There was a professor at Tübingen Seminary, a famous place for theologians, who had developed a tic that all his students got used to, and for which he became famous—almost as famous as his books. During his lectures he would, without warning, stop mid-sentence and start writing something in his notebook. At first, he had made little comments, little scrawls or fragments on his script; but later he would take longer notes, sometimes lasting several minutes, in a separate notebook, and then resume his lecture as if nothing but a cough or a flip of the page had occurred. Intrigued, the students began to time his breaks, comparing the length of each sudden detour to his notebook with the certain passage under discussion, seeing if there was some correlation or not.
Eventually the students, rather than be shocked or annoyed by his byways into thought, relished those gaps in the lectures, as if they were witnessing a special man who was existing on two planes, jumping from the mundane (teaching students) to the metaphysical (theological thought), someone who looked like he was being absent minded but was actually occupying—if we can say this—another space. It was remarkable that this old and slightly portly man could leap so effortlessly between these two existences with barely a hitch. He was one of the few theologians who could do what Søren Kierkegaard had described: to leap into a dance while walking. Who, after all, had managed this semi-divine leap? Maybe Kierkegaard had once, maybe he leaped once while he made his way around Copenhagen on foot. Most theologians have only heard of this leap, of becoming—immediately and instantaneously—a ballet dancer without preparation. They talk much about the leap, they say whatever they have heard about the leap, sometimes they come in contact with those who (say they) have accomplished such a leap. No doubt that’s why they read so many books, make so many close expositions: they are learning about the leap, trying to entrap it in the net of words. But hardly anyone has leapt, truly leapt; most of the time they delude themselves, they say, yes, once, on Ash Thursday in my second year of my M.Div. I leapt, but now, alas, I cannot leap anymore. Yet here was this man, leaping all the time in public, oblivious he was to making a show to his students, though (to his own mind) it was the opposite of a show, or rather a show of absence.
A mere onlooker, of course, would mistake this professor for a fool or a madman, someone who was tolerated on account of his good name but, in reality, belonged in a mental asylum. This onlooker would see a professor who had lost his marbles, someone who could not even make it through a single sentence (!!) without pausing to wonder where he was. In fact, this was not so far from the truth; there was a moment when the professor would lose his bearings, since the transition between planes, which is normally very difficult, basically impossible for most people, was certainly not easy for the professor. Even after all these years of bending down to note something in his notebook, he experienced a slight vertigo when he resumed his position in the lecture hall. He would have to remind himself of where he was, and he would set about on his disquisition on theology, which thankfully had gone past the usual prolegomena and arrived (if that is the word) at God. Who is God, or what is God? he asked. Those are not entirely misguided questions, he continued, but the way most people answer them is misguided. For God is not like us, nor like any other Being, nor like the unmoved mover of Greek philosophy. No, he said, God is not a Being, he does not exist in the way that we think things exist, no, he said, glancing downwards again but not picking up his pen—to his students’ disappointment—God’s Being (if I have to put it like that) is in his Becoming. And who else is more Becoming than Jesus Himself, Deus incarnatus est, the divine who, out of his poverty, had already ceased to be Himself? And at that he looked at his watch and realised that his time was up, the next lecture (to be given by another colleague) was scheduled, and he promptly folded up his notes and gathered his belongings. One or two students usually stayed behind, or in this instance followed after the professor. After hearing what they had to ask, the professor smiled pleasantly, as if he had already answered their questions, and simply walked off.
