WIT welcomes Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger as a guest poster. Kathryn is a recent graduate of the Master of Divinity program at Princeton Theological Seminary where she focused her studies on systematic theology, gender and race issues, and pastoral care. Prior to her seminary studies, Kathryn received her B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies from Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. A true student of the liberal arts, Kathryn is dedicated to bringing in a variety of disciplines into her theological writing and research. She is particularly passionate about developing creative and generative theological resources for anti-racist work, and is interested in developing an anti-racist theological method that engages heavily with the arts. For Kathryn, the arts provide a liberative and generative locus of expression and protest against unjust systems of thought and power, and she hopes to partner the arts with theology in order to explore a more expansive approach to the systematic method. During her time at seminary, Kathryn led a student group that focused on the intersection of racism and hunger and has developed theological resources that look to the Eucharist as a way to fight against hunger in urban environments. Mary, the mother of God, provides another rich source of inspiration and motivation for Kathryn’s theological work, and she has presented papers on Mary’s role within Protestant Evangelicalism. Kathryn is committed to the flourishing of all people. Rooted in the Anglican tradition, she grounds her theological writing and research in the daily practices of the liturgy. Kathryn is married to her best friend and fellow student, Max, and they enjoy spending time with their Bernese mountain dog, Calvin, aptly named after the Reformation theologian.

In my theological studies, I always come back to this question: what do we do with theologians who behaved in morally problematic ways? Take Jonathan Edwards, for example. Edwards, considered to be America’s greatest theologian, passed on a slave to a family member after his death. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a passionate supporter of emancipation, rooted his argument against slavery in notions of white superiority and propriety, not genuine concern for the well-being of enslaved peoples.1 Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian whom I particularly admire, is rumored to have had an affair (or at least some kind of emotional relationship) with his secretary.2 This relationship caused significant pain between both families involved, leading some to rightfully question Barth’s integrity as a theologian.

Any brief study of Christian theologians throughout the centuries will inevitably shine light on these troubling actions and behaviors. So we’re left in an awkward position when it comes to reading and using these theologians. Are we supposed to simply leave behind these problematic theological figures all together? Or are we to turn a blind eye to their faults and myopically focus on their good contributions?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but I think if there is an answer at all, it has to be somewhere between blind charity and scathing judgment. I think it’s wrong to simply reject and leave behind the problematic figures and theological ideas all together–better to leave them in the forefront of our work as a reminder of human sinfulness and as a caution of where we never want our theological work to go again. But it’s also wrong to ignore their problematic claims, acting as if they were never spoken.

Instead, I believe we should take people like Barth, in all his shadow and light, and charitably and honestly evaluate his claims without losing sight of his humanity. What’s most ironic about Barth is that he offers us his own answer to the questions I’m raising here. He has in place an understanding of humanity that is rooted in the being of God and that propels us into encounter and conversation with one another. Even in the midst of all our problems and sins, Barth exhorts us into a deeper, richer engagement of encounter with one another. For Barth, this encounter is the very definition of what it means to be human.

In the second of four “Doctrine of Creation” volumes of Barth’s impressive Church Dogmatics, Barth defines what it means to be human. To be human is “to be with God.”3 Human existence is completely predicated on God’s decision to be in relation with humanity.  God’s relation to humanity is manifested in the person of Jesus Christ, who exists to save us from slipping away into nothingness, or non-being. God decided from before the creation of the world to be God for us, to be our Deliverer and Redeemer, to be our Friend and Neighbor. God, in gracious act, has spoken a Word of rescue and salvation over humanity from before the foundation of the world. God’s Word, Jesus Christ, has spoken to us and has called us to existence, to be with God. Barth goes on to say that it is not sufficient to define humanity as those who are “with God;” rather, humanity must further be defined as those whose being is “in gratitude” to God.4 To be human is to recognize that our existence is all a gift, that we cannot speak ourselves into being, that God alone is gracious enough and powerful enough to pronounce the word of life over us. And it is not enough for us to exist in recognition of that gift of life; we must go further, taking responsibility to receive the gift as we act in our grace-filled existence.

I appreciate Barth’s first claim about what it means to be human because of the humility it places on us–we must recognize that we exist because of grace. I tread more carefully through life knowing that my life is gifted to me, and that every one else around me is also a gift. Barth infuses human life with this deep sense of worth and value by rooting us ultimately in God’s relationship to us. And that relationship is what propels us into relationship with one another. Barth takes his understanding of humanity a step further by claiming that we are human insofar as we encounter other human beings. To be human is to encounter each other through mutual acts of seeing, hearing, speaking, and assisting–all acts of encounter, things we do every day.

Though Barth spends plenty of pages and footnotes explicating his claim that to be human is to be in encounter with one another, it is stated most simply and emphatically toward the end of this section: “My humanity depends upon the fact that I am always aware, and my action is determined by the awareness, that I need the assistance of others as a fish needs water.”5 We live in an atmosphere of mutual assistance and community; it is as necessary to us as the water in which a fish dwells. If we refuse to listen, assist, and speak to one another, we place ourselves in an atmosphere that is ultimately not conducive to human life.

