Karl Barth and Feminism (continued)


 I continue to read and contrast Barth’s early 1934 letter response to Henriette Visser ‘T Hooft (which does indeed reflect a hierarchical / patriarchal view), then read his Church Dogmatics passages on Men and Women (from the Helmut Gollwitzer “selections”, 1957/1994, Westminster John Knox Pub). I’m unwilling to give Barth’s later writing a “pass” yet – being hard-core mutuality-oriented in my theological understanding. Barth’s brilliance, however, sure does shine through in the C.D. passages, just as it does not do so in the response to Visser ‘T Hooft.

 It is fascinating to me that Barth’s name hasn’t come up to my knowledge in the debate on this issue, except in having his 1934 letter quoted by one Tim Bayly, who is highly patriarchal (and proud to use that theological descriptor). Bayly does not, however, quote from the Church Dogmatics chapter.

On a superficial read-through, Barth not only sounds egalitarian / mutualist on women/men issues (despite his of course now-archaic usage of “man” rather than “human”), he also at times sounds almost deconstructionist in his language. For instance, he writes:

 “The command of God will find man and woman as what they are in themselves. It will disclose to them the male or female to which they have to remain faithful. It will tell them what they have to acknowledge and may never deny as man or woman. In all this it may perhaps coincide at various points with what we may think we know concerning the differentiation of male and female. But it may not always do this. It may manifest the differentiation in new and surprising ways. The summons to both man and woman to be true to themselves may take completely unforeseen forms right outside the systems in which we like to think. […] It is thus a mistake to attach oneself to any such scheme, however well constructed and illuminating it might appear to be. Such schemes can sometimes render us heuristic, exegetic and illustrative services. But it is not for us to write the text itself with the help of any such system. It is not for us to write the text at all.” [p. 199]

From here, it appears Barth is willing to invest in something very closely associated with today’s mutuality / mutualist position. I say “appears” because I do not ultimately think Barth fully means it. But that may have to wait for another post. Let me include first the most startling apparent reversal from the 1934 letter Barth offers in this chapter:

 “This means that although we recognize their achievements we definitely reject every phenomenology or typology of the sexes…

 “Examples of such a typology: ‘The man is the one who produces, he is the leader; the woman is receptive, and she preserves life; it is the man’s duty to shape the new; it is the woman’s duty to write it and adapt it to that which already exists. The man has to go forth and make the earth subject to him, the woman looks within and guards the hidden unity. The man must be objective and universalize, woman must be subjective and individualise; the man must build, the woman adorns; the man must conquer, the woman must tend; the man must comprehend all with his mind, the woman must impregnate all with the life of her soul. It is the duty of man to plan and to master, of the woman to understand and unite.’

 …”Yet how is it that we can hardly resist a certain levity in face of such antitheses, as though seeing in them, however serious their authors, a rather malicious caricature on one side or the other, or perhaps both? These things obviously cannot be said or heard in all seriousness. For they cannot be stated with real security. They cannot be stated in such a way that probably every third man and certainly every second woman does not become agitated and protest sharply against the very idea of seeing themselves in the sketches.” [p. 200-201]

 Barth goes on to further unpack real life difficulties wherein the individual encounters such exact definitions of what masculinity and femininity are, and neatly submarines them as largely useless and offensive.

 But next he goes to what he does consider the God-command when it comes to male being male and female being female. While I don’t pretend to have an end-all be-all definitive interpretation of Barth – whom I confess here and now is rarely read by me! – I will attempt to explore what may be a less progressive, less mutuality-centered view he holds.

 But not in this post. The next one….




Filed under feminism, Karl Barth, theology

2 responses to “Karl Barth and Feminism (continued)

  1. None of the things written above seem to me to place in question Professor Barth’s continued commitment to God’s creation order of the sexes instituted in the Garden of Eden prior to the Fall, hermeneuted and exegeted by the Holy Spirit in 1Timothy where He says, “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:12, 13).

    This is why feminist theologians never cite Barth–he’s too biblical on the matter of the order of the sexes and the exercise of authority, so he’s no friend to them. There’s no “startling reversal” of Barth’s lifelong commitment to Scripture’s doctrine of sexuality. As Jon rightly described me, I’m commited to Scripture’s teaching on father-rule and I myself have no conflict with what Professor Barth writes above.

    Near the end of his life Professor Barth reaffirmed his disagreement with Henriette Visser ‘T Hooft in, I believe, his “How I’ve Changed My Mind” column for “Christian Century.” I may be wrong in where the statement appears, though, and I can’t find it on my computer just now. I’ll keep looking and post it if I find it. Please give Jon my greetings.

  2. Tim,
    I wonder if you really understand Barth’s position. If you haven’t seen the books on Barth’s secretary mentioned in this series then I encourage you to look into them. It sounds like your position is one closer to Emil Brunner’s which both Barth and Von Kirschbaum opposed. Neither is it true that feminists never cite Barth. One of the authors, Suzanne Selinger, is both a Barthian and a feminist, who finds though she often disagrees with Barth, he is still very useful. Barth and Von Kirschbaum were aware of and in sympathy with the German Women’s movement of their day. Selinger’s book is the one to see regarding that. Have you read CD III/4? I think you’ll find Barth’s position much more nuanced than you think.


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