The Evangelical Calvinist

Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum: My Response

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Photo copyright of the Karl Barth-Archiv in Basel, Switzerland

I just read a disturbing, I mean for me personally, earth-shatteringly disturbing essay by Christiane Tietz about Karl Barth entitled: Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. As most of us know, who have spent any amount of time with Barth’s theology, his “secretary”, Kirschbaum was rumored to be more than a secretary; that she was a mistress. But this, at least for me, was always in the rumor mill, and I’d never seen any substantial or decisive confirmation of this; until now.

Tietz’s essay works through some letters sent back and forth between Barth and Kirschbaum; they are letters that Barth’s own elderly children, not too long ago, felt compelled to share with the public. What they reveal is that Kirschbaum and Barth loved each other; more than that, they were lovers; more than that, Barth brought her to live in his own home with his wife and five kids. Barth was not willing to give Kirschbaum up, and it almost (it should’ve, in my opinion, and would’ve in any kind of normal situation) came to divorce between Barth and his wife Nelly; but for some reason (I’d guess for the kids), Nelly stayed with Barth in this intolerable situation. Tietz’s essay offers much more disturbing detail than I have only quipped at here, but even what I’ve noted should be enough to cause alarm.

What impact does this have on me personally? I mean we’ve moved from rumors to fact and reality. As I read Tietz’s essay I actually had a physical response; my head was literally spinning, and I felt sick to my stomach. I’ve been a very vocal proponent for Barth’s theology, online, for many years now, and this news leaves me feeling disillusioned (that’s really an understatement). As I process this news, this substantiation of rumor (about the love relationship between Barth and Kirschbaum), part of that processing includes the idea that indeed, we are all sinners. And this is true, of course; every theologian any of us will ever read are deeply flawed complex people who need the grace of God in their lives every moment of every day. But the situation with Barth is different. Initially he and Kirschbaum knew their relationship was wrong, but that didn’t ultimately matter to either of them. Instead they learned to rationalize their situation, and even used theological and biblical concepts to do that; to the point that Barth and Kirschbaum felt comfortable and motivated enough to move Kirschbaum into his house with his wife and five children. This is not right. Beyond that, Kirschbaum actually was Barth’s secretary/researcher/academic assistant,  and so as I read his Church Dogmatics, or many of his other writings, what is now in the back of my head is the idea that all of these writings were written in the context of his relationship with Kirschbaum; indeed it was fostered and given impetus by his relationship with her, as he bounced and worked his ideas off of Kirschbaum in his study and elsewhere.

What this means for me is that I am going to have to step back from Barth for the time being. I’m going to have to process all of this further, and maybe this will be the moment where I have to move clean away from Barth for good. I can’t help but think of the Apostle Paul’s warning of “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” When I look at Barth’s life there is no love here, there is rebellion towards God’s call to fidelity and the marriage bed. There is no love here towards his wife, Nelly, or his five children; there is only self-love where he put himself and Kirschbaum before his own wife and kids. His two kids’ response to this situation (the children who shared these letters) was that it was an “unreasonable situation” (so they understate). This means something to me. Like I noted, none of us are perfect, and we are in ongoing battles with ongoing personal struggles and sin. But what Barth did, how he chose to live his whole life, was to simply give into the battle; he didn’t ultimately fight it, he willingly and intentionally succumbed to it; and he went so far as to rationalize it all by appealing to a theology of suffering and other theological categories (that actually are warped in the context of his and Kirschbaum’s usage). Here are two small quotes (these aren’t the actual letters [to Kirschbaum], but Barth’s reflection on his situation [in letter form to some others; i.e. other than Kirschbaum]):

The way I am, I never could and still cannot deny either the reality of my marriage or the reality of my love. It is true that I am married, that I am a father and a grandfather. It is also true that I love. And it is true, that these two facts don’t match. This is why we after some hesitation at the beginning decided not to solve the problem with a separation on one or the other side.[1]

And something he wrote to a pastor he knew, back in 1947:

It is precisely the fact which is the greatest earthly blessing given to me in my life which at the same time is the strongest judgement against my earthly life. Thus I stand before the eyes of God, without being able to escape from him in one or the other way [. . .] It might be possible that it is from here that an element of experience can be found in my theology, or, to put it in a better way, an element of lived life. I have been forbidden in a very concrete manner to become the legalist that under different circumstances I might have become.[2]

So I am really sad, at the moment. I know some people will be mad at me for writing this, but I feel burdened by this right now. My response here is genuine (I’m not just trying to write some sort of provocative blog post for hits or something). I endearingly, in the past, would call, with others, Karl Barth: Uncle Karl. But this news, for me, has changed that perspective. As of right now I can no longer in good conscience promote Barth’s theology. As close as I can get will be mediated through Thomas Torrance. Sad.

See This: An Index to the Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum Posts: And Some Closing Thoughts on the Whole Ordeal

[1] Karl Barth, ‘‘Vorwort,’’ xxii n. 3, letter of 1947 cited by Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today 2017 Vol. 74(2), 109.

[2] Karl Barth, BW. Kirschbaum I, ‘‘Vorwort,’’ xxf. n. 1 cited by Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today 2017 Vol. 74(2), 111.

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