October 6, 2022
Michael Mols, one half of our house manager team, gave the main address at this year’s Bibfeldt Luncheon at the Divinity School’s. We are honored to have so distinguished a “theologian” as part of the Brent House community:
Michael J. Mols
Protean Denial and Consideration in Bibfeldt Studies
Franz Bibfeldt Symposium
April 1, 2009
Colleagues, esteemed and otherwise,
I come before you to present my exhaustive knowledge of our most eminent protean theologian, Franz Bibfeldt. Yet it has been said by many but heard by few that any attempt to exhaust a subject will inevitably exhaust an audience. Today, I would like to exhaust nothing as it goes against the delicacy of my constitution and it strikes me that this tactic succinctly describes the very essence of Bibfeldt’s oeuvre. Indeed, nothing is enough to satisfy my curiosity on this very topic, for it contains more nothing than I have ever encountered before. As I began my research on Bibfeldt’s life and work, I was pleased to discover vast areas of nothing waiting to remain undiscovered. I am loath to leave a place without improving it, and I shall endeavor to leave this topic even more vacuous than when I found it. So I shall draw from as much research as I was able to do in as little time as possible since as a Divinity School student I have a customarily large number of incompletes to avoid completing and a great deal of self-loathing to accomplish. Suffice to say that I know very little about our supposedly esteemed theologian, which makes me eminently qualified to talk about him.
For the purposes of this lecture, in lieu of actual research I will utilize a new method I am developing from my lackadaisical observation of how most in the academy advance from the early stages of overeager condescension to the apex of apathetic avuncularism. This method, greatly enhanced by my appropriately brief foray into Bibfeldt studies, is something I call the “Lengthy Consideration” method, or the “Long-Con” for short. Specifically, the practitioner of the “long-con” ingrates his or herself into the academic community by entrenching their research in the most obscure area possible in order, through the efforts of “lengthy consideration,” to comment on areas or thinkers that seem to have no relevance to the original area. In order to be most effective, the “long-conner” must avoid any but the most cursory of research into the topic, and must avoid primary source contact at all cost lest they drift from the methodology of employing the “con” altogether. A master practitioner of this technique may even succeed in disjointing her or himself from their original area of entrenchment altogether, thereby becoming a “jack of no trade and a master of all.” At that point the “long-conner,” by virtue of their powers of consideration above their command of texts and facts, will no doubt be granted a New York Times Op-Ed position.
Aside from its propaedeutic nature, I believe that tediously outlining my methodology eats up a good deal of the time I am contractually obliged to fill in order to receive my honorarium. But I believe that Bibfeldt would approve—with as little enthusiasm as would be required—of the approach of speaking at such length on something so short on substance. Therefore, in the remaining space of this essay, I shall use my vast lack of knowledge and the full powers of the “long-con” to fabricate a heretofore unrealized aspect of Bibfeldt thought: his apophatic roots. By examining these roots closely enough, we shall see that the peroxide of cataphatic theology isn’t fooling anyone, and to perform such a blatant and ineffective cover at his age might result in permanent scalp damage.
The “long-con” method requires the scholar to begin where facts are least available but opinions proliferate nonetheless, so I turn to what is lacking in his curriculum vitae, a document that is entirely nonexistent. According to the dust jacket of no less than one book, Bibfeldt began his studies in Switzerland at the University of Bern. But according to a tertiary source I obtained through Wikipedia, Bibfeldt completed his studies at the University of Worms in the late 20’s, receiving his Doctorate of Digressive Theology or D.D.T. in the midst of an otherwise silent spring. Yet we must ask, if Bibfeldt intellectually sprang from the loins of Bern and overcame the obstacles of Worms with his D.D.T., why did he not complete the traditional European circuit by seeking out at the University of Paris a Doctorate of Sacred Theology or S.T.D.?
