By Heather W. Reichgott
It’s safe to say that Karl Barth is one of the most respected Protestant theologians today. Theology curricula regularly give Barth pride of place.
Barth is known for rehabilitating Reformed theology’s emphasis on the transcendent otherness of God, God’s initiative in relation to human beings, and Jesus Christ as the representative of humanity in salvation and election. People from hard-line Calvinists to mystics have been profoundly influenced by his theology. In addition to an influential Commentary on Romans and books of essays, Barth published the multivolume Church Dogmatics, which sets out in exacting and sometimes repetitive detail his beliefs on each and every one of the traditional theological topics.
Given Barth’s intelligence, depth of thought and verbose style, one might be surprised by his theology of gender. In the 387-page volume of the Dogmatics, which comprises part one of Barth’s doctrine of creation, gender takes up just 29 pages. Barth’s doctrine of creation describes God’s free gift of existence to humanity, and our fitting response which is faith in Jesus Christ; the ongoing relationship between God and humanity takes place in the form of covenant.
This is the meaning of God’s creation of humanity in general, that is. When discussing women in particular, though, Barth says some very different things. Using Genesis 2 with occasional reference to the Song of Songs, Barth presents an argument that while humanity is created for relationship with God, women are created for marriage to men. God creates women because man as a solitary creature is not a fitting covenant partner for God. (Dogmatics III.1.290-298) Woman is “the part of him [man] that is lost and found again”. (III.1.301) She is made to be man’s crowning glory “and it is her glory to be his glory.” (III.1.302) While Barth says this is without detriment to her independence, he also says she has no choice in whether to be the sexual counterpart of man. (III.1.303)
Women have no purpose as human beings outside of their marriages. “Being herself the completion of man’s humanity, she has no need of a further completion of her own. … His recognition and acknowledgment imply hers as well.” She is the “elect” of man (of man! not of God!) and does not exercise choice. (III.1.303) “The only real humanity is that which for the woman consists in being the wife of a male and therefore the wife of man.” (III.1.309)
When this lovely harmony is disturbed Barth envisions the problem as both an excess of male domination and an excess of female emancipation. It is wrong for women to try to seek selfhood outside of sexual relationships with men. (III.1.310)
Why does Barth back off from his usual definition of humanity as represented in Christ when it comes to women, and instead offer this view of women as sexual appendages to men? Why go counter to his usual argument about the complete otherness of God to humanity, in favor of a Roman Catholic-style analogy between divine-human hierarchy and a male-female hierarchy?
We cannot even excuse Barth by his place and time. This volume of the Dogmatics was published in 1958. While women’s suffrage would not become national law in Barth’s native Switzerland until 1971 (more about that process here), in Germany, where Barth spent much of his academic career, women had had the right to vote since 1919, and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights had called for universal suffrage in 1948. Women’s “emancipation” was hardly a strange and exotic thing in Barth’s world.
What do you think, readers? Is this a fair assessment of the humanity of women? If not, does it sour you on Karl Barth altogether, or do you have a way to explain his sexism, or do you find a way to work with the ideas of Barth that are helpful and to jettison the rest?