By Frederick Quinn
Nathan A. Scott, Jr. died, four years ago this December, in Charlottesville, Va. He was one of the most significant Christian commentators on contemporary culture of the second half of the twentieth century and merits a place in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1925, the only child of a 51 year old father and 41 year old mother, he was raised in Detroit, Michigan, and graduated from the University of Michigan at age 19, from Union Theological Seminary at 21, and completed his Ph. D. from Columbia University at 24, while teaching religion at Howard University. A prolific author, Scott wrote seventeen books, edited nine others, and produced a steady stream of articles, book reviews, and essays. From 1955 to 1977 he taught at the University of Chicago and spent ten years as a canon of St. James’ Cathedral in Chicago, where he was a regular preacher and celebrant, and organized weekend seminars on spirituality and literature for Chicago clergy. In 1976 Scott and his wife, Charlotte A. Scott, became the first tenured black professors at the University of Virginia, she in business-economics, he in religion. He retired in 1990 and hoped to take a small Virginia parish, but by then lacked the stamina to do so.
Scott emerged as a leading Christian literary voice at a time when modern cultural criticism was turning toward Marxism, deconstructionism, new historicism, postcolonial, reader-response and a variety of other specialized schools of criticism. Drawing on the work of Paul Tillich, Scott staked bold claims – that religion gave culture its substance and that the great themes of alienation and the quest for unity central to writers as varied as Kafka, Camus, and Beckett were at heart religious issues. In a memorial sermon titled “The Boundary Walker” Samuel T. Lloyd III, a former graduate student of Scott’s at the University of Virginia, and now dean of Washington National Cathedral, recalled, “Nathan sought to articulate the Christian faith, within the language and thought forms of our time so that we can understand it in fresh ways. He believed that the faith conversation had to flow both ways. Secular thinkers had much to gain from recognizing the spiritual dimension at work in even the most non-religious works, and the church too had a great deal to gain from having its convictions tested and stretched in conversation with the spiritual quest of its time.” Lloyd, who Scott hoped would follow him in an academic-clerical career, described his mentor as a compelling preacher and lecturer. “He lived and wrote on the boundary between religion and literature, between the sacred and the secular, between the ancient and the modern, between theology and culture. But there were other boundaries he walked as well…As a black man from the North living out his climactic years in the heart of the Confederacy, he wrote eloquently about this crucial boundary divide in our culture.”
Despite making a substantial mark in his time, Scott is infrequently referred to now. Cultural criticism moved like a tornado in other directions during his professional lifetime. Scott called some of its trends “hermeneutical terrorism,” in a decade before such terminology had entered common usage. He was not a polemicist; his genius was in probing the depths of about forty key world authors over half a century, and relating them and their texts to biblical and contemporary issues. His collected sermons remain to be gathered and Scott awaits a biographer. His comments about himself were often guarded. But in a 1993 interview he reflected on the key influence of his father, who had been taught to read and write by the local postmaster in Laneville, Alabama, and who, after struggling to obtain an education, eventually became a lawyer in Detroit. “He had been taught Greek and Latin classics. By the time I was twelve years of age, he had taken me through the Latin text of Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic Wars. I was the despair of my Latin teachers in junior and senior high school; they had noting to offer me. His daily devotional reading of the New Testament involved the koiné Greek text. He had an enormous passion for the Book. And when I was a small boy, he had already set me to reading the Fireside Poets (Greenleaf Whittier, Wadsworth Longfellow, and so on), as well as Browning and Tennyson. He had required me to commit to memory large blocks of this poetry by the time I was ten or eleven years of age. He contributed more to my formation than anybody else has ever done!”
The titles of some of Scott’s books suggest the range of his interests, Rehearsals of Discomposure: Alienation and Reconciliation in Modern Literature (1952), Modern Literature and the Religious Frontier (1958), Albert Camus (1962), Samuel Beckett (1957), The Climate of Faith in Modern Literature (1964), and The Wild Prayer of Longing (1971). Scott did not identify himself primarily as an African-American author, although he dedicated a book to his friends, Ralph and Fanny Ellison, and wrote a chapter on “Black Literature” in The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing (1979). Some black authors felt he had sold out in writing about so many “dead white males,” a Jewish critic wrote in amazement in The New York Times Book Review that a black American should be writing about figures like Gerald Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, and Martin Heidegger. If a Jew had written about the same authors he did, Scott later reflected, it would not cause special comment. “Virtually no phase of American cultural enterprise is uninvaded by the racial animus that still ruinously indwells our national life, and I have not escaped its lashes,” he said in a 1993 essay, "A Ramble on a Road Taken", but added elsewhere, “American citizenship, for all of what is rotten in the country, is one of the great blessings in the world. And I believe it to be that.”
Scott’s manner was formal. An attentive listener, he could be initially guarded in conversation, then capable of exploding in laughter. He knew and interacted with almost all of the cultural greats of his time, but was equally engaged with college students as he was with Jacques Barzun or Lionel Trilling. Lloyd, who began his ministry at Scott’s old parish of St. Paul and the Redeemer in Hyde Park, Illinois, recalled evenings of generous hospitality in the spacious living room of the Scott’s Charlottesville home. Its walls contained original African and American art and its bookcases were overflowing. Gustav Mahler or Samuel Barber might be playing on the hi fi, avant-garde selections in that era. Nearby stood Nathan. welcoming guests and encouraging conversation, with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
If he wrote of tragedy and disruption in the human condition, his was at heart an incarnational theology, affirming of life and creation. Lloyd recalls his pointing a finger toward the congregation in one sermon and urging them to cherish “such things as fine linen and good crystal.”
Cautiously accepting of the Prayer Book revisions of the 1980s, Scott was glad that the excesses of penitential material and the morose vision of the Cranmer era had been removed, but cautioned that its “language is not a language calculated to convey to us a sense of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” Scott was optimistic about the future of the Episcopal Church, yet sounded a note of alarm about the way the Religious Right had entered the political arena “to make an enormous amount of mischief on the American scene.” “The conspiratorial posture of the Religious Right in this country is ever so bothering. But so far as our mainline Reformation churches are concerned, and so far as the Roman Catholic communion is concerned, though these are imperfect affairs, I don’t have any sense of great looming crisis.”
As a leading writer and teacher on Christian culture for over four decades, a university professor and chaplain, and parish priest and Cathedral canon, Scott was a leading voice for a hopeful Christian message in a torn world. His many achievements make him an admirable candidate for the Episcopal Church’s calendar of exemplary witnesses.
Frederick Quinn is an Episcopal priest, holds a doctorate in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, and has written books about law, history, and religion.