Day 6: "Crying for Life"—Eduard Thurneysen in Response to WWI

Welcome to Day 6 of the German Political Theology Blog Conference, brought to you by Theology Corner! For an introduction to the conference and a list of the schedule, click here.


Eduard Thurneysen was a Swiss Reformed pastor and practical theologian from last century. He is best known as the close friend and colleague of Karl Barth. In the 1920s, alongside Barth, Friedrich Gogarten, and Emil Brunner, Thurneysen was a key contributor to the emerging theology of Krisis. Later, as the Senior Minister of Basel Münster, Thurneysen became known for his extensive work in pastoral theology developed in conversation with Barth’s Theology of the Word. 



During World War One, Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen were young pastors ministering in the neighbouring Swiss villages of Safenwil and Leutwil-Dürrenäsch. Prior to the publication of the second edition of the Epistle to the Romans and the theology of Krisis—before the discovery of Overbeck and Dostoevsky—Barth and Thurneysen sought a new way amidst the harsh realities of rural parish ministry. Influenced by Swiss Religious Socialism and Christoph Blumhardt’s eschatological realism, this new way emphasised the future reality of the living God breaking into our existing world.

To speak of harsh realities is no understatement. Safenwil and Leutwil were far from the idyllic Swiss mountain villages we see displayed on post-cards. Poverty was rife. In Leutwil, the main employers were two cigarette factories. Men were paid approximately seventy Rappen (the equivalent of Cents) per hour, women a mere seventeen. Child labour was also common. While Switzerland remained neutral in the War, many Swiss citizens nonetheless acutely felt the effects of its outbreak. Men were called away to guard the border, which accentuated the economic need in the villages. Even the end of the War was bittersweet because it coincided with the Spanish flu epidemic, which ripped through Switzerland. At its height Thurneysen buried seven parishioners in just ten days. 

In this period, Thurneysen and Barth published a collection of sermons entitled Suchet Gott, so werdet ihr leben! (Search for God and Live!) The collection gives voice to the social need of the time. Thurneysen talks often of a strange unrest (Unruhe) “in us and around us”.[1] External and internal, this pervasive unrest conveys both the tumultuous events of the War, the vastly changing social and political landscape, the deep social need, and a corresponding inner anxiety and existential questioning. There was a widespread sense that the world stood on the brink of a new era. Ernst Troeltsch’s prophetic claim in 1897 that “everything is tottering!” proved true. The suppositions of modernity and the ivory tower of liberal Protestantism that depended on them were showing their cracks.

For Thurneysen though, the pervasive unrest did not just arise out of the tumultuous events of the day. Rather this unrest and yearning cut to the very heart of human existence. In a sermon from the Suchet Gott collection, he phrased it this way: “After all, what is our heart, our soul other than a crying for life that doesn’t stop, an angst in the face of fate . . . a single great call: ‘I want life, I want freedom, I want peace!’”[2] The way of fate is the way of the existing world: the way of war, suffering, hardship, and death. But the essence of our humanity lies not in what exists now but what is coming. As a result human existence is characterised by a tension, an agitated waiting and searching for something more: for freedom, peace, and life in abundance. Erich Heckel’s Flandrische Ebene (1916) is a powerful portrayal of this innate human searching for what is beyond.

 Erich Heckel’s “Flandrische Ebene” (1916)

Erich Heckel’s “Flandrische Ebene” (1916)

But the crying for life is, for Thurneysen, nothing other than a cry for God, who is “true life . . . life without shadow, eternal life.”[3] As eternal life, God is the origin and ultimate goal of all existence. All human life is dynamically oriented toward its final completion in the breaking in of God’s lifeworld (Lebenswelt). Consequently, Thurneysen argues that the most basic underlying presupposition of what it means to be human is that we belong to God. That is the ultimate reality through which and in anticipation of which all historical events must be interpreted.

Such a conception of human existence, indeed of the entire existing world, throws everything into question. God’s coming lifeworld is the epistemological starting point. The eschatological Spirit of life injects this world with a living hope, urgency, and irreconcilable tension. Consequently, Thurneysen could not reconcile the War, even if he reluctantly acknowledged that the War was in some measure necessary. “It is and remains a grim contradiction,” he wrote to his former professor Paul Wernle, “that we raise hands to God and raise weapons against one another”.[4] To pray for one’s country, as every good citizen does and even should do, Thurneysen argues, is thrown into deep suspicion by the great proclamation of hope in the Lord’s Prayer: your Kingdom come. Worldly developments, no matter how significant, are kept dialectically apart from God’s coming lifeworld. World events can neither hasten nor hinder God’s coming. And yet to speak of God’s eternity, to pray your Kingdom come, is to anticipate the coming of eternity towards us into history and the realising of these purposes for unredeemed and divided humanity. What is coming does and must correspond to concrete action in the present as a sign and witness of its imminent coming.

There is a sense, then, that prayer—and worship more generally—is an act of protest in the face of violence and war. The worshipping community, the Church, is a sacramental sign in this existing world of what is to come. We are an eschatologically and spiritually oriented people. We are a people who cry for life. But this yearning and crying is not the unique preserve of the Church. In fact, Thurneysen believed the Socialist movement was a response to the failure of the Church to voice this cry for life. All creation and all of history exists in tension, dynamically anticipating and yearning for the reconciliation of all things in God through Jesus Christ. The challenge for the Church is to constantly discover anew this cry for life and to voice it on behalf of those who need it most.  

 

notes

[1] Eduard Thurneysen, "Was Sollen Wir Tun?," in Suchet Gott, So Werdet Ihr Leben! (1928) (München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1917), 133.
[2] "Wo Liebe Ist, Da Ist Gott," in Suchet Gott, So Werdet Ihr Leben! (1928) (München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1917), 111.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Eduard Thurneysen and Paul Wernle, Paul Wernle Und Eduard Thurneysen: Briefwechsel 1909-1934 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2016), 233 (9 Sept 1914).


Jordan Redding is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Otago, writing his thesis on the theological anthropology of Eduard Thurneysen. Jordan is the recent recipient of the World Communion of Reformed Churches’ Lombard Essay Competition. When not studying, he enjoys reading widely and playing his guitar.


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