Sunday, 6 April 2008

The last theologian: a short story

Forgive me for this silly mood – but in a playful moment yesterday I felt like writing a little story:

The Last Theologian

Maxwell C. McKim, Professor of Extinct Religious Thought at Harvard University, is the world’s last theologian. He sits each day at his desk in Robinson Hall, bent over manuscripts and spine-cracked monographs and long neat boxes lined with index cards. His work is nothing if not scrupulous. He arrives at 8.15 sharp each morning, Sunday through Friday. Switches on lights, computer, percolator. Stands by the window overlooking Harvard Yard and takes his morning coffee. Commences work at 8.30, reviewing yesterday’s index cards before proceeding to the day’s research. Breaks for coffee at 10.50, resumes work at 11.05. A cold lunch at 1, then down to the manuscripts room at the Library, where he remains surrounded by the dust of old books and the glow of dead languages until late in the afternoon. Sometimes a single malt Scotch around 5, then back to his desk till 7 or 8 before walking the two blocks home. Through discipline, tenacity and hard work (and, I might add, a good dose of creative genius) he has established himself as a scholar and thinker of the highest order.

You will no doubt have heard of Maxwell McKim’s – it is not too strong a word – revolutionary book on The Formation of Latin Tonsure Ceremonies in the Late Seventh Century. And you will surely have read about his acclaimed two-volume study on The Epistle of Pope Hormisdas to Emperor Justius: A Literary Analysis of the Pre-History of the Filioque Schism – a study for which the author received (back in the days when the discipline of theology was not yet extinct) the coveted Pelikan-Loeb Award for Distinguished Writing on Theology and Classical Languages.

And for the past twenty years, ensconced in that tidy Harvard office, Maxwell McKim has been writing his life’s great work. Two volumes have appeared already, and he is now making serious inroads into the third. By the time it is completed, this six-volume work, The Influence of the Cyrillic Alphabet on Christian Liturgy: A History of Interpretations in the Latin Tradition, will have defined the entire landscape of the field of Studies in Extinct Religious Thought. Although few perhaps will have the requisite technical learning to read the whole work through, the first two volumes have been widely praised for their extraordinary analytical acuity and their exhaustive treatment of the primary sources. (Indeed, as one reviewer noted, these primary sources “would, for the most part, have remained completely unknown were it not for the author’s immense and unremitting archival labors: we owe him a great debt.”)

Maxwell McKim’s reputation as a leading scholar is, of course, complemented by the considerable fame attached to his standing as the world’s last theologian. The tragic circumstances surrounding his sudden propulsion to celebrity are of course known by everyone, and need not be rehearsed here. How he attended, as always, the annual meeting of the Global Theological Academy in Los Angeles. How he was scheduled to give the plenary address that fateful evening, a keenly anticipated speech on the hellenisation of Slavic thought in the writings of St Methodius. How his departure for the Convention Center that night had been delayed by a chance encounter at the hotel bar. (Recognising a woman’s accent, Maxwell McKim had struck up a friendly conversation in Finnish, and twenty minutes and two martinis later found himself back in his room, his best suit crumpled and her pelvis grinding him hard against the mattress, while he glanced furtively at the clock beside the bed.) How afterwards, chiding himself for this lapse in punctuality, he had rushed from the hotel to the Convention Center, knowing that he was already running a full ten minutes late. How he had seen the orange glow and billowing smoke, the streets torn red with screaming fire trucks. How Maxwell McKim had stood transfixed a block away while that capacious building – crammed full with all the world’s theologians, all come to hear him speak – had erupted in a violent conflagration, before collapsing with a roar and the hideous shriek of twisted metal. How they had told him the next day that there were no survivors, that he had no remaining colleagues, that the accident – caused, it was later discovered, by some stray cigarette ash falling on a publisher’s display table – had eliminated his entire scholarly discipline, root and branch. Worst building fire in United States history, and perhaps the worst academic disaster since the big faculty strike of 2011.

As soon as one calls to mind these sad events, one can only feel inspired by Maxwell McKim’s remarkable example of fortitude, steadfastness and courage in adversity. When he returned to Harvard the following week, he declared that his research would continue to schedule in spite of the tragic demise of all his colleagues. When universities everywhere closed their divinity schools, Maxwell McKim remarked that he was, under the circumstances, perfectly content to be relocated to the history department. (Initially, several divinity schools remained open under the assumption that fee-paying doctoral students could continue their studies just as well in the absence of any faculty. In what was to become one of the most celebrated academic scandals of the century, a large British university continued to run its theology department successfully for nearly three years before one doctoral student noticed that her supervisor was no longer around.) When Harvard later appointed Maxwell McKim to the newly founded Chair in Extinct Religious Thought, he declared that he would perform his duties with all the passion and commitment befitting the world’s only living theologian – and the ensuing decades of research have shown that he is as good as his word.

It is true that rumours have begun to circulate that Maxwell McKim will never live to complete his great history on the liturgical significance of the Cyrillic alphabet. Two large volumes completed in the past twenty years; four volumes still to be written. But although our author’s retirement is fast approaching, there is, I believe, no good reason to doubt that he will indeed complete this work – and probably a good deal more besides. His contribution to scholarship has already been enormous. But once his magnum opus is complete, the full scope of his impact will be simply incalculable.

In short, when the history of our century is written, I am convinced that Maxwell McKim will be remembered as not only the last, but also the most eminent theologian of his time.

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