I sort of set off an online firestorm a few months ago after I decided to post some of my thoughts on Christiane Tietz’s journal essay on Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’s relationship. My blog had never received so much traffic prior; it became a genuine ordeal. An ordeal not because I was excited about all the attention, but because I was genuinely attempting to work through—at that moment—the idea that one of my favorite of all time theologians, Karl Barth, had actually lived in what I would still call an ongoing unrepentant adulterous relationship with CVK. Even me stating that now will not sit well with many people, but it is still how I see it; if you are interested in reading the posts I wrote during that time, and listen to a podcast I produced, then click here for an index.
The reason I wanted to revisit this now was because I have been sitting with this since the end of September when that all started for me. I lost some online connections because of that, but that’s okay in the end. Maybe some of those connections can be remade again, but maybe not. I digress: what I wanted to simply note here was that some of the dissonance that the reality of this Barth/CVK relationship created for me as a reader and partaker of his theology hasn’t ultimately gone away. What has happened though, even over these last three or four months is that I have been able to re-engage with Barth, and continue to learn from him as a thinker. I think what the Lord has been reinforcing in my mind about this is some of the stuff I already initially knew; i.e. that there is an ex opere operato character about the works of God, and about the theologians who attempt to work out the works of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. The key, or principle itself, is something, ironically, that is pervasive, that is probably the thematic of Barth’s whole theological prolegomena (theological methodology); the theme that I think allows people to continue to learn from Karl Barth is the idea of ‘bearing witness.’ We think of Balaam’s ass; God was able to use a creature that normally couldn’t even speak to bear witness to the reality of God’s presence in Balaam’s life; in ways that Balaam did not have eyes to see. Now, I am not comparing Barth to a donkey, instead I am comparing all of us, in God’s economy, to a donkey. The inherent worth of our lives is not whether or not we sin (we all do), not whether we live in unrepentant sin or not (we probably, at some level or another always do), but the inherent worth of our lives is contingent upon God’s Word as he provides value to our lives through the value of His life for us. This does not excuse sin, or give us license to live in unrepentant sin, but it does identify the reality that our sin is not greater than the Witness of God’s Word in our lives. As such because God has included our lives in His confronting Word to us and for us in Christ, we always and miraculously have the capacity to bear witness to Jesus Christ in spite of ourselves. God has the capacity to use a donkey, a Barth, a Bobby, or anyone else He wants, to bear witness to the greatness of His reality and grace and mercy for us.
Something else I have been thinking about (all things that were in my mind even back when this all started, and things others floated towards me as well—often times in cavalier ways, or at least that’s how it felt) is that the realization that Barth was an unrepentant sinner involving a serious issue has the capacity to humanize Barth and magnify the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, any temptation to want to idolize, not just Barth, but any pet-theologian quickly loses luster precisely because this kind of dissonant reality remains in the background. In Barth’s case it is the reality that he lived in the type of relationship that he did. I still can’t square any of that with any sense of rationalized good will, I still can’t escape the malaise this places me in as I reflect upon it for too long; but I have come to the conclusion that Barth, somehow, was used by God to communicate about God in Jesus Christ that I have never encountered in any other theologian in the history of the church. So this makes Barth unique, but not unaccountable before God for his chosen lifestyle.
Something else that lingers is the question of the relation between personal holiness and theologizing. Augustine places a real emphasis upon this; the author to the Hebrews places a real emphasis on this; and so I’d be foolish to not place great weight upon this as well. Hebrews 12 says ‘that without holiness no one will see God.’ I take this as not just an eschatological reality, but a present and existential reality that impedes upon my daily life as a Christian. With this in mind, for me, what Barth was able to accomplish, while only a proximate offering (as any theology can only be this side of beatific vision), is pretty astounding. I can only imagine what could have been produced if maybe he had chosen a different route in regard to his relationship with Charlotte.
So this is where I’m at. Not really altogether figured out exactly. But I live with a dissonance, and continue to learn and benefit from Barth (prayerfully before God). Any tendency I might have had to elevate Barth too high in the past has been repented of, but not just in regard to Barth but in regard to anyone person or teacher I may have tended to do that with (unawares at points). This reality will always be a reminder to me of how broken we all are as humans, and how gracious and merciful God is to love us so much to be willing to stoop down and meet us where we are that we might be where He is, with Him for all eternity. maranatha.