Alan Edwards makes the case for a lesser known theologian who might help us in current predicaments
Is the principle of two integrities ecclesiologically sound? Can a woman bishop be a focus of unity if some do not regard her as a bishop? Much of the tension surrounding the debates on such issues would have been side-stepped if the leaders of both GRAS and FiF had greater familiarity with the work of Franz Bibfeldt, the mid-twentieth century German-American theologian, leading advocate of ‘accommodation theology.’
As Martin Marty, of Chicago University, points out, ‘It’s significant that in the golden age of modern theology, most prominent theologians had names beginning with the letter B – Baillie, Barth, Buber, Bultmann and, of course, Bibfeldt.’
Bibfeldt first slouched into the theological arena in the 1920s with his response to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or – a work called Both/And. When this was savaged, Franz produced a conciliatory revision Either/Or and/or Both/And.
Bibfeldt’s espousal of the ‘uncertainty principle’ was welcomed by a number of Anglican theologians who saw it as Lutheran acceptance of the via media. The essence of Bibfeldt’s thought emerged in his doctoral thesis ‘The Problem of the Year Zero.’ He noted that no historian admits a year between 1 bc and 1 ad – hence there is a lost year.
Certain only in uncertainty, Bibfeldt came to see that ‘theology is the art of making things come out right.’ The task of the theologian according to Bibfeldt is ‘to reconcile everything to everything else’ and he took pleasure in the way his thought became a guiding principle for many theological departments far beyond his native Germany.
He settled in the USA, feeling that it offered more scope for his free enterprise mind. He was believed to have been the ghost writer for Eisenhower’s famous statement that America ‘had to be founded on deep religious faith – and I don’t care what it is.’ This view can be seen in Bibfeldt’s Essay on Pragmatism. ‘Pragmatism is all right, as long as it works.’ In lectures to his students he popularized his thought by saying ‘life is like a bagel – don’t matter which way you come at it.’
Not that Bibfeldt always swam with the tide. When liberation theology was dominant he wrote ‘In place of a God who sides with the poor, I offer you a God who likes to hang out around the yacht club.’
Recently Geoffrey Kirk introduced ND readers to sex differences and their relationship to brain functions. Bibfeldt was there two generations ago when he wrote ‘to hell with left brain right brain thinking, let’s go for a quadrilateral brain.’
Franz makes few public appearances. His devotion to the Year Zero Problem makes him time impaired. He invariably arrives at meetings a year too early or too late. Worse still, he has only given one interview, to Howard Hughes.
Although hurt by FiF’s failure to include him in the Consecrated Women? working party Franz feels he has a contribution to make to the debate, given his unique role as the only Lutheran minister who is also a practising rabbi. ‘Got to keep practising; a rams-horn’s kinda tricky for a guy who can hardly play Chopsticks.’
‘It’s more difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom than for a camel to go through a needle’s eye. Yet we’ve got some pretty smart genetic engineers who can breed very small camels. Camels, bishops – what the heck.’