I am in agreement with Karl Barth when he asserts that we need to maintain a distinction between male and female.
He is right to state that this imperative is because there is a structural and functional order to the ‘I & thou encounter’ (1951:131 & 150; see also Buber).
Barth writes: ‘man in himself was a question without an answer and the woman only the answer to his question’ (1951:168); ‘the root of togetherness is man with woman, woman with man.
This encounter reflects our humanity i.e.: ‘Humanity which is not fellow-humanity is inhumanity; for ‘the root of this inhumanity is the ideal of masculinity free from woman and femininity free from man’ (1951:117 & 166).
In other words man is man in his relationship to woman, as woman is woman in her relationship to man (1951:163). The two cannot exist in total isolation of the other[i]. Barth is right to argue that humanity is, ‘in light of the command of God’ (1951:130) female and male; fully male or fully female (1951:140 & 149).
Outside medically rare and exceptional cases, never both at the same time. The alternative conclusions lead to the non-Biblical notion that God is bisexual and all humans that transcend their sex become gods (1951:156-157).
Barth raises a potentially liberating challenge to the ideology behind conclusions that presuppose a ‘’feminine side’’ to men and a masculine side to women. What must be made clear is that the impetus for the latter is rooted in a higher plane of individualism. One that holds up the idea that each person needs to “get in touch with” themselves to be more complete as humans, hence the ‘’born this way – stay this way” absolutism, advocated implicitly within certain ‘’lifestyle’’ paradigms.
Whilst this has been the trend in most Western Societies, we can still avoid the politics of displacement and resentment that develops through a confusion of roles, and the victim politics that follows. Yes, we should be who God created us to be, but that is either fully male or fully female, which is properly grounded on God’s ‘commanded orientation’ (Barth 1951:167), not a rejection of it.
Along with Barth (1951:161), Indian author Vishal Mangalwadi points out that the idea of the feminine in the masculine has its origin in Hinduism. For instance he writes:
‘Historically Hindu philosophy has promoted homosexuality and become foundational to the contemporary interest in Tantric or ‘’sacred sex’’ because it teaches that each one of us is god, infinite and complete. Consequently, the assumption is that I don’t need a wife because the feminine is already within me (Shakti) it just needs help to be awakened.’ (Mangalwadi 2011, p.295)[iii]
Barth rejects this, labelling homosexuality and its ideological elements a ‘malady on society’ (1951:166). Even though there may be conflict (polarity 1951:163[ii]) between male and female there is no crisis between what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. Therefore, as a man, I can let go of any notion and social expectation that might demand I ‘’get in touch with’’ the feminine within myself.
There are indeed absolutes and these need to be acknowledged for true freedom to be understood.
Barth rightly points out that ‘men should rejoice in being male, likewise women in being female, rather than be ashamed of it; or promote an idolatry of self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency ’ (Barth, 1951:149 & 166).
At this point it is helpful to introduce John Howard Yoder’s concept of ‘subordinate reciprocity’, understood as ‘haustafeln’ (house-tables Yoder, 1972:163).
Subordinate reciprocity asserts that the ‘subordinate person becomes a free agent when that person voluntarily accedes to their role in the power of Christ instead of doing it either fatalistically or resentfully’ (Yoder, 1973:191).It is therefore right to suggest, as Yoder does, that ‘subordinate reciprocity’ (Yoder, 1972) aligns with the axiom ‘to be a teacher is to be a learner’ (Kierkegaard XIII: 461). (I believe Barth would agree based on his comments about the ‘reciprocity of the sexes’ 1951:164)
Subordinate reciprocity is a New Testament ethic that empowers men to ‘confirm the order in which woman in her place is not simply subordinate to him, but stands at his side’ (1951:181). As Barth writes
‘…there is no simple equality… Man does not enjoy any privilege or advantage over woman…Man cannot become her Lord…Man is not the Christ of woman. This would be misunderstanding the Divine order, creating disorder and abuse. Woman is right to protest this if the context so demands it…The man is strong as he is vigilant for the interests of both sexes. This is what is intended and tenable in the otherwise rather doubtful idea of chivalry. To the man who is strong in this sense there corresponds, when woman is obedient, the woman who is mature…the tyrannical man is always disobedient in relation to this order’ (1951:170-180)
In his essay, Perichoretic Possibilities in Barth’s Doctrine of Male and Female, Alexander McKelway provides an analogy of perichoresis (participation with God). McKelway imagines it as a ballet between a man and woman (the “grand pas de deux” McKelway, 1986:242).
