The reason Thomas and I were one hour late for supper tonight is because about 4pm I twisted his arm to go with me to try and find Karl Barth’s grave. It’s only 25 minutes from here (Kandern, Germany), just over the border into Switzerland (just on the edge of his hometown of Basel). We found the cemetery quite easily, Friedhof Hörnli (70 Hörnliallee, Riehen, Basel-Stadt), but the grave plot locator computer wouldn’t tell us where in the cemetery he was buried. So, we walked it row by row and section by section for one hour and thirty minutes.
It was a needle in a haystack, really. Ugh. Thomas will verify that after a while I started praying out loud that the Holy Spirit would order my steps. Tom knew I’d come back tomorrow if we had to leave without finding it. (The reason I believe the Lord let me wander a while is because I needed the walk.) We finally found it along the furthest back wall (section 0803, grave 0014). Hope that last little piece of info is a blessing to the next pilgrim who tries to google and find the grave of Karl Barth. Here’s a pic so you know what you are looking for…
I’ll tell you why I’m pointing to two names in a little bit – if you like bizzare love stories – trust me you’ll want to keep reading.
Someone once asked Pope John XXIII whom he thought was the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. Expecting him to name a Catholic they were all amazed to hear him answer… Karl Barth.
The Pope went on to say he thought Barth was the greatest Christian thinker since St. Aquinas (d. 1274).
When someone told Barth what the Pope had said about him Barth commented… “I am starting to believe in the infallibility of the Pope!”
Here’s are some quick highlights of his life:
- Raised in liberal theology, he had a change of mind and heart and broke with liberalism. His method is referred to as dialectical theology or neo-orthodoxy (though he rejected those designations). He sought a return to the Word and a positive reevaluation and recapturing of Reformation theology and teaching, particularly Calvin.
- He was a friend and mentor to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
- He wrote the historic Barmen Declaration (with Bonhoeffer’s help) – the declaration was the Confessing Church of Germany’s rejection of the pro-Nazi “German Christian” churches and a renouncement of anti-Semitism. Barth mailed the declaration to Hitler personally.
- Born and raised here in Basel Switzerland, taught for a short while at the University of Bonn (Germany) until he was kicked out of Germany in 1935 for refusing to sign a statement of loyalty to Hitler. He returned to Basel and taught there until his retirement. He died there in 1968.
- He wrote the massive 10,000 page, 13 volume set of books called Dogmatics. You can find that here. He never completed the project. Theologian colleagues frequently asked him when the final volumes would be written. He’d reply by asking them if they fully read and digested what he’d published already. He was too prolific for anyone to say yes. Dogmatics is nine times the size of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Barth towers over every other with this monument of Christian theological thought.
- If you were to only buy one book of Barth’s I’d recommend his famous commentary on Romans. If you want a Cliff notes version of Dogmatics, start here with this book, it’s the one I’m holding in my hand in the picture.
- One of my favorite Karl Barth quotes… “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world. “
Even if you have never heard of Karl Barth, perhaps you’ve heard this story. Someone once asked Barth to sum up in one sentence his vast understanding of Christian Theology. He thought and then replied… “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
A “skeleton” remains at his grave:
Now for the reason I’m pointing at a second name – Charlotte von Kirschbaum. In 1909, Barth fell in love with a gal named Rosi. A relationship between the two was forbidden, but for the rest of his life Karl Barth carried her picture with him – and at times he’d weep looking at it. (Rosi died in 1925.)
In 1913, parents all but arranged that Karl Barth would marry Nelly Hoffman, an accomplished violinist. Nelly remained his wife until the time of his death in 1968. You’ll see her name, Nelly Barth-Hoffmann, is listed on the gravestone immediately underneath his.
Barth became extremely close with a female assistant (13 years younger, also his former student) named Charlotte von Kirschbaum (whom he nicknamed “Lollo”). His wife Nelly was no match for Barth intellectually however Charlotte certainly was— in fact, Charlotte accused Barth of stealing her ideas more than once. Some believe she co-authored Dogmatics contributing far more than secretarial help. At minimum it’s evident he developed theologically in dialog and communication. In 1929, Barth invited Charlotte to move into his home.
This open-secret “affair” was shocking and scandalous throughout the church world and many, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, adamantly rejected the arrangement. Barth’s mother and his children were equally unaccepting – son Marcus later said he used to think he had two mothers. There is no evidence of a sexual relationship between Karl and Lollo unless you consider it a given and painfully obvious as they vacationed together (leaving Nelly at home), worked closely together and lived together (1929-1968) for the rest of his life. The last years of Charlotte’s life Alzheimer’s set in and she was moved into a nursing home.
Here’s a picture of Charlotte and an interesting article on her with a few other details. This link has more including the important books related to their lives together. Some close to the family say it was no sexual affair, that Nelly tolerated all this because she too was committed to his work as a theologian. Others see Barth as a womanizer who used them both, one to care for his house and children and another to meet his professional, companionship and emotional needs. Feminists see Charlotte as the shining star, constrained by set roles for women at that time, her only outlet for scholarship was in his shadow. Thus the book by Renate Kobler, In the Shadow of Karl Barth: Charlotte Von Kirschbaum, Westminster John Knox Press (1989).
As you can see in my picture, Charlotte died in 1975 and Nelly honored Karl’s request that Charlotte be buried with him in the family plot. Nelly died the year after and was buried with him also. The reason I really wanted to find this gravestone is because I heard it had all three names on one stone. Yep, it does. I guess you could say I wasn’t just looking for his grave, but also the skeleton in his closet.
Some say all this made Barth an adulterer (at least committing emotional adultery), others go so far as to say therefore he was not a Christian. Anyway you slice it this was dysfunction junction and a very substantial, unfortunate and lasting blight on his life testimony and work. In case you are wondering, I’m not God. But I did have this thought today… I wonder who will receive the greater crown in heaven, Karl for his contribution to Christian thought, or Nelly for putting up with Karl. I’m voting for Nelly, how about you? (He may have written 31 volumes, but her testament spans 55 years.) Please vote in the poll below and, so I’m not doing all the talking, please comment.