Tag Archives: Karl Barth

Over a Beer with Barth and Bulgakov: Cosmodicy

by Regula M. Zwahlen

Image: iStock.com/Chinnachart Martmoh

In September 1930, two of the greatest Protestant and Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century—Karl Barth and Sergii Bulgakov—met in the Kornhauskeller in the Swiss capital, Berne.[1] Although an elegant restaurant today, the Kornhauskeller was a famous “drinking hole” in a vaulted cellar hall then, especially popular among students. The genius loci is worth mentioning because today’s Russian Orthodox parish is located not far away in another of Berne’s old town cellars, namely the crypt of the Lutheran church. Hence, this is the story of how a rather insignificant encounter and seemingly parting of ways still reveal common ground for further ecumenical dialogue. Or, as Bulgakov put it in a letter to Nikolai Berdiaev of June 7, 1933, “Parallel spiritual lines, which do not meet in Euclidean space, will meet beyond Euclidean space, where ‘in the Father’s house are many dwellings.’”

After attending the Second East-Western Theological Conference in Berne, Karl Barth probably had at least one beer with Fritz Lieb, a Swiss theologian and Slavist known for his endeavors to engage East-West ecumenical dialogue, and Sergii Bulgakov, who had just given a lecture on the “Nature of the Russian Church”—including a passage about Orthodoxy’s cosmic character.[2] We know from Barth’s correspondence that the only lecture he found “fairly interesting and in its way plausible” was Bulgakov’s. Barth described him as a storybook Russian “pope [who spoke] with remarkable passion and not without speculative momentum,” and Barth “received further peculiar insights about the divine Sophia and other Russian theologumena.”[3]

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