In 2011 Benjamin Durheim, a Ph.D. student in the Theology Department of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Boston College published a paper The Human as Encounter: Karl Barth’s Theological Anthropology and a Barthian Vision of the Common Good (Lumen et Vita /June 2011) in which he claimed (pp7-8) that
For Barth, to conceive of a solitary human being is a simple impossibility. As he states, “If we see man in and for himself, and therefore without his fellows, we do not see him at all. If we see him in opposition or even neutrality towards his fellows, we do not see him at all.” (Church Dogmatics III/2, 226-7) For Barth, it is non-human to strive to be on one’s own, apart from others. Experiencing oneself as an “I” in relation to the “thou” constitutes the very human condition. (Ibid., 244-247. Barth is dependent in large part for this “I-thou” formulation on the thought of Martin Buber. See for example Martin Buber, I and Thou, ed./trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Touchstone, 1970), 51-183). To be human in Barth’s vision, that is, to appropriate in whatever incomplete way the “true man,” is to be in relation with other humans.
In my introduction to the second edition of “Election, Barth and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury gave a Decisive Impetus to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election” (Wipf & Stock, 2019) – (pp 15-17) – I said that when we consider the interpersonal dynamic of this friendship (between Barth and Maury), we also discover an interesting parallel between Barth’s doctrine of Creation in Church Dogmatics III, the second volume of which appeared three years after the end of the Second World War in May 1948, and Maury’s Lenten sermons of the same year (Maury, Jesus Christ, cet inconnu). After volume one of CD III, in which Barth famously integrates creation and redemption, he explores the theme of “being in encounter” in volume two:
Being in encounter consists . . . in the fact that we render mutual assistance in the act of being . . . In the very fact that he lives a man is summoned by his fellow-man. The latter does not wish to be left alone or to his own devices in his action. I cannot represent him. I cannot make his life-task my own. He cannot expect this from me. He must not confuse me with God. And he will certainly have no reason to do so. I must try to help myself, and he will have to do the same. But as he tries to do so, he has the right to expect that I shall be there for him as well as myself, that I shall not ignore him but live with him, that my life will be a support for his, that it will mean comfort, encouragement and alleviation for him. (Barth, CD III/2, 260, 263). In 1956 Barth mentioned his interaction with Maury in a letter to Albert Finet. Was he alluding to an ongoing mutually beneficial conversation possibly at the 1st Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam 1948 from the 22nd of August to the 4th of September? He remembered that “It was always refreshing for me to be with him one or two times every year for several hours or several days. It did not matter where, in Switzerland, or in Paris, sometimes at a conference, in a particularly fruitful way in Amsterdam in 1948.” (my emphasis) Reymond, Karl Barth—Pierre Maury, 249).
So in the same year that Barth’s discussion of the theme of “being in encounter” appeared in print for the first time, one of Maury’s sermons, “To know Jesus Christ is to know man,” expressed concepts markedly similar to Barth’s development of an anthropology developed from a Christologically determined doctrine of creation. For Barth, being in encounter involves human beings looking each other in the eye, where there is mutual speech and hearing, and where we render assistance to each other in the act of being, all of which occurs in reciprocal gladness. Maury declared in his Lenten sermon:
Without Jesus Christ, I am without you. More than that, I am without myself . . . In any event, for Jesus Christ, to be human, is to understand and love what is “the other”. (p. 51)
………Wolf Krötke, in a discussion of Barth’s anthropology, claims:
If we take seriously the fact that the eternal God has here bound himself with a man, then the history which here takes place is to be understood as a history really grounded in the eternity of God. Barth set this out in an interpretation of the doctrine of election, one of the most genuine accomplishments of his theological thinking, and at the same time a place at which essential decisions about the structure of theological anthropology are taken. (Krötke, The Humanity of the Human Person, 163).
In a subsequent discussion of humanity as co-humanity, he also postulates that
In Barth’s understanding, in the light of faith in Jesus Christ, it is evident that it is no accident that the human creature exists structurally in relations . . . The human person is human only in relation to fellow human beings. Human “existence with fellow humans” is the basic form of humanity in which a person is “the parable of the existence of his creator.” (Ibid., 168. Krötke’s quotations are from CD III/2, 203).
I would suggest that perhaps the most significant factor in this story of a unique friendship is this interpersonal dynamic of companionship and mutual encouragement. In a letter to Albert Finet, director of the weekly Réforme (Reformation) journal, after Maury’s death, Barth said:
…We were great friends. In all likelihood he underestimated what he brought to our friendship. If he learned this or that from me, he never in any way became my student. At an important stage in my theological journey, when I was concerned with the doctrine of election, he gave me a decisive impetus. Very often he led me much further, simply by his questions, his reservations or his objections. He was a legend, when some considered him as my blind partisan. He was too good a Frenchman, and a Christian, to be someone else’s passenger. Besides, I didn’t have either the intention or the capacity to do that with him. Read his writings and his publications and you can see to what degree he thought everything through and expressed and defended it in his own way. And he had such gifts that I never possessed, which I could only admire in him. (Un homme libre (A free man), published 18 Feb 1956 (my translation)).
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Volume III: The Doctrine of Creation, Part 2. English translation. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2004.
Durheim, Benjamin. “The Human as Encounter: Karl Barth’s Theological Anthropology and a Barthian Vision of the Common Good.” Lumen et Vita (June 2011) 1–20.
Krötke, Wolf. “The Humanity of the Human Person in Karl Barth’s Anthropology.” In The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, edited by John B. Webster, 159–76. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Maury, Pierre. Jésus Christ, cet inconnu: six allocutions pour le carême 1948. Strasbourg: Oberlin, 1948.
Reymond, Bernard, ed. and trans. Karl Barth—Pierre Maury, Nous qui pouvons encore parler . . . Correspondance 1928–1956. Lausanne: Symbolon, Éditions l’Age d’Homme, 1985.