Wrestling with an Approach to Karl Barth, and some Advice from D Stephen Long

Young Karl Barth

I’ve been continuing to process my approach to Karl Barth and his theology in light of what I found out about him in regard to his relationship with his “secretary” Charlotte von Kirschbaum. I will not rehash what I’ve already discussed previously, except to say that it has been something I’ve been thinking about ever since I first read the Tietz essay on September 29th, 2017. The reason I just can’t “let this go,” is because Barth’s theology has fundamentally transformed the very being of my theological trajectory; in the most basic of ways. I have so internalized so many of his theological themes (in re.: to a doctrine of God/Christology, election, soteriology, theory of revelation, theory of history etc.) that it isn’t just something I can simply extricate myself from and move on. So I have been wrestling with this; praying about it. I have gotten lots of good feedback about how to handle this, and then not so good feedback (which of course is how online media works). Here is probably the best advice I’ve received; it comes from a Facebook thread and a theologian/scholar (D Stephen Long) who has written on Barth and other significant theologians:

If I may, Bobby, I think you are correct in being disillusioned but I hope you will not give up hope. I remember when I first discovered the extent of this while in Basel. What impressed me most was Nelly’s ability to forgive. I was told that Charlotte had dementia toward the end of her life and was put in a hospital. Nelly would visit her regularly. Despite Barth, some around him embodied a sanctity that he did not.

We have a similar situation with Yoder, and I find the excuses for his actions and the cavalier disjunction between his life and theology unconvincing as well. Theology is not like chemistry. If done well, it should encumber us with a way of living, especially if we think theology must be made visible so that it can be a witness. Balthasar asks why so few theologians are saints after the modern era, and suggests it is because of the way theology becomes another academic discipline. The task of theology and the work of sanctity should not be disjoined.

I also think that no single, individual theologian is responsible for his or her theology. Each one lives from and depends on the communion of saints, on those who come before us and those who receive our work. An individual theologian’s work should not be discarded because of her or his failures because it is never solely their work. I do think we must raise questions as to the connection between theology and ethics that could lead a Barth or Yoder to their self-deception, especially when they themselves refused a sharp distinction between theology and ethics. Is there something in their theology that contributed to it?

So I have come to terms with these failures by thinking: 1. their theology cannot be wholly discarded because their theology was never their’s. They do not own it, and theologians are not individual heroes. 2. Theologians’ failures cannot be overlooked but must be considered as part and parcel of their theology. Many of us were attracted to Barth because he saw the failures of theology to resist the Nazis. If we easily overlook ethical and political failures, then we would have to say that theology makes little difference in the world and that would be devastating to the theological task.

I try to receive theologians’ failures within these two rubrics. I don’t know if this helps, but I think your disillusionment is a positive sign that theology encumbers you in a way I find encouraging.[1]

Everything, the whole sentiment of this comment is very helpful for me; I share it in hopes of it being edifying for others who might be struggling in a similar way as I am. What stands out in particular is what I have emboldened, in the fourth paragraph: “1. their theology cannot be wholly discarded because their theology was never their’s. They do not own it, and theologians are not individual heroes….” This fits well with the point I was hitting on in my last two posts in regard to approaching a theologian’s writing realizing that they can have an ex opera operato value to them (the Apostle Paul has this understanding of the objective value of the Gospel when he writes what he does in Philippians 1).

What this has done has gotten me past any kind of hero worship (which I don’t really think I was doing, I think I had high respect for Karl Barth as a theologian/teacher), and put things in better perspective. For me, even if I continue to partake of some of Barth’s most basic theological themes, this in no way means I am viewing his chosen lifestyle with Charlotte von Kirschbaum in softer earth tones. Indeed, the conflict continues to still burn within me. But the reality is, is that I think that despite who Barth chose to be personally, that God still used his unique insights and theological imagination in a way that makes them available to be resourced for the edification of the church; not because of who Barth was, but because of who God is. For me, even if I feel compelled to partake of some of Barth’s theological themes, his lifestyle should have disqualified him (biblically speaking) from ever being a teacher; he should have been held to account, and only then be restored to the office of a teacher for the church. So at a personal level I think Barth didn’t get to fully enjoy his own theological witness to Christ because he chose to live in outright unrepentant disobedience to God; he allowed one of his affections to overshadow the more encompassing (or what should have been) affection of God in Christ. To speak biblically: he kept some high places in his life, where there had to be some sort of syncretism (at least ethically) taking place.

We all sin, that’s true. But we need to mortify such things in our life, in an ongoing basis so that the vivification of God’s life in Christ might be made manifest in the mortal members of our bodies. The Gospel will never endorse any kind of sin; it will never show any type of partiality for this person or that person (which Barth’s own reformulated doctrine of election/reprobation makes so clear!) to any single person; the Gospel will always and only confront us with who we are in Christ, and allow us, from that vantage to realize the significance of what God has redeemed us from and to.

 

[1] D Stephen Long, Facebook Comment, accessed 10-08-2017.

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