Religion: Thunder and Lightning in a Pen

Theologian Karl Earth's last letters mix vitriol, compassion

He was typecast for the role of European professor: hair askew, glasses perched precariously on nose, rumpled suit flecked with bits of tobacco from an omnipresent pipe. At the University of Basel, where he taught for 27 years, students adored him. But amiable Karl Barth was anything but indulgent when he talked of man's relationship with God.

In his epochal commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, after World War I, Barth thundered that the biblical God was "wholly other," powerful, mysterious. Man's task was to...

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