Jens was ever an activist as well. He was there in Washington, DC, in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. And he joined the protests against the war in Vietnam, which he regarded as unjust. “What else could a minister of the gospel and professor of theology do in such times,” he told us.
In his own words, from a brief 2007 autobiography: “I gave speeches in hostile places; parents would not let their children associate with our daughter; etc. And after it all we experienced the same downer as others did: we thought there should be a straightforward move from opposition to segregation and unjust war to opposition to killing unborn children as desired, but ‘the movement’ and our political party went another way.”
He once told me that he remained perpetually puzzled as to how those who protested racism and unjust war could support abortion, more puzzling still was how those who protested abortion could support policies that promoted racism and unjust war.
His ecumenical work and bafflement by cultural-sociological-political developments led to friendships with Richard John Neuhaus and others associated with the magazine First Things. Even though he never was comfortable with that group’s “neocon” ethos, Jens counted them as allies in battling against modern culture’s slide into postmodern nihilism. Jens’s characterization of “modernity” bears repeating:
The entire project of the Enlightenment was to maintain realist faith while declaring disallegiance from the God who was that faith’s object. The story the Bible tells is asserted to be the story of God with His creatures; that is, it is both assumed and explicitly asserted that there is a true story about the universe because there is a universal novelist/historian. Modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.
If there is no storyteller directing history to its end, there is no story to tell. Nihilism results. In “a world that has lost its story” all that remains are unconnected and unnarratable episodes of self-possessed navel-gazing. Postmodernism’s children are the Jerrys, Georges, Elaines, and Kramers of Seinfeld, people for whom others are little more than temporary distractions from the meaninglessness of life.
That Jens and his wife, Blanche, so graciously gave their time to us still amazes me. This was a man who, when he was a doctoral student, rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest theological, exegetical, and philosophical minds of the past century—Barth, Heidegger, Gadamer, Gunkel, von Rad, Bultmann, Pannenberg, to name but a few.
Jens went to Heidelberg for his doctorate and was assigned, by his director Peter Brunner, the topic of Barth’s doctrine of election. He subsequently went to Basel to study with the man himself. During his visit to America in 1962, Barth was asked by a reporter from The Christian Century “if anyone had grasped the real center of his thinking.” Barth replied there was at least “one ... a young American.” Jens cut his professional theological teeth on Barth, a fact reflected by his first two books (the second a veritable classic in Barth studies). But he was never a “Barthian.” He was persistently too Lutheran, too shaped by the liturgy and structures of the ancient church, and too concerned with culture to go all the way with Barth.