Am I a Moralist? I Guess I Am: Barth and von Kirschbaum

I have been called a moralist by Ben Myers and Wyatt Houtz simply because I dared question if Barth’s relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum met the standards God has set out in Holy Scripture; particularly for those who would be teachers/overseers in the church of Jesus Christ. I have noted movement in my initial reading of the Tietz essay that detailed (as far as it could) the inappropriate relationship between Barth and CvK towards where I ended up over a series of four posts (1, 2, 3, 4). Houtz wrote a blog post in response where he identifies me as a moralist (and Myers applauds his effort), and then goes on and explains why he thinks that is so; even though in the end he ostensibly agrees with me (i.e. that Barth disqualifies himself according to his own theology). But Houtz didn’t feel obligated to report on my movement in regard to approaching Barth’s theology. My language is often more terse, and up front than certain sensibilities like, but that doesn’t change the fact that in many ways we ended up in the same place. So I found it odd that he wouldn’t point out the nature of my posts (and that Ben himself would continue on with his moralist charge when I clarified to him what I meant even in my first post), and the organic nature of them. But coming back to this charge of moralism; that’s an interesting charge indeed. Is it moralism to be diligent in checking whether someone is qualified to be a teacher in the church of Jesus Christ by the standards of Holy Scripture? It is. Okay, I guess I’m a moralist then. But what’s the inverse of this? The mood described below is the Schleiermacherian turn to the subject type of theology and piety. Is this the inverse of moralism; to allow the mores of the collective culture to determine how we interpret the moral standards God expects for his teachers? This is where I’m at a loss. If I am a moralist what does that make Ben and Wyatt et al.? I don’t think they would want to identify with the type of turn to the subject theology of Schleiermacher; but maybe some other form of existentialist styled theology fits them better. Houtz wants to use Barth’s own theology as the standard for determining whether or not Barth failed to meet his own standards (Wyatt thinks Barth ends up in self-judgment based upon his theology of marriage). But this seems odd to me. Why would I turn to Barth’s own theology to determine whether or not Barth was meeting God’s standards of morality for a teacher; and meeting the standards for what it means to be a married man? Is this a moralism too; to turn to Barth’s own canon of theology and use it against him as a judgment? So I’ve been labeled a moralist because I’ve turned to the canon of Holy Scripture to see if Barth is above approach to be a teacher; and I guess Wyatt (and anyone else who affirms Wyatt’s post) is a non-moralist in regard to Barth because he turned to the canon of Barth’s own theology to see if Barth measured up to Barth’s own standard for what a theology of marriage entails. So is Wyatt’s standard for Barth Holy Scripture (and it’s reality), or is it Barth’s theology for Barth? This seems like a strange move to me. It makes me wonder, at the least, what kind of role Scripture plays for Wyatt et al in determining such things. But it seems clear that Wyatt et al believe if someone turns to Scripture to measure Barth as a teacher and married man that this person is a moralist. Okay, I guess I’m a moralist; but what does that make Wyatt et al.? Maybe they think I’m a moralist in regard to Barth because I came to the radical conclusion that Barth indeed did in fact disqualify himself as a teacher in the church (even though he ended up getting to be one anyway); that Barth lived in a life of open disobedience before God and the church; without repentance. Yes, I’m sure it caused Barth, Charlotte, and Nelly (and all five kids) all kinds of angst; that’s what I have experienced myself when I’ve persisted in any type of unrepentant sin. I think these guys are labeling me a moralist because of the conclusion I’ve come to in regard to Barth, and how I’ve openly spoken about it. Is my conclusion moralist; is it moralist to recognize that sin is sin; and when we identify it we are to repent of it in our lives? That’s moralist? I guess I’m a moralist.

I also think many in the Barth community believe that me talking openly about such things in regard to Barth (which Wyatt also says in his post) is an unnecessary blight and embarrassment to them; it seems like they think I should keep my mouth shut about such things out of respect for Karl Barth et al. And I’m frustrated that this hasn’t been spoken of more publically in regard to Barth; so I guess there is a bunch of frustration around this issue currently. They say all of this has been known by Barth scholars for years (and yes I was aware of the rumors, but never saw them substantiated until Tietz). Really?! Then why haven’t said Barth scholars spoken more about it; were they afraid of being labeled a moralist or some sort of voyeurist attempting to peer too closely into Barth’s persona life?

I’ve already been labeled a certain way by many young Barthians (and respecters of Barth); the irony is that I have been a respecter of Barth, and promoted his theology as much as anyone has over the last many years online. My initial response, and continued focus on this is a reflection of my attraction to Barth and his theology; if I didn’t care I never would have said a word about any of it (I would’ve just labeled Barth the heretic that so many others in the church so often do, and used this situation to help reinforce my inklings toward Barth). But I actually do care. The problem is, and this has been a problem for many of these younger ‘Barthians’ who have made it clear they want nothing to do with me, is that my sensibilities are still too trad and evangelical; theologically. Indeed, it is these sensibilities that have caused the consternation for me. If I wasn’t absolutely committed to the authority of Holy Scripture none of this would have been an issue; at all! But I am. And so when I read these letters that Tietz translated for us my convictions and hermeneutic kicked in. It caused an ethical dilemma for me. I wasn’t quite sure how to negotiate that. Sure, yes, in theory I’ve always argued for the objective value of theological witness (i.e. not contingent on the messenger’s morality but on the reality to whom the messenger bears witness); but when I read the Barth letters this caused a moment of real life pause because of how much I have come to value so many of Barth’s theological themes (they have become internalized for me in many ways).

So now I’m a moralist because I dared to think out-loud and online about all of this. I still wonder what this makes the non-moralists in all of this. I’m not sorry I worked through this the way I have; the way I often work through things (through blogging). It produced more light than heat for me personally; I received good feedback from many who I respect. And personally the best insight I received came from D. Stephen Long in a comment he made to me on Facebook (which I shared in my last post on this subject). I didn’t plan on writing this whole long segue to the post on Schleiermacher and pietism (and honestly it’s just there for you to read or not, it doesn’t really have that much to do with all of this—it’s pretty incidental to all of this at this point). And I will say, as I close, that my intention in all of this has not been to disparage Barth, but to try to work through some shock and surprise. It doesn’t really matter what other people knew (or didn’t) about Barth; in this instance my posts were prompted by what I found out in a personal way about Barth. It was something Barth’s living children (who shared the letters) called an “unreasonable situation,” and after reading the letters I could see why (which by the way Wyatt doesn’t report on accurately in his post; in regard to the children’s view of the situation). The only reason I have written all of this was because I wanted to respond to the charge of Wyatt et al that I am a moralist; I guess I am then (by their standards). But what does that make them?

I am not going to have comments open for this post. If you want to contact me about it then reach me by email at: I’ve already corresponded as much as I want to about this online (other than this response to Wyatt’s post now).

I’ve been informed by a Schleiermacher scholar that the post I originally had tagged to this, on Schleiermacher, was inaccurate relative to his theology; so I’ve deleted it because it really is unnecessary to the point of this post. I will rewrite another post on Scheliermacher’s theology when I’ve had sufficient time to engage with him more accurately.