The professor kept walking and walking, into the nearby forest. It was not really a forest, more just a patch of unkempt woodlands, but it served as a forest for him, just as it had for many theologians and philosophers before him. He continued on, thinking his thoughts, which were somewhat connected to the lecture but took a decided turn away from them, and it is why he had to get away from the students and spend time alone. For it was here that truly he could accomplish the leap for longer periods of time, where he could dispense with the rudiments of pen and paper and leap wholeheartedly onto the metaphysical plane. Today, however, he was feeling rather agitated and could not leap as he pleased, and the more he tried the more inaccessible it seemed. His thoughts kept turning to the theologian who had died so young, who had died—according to medical diagnosis—by a haemorrhage in the brain, something that was explained away as a genetic disorder, an unfortunate predisposition; it was a tragedy, the doctor said, for someone so young to die and leave behind his young family and a promising career—to give away, indeed, a life that was ready to bloom, perhaps a flower which now stank with the foul odour of premature loss.
This young theologian, the professor recalled, had embarked on a series of volumes that extended the insights of Karl Barth; but after he had written the first volume, he suffered a brain aneurysm and promptly died at the age of thirty-nine, leaving a wife and a child behind. Older professors surmised that he had simply worked too much, had concentrated the strain of thinking into too narrow a space of time; the young theologian’s untimely death was a warning to ambitious students who spent all their time ruminating about divine things, who spent all their waking hours in the library and the classroom, begrudgingly lowering their gaze from the metaphysical plane in order to attend to more mundane matters. To be sure, there were some professors who did survive, but did so at great cost.
As the professor walked deeper into the woods, he was overcome by an uneasy sensation, one he had not felt before. What if this young theologian had died, not due to the injustices of biology and nature, but through tarrying too long on an inhuman plane? Or, what is more likely, had leaped too many times between the two planes without taking the right precautions, executed it with less grace and poise than necessary, or forgot to be graceful on the way back, like a diver who comes up for air too quickly? Or had he dwelt too long on too many occasions, gradually stripping his need of a material body? The professor wasn’t sure, he had to admit that: although he himself could leap fairly consistently, he could not always control when he did, or for how long.
As he reached a clearing in the woods, the professor accepted that today he would not make any progress on his problem. He would not be able to leap as he wished; he would have to be patient. Perhaps this was a blessing, he thought, a blessing in disguise; those which we think are blessings are actually curses, or at least not blessings at all, just everyday occurrences which we interpret, given our particular milieu, as blessings, but they could not be further from blessings, he mused. Everyone was envious of the young theologian when he came, as a student, for the seminar at Tübingen, he seemed to ask questions that seemed far beyond his years, as if he had already lived for another lifetime—although, of course, I don’t believe for one minute in reincarnation or the transmigration of souls. But wasn’t Jesus himself a sort of reincarnation, he couldn’t help wondering, wasn’t Jesus a sort of incarnation of the Trinity, in other words the Trinity in human flesh? Of course, the man incarnated was not to be identified with the Trinity, not in any simplistic way; yet given all that, had he not written that God had anticipated (a sort of cheat word, he acknowledged) the incarnation, had in some very real sense geared himself up for the event—by emptying himself? But once an individual was an individual, could anything be done? Could anything undo the apparent singularity of the human soul?
These questions were circulating in his mind when he was disrupted by a man who was blowing leaves away from the path. This man knew that the professor made this walk every day, and so every day set about to clear the leaves—it was the beginning of fall—by the time he re-entered the campus grounds. The woodlands, though on campus, was actually a private area that was looked over by this man. He was often seen near or around the woodlands, many assumed he was just a gardener or a groundskeeper, but in fact he was the son of the director of the seminary. He seemed to go about his business very seriously, although if anyone did strike up a conversation he was always friendly, willing to talk about the state of the soil, the bloom of the flowers, the student’s progress in matters theological or pastoral.
There were many rumours about this forest. Some thought that certain occultic rituals were conducted there, or secret meetings for initiates were held. Others thought it was like Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Zone,” the place that contained or granted what you most desired, which was, for theological students, of course, God. But there is nothing hidden to God, it is all revealed in the historical person of Jesus, the lecturers would say, although if you pushed them on the point, they would admit that some parts—some aspects—of God would always remain hidden, even in heaven; indeed, by revealing himself to us he has also, by necessity, hidden himself: his unveiling was at the same time a veiling.
