March 16, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 12

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    Eminent theologian Franz Bibfeldt an influential enigma

    By Jennifer Carnig
    News Office

    In the theology of Franz Bibfeldt, there is room for middle ground. The existential theologian famously wrote in 1937’s Both/And: A Response to Kierkegaard, “Whatever is, is right. Whatever is not, is also right.”

    To drive the notion home, Bibfeldt followed that work with another, Either/Or and/or Both/And. The main idea here is that any way you look at Bibfeldt, he’s always right. The truth, as some say, is relative.

    So it comes as no surprise that James Robinson, Assistant Professor in the Divinity School, and the keynote speaker at the University’s Bibfeldt celebration, had two very different answers when he was recently asked about Bibfeldt.

    “I’d never heard of him before I came here,” Robinson said before correcting himself. “I mean, he’s someone who’s been influential in my life since I was a child. Over Passover Seder we would discuss Bibfeldt and the light his work might bring to the story of Exodus. I’ve always admired him.”

    Robinson will be the next in a long line of Divinity School faculty to honor Bibfeldt when he delivers the annual Franz Bibfeldt Lecture. Always held the Wednesday nearest to April Fool’s Day, this year’s lecture will be from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 29 in Swift Hall, 1025 E. 58th St.

    Bibfeldt, described on the Divinity School’s Web site as an “eminent theologian and proteanist extraordinaire,” gained international prominence for his work on the problem of the year zero—the lost year between 1 B.C. and 1 A.D. In his seminal 1951 work, The Relieved Paradox, he wrote that the mission of theology is to “make things come out right.” It was Bibfeldt who answered Barth’s book Nein! with his own Vielleicht?

    As summed up by Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School, in his essay Franz Bibfeldt: The Life, and Scholarship on the Life, “Bibfeldt seeks agreement with everyone and wants to make everything come out right to ensure that he is always relevant.”

    No matter how hard he strives to please, though, Bibfeldt is always in question. A 1999 New York Times story asked if Bibfeldt is real. He is rarely seen and has never attended one of the lectures in his honor. Some claim Bibfeldt was not born at Sage-Hast bei Groszenkneten, Oldenburg, Niedersachsen, Germany, but rather came to be in an invented footnote of a term paper at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo.—when one student created him and another gave him life. Amused by his classmate’s invention, Martin Marty, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity in the Divinity School, helped push Bibfeldt into the limelight.

    Bibfeldt was not only the subject of a New York Times story, but through the years he has been mentioned on CBS, National Public Radio and in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. In 1988, a session of the American Association of Religions was devoted to Bibfeldt’s work and in 1994, The Wittenburg Door, an evangelical magazine, named him its theologian of the year.

    Along with Hubert Humphrey and Greta Garbo, Bibfeldt is included on an Internet list of famous Lutherans. He also is on the Valparaiso University roster as a senior research fellow, teaching classes on proto-ecological theology, living with dying, and theologies of metaphysical incarnation and methodologies of paradox resolution. At RateMyProfessors.com, Bibfeldt ranked as a five on a scale of one to five for “helpfulness,” though on “hotness,” he scored less favorably, earning a meager zero.

    Hot or not, Robinson said he is eagerly looking forward to giving his Bibfeldt address.

    “I imagine this will be the most attended or noticed lecture I’ve ever given,” he said.

    Though Bibfeldt has not been widely influential in Jewish studies, Robinson said he hopes to expand the theologian’s reach by using some methods that Bibfeldt originated and applying them to a new field.

    “I’m going to use Bibfeldt’s anticipation of post-colonial studies to recover the voice of animals,” Robinson said.

    Rosengarten said the topic signaled “a brave, new moment in Bibfeldt studies.”

    “No one else has ever plumbed the shallows of Bibfeldt’s engagement with the Jewish tradition.”

    The annual Bibfeldt lecture is open to the public. Cost is $4 and includes lunch. Reservations are encouraged and may be made by e-mailing divinitylunch@gmail.com.