Barth ends his argument concerning the basic form of humanity with his final assertion, that to be human in encounter is done in gladness.6 To be human in encounter is intrinsic to our nature. The atmosphere of mutual assistance and community is infused with an inherent joy and gladness; we should rejoice that we are not given to trudge through this life alone. But when we refuse to give our full attention and aid to the other, we are at risk of missing out of the very ‘stuff’ of our humanity, which is made up of relational connections and communities.

Barth’s two-fold understanding of humanity, one that roots our existence in our encounter with God and with our neighbors is an insight that I don’t want to lose. It makes sense of the inevitable, common encounters we have with one another every day, and it infuses these encounters with a renewed sense of importance and gladness. I’m encouraged that my life is charged with the presence and reality of God, who daily sustains my being and is always for me. It’s empowering, too, to realize that God, by speaking me into existence, has called me to a life of gratitude and praise; that I too have a song to sing, a verse to contribute. My life is charged with God’s presence; I am because God is with me. Barth’s insights encourage me to press into encounters boldly and unashamedly; even the encounters with people who I feel may question my presence in the classroom, in the pulpit, and beyond. I need these people around me; they are my atmosphere. To reject them would be to suffocate in my own isolation and fear.

I haven’t read much about the details regarding Barth’s relationship with his secretary; most of what I heard about it during my time at seminary came in the form of snide remarks from my colleagues. And though I cannot claim expertise on this messy and complicated relationship, I am grateful for work done by scholars like Suzanne Selinger, who’s book Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology (1998) seeks to better understand that relationship. In George Hunsinger’s review of Selinger’s book, he notes the pain the relationship caused both Barth’s and Charlotte’s families, while also emphasizing Charlotte’s unswerving dedication to Barth’s theological endeavors. Hunsinger also ends by reminding us that Barth and his wife, Nelly, were able to reconcile their marriage after Charlotte left their home. I am grateful for Hunsinger’s willingness to admit to the real pain and hurt caused by the relationship, while also balancing that pain with the reality of grace and reconciliation that springs up in the midst of relational wounds. At the very least, we’re shown a picture of a man who was indeed sinful, who hurt his loved ones, but who also sought after reconciliation and peace with his family in the end. Perhaps Barth took his own theological advice and pressed into encounter as he tried to sort through his complicated relationships.

Like I said earlier, there are no easy answers to my questions. But we cannot ignore someone like Barth, who occupies too great a space in theological discourse to be thrown out entirely. Rather, we should seek to temper our admiration and study of theologians like Barth with a full knowledge of their humanity, which includes human error and sinfulness. To ignore his faults or dismiss his insights is to treat Barth as less than human. But we must also remember that we all will be held accountable for our actions and writing. We too shall be judged.

At the end of the day, I’m incredibly grateful for Barth’s account of human beings in encounter, because it asks that all of us tread more carefully in the relationships and encounters that we happen upon each and every day.7

  1. See Ralph Waldo Emerson’s speech, titled “The Address…on…the Anniversary of the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies,” The Annotated Emerson, ed. by David Mikics (Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2012), 296-325. In this speech, Emerson lifts up the ending of slavery by the British, led by Wilberforce, as a moment when white humanity were acting in humane, superior ways. Emerson uses language of savageness and barbarism to describe the child-like tyranny of white American slave-holders, and urges his hearers to lift themselves up from this savage behavior through freeing the slave. 
  2. A review of a recent book about Barth’s secretary can be found here
  3. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. The Doctrine of Creation, trans. by Geoffrey William Bromiley, ed. by Thomas Forsyth Torrance (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), vol. 3, part 2. 
  4. Ibid., 166. 
  5. Ibid., 263. 
  6. Ibid., 265. 
  7. NB: If you want another, more literary take on Barth’s theological idea, I highly recommend this piece by my husband, Max. It puts the poetry of Ocean Vuong and John Updike into conversation with one another in order to explore questions of human connection and complexity. 

4 thoughts

  1. Thank you for your thoughts – this is something that I too have wrestled with from time to time. I have one observation and one question.

    First, I think a big part of the tension is manufactured by the fact that we often forget that theology itself is a creaturely endeavor. We tend to try to find one theologians who gets things the “most right” when this is impossible. Perhaps the moral failures of particular theologians can actually be helpful in reminding us of the fragmented and fallible nature of all theology. The more humble a given theology is, the more right it is because it is thereby faithful to its own nature as creaturely speech. As you point out, Barth himself was often very aware of this in saying, for example, that all theology is only ever a beginning and the best we can do is always just begin again.

    Second, though, I wonder whether you think some theologians fail worse than others, morally speaking. Are there circumstances under which a theologians life should throw their theology more seriously into question? If so, what are those circumstances and how does one make that judgement? I think that one could argue that some other theologians’ lives pose dilemmas much more serious than Barth – John Howard Yoder, for example. I’d be curious as to how you approach someone like him.

