In the fall of 2010, Stephen Webb challenged me to a footrace at Wabash College. I accepted. We lined up on a sidewalk crack. Before the signal came, Webb bolted off. As I ran to pass him, he pushed me into the road. He tried to grab my shirt to stop me from passing him again. He laughed with wildfire in his eyes. A couple of years later Webb wrote to me, saying, “I was, if you recall, going to write about you, beginning with this sentence: ‘A screaming came across the sky. . . . ’ (stolen from Gravity's Rainbow) but never got the chance.” I feel that way about him now. It aches.
Webb wrote in the therapeutic way that true writers write. His emails were often a single paragraph of several hundred words with pristine prose and effusive exclamation marks. Sometimes it was hard to keep up. But you wanted to. I find myself reading the books and emails that survive him, looking for conversation with my lost friend, who took his life in early March.
In his 1993 title, Blessed Excess, Webb asks, “What would be a life without excess, extravagant actions, extreme claims and visions—without, in a word, hyperbole?” This theme on rhetoric and hyperbole consumed his early work on Karl Barth and even William James. In 1999, Webb would publish a theological ethics on the same question in The Gifting God: A Trinitarian Ethics of Excess. This work of the 1990s point to a Dionysian persona that Webb embodied deeply, even painfully.
Before Jean-Luc Marion’s notions of excess and the gift became fashionable in the English-speaking academy, there was Webb. As a scholar, he was never a trendsetter or follower. He wrote on Bob Dylan, dogs, and disability because he loved Dylan, his dachshunds, and was nearly deaf. Webb wrote theology because he loved God, philosophy because he was passionately curious. He adored John Updike and composed several unpublished novels—the one I read, Stopping the Sun, is splendid.
Webb’s life and thought were seamless in tangled, knotted, but above all supremely honest ways. He was not smooth; he wore his faults with the same humility that transmitted his brilliance. He could not compartmentalize himself. He was explosive, partly because of his poor hearing, and perhaps because of inner turmoil. His laughter thundered, reverberating through the 19th century wood of Center Hall, echoing across his basement ping-pong table, chasing me down the sidewalk. He was the same person at school, home, and the soccer and rugby pitches where he watched his children play.
Webb was much more than a professor at Wabash. He was a son of the College, raised there by his late mentor Bill Placher. To his students, Webb was larger than life, the vanguard of intellectual conservatism, a fully human genius. To his colleagues, Webb was either befriended and beloved or deeply misunderstood. Those misunderstandings were never neutral, innocent, or casual—nor were they forgettable. His wildness could intimidate, yes, but it also encouraged and inspired. He left his mark wherever he went.
Even in times of trial, Webb was selfless and generous to a fault. He loved in an intense and worldly way. He sang Dylan to his wife Diane at the karaoke bar, treasured his time doing prison ministry, and adored his children by pestering them at home and bragging about them in emails. He gave himself freely and joyfully, and sought a theological community that would offer him the same. In his final works he reached out to the LDS community with gusto and sincere goodwill. He never quite found that theological community. He was always moving on to the next project, more often than not conceived of as brilliant but in idiosyncratic ways that both thrilled and baffled his friends. His heart was perhaps too restless to see those of us who loved him.
Webb has run ahead of me again. I wish I could have caught him and pulled him back. Everything I know about his death fills me with regret, but I know his race on earth, however hampered by depression, was driven by an excessive love. His last words on this site try to unite his struggle with our Savior: “Jesus himself must have experienced depression . . . The depressed, like Jesus during his so-called lost years, are hidden from sight, waiting for their lives to begin.”
The alienating excess of depression is that it overwhelms the depressed to the point that they cannot see or hear the voices that reach out to them, even the voice of God. In his parting address, Webb said what polite people do not say: that God is not merely concerned for the generic depressed “out there,” that Christ knows concretely and intimately what it is to suffer from depression. Webb succumbed to his depression, and that grieves me. But the man I knew exceeded his own depression. He was to me the image of an excess of love. It is that about him which I see at the center of my sorrow, and it consoles me.
Samuel D. Rocha is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of British Columbia.