As everybody knows, a great constructive thinker must of necessity begin as a poor student of history, so Bibfeldt must originally have been interested in ecclesiastical history, but gave it up early in his career. This can be explained by a poor reception into the field of medieval studies, a common occurrence reported by everyone who has ever attempted to enter that most venerable field. Bibfeldt wrote an essay in which he claimed that the Investiture Controversy between Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII resulted in a massive unregulated credit default swap that undermined the usury market to the point that a hodium of flax couldn’t fetch 20 Byzantine hyperpyrons. Although his claim was controversial at the time, we now know that this might have been the first and possibly last example of Bibfeldt’s Ouroborian-historicist method whereby the theorists remains behind the current ideological fad in order to stay ahead of the scholarly pack. With this new approach, he was well equipped to be a man not only of his time, but also of no time, a reputation he maintained for the rest of his career. But this ouroborian method also lead to his infamous reputation for chasing tail; which returns us to the subject of his S.T.D.-free theological training.
Bibfeldt was, then, a man vested with an appropriate semblance of historical understanding and nothing more, so much in love with the progress of time that he sought its complete lack for his dissertation on the paradox of the year zero. Dionysius Exiguus, the monk who developed the BC/AD system without so much as consulting Google calendar, fascinated him. It is said that Bibfeldt admired this man so much that he sought to emulate him in name and obscurity, calling himself Exiguus, which lead to his reputation of being egregious due to a transcription error in its Anglicization. Once completed, this work was not well received by the academic community and his project was rudely rejected by a number of leading vanity presses. However, rumor has it that a printer of questionable repute disseminated the tome with moderate success under its alternative title, Unleashing the Mysteries of the Big O.
Around the same time Bibfeldt developed what can only be describe as a stunning malady: a life outside of his studies. Several Bibfeldt scholars, whom I refuse out of principle to read, lest they mar my analysis with insight, chronicle a debilitating injury received as a result of his diversions. Bibfeldt suffered an unmentionable disgrace in a duel at swords. It would later be the occasion for a surprisingly well-received essay on Jewish-Christian relations, “Empathy With the Circumcised.” But because of this missed parry, Bibfeldt lost the vigor and skill of his thrust. This unfortunate incident also explains why the Bibfeldt chair has never been well endowed. It is also rumored that the dueling incident is why master’s graduation ceremonies at this fair school proceed without hoods.
Now, the mystery of the missing S.T.D. from Paris can be solved in conjunction with the revelation of his apophatic leanings. In Bibfeldt’s obsession with and subsequent rejection from and of church history, and bearing in mind the gelding he received one is reminded almost immediately of that city’s esteemed and ancient eponymous university by way of its famous and troubled alumni, Peter Abelard. For it was Abelard himself who began the tradition of traveling to Paris, eagerly pursuing any opportunity to obtain an S.T.D., although such aspirations were, for him, cut short. Abelard also faced rejection from medievalists, although at that time they were confusingly not called such. And Abelard also researched his own Dionysius who, thanks to this study, we now know by his first name, Pseudo.
With these parallels and a lack of recourse to facts, I claim that Bibfeldt posited himself as the Pseudo Dionysius of his own time. By evacuating his identity and adopting the moniker of his influential teacher (a practice emulated by almost all doctoral students) and living in the paradox of the year zero, which is the negation of time, and refusing to complete his studies in Paris, Bibfeldt clearly demonstrates his masterful command of the apophatic approach by not commanding it at all. It is perfectly natural for him to have forgone the S.T.D. and remained content with Worms, for by not pursuing this mark of distinction it paradoxically took hold of him anyway, for the core of apophasis is not denial, but excess. And in the excess of my own ignorance, utilizing the lengthy consideration method, I hope to remain vehemently opinionated about Franz Bibfeldt for many years to come. Thank you.
When I took my exams prior to writing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago Divinity School in the late 1960s, the historical theologians on the faculty required that for the Modern Theology exam I had to write not only on Schleiermacher but also on Bibfeldt. I am pleased that this all took place prior to Michael Mols’s presentation (above) so that I was able to avoid the depth, scope, and conclusions he has presented.
I should add, however, that I am pleased to note that Bibfeldt is still being studied and continues to influence theology in the twenty-first century (whenever it began).
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