Sunday, October 29, 2017

Personal life and theology

At least four theologians that I am aware of have been involved in; or allegations have been made against them of inappropriate sexual behaviour.
   As a seminary student, a long time ago, I became aware of Paul Tillich’s sexual infidelity. His wife Hannah did speak of it, even though some claim that they had an agreed upon “open marriage.” When Tillich taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was apparently upset with Tillich’s attitude toward female students, and he withdrew his friendship from Tillich.
   According to some, Karl Barth was, and still is, considered the most significant 20th century theologian. Yet of late, I read a disturbing piece about his decades-long adulterous relationship with his personal assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. Barth apparently tried to rationalize away this extra-marital relationship, even considering it as God-intended, so much for “Thou shall not commit adultery.” One wonders how his wife felt about it, and why she would continue to tolerate it.
   In North America, for some time now, there have been allegations against Martin Luther King, Jr. too, that he was involved in several extra-marital affairs. Whether or not these can be substantiated, I don’t know.
   More recently, also in North America, there has been coverage of inappropriate sexual behaviour by theologian John Howard Yoder; over one-hundred women were sexually violated.
   I confess this leaves a bad and discouraging impression on me about the theology of these theologians. It raises a difficult ethical question: Should sexual misbehaviour, and in some cases abuse, have an effect on how we regard the theological works of these theologians? If so, how?
   As Lutherans, we have denounced and distanced ourselves from Martin Luther’s horrifying treatises, On the Jews and their lies, and Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. However, I hazard to guess that most Lutherans don’t write off Luther completely with regards to many of his other writings. Moreover, even though we do not accept or endorse his anti-Semitism, we do appreciate a considerable number of his reforms that he introduced to Christendom.
   So, when we learn of the sins of theologians whom we previously respected; does that change how we regard their theology? If so, how? What do you think? 

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