If Wolfhart Pannenberg had been my friend at university, nobody would be able to remember exactly how he had become part of our social group. He just did, gradually, and now it seemed like he had always been there.
Pannenberg would not drink alcohol at all, but occasionally he would smoke pot. He would roll the neatest joints I had ever seen. Most of the time they would make him pensive and quiet, but every so often he would get talkative instead – stubbornly insistent about explaining a new philosophical idea that had slowly, but inexorably worked its way into his head over the last couple of hours.
We would call him the Pannmeister. The Pannmeister. It would have been a joke at first – the stupid swagger of it – because even though we knew it would never work, we desperately wanted him to loosen up and get properly pissed with us, just once: “come on, Pannmeister, you can do it, show us what you got!” But somehow the name stuck, and he quietly accepted it, even if he flinched a little every time we used it.
Pannenberg would carry his books in a black leather briefcase. I would secretly love the sound of its locks unclicking in seminars – or, later in the evening, in one of our rooms as he got out yet another pile of beautifully handwritten pages to ask us what we thought about eternity.
That would be it about Pannenberg: he would care so much about eternity and history, revelation and Christianity, that it made him seem almost magnetic. He would be unable to fathom that we didn’t care quite as much, that maybe we cared more about other things, or that we didn’t even fully understand him when he went on one of his complicated, philosophical rants.
“Do you even have any other clothes?” our buddy Steve would ask him in exasperation, as we got ready to go to a party one evening. Pannenberg would shrug and say that he liked black and gray, he liked shirts, and he didn’t see any reason to experiment further. We would all remember that one time when we got so soaked in the rain on our way to my place that everybody had to borrow dry clothes from me. Pannenberg spent that evening wearing a red hoodie with the words “Liberté, Egalité, Beyoncé” printed across the chest. First, the sight of him in it, fidgety and silent, endeared him to me, but over the course of the evening I started feeling unexpectedly guilty about having picked it out for him.
Sometimes it would seem like we didn’t agree about anything, Pannenberg and I. I would get angry at him about how rigid he could be, how unable to make space in his head for anything that didn’t fit with his increasingly uncompromising ideals. He could be unkind. But then there would be those other times too. Like the night he walked me home from a party and then stayed for hours, listening, because I was drunk and miserable and needed somebody to talk to – or the entire weekend he spent helping Steve paint his much-abused student flat.
Whenever you spent an evening hanging out, just the two of you, there would always be a moment when he adjusted his glasses, leant forward and then started speaking quietly to you as if this was the most significant conversation you had ever had – as if the idea that he and you were about to work through together would transform something profound in your life.
I would be a little bit in love with Pannenberg and never be able to put into words why.
At graduation, we would promise each other that we would stay in touch. I would never see him again. He would write perfunctory replies to my infrequent emails – he was always busy working on an essay, an article, a book – and eventually I would stop writing to him altogether, because I was busy too and unable to fit the shape of him into my post-university life.