What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?” Karl Barth’s mother asked him this after her son’s affair with his live-in secretary Charlotte von Kirschbaum. Barth’s decades-long affair was the source of much gossip during their lives and has continued to provoke questions in the study of his work. In 2008 letters between Barth and von Kirschbaum were published, answering some of the lingering questions (yes, the two were certainly in love, not just close work partners) but also prompting others: How much should this inform our reading of Barth’s theology? How should it change our evaluation of the theologian himself?
These questions are also tied up with another question that students of theology often ask: How do we approach significant theological developments that were crafted by men and women who not only sinned, but who committed ongoing or especially egregious sins? This is a worthy question, but there are also times when our focus on this question can obscure other, potentially more important areas of inquiry.
Charlotte von Kirschbaum entered Barth’s life through their theological interests: their first meeting was due to a mutual friend who had been meeting daily with von Kirschbaum to discuss theology, particularly Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans. Within a few years of meeting, Barth asked von Kirschbaum to be his “secretary,” a role that involved not only dealing with administrative issues and correspondence, but also included reading reviews of his theology, doing extensive research, reading his manuscripts to offer notes and critique, and analyzing other theological works. We now know that the two declared their love for each other shortly after meeting, and that Barth’s wife, Nelly, was aware of the relationship from the beginning.
Barth called his relationship with these two women the “notgemeinschaft,” a German word that “had the ambiguous meaning of ‘union in necessity and of trouble’” in which each person has their secure place but also their own suffering. The letters, once published, gave us a glimpse into the pain these three people experienced, a pain that was from Barth’s perspective, part of their unique but necessary relationship.
Barth’s theological work was vast: his Church Dogmatics alone was five volumes, published in twelve parts, his The Epistle to the Romans was famously called a “bomb that fell on the playground of the theologians,” and he was the primary architect of the Barmen Declaration, a document that articulated opposition to the German church’s acquiescence to Nazi ideology. Barth was a theological powerhouse—a reality that seemed to justify the deep suffering of the two most important women in his life.
Barth calls von Kirschbaum his “indispensable comrade,” expressing not merely his romantic feelings but his need for her academic contributions to his work. During his and Nelly’s conversations about von Kirschbaum moving into the family home in order to continue their work, Barth realized “that Nelly did not really agree to the situation of a triangle which for Barth included that all three had to think and to act jointly.”
There is no doubt that von Kirschbaum and Barth each bear serious responsibility for this suffering, and yet in one letter Nelly describes von Kirschbaum as a martyr at her side: each woman sacrificing for the sake of Barth’s work and his important voice in such tumultuous political and theological times. While Barth wished for peace in order to “build his dogmatics tower,” his entire family was suffering from relational turmoil that von Kirschbaum describes as “a theatre of war.” It is not to deny Charlotte’s culpability in the affair to say that these two women both suffered and sacrificed for the sake of one man’s work. In two very different ways, these women shouldered the burden of invisible labor.
Invisible labor is a sociological concept that describes the uncompensated work that people, typically women, perform in private spaces. This can be household chores, financial planning, or childcare, but it is all unpaid and undervalued work that is nevertheless required to keep households and communities running. It is closely related to another important concept, emotional labor, that women in particular often bear in their homes and workplaces: taking on the full responsibility of managing other people’s emotions and taking on the mental load of being the go-to emotionally available person for coworkers.
When the Barth children decided to publish the letters between Barth and von Kirschbaum, their public statement focused on how their mother persevered. They point out that by persevering throughout her marriage, she “made her large contribution to the work of our father.” They say that she knew how “irreplaceable” von Kirschbaum’s work was for her husband’s project and made sacrifices accordingly.
It’s clear from the letters (and is probably obvious) that Nelly carried the greatest emotional weight: her marriage to Barth was essentially arranged and by all accounts never particularly romantic, her husband was in a long-term relationship with a woman he loved deeply, and this woman lived in their home. At one point, Nelly expresses her desire for von Kirschbaum to move out, even living close by and working with Barth into the evening, for both of their sakes: “I then would cause her less trouble. I could encounter her somewhat more freely, could see her come into my home, in which I can breathe and which I can more easily build in my own ability.”