The students would not get much beyond that paradox, which they learnt to mouth and even feel a satisfaction in mouthing, as if they knew what it meant. For the student who was not satisfied with reciting such inscrutable formulae, the professor’s lectures held a certain curiosity; here was a highly esteemed scholar who seemed uncomfortable with such easy statements, and who had been reportedly working on his magnum opus for over a decade. Such a student, having observed the professor for some time (and developing, her friends might say, a secret crush on him), would soon find herself talking regularly to the groundskeeper. The director’s son would intimate to her that the students were not entirely wrong about the private patch of woodlands, but there was nothing lurid or Satanic that went on there. The woods—otherwise known as The Path—was first made as a replica of the Garden of Eden, a sort of pristine area untouched by culture and civilisations, a zero-degree nature. Of course, that was all fanciful myth, even the conservative professors believed Adam and Eve to be on the order of reality as the Njáls Saga or Gilgamesh or Enkidu, not “true” in our modern historical sense but, by the same token, not “false” either. It was futile, therefore, to look for a literal Garden of Eden somewhere in the antipodes, guarded by the flaming swords of formidable angels.
Nevertheless, the groundskeeper thought of himself as an angel of The Path, carefully trimming back its outgrowth and zealously guarding its borders. His shears were his flaming swords. The Path was only for those willing to take the path, to give their life in search of the path; for such a path was perilous, not many were willing to give up so much to go down it, even the most zealous seminary student would be drawn into the world of the world, attending to wife and children, to parishioners and the needy, the sick and infirm, and a replenishing stream of students, if one was a professor. Indeed, on the surface it seemed this was the lot of all pastors and professors; they balanced family with work, pastoral time with time in solitude. Yet this “mixed” life, presented as the seminary ideal, was only a vocation for some; those called to the rigours of the contemplative life, the vita contemplativa, had to sustain a far greater burden. For it was not the life of a monk or a hermit, at least not in name, but the life of a monk hidden inside what seemed to be a normal life; it was a life concealed from life, a life of which even a professor could not speak, because it was in some sense inarticulable. The professor had quite casually walked into the woods, but crossing into the woods was perilous, for the uninvited or the uninitiated. That’s why it was guarded so fiercely and meticulously; the director wanted to make sure no one ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, lest they perish. The rumour was that the young theologian had walked down The Path when he was only a student, and for even someone as precocious as him a single walk down The Path had endangered him. No one knows what he saw or experienced then, he never mentioned anything, all we know is that within a year he was putting the finishing touches on a new book, on the Trinity, which not only departed from classical theism but even dared, though subtly, to challenge Barth. If Barth had pushed the logic of Calvin to the extreme so that the meaning of “the elect” became almost its opposite, this young theologian had so tarried with Barth’s notion of the Trinity that it bordered on heresy.
