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The personal is the (academic) political: Why care about the love lives of theologians?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 August 2020

Rachel Muers*
School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


What might be learned, for theology, from recent interest in the complex love triangle of Nelly Barth, Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth? I explore some aspects of how the story has been told, in and since Christiane Tietz's 2016 presentation and article, and argue that they expose deep-seated issues in and for the discipline of systematic theology. In particular, I draw attention to the focus on preserving the authority of the individual (male/masculine) author as the exemplar of theological practice; and to the reluctance to recognise the social, political and economic dimensions of sexuality and ‘domestic’ life. I argue that a properly ‘systematic theological’ approach to the Barth-von Kirschbaum story would involve critical and constructive theological reflection on theology's conditions of production: using historical contexts to help us recognise and respond to contemporary issues, without reducing such reflection to stories about individual authors.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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1 For a detailed account of which, see Tietz, Christiane, ‘Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’, Theology Today 74/2 (2017), pp. 86–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 I acknowledge with gratitude invaluable discussions with Ben Fulford, Tom Greggs, Mike Higton and Susannah Ticciati, as well as the advice of the SJT editor and the anonymous reviewers. I take full responsibility for the views expressed here, and for the defects of the finished article.

3 Plant, Stephen, ‘When Karl Met Lollo: The Origins and Consequences of Karl Barth's relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum’, Scottish Journal of Theology 72/2 (2019), pp. 139–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Or perhaps I have spent too long reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who defended the virtues of ‘English [sic] hypocrisy’ over ‘German “honesty”’ on these matters. See Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, vol. 8 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, trans. Isabel Best et al. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010), pp. 214–15. For the recent upsurge of interest in Bonhoeffer's own sex life, see more or less any review of Marsh, Charles, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)Google Scholar.

5 For an extended recent discussion of the relationships between misogyny, fear of the body and negative attitudes to sex and sexuality in Christian theology, see Beattie, Tina, Theology after Postmodernity: Divining the Void – A Lacanian Reading of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Blackwell, 2015), esp. the summary on pp. 23Google Scholar.

6 See, both for examples of commentators discussing the relevance of moral judgements on Karl Barth's behaviour for evaluations of his theology, and for a window into the controversy around the Tietz article, the series of blog entries by Bobby Grow indexed under; and Mark Galli, ‘What to Make of Karl Barth's Steadfast Adultery?’, Christianity Today (Oct. 2017):

7 They are also, I should add, neither unique to this article nor uniformly characteristic of it.

8 ‘When Karl Met Lollo’, pp. 132–3.

9 On which see e.g. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, ‘Female Academics: Don't Power Dress, Forget Heels – and No Flowing Hair Allowed’, Guardian (26 Oct. 2014);

10 ‘When Karl Met Lollo’, p. 131.

11 Ibid. Tietz notes that Nelly Hoffmann (as she then was) was a violinist trained at the Geneva Conservatory in ‘Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’, p. 87.

12 ‘When Karl Met Lollo’, p. 134.

13 Clearly this is very complex territory. It is not the purpose of this piece to resolve the debates about von Kirschbaum's specific intellectual contribution, and particularly her precise role in the ‘small print’ sections of the Church Dogmatics – for an overview of which, see Tietz, ‘Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’, p. 107. See also for von Kirschbaum's theological work and particularly for her contribution to theological anthropology, Koebler, Renate, In The Shadow of Karl Barth: Charlotte von Kirschbaum, trans. Crim, Keith (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1987)Google Scholar; Selinger, Suzanne, Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1998)Google Scholar. I merely observe here that most contemporary academic conventions would mean von Kirschbaum was credited as a co-author, even if she ‘only’ did what Plant describes – i.e. extensive and essential primary research in the history of theology, and sustained discussion of the emerging theses with ‘lead author’ Karl Barth.

14 And this again points to the fact that the story raises wider – political – issues that cannot be resolved by digging deeper into the feelings and actions of the individuals involved. Tietz claims, on the basis of evidence from correspondence, that von Kirschbaum was happy with her anonymity (‘Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’, p. 91); whether or not that is a fair representation of her state of mind and her personal preferences, it has no bearing on the question of the fair representation of her work.

15 I am grateful to Ben Fulford and Susannah Ticciati for suggestions developed in this paragraph.

16 Although it should be acknowledged that Not, as need in the sense of trouble (‘being in need’), arguably applied equally to all three.

17 ‘When Karl Met Lollo’, p. 134.

18 Not only this, but also to accept that this is ‘not a criticism – just an observation’. Ibid., p. 144.

19 This comparison might bear further reflection – not least because of the odd parallels in the subsequent histories of the relationships, involving in each case the posthumous publication of an intimate correspondence that at least one of the parties appears to have wished to destroy. On the suggestion that Karl Barth wanted his correspondence with Charlotte von Kirschbaum destroyed, see Tietz, ‘Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’, pp. 91–2. See for an example of a Heger-focused article about Brontë, Lonoff, Sue, ‘The Three Faces of Constantin Heger’, Brontë Studies 36/1 (2011), pp. 2837CrossRefGoogle Scholar; there is in fact a brief reference here to Heger's physical appearance, albeit quoted directly from Brontë's own words without authorial comment.

20 In other subdisciplinary circles, of course, his name provokes a strong negative reaction.

21 On the systematic character of theological claims and arguments, and the sense in which this character might be inherent in the nature of theology and hence independent of the historically specific genre of ‘systematics’, see Williams, A. N., The Architecture of Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 On the cultural history of which, see McLeod, Christine, Heroes of Invention (Cambridge: CUP, 2007)Google Scholar. I am grateful to Graeme Gooday for discussions of this point.

23 For a theological critique of which, see Greggs, Tom, The Priestly Catholicity of the Church, vol. 1 of Dogmatic Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press 2019), chapter 4Google Scholar.

24 ‘When Karl met Lollo’, p. 141.

25 Plant, unlike other authors as far as I can see, does allude to some of the possible consequences for von Kirschbaum when he refers to the ‘raw fact’ that von Kirschbaum was never pregnant. Obviously nobody could know that to be a fact except – possibly – von Kirschbaum herself.

26 On the history and context of the former, see Pellegrini, Ann, ‘#MeToo: Before and After’, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 19/4 (2018), pp. 262–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the latter, see Harvey Jones, ‘Sex for Rent: The Rogue Landlords Who Offer Free Rooms in Return for “Favours”’, Guardian, 2 April 2018

27 As developed e.g. in the work of the Shiloh Project: . See also Stiebert, Johanna, Rape Myths, The Bible and #MeToo (London: Routledge, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Guth, Karen, ‘Doing Justice to the Complex Legacy of John Howard Yoder: Restorative Justice Resources in Witness and Feminist Ethics’, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 35/2 (2015), p. 125CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 ‘When Karl Met Lollo’, p. 142.

30 As discussed, famously, in Joreen (Jo Freeman), ‘Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood’, Ms. (Apr. 1976), pp. 49–51, 92–8; available at

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