    1. Thanks so much for your insights and questions, Lexi. To your first point–yes, it is always good to be reminded of just how human theology really is. That’s what makes for the best theological endeavors.
      To your second point: I am definitely not a John Howard Yoder expert (again, the most I heard about his past came in the form of snide remarks) and I haven’t read much of his work. My husband studied him briefly, so I’ll see if Max wants to jump into this thread later. But I did a bit of my own research to catch up on Yoder’s sexual abuse of women (this is the article I’m working with: https://themennonite.org/feature/failure-bind-loose-responses-john-howard-yoders-sexual-abuse/).
      From what I’m gathering in this article, Yoder’s mistreatment of women went severely unnoticed and unpunished by the proper authorities. I’m incredibly frustrated to read about Goshen’s president, Miller, covering for Yoder and forcing silence upon the victimized women as well as the slow and unsuccessful “attempts” made at bringing Yoder to some kind of justice.
      Here’s what’s really ironic about all of this: Yoder was a world-renown Mennonite and pacifist, advocating for an ethic of non-violence and peace. However, his abuse of women and the ways in which these women were silenced is its own form of violence. As such, I’d find it very difficult to trust Yoder’s thoughts on non-violence (even if he’s writing about war, not women. If he’s proclaiming an ethic of non-violence, I think it should apply to treatment of individuals and communities. I don’t know what his thoughts would be on that, though). This article doesn’t mention whether or not Yoder sought to repent of his crimes against women, but I’m assuming he did not make an effort to seek repentance in any honest or sincere way.
      What I appreciate about Barth’s life is that there is at least evidence of reconciliation, of acknowledging the pain caused by his actions, and then seeking to mend those wrongs. So I trust Barth’s words on encounter more because I can imagine him seeking honest encounter with his wife and family in the end.
      So to answer your question: yes, I think there are circumstances in a theologian’s life that should cause us to seriously question their theological contributions. And the only way I know how to go about judging the lines between individuals is to try and look at the life lived behind the theological work. Do their actions in life show consistency with what they thought theologically? Part of embracing the human-ness of theology is to realize that our words, actions, and thoughts are all integrally tied together. We cannot pretend that theological writing is somehow divorced from daily living.
      Unfortunately, I doubt Yoder’s work will be leaving academic discourse any time soon. And again, I don’t think it necessarily needs to disappear. But what should change is how we talk about Yoder. Are we going to continue to cover up or hedge around his sexual abuse of women? Or are we going to speak the truth and hold Yoder’s writings accountable as well? One of my main motivations for writing about Barth’s alleged affair was to put an end to the snide remarks and gossip and honestly lay out Barth’s failings. I think the same needs to be done with Yoder, too. His actions are even more hidden with deception; it’s sickening, really. If I saw evidence of repentance on Yoder’s end and justice given to the women involved, then perhaps I could trust Yoder’s contributions to an ethic of non-violence more. But right now, I find that hard to do.
      I hope that’s helpful to you!

  2. Yes and amen to bringing more nuance and complexity to revered figures! Including the case of John Howard Yoder adds yet another level of consideration/ connection: entanglement with institutions and the role of power. Often, when it comes to covering or condemning the sins of an individual, they are treated strictly as individual sins. In Barth’s case, we could say that the only institutional entanglement was with his own family, which then influences the level of significance we attribute to the sin. Or, to put it another way, his sin is seen strictly at the personal level. The case with Yoder, however, prompts questions of corporate complicity–can we speak of just his sin when others abetted? If we don’t see connections between individual sin and frameworks of power, our critiques can only go so far.

    Your comment about Yoder’s authority when speaking on nonviolence being undermined by his violent actions against women is so critical. Thank you for your thoughts.

  3. I am wiritng first to thank you for your generous and thoughtful remarks about Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. I wish everyone would approach this matter with the same exemplary spirit. You might be interested to know that Christiane Tietz, professor at the University of Zurich, will be speaking on this topic when the Karl Barth Soceity holds its sessions at the forthcoming AAR annual meeting in San Antonio. I hope it will eventually be possible for her paper to be published.

    On John Howard Yoder, whom I knew personally, the situation is very murky. This was not your garden-variety form of sexual misconduct (which I knew nothing about at the time). You are probably aware of the full discussion in a recent issue of the Mennonite Quarterly (2015), which was anguished but fair-minded and frank, without attempting to have the last word. Given the weird “ideological” rationale that Yoder apparently invoked at every turn to defend his actions, which he did not keep secret from those who interrogated him, and given his status as probably the most intelligent person in the room when those interrogations took place (leaving aside the troubling complicity of some of those who were made aware of this behavior), it does not seem far-fetched to wonder whether he was not driven by some sort of psychological disorder. I am not the only one who has wondered about the possibility of Aspergers. Nothing can excuse his behavior and the damage he did to many women’s lives. The whole Aspergers possiblilty, furthermore, may be on the wrong track. But the case has many idiosyncracies that remove it from the propriety of making a merely moral judgment. Why others who were aware of what as going on did not do more to stop him in his tracks is another, and equally troubling, question.

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