While staying with a friend in Basel once I visited the home of the late Protestant theologian Karl Barth. In the basement, where his personal library is kept, I looked through his marked-up copy of Mein Kampf and other significant books – Barth had been deprived of his university chair by Hitler and had then left Germany. The warden then handed me a box in which I found the original draft manuscript of what is considered to be one of the twentieth century’s most important political documents: the Barmen Declaration. It led to Christian opposition to the Nazis by asserting theological principles.

Together, a number of theologians found the courage to challenge dominant assumptions about power, human value and the meaning of it all. Many of them suffered from the consequences of their decision that order needs to be brought out of chaos and that this can only come at personal cost.

In a different context, the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka speaks of “the solidarity of the shaken”.* In other words, the experience of a common challenge brings with it the courage to stand up and stand out. The “solidarity of the shaken” is, I think, a phrase pertinent to today’s world.

What both Barmen and Patočka hold to is the conviction that faith is not a spiritualised escape from the demands of a challenging material world. Those who complain when religious leaders get involved in politics often assume that faith takes us out, rather than commits us to, the real world. But, it is impossible to see Christianity, for example, as a merely spiritual creed when at the heart of every Christian narrative is incarnation – God committing himself to the world in all its chances and contingencies and not opting out of the inconvenient consequences of materiality. The word Jesus says it all.

The current uncertainties of the world have blown a hole in western assumptions about control – of life, the environment and progress – and have shaken individuals and entire societies to their roots. The big themes, so easily hidden while we (in Neil Postman’s words) amuse ourselves to death, are now resurgent: mortality, fear, love, hope, faith, and so on. And through it all there is the possibility of a solidarity of the shaken – as we recognise the fragility of life and the common need for human interdependence.

It has been said that a crisis does not create character; it reveals it. Actually, both are true. But, as we navigate uncharted waters in the months ahead, it is the solidarity of humility that must trump the sham of hubris.

*Quoted in Night of the Confessor by Tomáš Halík

Following on from Thursday's visit to Karl Barth's house and my sight of Barth's original handwritten draft of the 1934 Barmen Declaration, I wonder if such a document would be possible in a culture of privatised spirituality such as that assumed by many today to be both desirable and normal.

This isn't a disconnected question. I have spent the last couple of days – on and off – reading the lectures that form the first part of Rowan Williams' Faith in the Public Square. In these pieces he addresses questions of secularism (essentially instrumental/functional, one-dimensional and totalising). Seriously interesting, challenging and written with great lucidity, he goes to the heart of the matter in attesting that the 'public space' of contemporary culture is not in any meaningful sense neutral or free – a a point I keep labouring with less patience and less erudite articulacy than Rowan:

[Telling and enacting a story that is different from that propagated by the modern state] of course involves exposing the fact that the modern state does in fact tell a story: that is, that it is not the embodiment of a timeless rationality. … The main task [of the Church] is to create 'spaces' for an alternative story – to challenge the self-evidence of the narrative of secular modernity. (p.43)

In speaking of the 'market state' – the successor to the 'nation state' – he comes up with the marvellously succinct description of the consumer's role of the last thirty years as “isolated choosing machines in a market-shaped wilderness”. (p.74)

This cannot do justice to the arguments Rowan develops. I do wonder if the leader writers of the Independent newspaper (as well as others) have read these texts and formed any response to the arguments therein. I further wonder if any serious response has been made to Rowan's analysis since the book was published in 2012.

The final lecture in this section addresses the tendency nowadays for people to prefer 'spirituality' to 'religion', but questions the individualism and privatisation under the state that such language assumes. I remember reading a paper in which the writer urged the disbanding of organised churches and the assembling of like-minded 'liberals' who could associate together in the development of a new form of spirituality. I asked how such an atomised peer group would take responsibility for (and on what basis) caring for the poor, the unlovely and those who do not share their premises, and what power such a group would have to challenge injustice on grounds other than convenience or mere opinion/preference. I didn't get an answer.

Journalists used to tell me that Rowan Williams was to obtuse and difficult to read. I used to respond that they were just too lazy to persist – some things are complex and resist simplification. Reading these lectures, I have not changed my mind.

(And the question of the valid/essential role of religion in the public square is not one that Barth would have wasted a moment on, given the choices that had to be made in the face of the rise of Hitler and the criminal nature of 'public truth' in the Germany of the 1930s and '40s.)

Dr Peter Zocher & Prof Dr Martin Wallraff at Karl Barth's house in Basel


Today, apart from taking time to start on Rowan Williams's excellent and demanding Faith in the Public Square, I met an academic friend at the University of Basel and then we went to visit Karl Barth's house and archive.

Barth's house is not marked in any way and I wouldn't have found it by myself. The archivist, Dr Peter Zocher, was very welcoming – and is clearly an expert on the great man. I know this is really cringy, but I found it moving to hold in my hand Karl Barth's copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf and read the margin notes, underlinings, question marks and exclamation marks he had written in pencil. Having replaced that, Peter then opened up a document file and showed me the original handwritten draft of the Barmen Declaration of 1934 – probably one of the most important political and theological documents of the twentieth century.

I have to keep reminding myself that Barth didn't know how the story would end. As Hitler consolidated his power, it took great courage and clarity of mind to challenge him and the violent worldview he was soon to inflict on the whole world. All Barth and his friends had to go on was what they saw and heard at that point, and yet they recognised the evil that was being grown among them. (Barth himself refused to swear the personal oath of allegiance to Hitler, resigned his professorial chair at Bonn, and moved back to Basel.)

I also looked through Barth's personal copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's first books – including Nachfolge (translated into English as The Cost of Discipleship). Again, he had marked the text with questions and comments I couldn't decipher.

There is something powerful about holding and reading books that had belonged to, been read by and marked by a giant of twentieth century theology.

However, what I found haunting – and very difficult to put out of my mind – was the discrepancy between the theological sharpness of Barth and his domestic arrangements. Charlotte von Kirschbaum had moved in to the Barth home in Germany and moved with the family (his wife, Nelly, and their five children) to Basel. They lived, effectively, as a ménage-à-trois until von Kirschbaum was elderly and ill. Karl died in 1968, Charlotte in 1975 (after suffering from Alzheimer's for many years), and Nelly was the last to pass away in 1976. All three are buried in the same grave in Basel's main cemetery.

Barth's social skills were not great. Those still alive who remember him relate how difficult it was to know how to handle him. If you wanted to invite him for dinner, who did you invite come with him – Nelly, Charlotte or both? When Barth was away he would write letters to Charlotte, but never to his wife.

One of my abiding questions is how we judge theology in the light of the experience of those who propagate a particular theology. For example, does the fact that Heidegger supported Hitler (which Barth condemned) influence the credibility of his theological perspectives or his philosophical project? Is there a relationship between the nature of Rudolf Bultmann's theology and the fact that he was able to retain his professorial chair under Hitler when other Christians were paying a very high price for their discipleship of Jesus? And, if we are to take this seriously, how does the reality of Barth's domestic relationships impinge on his theology – especially the clarity of his ethical writings?

Or doesn't it matter?

Correction: I had misunderstood a point about Barth's letters. He wrote many letters to his wife, too, but these have not been published. Barth put in his last will and testament that his private correspondence with his wife should not be published.