Review: Stephen H. Webb’s Mormon Christianity

December 23, 2013

By Blair Hodges
Cross-posted at By Common Consent

webbcover-198x300What if Joseph Smith’s vision of God really does have something important to say to all Christians today?“
— Stephen H. Webb

The recent “Mormon moment” exasperated theologian Stephen Webb. It wasn’t that Mitt Romney’s presidential run lent undue legitimacy to the LDS Church, or that Webb thought the media went too soft on the religious background of the Republican nominee. Although he is not a Mormon himself, Webb was unnerved by shallow discussions about Mormon underwear and other apparent trivialities. According to Webb, such conversations fail to pay due attention to Mormon metaphysics—the way Mormons understand the nature of matter, humans, God, and existence. His new book, Mormon Christianity, explores the development and coherence of this core belief taught by Joseph Smith: “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes…” (D&C 131:7). Mormons make no ultimate distinction between spirit and matter, the natural and supernatural, which largely sets them apart from the broader Christian tradition. ”The Mormon imagination is solidly grounded in material reality,” writes Webb, “but it takes the physical world to new and unheard-of heights” (10). Webb believes Christian lungs can benefit from the rarefied air of these heights.
The problem is that Mormons themselves don’t spend much time putting together theological explications of their metaphysics. Webb is happy to offer his hand in doing just that because while “Mormonism might not be for everyone…I think everyone can benefit from learning about its metaphysics” (41). Webb lays out his understanding of Mormon metaphysics, that all spirit is in some sense material and that the divine is not beyond the material order. He demonstrates how this materialistic worldview informs Mormon belief and practice, from the nature of God to the purpose of temples. He argues that Mormon materialism is largely coherent in comparison to theological views of “traditional” or creedal Christianity (42). Mormons likely don’t know what they have here, he seems to say. Mormon ignorance of other faiths obscures distinctive Mormon theology for Mormons themselves. Webb is familiar with evangelicalism and has become immersed in the world of Catholic theology as he converted to that faith. Thus he is attuned to the theological climate of contemporary Christianity and finds Mormonism to be an unknown, challenging and exciting treasure trove of theological possibilities (15).
As he has done elsewhere, Webb affirms the essential Christianity of Mormonism, but his book is unique in the genre of Christian/Mormon explorations because he writes from a Catholic standpoint. You can expect more digs at Protestant reformers (72) and greater attention to the ritual system and hierarchical structure of Mormon priesthood than in Protestant-driven discussions (esp. 72-74). As a Catholic, Webb is less concerned with smoothing over areas of LDS distinctiveness than most “are Mormons Christian” books written by or for evangelicals: “Mormonism’s strength lies in how it challenges many aspects of evangelical, Protestant theology” (159). Some of his observations will evoke a smile (maybe Mormons have all the “benefits of a cult” without “any of the psychological disturbances” (44-5). At times he elides disagreements among Mormons about certain doctrines, such as his explanation that Mormons teach that God the Father still progresses (59, see the famous disagreement between Elder Bruce R. McConkie and LDS scholar Eugene England ). On other points he explicitly notes where Mormon thought remains unsettled, such as the nature of eternal “intelligences” (are they somehow born in a spirit birth process, etc., p. 170). He recognizes impulses in contemporary Mormonism toward watering down distinctiveness which exist in tension with determined adherence to unique theological teachings of Joseph Smith (see especially pp. 160-161). These are some reasons I’d comfortably recommend this book to Mormon friends.
Despite very few lapses, Webb generally manages to be thoughtful and respectful, entertaining and challenging all at once. In fact, Mormon readers will certainly blush at his frequent praise. When he finally gets around to articulating a criticism of Mormonism (on page 74!) he turns it into a positive: Mormonism’s rejection of Catholic belief in transubstantiation in the Eucharist (what Mormons call “the sacrament”) is misguided, Webb says. But Mormons make up for it because “they just locate transubstantiation in different theological places” than Catholics (74). Catholics see the bread and wine becoming the body of Christ as an instance of Jesus Christ consummating his material creation, whereas Mormons don’t localize it–all of material creation is already sacramentalized within Mormon metaphysics. Webb’s argument here will feel new but compelling to many Mormons, giving them greater appreciation for the Catholic belief in transubstantiation and their own sacramentalization of God’s entire creation: “Mormons can appear to treat the Lord’s Supper as a purely mental event [a memorial act] because the Saints actually locate transubstantiation in the potential for every event, no matter how mundane, to convey the physically uplifting power of God’s grace. Matter itself is bursting with transubstantiating power” (75).
