Thursday, August 19, 2010

Downhill

Yesterday was a feast day on the Episcopal church calendar to the memory of William Porcher DuBose (1836-1918), “a serious candidate for the title of ‘greatest theologian that the Episcopal Church in the USA has produced.’” That isn’t saying much. Anglican Christianity is short on notable, solidly orthodox theologians. The best ones I’m aware of are low-church evangelicals: W.H. Griffith Thomas, John R.W. Stott, and J.I. Packer – all of them British. N.T. Wright is a formidable biblical scholar, but a suspect theologian (and bad commentator on economic issues) in my opinion.

As for William Porcher (por SHAY) DuBose, I was hoping this Citadel cadet, Confederate army chaplain, and Sewanee teacher would turn out to be a pillar of orthodox faith. I spent some time looking over his autobiographical Turning Points in My Life for clues on his doctrine, and came upon this:

God's ways are riot easy, He did not spare His own Son, and He does not spare any that are His sons; but some of us live long enough to know that His ways are better than our ways, and that He never fails to help those whom He brings up in His steadfast fear and love. I cannot see where God ever promises to change natural things or natural sequences for us. I do see where He promises that in them all and through them all we shall be more than conquerors. To St. Paul's prayer to take away, the answer was, My grace shall be sufficient for you. Our Lord did not wait for that answer: He preferred for Himself God's will and way as eternally and essentially best. “Not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” I may not see how God in a uniform course of nature can provide what is best for each soul in each case any more than I can understand that I myself am free in such a sequence of nature. But what actually is, is – whether it be possible or no. There are more things than we think that we accept simply upon that ground.
I like that expression, “riot easy.” The statement is quite sagacious so far as it goes. DuBose knew something of what he was writing, having passed through the War of 1861-65, Reconstruction, and the loss of all personal fortune. When he was out-voted for the bishopric of South Carolina he saw it as a divinely-appointed “escape.” He was more suited to the classroom, and was thereafter on the mountain at Sewanee, TN.

DuBose’s theology hinges on subjective practicality. A faith that does not transform the believer is no faith at all. Experiential faith is lived out within the community of the Church. DuBose adhered to Luther’s notion that all of life is an out-working of what is depicted in baptism. What God objectively offers the believer in baptism is to be put into practical effect over the course of life. DuBose did not believe it possible for an individual to embrace every jot and tittle of the historic creeds at one moment. A person might recite the creeds within the Church community, but would need to grow in the experience of spiritual reality over the span of his life in order to grasp the deeper realities latent within them. And what if the person never embraces these statements? DuBose doesn’t say. What he does reveal, however, is that his own conversion experience had little if anything to do with repentance or awareness of God’s wrath. Such awareness, he believed, comes later, when one realizes that one’s best life is not being lived. In other words, sin is a failure to live a good life. So much for DuBose’s soteriology.

The crux of any theological scheme is its Christology, and the more DuBose rambled on the even less impressed I was with his system. He was proto-typical of that annoying knack among modern Episcopalian clergy for speaking unclearly about who Christ is and what exactly He accomplished. He insinuates that Jesus was a good but imperfect man who grew in grace and power through dependence on God, overcoming imperfection, depicting what God is like and setting a right example for us all (N.T. Wright himself has hinted towards what smells of a semi-Ebionite view of Jesus). Nowhere is DuBose specific about the tangible resurrection of the Lord. The risen Christ is “experienced” within the faith community – true, but is this the result of the Spirit sent from the glorified Man on high, or merely a happy reflection on a life well spent?

In the end, DuBose’s subjectivity is so mystical and immanent that there is no place (or need) for mention of God’s wrath, the literal bodily resurrection, or life in the age to come. I recall how one Brethren writer used to insist, “A moral stream cannot rise above its source.” If DuBose is the “greatest theologian the Episcopal Church…has produced,” it’s not surprising that his church has wandered on a mostly downward path since the Gilded Age.

2 comments:

The Underground Pewster said...

Bingo! I have often wondered about the early faults in The Mountain.

Chuck Hicks said...

I hope I do not not come across as condemning DuBose; certainly I do not know his heart. But his writing is too opaque, too open to misinterpretation in my view to be edifying. Most troubling about Turning Points in My Life is that it was written colleagues and former students at Sewanee. It's his intimate written reflection at the end of his life, and it lacks rock solid counsel.