Nelly carried the emotional burden of smoothing out tension at home for her children, of navigating her relationship with both Barth and von Kirschbaum, and of doing all of this during the political and social instability of World War II. As Barth and von Kirschbaum were overwhelmed with work—composing his theological works, working with students, and helping build ecclesiastical opposition to the Nazi regime—Nelly was left to bear the emotional weight of a “shipwrecked” home. In a tumultuous time, she performed great emotional work to keep the peace in their home.
On the other hand, von Kirschbaum performed a different kind of invisible labor, what Renate Köbler calls “work in the shadows.” She did work “in silence, hidden from view, not included in the histories of our time.” Like countless women before and after her, von Kirschbaum performed indispensable work that would go unnoticed. In 2017 English professor Bruce Holsinger started the hashtag #ThanksForTyping to create an “archive of women’s academic labor” in the form of pictures of book acknowledgement pages that thanked academics’ wives for typing their manuscripts. Holsinger found numerous examples of acknowledgements for typing, as well as transcribing field notes, revising drafts, and indexing.
This is, in a different sense, “invisible labor.” While von Kirschbaum “exerted a major influence on one of the greatest theological works of the twentieth century,” her legacy has primarily been “mistress,” nothing but “grist for the theological gossip mills.” We don’t have to exonerate von Kirshbaum in order to also condemn the cultural dynamics that would make her theological contribution invisible. Her work was invisible not merely by virtue of her controversial relationship with Barth, but because of a patriarchal world in which committing her life to furthering a man’s theological endeavors was much more feasible than focusing on her own work. She worked in the shadows her entire life—even while making great theological contributions and taking leadership in opposition to the Nazi regime—and “it is there that she has been left by the subsequent writing of church history.”
It’s hard to judge any of the three too harshly, including Barth himself, when you read their letters: each suffered so deeply and each desperately wanted to care for the other two. And while these recently released letters give us more details about Barth and von Kirschbaum’s relationship than we had before, it is still difficult to make too many definitive moral judgements from the outside. The two certainly sinned against Nelly, and there is no doubt that the turmoil they all endured was the product of unwillingness to end an inappropriate relationship. It’s equally difficult not to read Barth’s theology, especially his work on gender and marriage, in light of his sin.
Yet there is also something missing in our discussions about Barth and von Kirschbaum’s relationship: the reality of two women who performed serious work that has been largely ignored by history. This is not unique to Barth, either: throughout history, there have been women working behind the scenes, in underappreciated capacities, to further the work of men. This includes running households and raising children, and it also includes scholarship done in the shadows: conversation partners to bounce ideas off of, typing and transcribing, even uncredited discoveries or advancements. Rosalind Franklin, Margaret Keane, and Katherine Johnson were all women who made great scientific or artistic advances in the shadows. These are just the stories we can unearth—Nelly Barth reminds us that there have also been women throughout history who judged their husband’s work as so significant that it warranted great personal sacrifices on their part.
Invisible labor is not a thing of the past, it continues to impact not only women but other marginalized people who perform taxing work that not only goes unacknowledged but can drain them of resources and energy that others don’t lose. It happens when men automatically go to their female colleagues for emotional unloading or advice—real work that takes a mental toll. It happens when people of color take on the mental and emotional work of existing in predominantly white spaces: hearing insensitive comments, answering probing questions, representing their group when asked to, working to present themselves in ways acceptable to the surrounding culture.
It is also a vitally important lens for us to use in theological study: where is the invisible labor? Whose work would I not see because of centuries of discrimination and bias? Whose work was never documented or acknowledged?
In a fallen world, our broken social systems will elevate some voices above others consistently. There is certainly value in reading and studying the theologians and biblical scholars that have always been studied. But there is also great value in looking for the voices history forgot: the women, the people of color, the poor and marginalized. We should certainly ask ourselves how to approach theologians with serious moral failings. But we should also ask, in our theological study and in our own lives: Who am I not seeing?
 Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today 74, no. 2 (2017), 187.
 Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” 92-94.
 Tietz, 102.
 Terry Cross, Dialectic in Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), 82.
 Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” 98.
 Tietz, 101.
 Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” 88.
 Mark Galli, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 68.
 Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” 100.
 Renate Köbler, In the Shadow of Karl Barth: Charlotte von Kirschbaum (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), 21.
 Köbler, In the Shadow of Karl Barth, 11.
 Köbler, 65.
Cover image by Duy Hoang.