Webb’s book is conversational in tone, so there are chapters and sections which seem to veer away from his main project of exploring Mormon metaphysics. For example, he observes that the Book of Mormon “raises a very awkward question for Christians. Can you believe too much about Jesus?” (121). Elsewhere he describes temple garments and explains what they signify to Mormons (69-70). He still manages to tie these sidetracks back to the main trail of Mormon metaphysics in most cases, though, taking readers on a felicitously-described history of philosophical thought about matter spanning from Plato and Aristotle up to Higgs and contemporary physics. This overview is more theologically driven, meaning Webb is more interested in situating ideas theologically than historically. Between the ancients and contemporaries he spends a little time situating Joseph Smith and Orson Pratt in their nineteenth-century environs. Odds are that most Mormons today are especially unfamiliar with Pratt’s speculative extensions of Joseph Smith’s thought, and non-Mormons are even more disinclined to pay attention to an obscure 19th-century self-made philosopher. But Webb sees value in Pratt precisely because he imbued his meticulous (if dated) theoretical physics with the spiritual: “It will not be easy to rethink God’s relationship to us by taking into account new views of the material world [including things like the Higgs boson, string theory, or zero-point fields],” Webb says, “but if we want to do that, Pratt’s work might end up helping to lead the way” (108). Webb believes a re-thinking of the God of classical theism is in order based on the advances of our understanding of the nature of matter, and argues that Pratt’s efforts show that such re-thinking can be done without leaving the bounds of Christian belief. I don’t know that his strategy of evoking a Mormon figure in order to calm the anxieties of classical theologians is going to be very effective, but at the very least, Webb’s analysis of Pratt is worth the read for Mormons.
Ultimately, Webb’s book raises two fundamental questions. First: How much are Mormons willing to learn from non-LDS perspectives? At times, Webb over-attributes his own interpretations to Mormons (as on p. 168, where is own “Heavenly Flesh Christology” appears as a Mormon perspective, see my review of his earlier book, Jesus Christ, Eternal God here). At other times he signals various points of incoherence within LDS theology that could benefit from taking advice from classical orthodoxy (as in his third helpful appendix articulates three particular philosophical problems which remain unresolved in Mormon metaphysics, p. 199-203). He notes that Mormonism has shifted in some beliefs over time, and that a certain “elasticity” generally attributed to belief in “continuing revelation” is one of Mormonism’s greatest strengths. But it isn’t as clear that contemporary Mormon authorities are much concerned about this level of theological investigation. The second question is the other side of the same coin: “[H]ow open [do non-Mormon Christians] want to become to the full intellectual richness of the Christian tradition [including Mormonism?]” (160). Throughout the book he identifies problems raised by classic Christian metaphysics largely borrowed from Plato which Mormon views of matter and spirit might help overturn, but as many Christians already doubt the Christianity of Mormons, it isn’t clear how much interest Webb will manage to drum up in their behalf.
Readers should certainly challenge and grapple with many of the specific claims Webb makes throughout Mormon Christianity, but such challenging and grappling only serves to further justify Webb’s guiding question: ”What if Joseph Smith’s vision of God really does have something important to say to all Christians today?” (9).
Review of Stephen H. Webb, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 217 pages.
Webb contributed a thoughtful review of Mormon philosopher Adam S. Miller’s Speculative Grace to volume 1 of the Mormon Studies Review. You can subscribe to the MSR here. Miller, in turn, reviews Webb’s Jesus Christ, Eternal God.