Friday, July 3, 2015

Finding Barth's Grave

My wife Beth, who is president of Webster University, had a business trip last month to Webster's Vienna and Geneva campuses. Usually teaching when she goes overseas, I was free in June to come along on her trip, which was a wonderful experience. I had been to Vienna but not yet to Switzerland. After we finished her business in Geneva and did some sight-seeing, including a visit to John Calvin's church, we took the train up to Basel and spent a few days in that delightful city.

My home office, with the black
Dogmatics on a middle shelf. 
I became interested in Karl Barth's theology while a Greenville College freshman, inspired by William Hordern's book Laymen's Guide to Protestant Theology that my professor had assigned. My dad paid for, and our pastor ordered for me, the whole set of the Church Dogmatics before I set off for Yale Divinity School. I liked to read the heavy volumes as I hoped to learn as much theology as I could. Eventually, my doctoral dissertation at University of Virginia was entitled "The Social Ontology of Karl Barth," which I wrote while we lived in Flagstaff, AZ. Among the Dogmatics volumes, I focused upon Barth's christological anthropology in III/2. A copy of the huge, white German volume helped me deepen the journey through the smaller, black English text. (I remembered the anecdote of a YDS professor, Robert Clyde Johnson, who at the time was recovering from a heart attack and said he'd been advised not to pick up a volume of the Dogmatics with one hand, so he wouldn't strain his heart…)

My teaching and writing careers took other directions than the Barthian theologian I considered becoming. While in Flagstaff, I accepted a part-time teaching position in world religions, a subject that has been an integral part of my career. But at the same time, Barth's famous saying about reading the Bible with an eye on contemporary issues (a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other) became a guiding principle in all my curriculum writing. I still like to take down those black volumes, follow Barth's arguments, and think about the content of those small-print sections. I hope someday to write another book that delves into the Dogmatics.

Visiting Barth's hometown of Basel had never been on my bucket list, but this trip provided a nice opportunity, especially since Basel turned out to be such a great place. But where was Barth buried? How does one find his grave? Luckily, I found this website which provided excellent directions for finding the family grave. I also checked Eberhard Busch's biography, a book I've had since div school days.

Just as that website indicates, the way there is the # 31 bus from Schifflände station in the city center. (Beth had found us a wonderful hotel, the Schweizerhof, opposite the train and bus connections.) The 31 bus takes you to the gate of the cemetery, the Friedhof am Hörnli. Beth and I walked and walked back to Section 8; the day was in the 80s, but at least some areas were shady. The interesting grave stones around the Friedhof, so different from American styles of stones, kept us fascinated as we progressed to the grave.

Barth is buried with his wife Nelly, some of their children, and Barth's assistant and confidante Charlotte von Kirschbaum. I tried not to be too emotional, but I felt deeply the honor of visiting the resting place of a such an influential thinker---and who, in my own life, inspired so much of my religious and vocational life.

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