Its deeply disappointing when you discover one of your heroes wasn’t quite as heroic as you thought. Over the last few years I have experienced that profound sense of disappointment and disillusionment with one of my theological heroes, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth
Barth had a towering intellect and was perhaps, well almost certainly was, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, at least in terms of the influence of his work. I have to confess that I never found Barth easy to read or understand. Hours spent wading through the text of the vast volumes of his monumental work, Church Dogmatics was a constant reminder to me of my intellectual limitations. Yet occasionally I would get my mind around what he was saying, and it would make a profound impact. Barth gave me numerous “light bulb” moments when it felt like a light had come on and I could see something clearly that had always been hazy or hidden before.
More than the theology he wrote what I appreciated about Barth was the way he did theology. In the 19th century, so called liberal theology had emerged and rooted theology in our experience as human beings rather than in the Bible. This had a devastating impact; traditional orthodoxy was thrown out of the window in great swathes of the church. Human experience became the judge of what was true and what wasn’t, what was right and what was wrong. To cut a long story short, this led many of the German theologians advocating this kind of theology to support German nationalism which ultimately led to the horrors of the trenches of WW1. (this happened in other countries too, but it was most pronounced in Germany) This kind of thinking opened up the way for the so-called German Christian Movement in the 1930/40s, that would support and justify the policies of the Nazis. So, this kind of theology, I believe leads Christians ultimately to justify even the unjustifiable.
Barth reacted against this way of thinking. Many of his theological teachers had been German and had advocated this way of doing theology and Barth took them on, head on. Barth said that theology had to come from the revelation of God in Jesus we find in Scripture. Now its more complicated than this, but in essence Barth took us back to Jesus and encouraged us to see everything in the light of Jesus, who is the revelation of God. This was why he was my hero, to me this made sense and was incredibly insightful and personally helpful.
Barth however had a secret that I have discovered in the last few years. He had a decades long adulterous relationship with his personal assistant. Never mind this being disillusioning for me as “fan”, it must have been incredibly hurtful to his wife. Yet Barth knowing the hurt that this relationship caused his wife actually moved his assistant and mistress into their family home! I have no idea why his wife stayed with him. Maybe his wife had a deeper understanding of grace than her husband the great theologian?
When I discovered all of this, I was so disappointed in my hero for such flagrant sin. I found it hard to come to terms with someone who had such insight into the nature of God and yet disobeyed God so defiantly and treated his wife so callously. What I was most disappointed in was how Barth justified his sin. In letters to his mistress he basically said that their relationship felt so good that it must be right. After spending his whole life attacking theology based on subjective personal experience, Barth justified his sin by appealing to his own subjective personal experience. He was doing exactly what he had condemned his German theological mentors of doing, justifying things as being true and good because of how they made him feel rather than in what God had revealed about them.
Mark Galli, one of his biographers, who went through the same disillusionment I did with Barth’s behaviour, wrote this
“My concern is not simply that Barth was a sinner and that his sin was an extramarital affair. Many fine people do stupid things in life. It’s that he justified the affair on the very grounds that substantially contradict his theological project as well as his theological method. And did so year after year after year.”
This towering intellect with deep and profound insights into theology ended up saying something that contradicted everything he had said he believed. He argued privately that something that he knew to be wrong must be morally justifiable because it felt good to him. This kind of reasoning doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I can remember having to tell my children that they couldn’t snatch things off other people just because having that toy made them personally feel good. I don’t think a defence lawyer in court would get very far in arguing that his client hadn’t done anything wrong in robbing the bank because the money had made him feel good and so the robbery must have been the right thing to do. Yet this kind of reasoning was how Barth justified his sin to himself, his mistress and probably his wife.
So, Karl Barth, the theological giant, it seems, was a moral pygmy. He tried to justify the unjustifiable. Why have I written about this sordid affair? Do i just want to air Barth’s dirty laundry in public, speak ill of the dead, undermine his theology? No, I have written this because I think there is something of Barth in all of us and that what Barth did is what we are being told that the church must do today.
I think at some points in our lives we all know we are doing something wrong, but we justify what we are doing to ourselves because it makes us feel good. We reject what God has revealed to be right and wrong and decide for ourselves what will be right and wrong based on how it makes us feel. We too can justify the unjustifiable when it suits us. Barth’s actions sort of hold up a mirror to our own behaviour. Barth’s example has led me to some painful confessions to God. How about you? Are there any areas of your life where you are justifying sin to yourself because it feels good?
Its not just in our personal life we need to avoid deciding what is right and wrong based on feelings, its in our church life too. There are a whole range of moral issues that many within the contemporary church are saying that that the church needs to change its traditional position derived from Scripture on. The fundamental argument that those advocating for these changes make usually boils down to Barth’s justification for his adultery, if it feels good, it can’t be wrong. If people love one another that means what ever God’s Word says, it must be right. What this line of argument does is root final authority not in what God has revealed but in how we as humans feel. Our experience gets the final word. Our feelings get to trump God’s commands.
Mark Galli goes on to talk about this whole issue of deciding what is morally wrong or right and says
“It just means that allowing the revelation of Christ, rather than our whims and small desires, shape our lives is an enormous challenge. It makes Barth’s theology—which focuses on Jesus Christ first and our religious experience second—all that much more important to ponder.”
Strange as this might sound, this whole sorry story of Barth’s sin has made me more committed to Barth’s theology. I am committed to following his theology, so I don’t end up following him morally. I also think that is the route we should take as the church. As an evangelical church we should be committed to giving what God has revealed the final word, the ultimate authority, when we decide if something is acceptable or unacceptable for God’s people.
Let’s make decisions about what is right and wrong for us as followers of Jesus personally and as His Body not based on our feelings and experience but in what God has revealed to us through Jesus the living Word of God whom we encounter in the Written Word of God.