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August 16, 2015, 12:00 AM

Proper 15 Year B - William Porcher Dubose

 

Proper 15

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

 

    There are cynics in the Episcopal Church who might define tradition as "something we've done twice." In that vein, it has become the tradition of this parish to take a brief summer vacation from the lectionary and turn to the calendar of saints to hear the stories of faith and witness of Christians throughout the ages.  

    For years and years, the list of exemplary saints were recorded in the Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. A number of years ago at General Convention, the list of honored Christians was greatly expanded and the register was renamed Holy Women, Holy Men. Earlier this summer, General Convention updated the list and renamed it A Great Cloud of Witnesses. My hope now is that General Convention will leave well enough alone, because I personally love the title A Great Cloud of Witnesses. For me, it perfectly captures why we seek inspiration from the men and women who not just preceded us, but who, in their witness to the Risen Christ helped transmit the faith from one generation to the next. 

    I would encourage all of you, when it is published in the next few months, to take a yearly tour through the Great Cloud of Witnesses. You will find the classical saints, the apostles of Jesus, the pillars of the Church like Francis and Augustine. But you will also find more approachable saints, men and women whose faith was evidenced in the love of the Church. 

    On Tuesday, the Church will remember William Porcher Dubose. Dubose is an intriguing figure in the history of the Episcopal Church. Some historians believe that Dubose is one of the most significant voices in American theology within the Episcopal Church. Between 1892 and 1911, Dubose published six different books of systematic theology. And while we will delve into the particulars of his beliefs in a few minutes, what makes Dubose's voice so intriguing is the context in which he wrote. 

    Dubose was born in 1836 into a landed Southern Aristocracy. Surrounded by the practice of slavery, Dubose believed it to be part of the divine order. As a top graduate of the Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, in 1855 Dubose would soon be given the opportunity to fight for his beliefs. During the Civil War, Dubose was wounded on three separate occasions; his horse was shot out from under him at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and he was held in a lice-infested POW camp for over two months. But it was after the Confederate troop were routed at Cedar Creek which served as the pivot of Dubose's life. 

    Lying awake at Cedar Creek, it dawned upon Dubose that the Confederacy would ultimately loose the Civil War. Such a thought had never previously occured to him, and the realization came upon him "like the shock of death," it was almost like witnessing "the utter extinction of the world."

    And while the Civil War would end a year later at Appomattox, the personal toll of the war would continue for Dubose. Returning home to South Carolina, DuBose found that both of his parents had died, and that Sherman had burned the family home to the ground. He would later describe this time as "unendurable and utterly hopeless." Tragedy followed Dubose after the war, as well. He buried two wives and a son, and in the face of such immense personal loss, DuBose spent the remainder of his life searching for answers: "How could he have been so wrong on slavery? Where is God in a world full of error, hardship, and grief? How does God bring unity out of division, renewal out of devastation, good out of evil, life out of death? 

    Those were undoubtably difficult questions—questions that often go unanswered despite a lifetime of searching, but Dubose would dedicate the remainder of his life to those questions and ones like it. Dubose had studied for ordination before the war, and he was ordained in 1886, just a year following the war. His ministry began  in the town of Winnsboro and Abbeville, South Carolina, but Dubose would soon find that he would be called to probe life’s difficult questions from within academia. In 1871, the Trustees of the University of the South called Dubose to serve as Chaplain. At that time, Swanee was little more than a mountaintop tract of land, but with the help of Dubose and others, the Episcopal University of the South grew faithfully. From 1871 until his retirement in 1908, Dubose served as Chaplain, professor, promoter, and ultimately, the dead of the School of Theology, a seminary which he helped establish in 1878. 

    Dubose helped to shape generations of clergy in the south, and as I said earlier, his influence in theology is quite remarkable. 

    While it would be impossible to sum his works in a sermon, there a few emblematic beliefs which capture much of his over-reaching theology. The first is his understanding of the Incarnation, of the nature of the person and divinity of Jesus Christ. 

    “Dubose accepted the traditional creedal statements about the person of Christ, but emphasized Christ’s human nature, to the point that some critics accused him, (wrongfully, I might add) of denying the divinity of Christ. He felt Jesus’ humanity had been neglected over the centuries, with costly consequences. Christ, DuBose stressed, was like us in every respect, save that he was without sin. That meant Christ shared all our weaknesses, including doubts, fears, ignorance of the future, and the temptation with the real possibility of choosing evil over good. Dubose did not deny that Christ performed miracles, but he downplayed their significance. Anything short of this would have meant Christ did not share human experience and therefore could not have been our savior. God could have disclosed himself to human beings and saved us only by becoming one of us, in every way, Dubose felt. 

