Friday, March 11, 2016

memento mori reflections, part MMXVI

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:
Those who suffer from depression are usually very grateful for all the pharmacological breakthroughs surrounding serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Philip Rieff brilliantly criticized the triumph of the therapeutic in American culture, but the fact is that chemistry has rendered psychology suspect at best or irrelevant at worst in the treatment of mental illness. This trend has not served the church well. Theology is a form—arguably the original form—of therapy, and if the church is to compete with the pharmacy, it has to have some good news of its own concerning depression.
Depression is a complex phenomenon with multi-causal roots. Medical definitions are informative and essential, but no other kind of pain has such a visceral spiritual component. Ironically, faith can be a source of aggravation as well as relief. Anyone who even thinks about suicide typically feels deeply ashamed, but Christians in this situation have even more guilt heaped upon them due to the way suicide is usually treated as the gravest of sins. The helpful sometimes tell Christian depressants that they should look outward, to the service of others, and upward toward God rather than obsessing over inward states of mind that are typically defined in secular psychological terms. This is surely right, but Paul tells us that the faithful have the mind of Christ. Does that apply to the faithful whose minds have become utterly confused?


Thanks to the great Catholic theologian Von Balthasar, theologians have much to say about Christ’s descent to hell, which corresponds to many peoples’ experience of depression, but I find depression to be more akin to purgatory, a topic even more neglected than hell these days. Purgatory is the time for coming to terms with the past, more specifically, all the woes, deficiencies, and sins that we could not muster sufficient sensitivity to in this earthy life. Depression too can be a time of reckoning, a retreat from the world in order to shed everything inessential even if the benefits of this paring down are discovered long after the pain has subsided.
Nonetheless, the absence of anything like grace in the experience of depression means it holds a dark mirror to the healing promised in purgatory. The case can be made that depression is not really accurately named, since it is a state of heightened sensitivity as well as lessened energy and lowered expectations. The depressed react to fears, worries, and deprivations without any of the ordinary resources that filter and contextualize those emotions. The depressed know on some level that they are confronted with exaggerated fears, but that only makes their hypersensitivity worse. As a kind of contrition out of control, depression can be a lesson in how close purgatory is to hell.

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.

Seminaries and graduate programs teach the God of the Oppressed, and rightly so. Poverty, war, and racism are so much more public in their debilitating consequences. But we should not forget the depressed, especially in this time of Lent. Jesus himself must have experienced depression while being famished for forty days and nights in the wilderness, praying while his disciples slept, and descending into hell.
He also spent many years hidden from public view, his mission kept secret, his life so obscure that the Gospels tell us nothing about them. He had a long time of waiting, and he knew what awaited him. It is this time of hiddenness, I think, that most captures the depressant’s emotional state. The depressed wait for the long nights to end and the anguish to subside. The depressed, like Jesus during his so-called lost years, are hidden from sight, waiting for their lives to begin.
Steve now joins the new life towards which this life directs us all, and in that he joins the multitude in praise while awaiting the Resurrection.  When Bill Placher died in 2008, Steve remembered him in First Things
Bill and I disagreed more about political and social issues than theology. He was especially critical of any attempt to baptize the social order. The Church, he argued, should not provide any ideological support for the state. He also was critical of thinking of the Wabash religion department as playing an explicitly Christian role on campus. When it came to the college as a whole, however, he did not hesitate to see Wabash in sacred terms. He once told me that he did not want to retire in Crawfordsville, because being so close to the college without teaching in it would have been unbearable. Yet I knew that he could not bring himself to move away from Wabash either. He was spared that choice. In the instructions for his funeral, he asked that instead of a eulogy, a gospel sermon be preached, and he asked that it be held in the College chapel. Wabash was his family, but it was also his church, in a way, which might be why his theology was so reasonable and agreeable. He tried to make himself useful to an institution that had long ago turned its back on its Presbyterian roots. However successful he finally was, he is now at rest in the hands of God.
And now Steve has joined Bill in that same eternal rest. May they both do so in peace.

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