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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Selinger, Suzanne


Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth. A Study in Biography and the History of Theology.


University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press 1998. IX, 206 S. m. 13 Abb. 8 = The Penn State Series in Lived Religious Experience. ISBN 0-271-01864-X.


Mark D. Chapman

This book aims to present an exhaustive account of both the personal and intellectual relationship between Barth and his long-term secretary and companion, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. The approach is twofold: first, to look at the history of an extraordinary friendship and second, and more importantly, to look at the ways in which this friendship affected the theological presuppositions and opinions of both writers. Von Kirschbaum appears as the feminine counterpart and partner which Barth never found in his deeply unhappy marriage to Nelly. Their desire to marry is well-known, and their love for one another was profound and consuming. It is never clear whether this extended into a sexual relationship, and it is a matter that must always remain pure conjecture, although it was certainly quite likely in the iconoclastic atmosphere of the 1920’s when Barth spent significant periods away from home. What is clear, however, is that the relationship always remained one-sided: Barth was a demanding character whose counterpart was always subservient, of the "deaconess type", despite her independence and individuality. Barth’s own emphasis on the self-emptying of power and vulnerability never translated from his theology to their relationship: instead he was held captive by Romantic (and Biblical) stereotypes of the role of the feminine, and although it is never explicitly stated, Lollo seems to have been a victim to Barth’s manic work patterns and excessive demands.

The compelling story moves on in Part Two to a detailed analysis of Barth’s relationships as reflected in his published writing. Barth worked in dialogue - often vigorous, polemical and harsh, but also at times affectionate and open. His friends subtly steered his theology and led him to focus on different themes. It was still Barth who spoke, but a Barth who had been prodded and whose mind had been changed. S. claims that von Kirschbaum pushed Barth into making human otherness a part of his consciousness and vision. This leads naturally into a detailed discussion of the role of gender in Barth’s theology. Although the discussion is often marred by amateur psychologising and is often loosely structured, the picture that emerges is of a man struggling to assimilate gender difference into his theology. In Barth’s earlier writings the dialectic of God and world, of active and passive, of creator and created moves quickly to the dialectic between man and woman. Yet his position shifts as his theology shifts: the self-emptying Christology of the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics forces Barth to re-negotiate the relationship. Differences are important: hence Barth’s vigorous critique of early feminism which sought to deny gender differentiation. But nevertheless the relationship between man and woman began to express greater mutuality. Barth may never have carried through his understanding of difference and mutuality consistently, but his tentative solutions provide a starting point for a post-modern theology of alterity and difference.

It would seem that Barth’s insistence on the need for a counterpart was prompted by his fear of the hell of aloneness. But at the same time he could never cast off his belief that it was the man who came first: woman "chooses herself by refraining from choice; by finding herself surrounded and sustained by the joyful choice of the man, as his elect" (CD III/4, 71). Barth was the chooser and von Kirschbaum, his chosen. His was the "sexism of chivalry" (182). Whatever mutuality existed was always tempered by inequality, the inequality that leads to the "deaconess type", and which has shaped the man-woman relationship not just of Barth, but of most theology through history. "Von Kirschbaum’s job was to be freely herself for Barth ... But Barth did not see as his job or life or calling to be himself for her" (p.189). Had he done so, perhaps his theology would have been different. And perhaps we would have understood more of the God revealed in the one who did become himself for all men and women.