Trains and Karl Barth

The group

I spent last week at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia with a group organized by the Foundation for Reformed Theology. We gather once a year to discuss agreed upon reading of serious theology. We had last meet in early March 2021 in Austin, Texas. That was the last time I’ve been on a plane. When we departed from home that year, the airport appeared to be dying. We knew our world was in a midst of change. It was good to be back together, even though the world hasn’t completely returned to normal.  

Discussing Barth

This year, our major reading was from Karl Barth’s Christology section in his massive work, Church Dogmatics. In seminary, almost 35 years ago, we had to read some selections of Barth’s writings. Since then, I have only read his revised commentary on Romans, where Barth moved away from 19th liberal theology in the years after the First World War. This summer, in addition to reading the Dogmatics, I also read Christiane Tietz’s new biography of Barth which I reviewed a few months ago.

At best, I have a love/hate relationship with Barth. A brilliant man, it feels as if he wrote down every word that came into his brain. But amidst all the thoughts and ideas, there are often real jewels of ideas. I imagine reading Barth is a bit like mining diamonds.  This time around, I came to appreciate Barth’s footnotes, where he defends his ideas with brilliant exegesis of scripture. 

Traditionally, theologians develop their Christology after outlining the inability of humanity to save itself. Barth flips this idea on its head, first writing about the God who journeyed “into the far country.” Barth wants us to realize that grace always comes before sin. We experience this through Jesus Christ, who Barth also goes into depth to show was God. And God comes and lives among us. When they Pharisees condemned Jesus for eating with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes, they were acknowledging the radicalness of this God who comes to us. Barth builds his theology around Jesus Christ. We must take our focus off our selves (and our pride) and find ourselves connected to a God who comes in a small and insignificant manner. Barth’s ideas continue as he discusses judgment, sin, pride, and the fall. This is a brief explanation of 30-some hours of discussion!

These were seen on my walks around town

Every afternoon, after spending hours talking about Barth, I would take a walk, From the yard signs, you can tell that Decatur is breaking Georgia’s image. Everywhere were signs in support of BLM and civil rights. Even yards that were decorated for Halloween had a message! I also learned that the first ever Waffle House was in the community of Avondale. Now we know who to blame…

Midnight Train to Georgia

Having just driven to Hilton Head, Savannah, then Wilmington, I decided to travel differently. I took the train from Danville, Virginia to Atlanta. This is a section of the route known as the Southern Crescent, which starts in New York and continues to New Orleans. Traveling in a roomette, I boarded the train at 11:20 PM. A waxing moon seemed to hang just outside my window. I fell asleep to the gentle rocking, the faint sound of the engine whistling, and the beeping and flashing lights on the lower guards as we raced through crossings. I woke as the train stopped and looked out the window. We were in Toccoa, Georgia. I had slept through the Carolinas. 

Sadly, however, I learned this train no longer has a dining car. It seems that most of the dining cars on the eastern trains have been removed because they were beyond repair. Breakfast was a microwave affair, and like other affairs, was unsatisfying.

Once arriving in Atlanta, I walked almost a mile, over to the midtown Marta Station. I had packed everything into a backpack, so I was able to easily navigate around the streets (which were all closed for a citywide race). At Marta, the Atlanta area light rail, I took the train to Five Points, where I caught the east line out to Avondale. While I could have taken a bus to the seminary, I again walked.  I was late for church at Columbia Presbyterian, so I spent much of the afternoon walking around the community.  

Eating in the Big City

Piedmont Park

During my week at Columbia, all my big meals of the day were ethnic: Thai (2x), Indian, Korean, Alsace (French), and Vietnamese. On Friday, I met Mike, a friend from Savannah, who was in Atlanta. We spent the afternoon cursing the traffic, walking around Piedmont Park, and eating dinner (Thai), before he dropped me off at the station and headed back south, to home. 

Homeward Bound

Danville, VA

Coming back, the train was late. I was exhausted and ready to crawl into bed. But there was a problem with my printed ticket. As they were rushing to load the train, the conductor finally told me to get aboard and go to the lounge car (which was empty at 1 AM). It turned out, the conductor when I came down never scanned my ticket (I assumed he had). Then, the system had cancelled my trip. Thankfully, there was a roomette (but the attendant had to remake the room as it had just become available).  But by the time the train arrived in Gainesville, our first stop after Atlanta, I was snuggled up in bed. 

I arrived back to the mountains in time to see the leaves at their peak. 

17 thoughts on “Trains and Karl Barth”

  1. What a beautiful photograph your last one is.
    I do like this time of year.

    Happy November Wishes.

    All the best Jan

    • Sadly, there is no longer a train running through Las Vegas. There used to be, from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, where it joined with a train from Oakland to travel on to Denver. I think Amtrak still runs a bus from Vegas to LA, where it connects with trains heading north and east.

  2. I wish I lived closer to a terminus with more train options than to spend five hours going to Chicago first. My one and only train ride I enjoyed tremendously.

    • It is a little far even for me. I had to drive to Danville, which is 70 some miles away. Thankfully, they have a nice parking area that is patrolled, where I could leave a car.

  3. Hi Sage
    Always lo e to read about your travels. I find Barth both a genius and complicated man, but agree w/him mostly. Thanks for sharing!!
    timm

  4. Sounds like a wonderful trip, Jeff. This made me laugh: “Breakfast was a microwave affair, and like other affairs, was unsatisfying.”
    Some heavy reading indeed. Nice post. I would love a train ride like that with a roomette.

  5. Hi, Jeff. I enjoyed your account of your trip via train. I really enjoy train travel, especially when I fall asleep at night to its gentle rocking. I laughed at the Halloween decorations, especially, “I didn’t mask it. Now I’m in a casket.” Some people are so clever. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Karl Barth before. I looked him up on Wikipedia, but the article left me muddled. I’m not used to reading philosophy, Christian or otherwise. Rocks are so much easier. I liked his idea of election, although I probably don’t really grasp it. (Now that’s an arrogant statement on my part ~ “I liked it!”). The thought of God damning or saving someone for the purposes of his Divine Will has troubled me. I’ve always been bothered about the necessity of Judas. I better stop before my uniformed mind gets me into trouble ~ LOL! You didn’t read the whole Dogmatics, did you? Loved the autumn leaves!

    • No, I did not read all the dogmatics, just one section of it. I have read portions of other sections and have a number of volumes, but not his entire set. And don’t worry about saying something that might not be kosher. I hope this blog is a safe place for exploration of ideas.

  6. I’ve never travelled by train in this country, though I have in the UK. Ideally, I’d like to take one to Chicago and back. Someday.

  7. What excellent adventures! You have a wonderful way of mixing the life of the mind with the lived life of everyday experiences. When I was at Princeton Seminary (1972-75) the entire Theology faculty were Barthians, or so it seemed (I wasn’t keeping a scorecard). I’ve always hesitated to describe myself as “Barthian,” because that’s such an imprecise word. But I’m close.

    • Hey, Rich, it was good catching up with you earlier this month at the Theology Today’s conference (I also wrote about that trip). You graduated from seminary the year I graduated from high school. While we read Barth in seminary, 15 years after you, I don’t know that any of the professors would have called them Barthian.

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