And it was shortly after he had published that first book on God, which extended the idea that God was purus actus et singularis, that he realised it made no sense at all to start with the Trinity, as all the theological textbooks had done; he would have to completely rethink the order of reality, which began not with the Triune God (an epithet he hated, because it was, like so much theological language, merely a way of defusing contradiction by combining oxymoronic terms) but with the single, pure act that Barth had spoken of. What was this singular, pure act that Barth had glimpsed? the young theologian wondered. It was upon thinking these thoughts that he decided to once again go down The Path, since he was on summer break. During a languid afternoon, while students went out to play tennis or kick a ball on the field, he ambled down to the patch of land, signalled the groundskeeper, and entered the woodlands. When he re-emerged he looked a little pale, as if all his blood had retreated to his innermost organs. The students did not notice anything too unusual; the young theologian was friendly but always slightly aloof, as if one could only communicate with his exterior self. Still, he wasn’t a bad sport and they all went, a little tired but giddy from all the exercise, to the nearby pub, where they ordered glasses of the famous schwarzbier. Afterwards they ambled down the street, a little tipsy, and one of the students asked, hey, what did you find in the woods, young theologian? as a sort of joke. Is it true that there’s a special hut there where you can gain access to the divine, Tübingen’s own holy of holies which only the priestly caste are allowed to enter? The young theologian, whose paleness was now disguised by a redness on account of some alcohol, weakly smiled and said, oh no, it’s nothing like that, there’s no hut, one just walks and walks and is careful not to deviate from the path, lest one gets lost or is eaten by one of the jaguars… Jaguars? the student exclaimed, who had only thought that jaguars resided in the Amazon, or at any rate in the jungles of South America. Well, to be honest, I don’t know if they are jaguars, the young theologian replied, I don’t know if it’s just my imagination, he said, but nevertheless I feel at the back of my head a green glint, an eye or two watching me. Knowing I must not stray from the path, I keep looking straight ahead, without backtracking, and when I am able to do this for some time I find I am already at a clearing, a small patch of light that beckons me and draws my feet and legs, draws my will and desire. So by the time I’m out of the woods it’s as if I had barely entered it; time seems to disintegrate there, or rather, time isn’t at all an issue, it doesn’t exist there—as stupid as that sounds—although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’ve entered eternity; as you know, I’ve expressed uncertainty about whether eternity exists, whether eternity is merely time extended into eternity, rather than an entirely different order of reality. But I have to say, every time I go into the woods, I don’t do it too often, everything I think is the case is shaken; the woods are a sort of brain shaker, an existence shaker, and that’s why I can’t go there too often. If young students were to go into the woods, they would be so shaken that they wouldn’t be able to recover; and we need all the students we can get, to administer our services and pastor our congregations and tell the world about the true state of reality. It’s already enough to be shaken by the Good News, which declares that God is with us, and not only with us and among us but the most wretched of us; that God’s destiny, which of course is his own free choice, was to become one of us; God is the ultimate humanist, Jesus is humanism par excellence, he is more human, in a way, than we are, because though we can fall so far, even into the pit of hell, become murderers and idolaters and evil doers, we cannot sink as low as Jesus, because we’ve already scraped the pit of the well, we’ve already descended to the depths of self-annihilation. But what happens when the highest of the high annihilates himself? He becomes human. A human is an annihilation, fundamentally nothing, a human is always on the verge of nothingness. What were the great mystics doing when they said they wanted to annihilate themselves? They were simply acknowledging our fundamental nature, which no one wishes to acknowledge, let alone practice, no one wishes to speed towards our total lack of being—which, in its current aberrant form, is almost nothing. So while we are almost nothing God is almost everything, while we are nothing he is everything. What occurred, then, when God became almost nothing? The universe shrank, it took on the dimensions of the human. That is why Christianity is the hardest thing to believe, not because God is the projection of all our desires and wants, an instance of sheer and shameful idolatry, but because we are the projection of God’s desire, his desire—which in his case simply is actuality—to become like us. Why would anyone want to be like us, let alone become us, the universal human? It seems like such a ghastly thing, a hideous prospect, that any god would even consider the possibility. Yet this is what we believe, we construct entire kingdoms and empires and nations around this possibility, we say absurd things like the best possible world is the one we live in, because it’s in this world God decided to become man. But clearly this is not the best possible world, it only can be redeemed as the best possible world if God decides to become human, that banishes all other possibilities for this frail, cursed, imperfect one. And at that the young theologian gave a start, and he apologised to his fellow students for his strange outburst, he was feeling a little lightheaded and wished to go back to his room; they would reconvene at the campus hall for dinner.
The young theologian, however, did not turn up as usual for dinner, and after the plates were cleared a few students went to check on him, but no one would open the door. The next day, the cleaner found the young theologian on his bed, still clothed as he had been the night before. An autopsy revealed he had sustained a cerebral subarachnoid haemmorhage.