Friendship Weighs More Than Ideology
Not long after beginning as Assistant Pastor at the historic Beechgrove Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, our Senior Minister, the Reverend Tom Alsup, asked if I would be willing to visit regularly with a particular member of the congregation, Dr. David Cairns, Professor Emeritus of Christ College, Aberdeen University. “He is in nursing care,” Tom told me, “His mind is as active as ever, but his body is failing.”
That simple request led to a long and profound friendship.
Throughout my time in Aberdeen, and even after returning to the United States, David and I visited regularly. When I arrived at his room, sometimes he was painting quietly at an easel near the window (he took up watercolor after retiring); other times he was sitting up in his bed reading. Often his reading material was a philosophical or theological text in another language.
I remember one day walking in and him saying, “Oh, good, Michael. You’re here. I put this book aside a few days ago for us to discuss.” He handed it to me, saying, “Take a quick look, if you would, just read these pages I’ve marked. I’m curious to know what you think.”
The book he handed me was a German philosophical treatise on a controversial aspect of ontology (the concept of being).
“Start right here,” he said, pointing. I raised my eyebrows and stumbled through the German, I’m sure with my lips moving, feeling like a small boy being instructed by his tutor. When at last I finished reading the pages, having laboriously picked up just enough to make a heroic effort at conversation, he said, “Well. What do you think?”
David was the child of one of Scotland’s great intellectual families (his father being the legendary Principal D. S. Cairns. David was also one of Swiss theologian Emil Brunner’s star students in the mid-twentieth century. David was fluent in several modern and ancient languages. He was, in fact, personally very close to Brunner, who was arguably the second greatest Reformed theologian of the twentieth century. Indeed, David translated the final volume of Brunner’s great survey of Christian theology.
One day David said to me, “I’m really only a third-rate mind.”
To which I said, “I hope not, David, because if you are a third-rate mind I won’t even get on the rating scale at all.”
There’s so much I could say about our friendship. I happened to be back in Scotland for a few days right after David died. I went to his room at the hospital before it was cleared out, and there on his side table was a letter from me. He had opened and read it not long before his death.
Philip Larkin, one of my favorite poets, said at the end of his poem, “An Arundel Tomb”: “What will survive of us is love.” Larkin said of his own statement that this “almost-instinct” is “almost-true.” But I don’t think there’s any doubt that it is true as I consider the presence David still holds in my heart.
Among the many stories David told me about the theologians who were his own friends (including one hilarious story about Reinhold Niebuhr’s vanity that we’ll leave that to another time), was a tragic story concerning Emil Brunner. It is a story of a friendship betrayed. And this story concerned the greatest Reformed theologian of the twentieth century, another Swiss, Karl Barth.
Brunner and Barth were close colleagues and friends. Together they founded a theological movement which still continues to this day. And together they stood against Nazism as it attempted to establish its totalitarian grip on Europe.
Brunner was an extraordinary Calvin scholar, and in 1934 he wrote a brilliant analysis of John Calvin’s theology in which he argued that, according to Calvin, our human knowledge of God derives from two sources: nature and scripture. He was affirming what theologians call “general revelation” alongside of “special revelation.” His essay, “Natural Theology” is meticulously researched and painstakingly footnoted from Calvin’s writings. To read this essay is to be ushered into the presence of European theological scholarship at its high mark.
When the essay was published, Karl Barth read it immediately and determined to react to it. React, by the way, is the right word, not respond. Sitting on the balcony of a hotel in Rome where he was on holiday, without access to any reference books, Barth wrote his reply. Titled, “Nein!” (“No!”), it is a work of genius. I have to say that again. “Nein!” is nothing less than a work of unparalleled intellectual virtuosity: Genius. Barth rhetorically and logically and quite brutally dismantles Brunner’s arguments at their foundation. Barth’s attack on Brunner was humiliating.
Why did Barth publicly humiliate his friend and colleague?
Barth believed that allowing the possibility for human beings to gain any insight into the nature and character of God from nature replicated precisely the mistake that had led his own theological teachers to allow radical German nationalism to rise and, under the Nazi party, to co-opt the church for its own diabolical ends. The ultimate fortress against Nazism was for all knowledge of God to be meditated through the Bible, through the “special” or “supernatural” revelation that comes to us through the salvation history of the Jewish people, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Much later in his life, Barth allowed that he had reacted far too strongly to his old friend, Emil Brunner. And that his own exclusive and narrow view of revelation did not do justice to the Bible itself, which has much to say about encountering the glory and beauty of God through God’s creation.
Sadly, however, Barth and Brunner’s full reconciliation was never achieved in this life. And, as my old friend David Cairns, told me, Brunner’s last sad words were of his lost friendship with Karl Barth.
I have upon occasion attempted to draw a distinction between ideology and theology, but that line is a semi-permeable membrane at best. If theology remains an attempt to reflect better on humanity’s experience of ultimate being, an attempt that leads toward a richness of love among us, the production of that fruit of the Spirit of which St. Paul speaks, then it stays on the productive and positive side of that line separating it from ideology. But when theology becomes just another set of ideas and concepts that demand our undivided loyalty, our allegiance, even our worship, then theology has become a deadly ideology, an idolatry, serving false gods. And, ironically, no one spoke against such idolatry more eloquently in the past century than did Karl Barth.
Love is the test. If our love does not outweigh our allegiance to an ideology, whether it be political or religious or cultural or racial, then we have some soul searching to do. The scales that matter are eternal, not ephemeral. And on those scales friendship carries far more weight than any ideology.