Willem Visser’t Hooft on Pierre Maury and Karl Barth

Willem Visser’t Hooft, the first General Secretary of the World Council of Churches from its foundation until his retirement in 1966, recounts in his Memoirs, 1973, SCM, pp. 35-8, chapter six – Nursery and brains trust of the ecumenical movement, his friendship with both Pierre Maury and Karl Barth and their significance in his life and times.

Pierre Maury Karl Barth and Visser't Hooft May 1934 during the student conference at La Chataigneraie Switzerland

Pierre Maury, Karl Barth and Willem Visser’t Hooft at  La Chataigneraie in 1934.

During those years of change one of the greatest steadying influences in our life was the friendship with Pierre Maury. Of the men and women with whom I have worked over the years none had a deeper influence on me than Pierre Maury. He had been general secretary of the French Student Christian Movement and had become pastor of the French Reformed Church in Ferney-Voltaire in France, just across the border from Geneva. Jetty (Visser’t Hooft’s wife) and I were so impressed by his powerful and direct preaching that we decided to join his parish. So we crossed the border every Sunday morning to attend the service in the rather dilapidated church in Ferney-Voltaire. For us, as for so many others, Pierre Maury became the pastoral friend and the friendly pastor. He saw my weaknesses and did not spare his criticisms, but he saw more in me than I saw in myself, and so he gave me courage to do things which I would not have done without him.

Maury had an unlimited curiosity about people and ideas. He could lecture on the modern French novel, but was at the same time a theologian of great originality. I had the privilege of bringing Karl Barth and Maury together in 1925, and these two developed a friendship in which both gave and both received. Barth wrote about him: ‘I have had and still have good friends. But there has been in my life only one Pierre Maury.’ Jetty and I could say the same. For this man combined in a unique way the deep passion for the discovery of the great objective divine truth with an equally deep interest in persons and in all manifestations of human life.

It was of course Pierre Maury who preached at the service in 1936 at which I was ordained as a minister of the national Protestant Church of Geneva. And he remained my ‘guru’ until his death and, since then the conversation was not really finished, even beyond.

It was in the late 20s that the Barthian storm swept over the theological world and that I became involved in the spreading of Barth’s message. Maury had asked me in 1928 to write a short article on Barth for Foi et Vie. At that time no books of Barth had been translated into French and mine was one of the first articles in French about his thought. In 1930 I was invited to give a lecture on Barth in Kings College, London. This was a rather formidable assignment, where Barth’s theological approach was as far removed from the current British approach as could be imagined. The Dean of St Paul’s was in the chair. I had the feeling that I had talked Chinese to Englishmen or English to the Chinese. The Church Times commented charitably: ‘The lecturer, although an ardent disciple of Barth, did not altogether make his author clear: possibly through attempting to say too much at once, possibly through the nature of the theology which he set out to explain[1]. I gave the same lecture in Toronto and it was published in Canada[2]. The French version appeared as a brochure: Introduction à Karl Barth. I was curious what Barth himself would say. He wrote that he admired the ability with which I had brought his thoughts so near to the people of that far distant English world. Had I really done that? His next remark was more convincing. He said: ‘I have always observed that I was best understood by those who saw it as their task to think through the matter themselves ‘at ovo’ (from the beginning) rather than to repeat only what I have said[3].

The great objection to Barth’s theology at that time was that it was a theology of despair. I tried to explain that to many of my generation it was exactly the opposite. I put it thus:

Barth opens for us the wonderful objectivity of God’s world. He delivers us from the anxious seeking for religious treasures. His is the theology of spiritual poverty. Many of us who spent fruitless hours in building up our inner experiences and always found them wanting when we needed them the most have been saved from ourselves, from our old Adam by accepting this great truth that the only thing which matters is God’s Holy Spirit, and that that Spirit is with those who are hungry and thirsty, not with those who are spiritually well fed. And others who have tried to keep their ideals of human achievement and progress alive in a world where those ideals are constantly submerged by the floods of this unbearably realistic life, have been saved from both their ideals and their disillusions by accepting the truth that God’s kingdom comes at his appointed time and that God relates their efforts to it in his own way, which we do not and need not know.

I was never a Barthian in the sense that I followed him in all respects. But I remain grateful to him the giving me ground under my feet. He could be terribly intransigent and sometimes quite unfair in his criticisms of what he called ‘the ecumenical circus’ and I would then protest strongly. But it was really a blessing that during that formative period of the ecumenical movement there was a man who was asking us fundamental questions and calling us back to the central truths. I have therefore said more than once that without Karl Barth the movement would not have had the spiritual substance which it did receive.

In 1934 I invited Barth to an international student conference at La Chataigneraie near Geneva. The participants from many parts of the world used the opportunity to bombard Barth with critical questions. The professor was examined by the students. Somebody said that we were like pygmies throwing darts at an elephant. And I was tempted to give to the account of this discussion the title: ‘Karl Barth contra mundum’ (against the world). But neither description was really correct. For Barth went far in his understanding of the questions. When several had spoken of the centrality of ‘experience’ rather than of biblical revelation, Barth answered: ‘I have also a little bit of experience’ and proceeded to tell how from the days of his pastorate in Switzerland to the present moment of his involvement in the church conflict in Germany he had increasingly learnt to count on nothing else than the word of God. The students had not only met a great theologian, but also a human being struggling to serve God in the chaotic life of our times.

Let me before leaving Karl Barth for the moment tell (a story). In 1936 Barth came to Geneva on the occasion of the fourth century of the Genevese Reformation. I had met him at the station and taken him to our home. He wanted to prepare for his speech, so I proposed that he should go into the garden. After a while my little son came running in and said in great agitation: ‘The tortoises have done something on the notes which the gentleman has to sing in the church!’ What on earth had happened? I found that my son had taken pity on the lonely gentlemen and had brought him his two pet tortoises. But these had reacted as animals do in moments of panic. So Barth’s manuscript was soiled. But he laughed and said: ‘This is the revenge of natural theology’.

[1] The Church Times, January 24th 1930.

[2] Canadian Journal of Religious Thought, January-February 1931.

[3] Letter of April 25th 1930.

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