Inside the House on the Albinring

The Karl Barth Family

Inside the House on the Albinring: An attempt to ask the right questions concerning Karl Barth’s stormy home life.

“The less that gossips in Basel, and especially everywhere, knew about the house of the Albinring, the more they found to talk about. None of them had any idea how much suffering there was under the roof of that house. But the work of theology was joyful, and the involvement in that work, to whatever extent, held the three together through toils and perils.” –Rose Marie Barth, In the Shadow of Karl Barth, pg. 16.

I have four books before me now that serve (in varying degrees) to take me into the family and work lifestyle which Karl Barth fashioned and endured for nearly forty years. Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth, Renate Kobler’s In the Shadow of Karl Barth: Charlotte von Kirschbaum (a title Busch disapproved of), The Question of Woman, (John Shepherd’s translation of von Kirschbaum’s work, Die Wirklich Frau), and Suzanne Selinger’s Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology. I would hope that my interest in the Karl Barth home is more than a cursory one, and that my eyes are not those of the many gossip mongers his family endured over the years. Even so, the knowledge that Barth’s marriage was not happy, that he wrote Nelly asking for a divorce in 1933 and then dropped the issue, and that in many ways he seemed content to leave things as they were, without boundaries between work and home life, in a situation with “Lollo” that left them both open to societal scorn makes me want to deal personally with the troubled home-life of one of my favorite theologians. Can this count as my reply to Halden’s Worst Theological Problem Meme? Probably not.

Of all the books, Suzanne Selinger looks most deeply into Karl Barth’s inner life and married development. In 1907, while a student in Bern, Karl fell deeply in love with Rosy Munger. Barth’s parents intervened and would not allow the marriage. Selinger writes:

At a final meeting the two burned their letters. Barth never got over this love and kept a picture of Rosy till the end of his life. He saw her only once again, in an unplanned, fleeting encounter: she came to hear him preach at the cathedral in Berne around 1915. Rosy’s life ended prematurely in 1925: she died of leukemia. Karl spent a day in his study grieving for her. (Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth, pg. 4)

This story is related to Selinger in personal written communication from Eberhard Busch. Selinger’s book contains much of this sort of information from Busch that the other sources do not. Selinger goes on to describe Barth’s fear of his mother Anna, his troubling dream of her burying him alive, and the way in which Karl Barth turned close friends into life companions for the sake of theology.

The question of sexual activity between Barth and von Kirschbaum is one of those things which pops up in Barthian circles. It pops up, gets a smirk, and then drops. Here is Selinger’s remark:

“In the early stages of this study, I felt certain that the two were lovers and that anyone who doubted it was painfully naive. Further inquiry and review led to diminished certainty. I think one must be careful not to think one can know.” (pg. 13)

If you look into Selinger’s painstaking study, I think you’ll agree that if anyone would know, it is her! She goes on to say:

“A view shared by several of Barth’s contemporaries in the United States is, I think, piercingly correct. They maintain that the question of consummation is unnecessary and beside the point, because any married man who devoted as much time and attention to another woman as Karl Barth did to Charlotte von Kirschbaum was committing adultery. I would only add that von Kirschbaum too is involved in this charge and all that it meant to Nelly and the Barth children, though to a lesser extent and with much of the blame on Barth. I think this is all anyone can do with this question and all that needs to be done.” (pg. 13-14)

Maybe I was just curious about Barth and Lollo’s sexual activity, but a bigger issue with a warning has popped up for me here. Karl Barth was deeply troubled by loneliness. He was terribly lonely with his wife Nelly. He says outright that when von Kirschbaum came along he knew what it was to have a helper. Here is a man whose interior life absorbed everything else around him. Selinger shows how Barth’s theological relationship with Thurneyson, the hours spent in reading and thinking aloud, was transferred onto von Kirschbaum. He developed theologically in communication. His writing was not done until someone else helped him develop it. I’m not sure what to make of that. It seems right that theology be done in community, but wrong that it should consume the persons involved and take over the very fabric of their lives so that families would have to suffer.

The big lesson here to me is that I must never sacrifice the ones I love for my interior life, even when the focus of my interests is something as wonderful as Church Dogmatics, the way the people of God speak and live for God. Barth did not desire the situation the way that it was. But he felt helpless to do anything about it. From this side of history I can’t really lecture him or myself on it, but I can look at my own life and say, “May my burden to the gospel I profess publicly never compromise my commitment to the gospel I profess in my home.” Or to put it another way, in answer to the question of whether I am a Christian, the true test would be to go and ask my family. Though that doesn’t completely cover it.

Once again I’ve given you a piecemeal conversation starter on my reading. Sorry that my writing does more to unburden my own head than to fully treat the subject.

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3 Comments

Filed under books, Karl Barth, theology

3 responses to “Inside the House on the Albinring

  1. When marriages are arranged (or prevented) for social and economic reasons, then romance, companionship, affection on one side–and marriage as a social order on the other side are necessarily separated. I would not call it adultery if someone obeyed the letter of the law with regard to sex but found a soulmate in an un-consummated platonic relationship. If the relationship caused suffering to his lawful wife, that is another question. A Christian would not willingly cause suffering to anyone.

    Maybe he should have suffered silently. Maybe he should have written a one-volume paperback dogmatics or a brief pamphlet.

  2. Robin

    It all sounds a little “ivory tower-ish” to me…years and years of contemplating one’s navel over spiritual/religious matters, trying to make heads or tails of it, “if this…then that….”, etc. That’s all theory. The message Jesus taught was so much simpler and required very little interpretation: “Love God, love one another – treat each other as you’d like to be treated.”
    Hurting his wife and children negates whatever he contributed to theological theory/mumbo-jumbo.

    It’s really very hypocritical.
    Being a “good” Christian, I’ve always believed, means that you might have to make some sacrifices now and again.

    Einstein was a louse to his first wife, too, .
    Schweitzer also ignored his wife years at a time, too.
    As did Ghandi
    And Martin Luther King was a gad-about.
    But at least those guys accomplished something PRACTICAL and weren’t real hypocrits.

    Sorry Barth, you lost my vote.

  3. Chimot G

    I think that Barth knew how important his theological work was for the Christians of his time(it becomes clear when we consider the nazi era) and he certainly knew that he could not accomplish his mission without this strange family arrangement.

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