was utterly diverted that day from the death of arguably the most popular Christian writer of the time by the tragic assassination of the young American president. A fascinating coincidence of the calendar, but not the only one.

To me, an even more striking coincidence was the death on the same day of Karl Barth and Thomas Merton. Barth died in Basel, Switzerland, at the age of 82, at the end of a long and productive life. Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand, at the age of 53, at the height of his creative powers and influence. The date, December 10, 1968, came toward the end of a terrible year for the deaths of the great and the good.

Rowan Williams, while he was Archbishop of Canterbury, marked the fortieth anniversary of this date with a lecture to the Thomas Merton Society on December 10, 2008. The lecture, "Not Being Serious: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth," can be read here.

In Williams' lecture he speculates "about conversations that might be going on in some heavenly waiting room between Merton and Barth. Apparently such very diverse figures: the greatest Protestant thinker of the twentieth century, and one of the most widely publicized and widely-read Catholic writers of the age." Drawing from Merton's book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (the working title of which was originally Barth's Dream) and Merton's journals, Williams provides a remarkably full portrait of Merton's critical appreciation for Barth.

Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander opens with the sentence: "Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart." Merton goes on to say that in the dream Barth "was appointed to examine Mozart in theology." Barth, the champion of Protestantism, had always been bothered by the fact that Mozart was resolutely Catholic; Mozart criticized Protestantism as "all in the head" and as utterly uncomprehending of the meaning of the phrase: "The Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world."

Barth, whose devotion to Mozart is well-known, wanted to understand Mozart's faith and theology in the most sympathetic terms possible.
Merton writes: "I was deeply moved by Barth's account of this dream and always wanted to write him a letter about it. The dream concerns salvation, and Barth is striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology."

Recalling that Barth began each day's labors as a theologian by listening to Mozart on his record player, Merton says that Barth was drawn to the "divine and cosmic music" that saves us through that love that meets us not only as agape (divine love) but also as eros (a very human love). Barth himself says that "it is a child, even a 'divine' child, who speaks in Mozart's music to us." Merton closes this opening passage with an exhortation: "Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the 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 who will be our salvation." [Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Penguin Random House, 1965), pp. 3-4.]

I wish Merton had written that letter to Barth and that a rich correspondence might have grown between them. We would all have benefited from these two reflecting on their differences and similarities.

It is singularly interesting that Barth, toward the end of his life, laughs at how preposterous it would be for him to attempt to gain access to heaven pushing a wheelbarrow loaded down with his Church Dogmatics. The image of the old theologian sweating, huffing and puffing, toward St. Peter's gate, pushing a load of books is delightful, and reminiscent of Merton's playful exhortation. Despite the brilliance with which Barth argued with his students, or the doggedness with which he quarreled with friends and foes alike, there was a childlike playfulness in Barth too which comes through in asides and letters. He was capable of taking himself lightly, as Williams says (of both Merton and Barth); and perhaps this side of Barth's character, the playful child, was fed as much by the bizarre and wondrous shenanigans of "The Magic Flute" as by the "Great Mass in C-Minor."

I have often thought that Mozart's "Magic Flute" is his musical equivalent to Anselm's Proslogion in which the medieval theologian tries to explain how faith kindles understanding and why he was utterly convinced of God's existence. Mozart invites us into an incredible realm where a beautiful woman, the Queen of the Night, a vision of seeming light embodied in a soaring soprano, turns out to be a mortal threat to our souls while the stern and foreboding Sarastro, a basso profundo in extremis, is revealed in the end as pure grace and goodness. Only by entering into the mysteries personally and at great risk can one discern the goodness of God in this life, Mozart seems to say. Barth understood this too when he says that "Divine revelation ... is the opening of a door that can only be unlocked from the inside." (Merton, Conjectures, p. 10.)

Perhaps it is a fancy, but one shared with an Archbishop: what fun it would have been to overhear the conversation on December 10, 1968, between Barth and Merton. But I suspect as much as they enjoyed getting to know each other, they were both looking forward even more to that evening's performance of Mozart's latest opera, one we haven't heard yet.

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