Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
Perhaps such a sentiment, a reminder, is expected these days. It is Lent, after all.
However, this past Monday I received a much more shocking reminder: Steve Webb, one of my Wabash College professors, died suddenly on March 5. Steve had taught Religion and Philosophy at Wabash for twenty-five years. More recently he blogged regularly at First Things, taught at Christian Theological Seminary, and had started a prison ministry. He had published over a dozen books on topics ranging from Karl Barth to education to vegetarianism to, in what turned out to be his last years, Mormonism.
All that production, though, doesn't cover half of Webb's impact at Wabash. For a time, no faculty member came close to Webb's popularity. Nobody had more advisees, and nobody taught more students (his courses routinely carried double the maximum enrollment). Attending a lecture featuring Webb became de rigueur. And within Webb's own department was another prominent, universally-adored and well-published theologian. At the time--well over a decade--most of us did not recognize the extent of the Wabash Religion department's productivity, and particularly Webb's contributions.
And, above and beyond all that, he was a devoted husband and father. Steve himself saw the connections because he wrote about them frequently. Here about soccer, and here about the "dietary celibacy" of dieting food fads. Steve's mind moved several steps ahead of us mere mortals, being able to find theological reflection amidst the hum-drum routines of feeding the kids or watching them play their games.
For all his powers, though, Steve knew brokeneness and in that his humanity glowed. He wrote so much about so many topics that conflict was perhaps unavoidable. His views on vegetarianism and animals came under particular criticism. Politically speaking, Webb came to view conservatives, a group he eventually joined, as ostracized from every corner of the academy. US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia's phrase "hostes humani generis" (enemies of the human race) provided the label, but Webb had foreseen (and received) that judgement much earlier. His last published piece--on Christian theology's tacit oversight of depression--appeared just a couple weeks before his own death. There he wrote:
Anybody who sat through a Webb classroom lecture or read a Webb book knew--and occasionally experienced--his savage wit. With students, at least, Webb sought to improve the student's thinking and writing, which sometimes meant he had to deconstruct not too softly the young Wally's preconceived notions. (See this 2005 issue of Details for a glimpse into a Webb class.) Last month's post on depression, though, lacks that scalpel-sharp wit. The same experiential voice was there; Webb's first theological writings attempted, basically, an evangelical, low-church American reading of Karl Barth, and Webb was always a better "explainer" (if not defender) of Schleiermacher than Bill Placher, good Calvinist that he was, ever was). But with the depression piece Webb also seemed to be trying out a new exploratory voice as well. This differed from his writing on Mormonism, where he seemed to work as a credentialed academic theological apologist for the LDS tradition. Now Steve seemed to have turned a corner, finally figuring out how to situate his own struggles in the broader Christian narrative.