Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Tales of an eccentric theologian-genius

A friend came to see me today. He was talking about his days as a theological student back in South Africa. I mentioned Karl Barth, and he said he never liked Barth. When I demanded an explanation, he told me he had attended lectures on Barth by a professor of systematic theology named Angus Holland.

Professor Holland, my friend explained, was a little eccentric. He had studied music and medicine. He had a doctorate in mathematics. When he turned to theology he wrote a huge dissertation on Athanasius. When the thing had swollen to nearly 1400 pages, his supervisor commanded him: "Angus, do not write another word or comma. If you need to, just stop in the middle of a sentence."

He was famous on campus for his mathematical genius, his staggering memory, and his lack of social skills. He could recall the weather on any day of his life. If you named any date in history, he could instantly tell you which day of the week it was. Before any lecture he would glance up at the students seated in front of him and announce the percentage of total attendance to three or four decimal places. For example, if 3 of the 17 students were absent from the Barth seminar, he would begin by remarking: “Good morning. I see we have an 82.3529% attendance today.”

Did he recognise any of his students? Did he know their names? They never knew. If you greeted him in the corridor – “Good afternoon, professor!” – he would stop, furrow his brow, look earnestly in your direction, study some fixed point on the wall somewhere above you, then walk off in the opposite direction without saying a word.

The students always suspected him of performing parallel calculations during his lectures. They wanted to prove it. So they went one day to the department of mathematics and asked for an exceedingly complicated equation. A professor of mathematics wrote it out for them. Before class they filled the blackboard with the equation. Professor Holland walked in. He stood a moment and looked at the board. He took the eraser and cleaned the board. He talked uninterrupted for two hours about Greek patristic theology. When the class finished he turned, wrote the answer on the board, and walked out.

He had a curious habit of jangling the coins in his pocket when he prayed. It was distracting. He would be giving a long extemporaneous Presbyterian prayer during the chapel service, and you would see his hand in his pocket and you would hear the jingle of coins. What was he doing down there? Was there a rosary in his pocket? Was he playing with himself? The students asked one of the other lecturers about it. “His loose change,” he said. “He counts it when he prays.”

The professor loved fairy tales. He knew them and loved them with a passion. He would use fairy tales to illustrate his lectures, though you never could quite grasp the connections that he had intuited between the story and the topic at hand. It only added to your bafflement. But it was always a pleasure to hear him speak, with such fierce intellectual joy, about some German fairy tale.

This professor, my friend told me, was the person who taught him Karl Barth. The lectures were intricate, polylingual, unfathomable. It was like trying to read Hegel: you couldn’t take down any notes because the whole thing transpired on a level to which you had no natural access. At the end of a 2-hour lecture on Barth, it might have occurred to you to jot down one word or phrase. But usually not.

In class the professor could quote any passage of the Church Dogmatics from memory. He never had any notes. If a student read out a passage in English, he would correct the translation from memory. None of the students in this particular South African classroom had any knowledge of German. One day, in response to a student’s question, the professor quoted Barth’s German for a full five minutes. They watched the clock ticking on the wall. Five minutes. In German. Then he resumed his lecture without any word of comment or explanation.

My friend spread out his hands, helpless and apologetic, and he said, “When it came to Barth, I never had a chance.”

I begged him for more anecdotes. He gave me one more. He saved the best for last.

One evening the professor was visiting a colleague’s house some miles away. He had intended to walk home. It started to rain heavily and there was no umbrella. His colleague said, “Angus, why don’t you stay here tonight instead of going home in the rain.” He replied, “Thank you, that’s very kind, I will do that.”

His colleague left the room and when he returned there was no sign of the professor. He looked in the kitchen. He searched upstairs. He went from room to room. His house-guest was nowhere to be seen. It was a mystery. The rain poured down. Later that evening, the doorbell rang. There stood Professor Holland, soaked to the skin and dripping wet and holding up his toothbrush. He had gone home to get it.

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