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Remembering Stephen H. Webb

David Klinghoffer

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Philosopher and theologian Stephen H. Webb came to my attention a couple of years ago when he published a brilliant response to an attack on Stephen Meyer and other advocates of intelligent design. The attack and the response appeared successively at the journal First Things where Webb contributed essays. He and I subsequently corresponded by email and he wrote a post for us at Evolution News on the quality of argumentation practiced by Darwin apologists.

To my shock and sadness, Webb, just 54 years old, has passed away. I am very sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to know him better, but Samuel Rocha at the University of British Columbia has a beautiful and candid remembrance of him up now also at First Things. I wasn’t aware of 90 percent of what his friend Dr. Rocha says about Dr. Webb, who was not only a profound scholar but also, clearly, a warm, passionate, but complicated man carrying a heavy burden of depression:

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.

Oh my goodness…the article about depression was published just two weeks before his death.

This happens too often to an editor: You come across a gifted, prolific author who shares your perspective on important matters and you think, “Wow, this is going to be the start of a great relationship.” Webb was a catch, a wonderful writer with interests ranging far beyond our set of issues here, from Mormonism to Bob Dylan. (He wrote books on both. His book on evolution is The Dome of Heaven.) But then somehow the ball gets dropped and sometime later you wonder, “What ever happened to Stephen Webb?” Now I know. What a heartbreaking loss for his family and friends.

On matters relating to ID, he had a clear-eyed view that put theological objections to the theory into a proper perspective. On the evolution debate, he rightly observed that Darwin’s partisans commonly treat it not as an occasion for seeking truth but rather as a scorched-earth battle to the finish. They never really consider contrary ideas or admit weakness but only push relentlessly to the goal, which is the annihilation of dissent.

At stake in the controversy about origins, as we have said before, is the picture of what a human being really is: whether the haphazard product of random cosmic drift, without ultimate meaning or dignity; or instead, a soul passing temporarily through material reality, mysteriously reflecting the image of a creative intelligence beyond nature. I knew Stephen Webb only briefly and superficially. Now that he has died, I’ve received, too late, a glimpse of what he must have been like as a soul.

May his loved ones find comfort, and may he find peace.

Image credit: © Gitusik / Dollar Photo Club.