    “Then there is the other side of the Incarnation—humanity giving itself to God. Jesus was not only “God’s absolute gift to the world,” but, through his wiling obedience, he was also the “world’s supreme gift of itself to God.” This gift is not yet fully completed or realized in every creature, DuBose admitted, but Christ represents all, and in Christ the world’s gift of itself to God is completed and realized, and the estrangement between Creator and creature healed. DuBose was adamant in rejecting the idea that Christ died as a substitute for humanity. He insisted instead that Christ was the representative of humanity. Had Christ died as a substitute, he would have done something for us, whereas Dubose believed that as a representative, he did something in us, changing not merely our status, from guilty to acquitted, but our very nature.”

    Dubose’s theology, like all academic pursuits, is never done in a vacuum. Much of his hopes that humanity would be reconciled to one another and to God obviously was a response to his experience in the Civil War, but his understanding of the Incarnation was not the only area of his theology influenced by the current events of the day. 

    Before the American Civil War, as DuBose was studying for the ministry, an English Biologist published a small tract, Evolution of the Species. Darwin’s approach to understanding the adaption of species to their environments can not be understated when evaluating Dubose’s theology. Unlike many Christian thinkers of his day, Dubose embraced Darwinism, a controversy in its own right, but especially when coupled with how that would influence his understanding of the Church. 

    Perhaps DuBose’s most controversial belief was his reluctance to embrace the creeds as the final statements of Christian faith. “Doctrinal statements must change, he argued, because we and our conceptions of truth are always changing.” DuBose believed that evolution had an important part to play in the Christian story. Christian beliefs themselves are evolving and “no truth out to be considered final and irreformable.” He saw all human statements as imperfect and felt the church teachings should be “taken out of their napkins” and allowed to take part in the give and take of ideas. Truth, he argued, needs no fortress to protect it. 

    Of course, when you open Church teachings to the marketplace of ideas, there is a danger that error might creep into the church. To his great credit, Dubose felt that this wasn’t a possibility, it was an absolute certainty. The Church might consider error, but there is no reason to be intimidated by it. “The Church should hear, test, and try every new idea, trusting that experience will separate truth from falsehood.”

    DuBose’s own experience of slavery becomes emblamatic of how evolutionary revelation can be. He wrote the following:

    “The world is constantly outgrowing and making sinful institutions which…were not so to it in the age or at the stage in which they prevailed. Polygamy was no sin to Abraham. Slavery was no sin in the consciousness or conscience of the New Testament. Feudalism was no sin in its day, but would be so now. Puritanism in forms where were once admirable would now be condemned. The time will come when war will be a sin. The South received and exercised slavery in good faith and without doubt or question, whatever we pronounce it now, it was not a sign at that time to those people. It was natural that we were were in it and of it would be the last to see its extinction as a necessary step in the moral progress of the world. Now that the judgement is passed, we join in it. Slavery we say, is a sin, and a sin of which we could not possibly be guilty.”

    DuBose’s beliefs were obviously grounded in the context of his experience and environment. Indeed, I think Dubose is all the more remarkable because of his self-understanding. He never feared change or reacted to change instinctively. There seems to be a bedrock belief in the role of the Holy Spirit in DuBose’s beliefs as he approached the questions of his day.

    When Dubose talks about the Incarnation, he is talking about the person of God in Christ. But the incarnation isn’t limited to a historical figure in ancient Judea. Dubose understood that the Incarnation is also present in the Body of Christ in the Church. “As the Lord assumed his fleshly body, so has he assumed the mystical body, the church, which became “the humanity of his larger incarnation.” “The church doesn’t merely proclaim Christ—it is Christ present in the world today. Christ does not guide the Church from outside, but fills it with himself. Again, evolution is key to his understanding of the church—wracked with divisions and infighting, the church is obviously not completely Christlike— not yet, but the process is underway, and Dubose defined the church not by what it is, but by what it is becoming.”

    I get the sense that in a world racked by pain and tragedy, that DuBose was comforted by a belief in God’s providence. That the troubles and evils of this world are merely preparing us for the greater glory which is to be revealed. DuBose knew his own place in this evolution of human knowledge of the Divine. He would no more hold up his own beliefs than the Historical Creeds as the summation of our understanding of God. His, like ours, is an evolutionary step, which precedes and progressed to that ultimate union with our loving God and Creator. Perhaps this knowledge of the future revelation is what gave him a sense of unyielding hope in the face of devastating personal loss. Writing just before his death in 1918, he said, “God has placed forever before our eyes, not the image but the Very Person of the Spiritual Man. We have not to ascend into heaven to bring Him down, nor to descend in to the abyss to bring Him up, for He is with us, and near us, and in us. We have only to confess with our mouths that He is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God has raised Him from the dead—and raised us in Him —and we shall live.”

 


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