While I take issue with some of McKelway’s conclusions about Barth, his analogy is helpful. The perichoresis that humanity is invited into is similar to the reciprocity in a waltz where the male ‘takes the lead, initiates and inspires their common being and action’ (Barth, 1954).
We do well to hold this in critique of the increasing influence of “cultural and ideological straightjackets” that are bound by an excessive egalitarianism, blurring gender distinctions (gender neutrality) in the name of equality. The dangers appear very real as lobbyists appeal to a vile post-modern inverted idea of tolerance and its inevitable by-product ‘unchecked individualism’ (Le Buryns 2009:72).
The conclusion for a man who acknowledges and rejoices in his being as man, is that when he loves a woman and woman loves in return, despite the polar opposites, he doesn’t just say to her, “I need you”, but can confidently and more importantly ask her:
“Will you share your life with me, as in Christ, I am willing to share mine?”.
When attempting to provide sharp relief of Karl Barth’s theology of fellowship between God, man and woman, there is always a risk of oversimplifying his intended meaning. I am in agreement with Timothy Gorringe on this; therefore I have attempted to briefly unpack Barth’s thought in full awareness of that caveat. I realise the length of this article will also limit its readership.
However, my intention here was to at the very least introduce the relevance, if not communicate the balance, clarity and insight Barth was developing in his theology regarding such important matters. They are words with poignancy and precision. Calm words of warning for an age going full throttle in opposite directions with little concern for the consequences, or those who try to raise awareness about them.
Finally, perhaps a good, albeit simple example of subordinate reciprocity lies hidden within the narrative presented by Miranda Divine here:
‘Prince Philip managed to remain his own man, respectful but not emasculated, as he accompanied Queen Elizabeth on every royal tour’ (M.Divine, 2012)
Buber, M 1970 I and Thou (trans. Kaufmann) Kindle for PC ed. Charles Scribner’s and Sons
Barth, K. 1951 Church Dogmatics III.IV The doctrine of creation Hendrickson Publishers
Kierkegaard, S. 1997 the Essential Kierkegaard Princeton University Press U.S.A
Le Buryns, C. 2009, Re-placing stewardship? Towards an ethics of responsible care Source:
Religion & Theology, 16 no 1-2 2009, p 67-76. Publication Type: Article Peer reviewed.
Database: ATLA Religion Database sourced 27th May 2012
Mangalwadi, V 2011 The Book that made your world: How the Bible created the soul of western civilization
McKelway, Alexander J. 1986 Perichoretic Possibilities in Barth’s Doctrine of Male and Female The Princeton Seminary Bulletin sourced from http://journals.ptsem.edu/id/PSB1986073/dmd008
Selvaggio, A. 2011, 7 Toxic ideas polluting your mind P & R Publishing Company Phillipsburg, N.J, U.S.A
Yoder, J.H 1974 the Politics of Jesus Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids M.I, U.S.A
Gender and Theology series: Karl Barth on man and woman – Kevin Davis
8 thoughts on “When a Man Loves a Woman: Barth’s Freedom in Fellowship”
Nice post! It is heartening to see another person commend the beauty and truth of Barth’s account of ordered gender relations. I wrote about this back in January, in case you haven’t seen it: Karl Barth on man and woman. Barth is routinely criticized, in academic journals and certain blogs, for his rendering of woman’s subordination, but I have yet to see anyone actually give a biblical-dogmatic alternative, without relying upon postmodern identity politics and gender constructivism. I really believe that Barth was a prophetic witness to the chaos (=disobedience) we observe today.
Thanks Kevin. I appreciate your encouragement. I am big on CD III:4. Particularly the socio-political applications from the final section: Freedom in Limitation. I think a lot of Barth’s thought is overlooked in exchange for the self-justification of not hearing what he heard and then shared.
I’ve never heard of Barth, but your insightful post makes me want to read more.
I especially loved –“The conclusion for a man who acknowledges and rejoices in his being as man, is that when he loves a woman and woman loves in return, despite the polar opposites, he doesn’t just say to her, “I need you”, but can confidently and more importantly ask her: “Will you share your life with me, as in Christ, I am willing to share mine?”
I agree completely.
ps. – The shamrock/Trinity drawing get a thumbs up!
Hi Mrs C. Nice to have you visit again. Karl Barth was an anti-Nazi theologian from Switzerland, who had been a Pastor early on in life and later a Professor in Germany. His battle against the surrender of theology to ideology, fought out in his stand against natural theology is immensely relevant to our contemporary situation in both the Eastern and Western Church. I’ll pass on the thumbs up to the artist, thanks for the encouragement. Peace be with you 🙂