Note: This is the final installment of the conversation between Charles Randall Paul and Stephen Webb. The conversation began with a five-part review by Paul of Webb’s book(s), Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints, and, with Alonzo L. Gaskill, Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation. Part One was published in the Spring 2020 issue with an introduction by Ralph Hancock; Part Two was published in Summer 2020. Part Three was published in Fall 2020; Part Four was published in Spring 2021. The following and final section of this exchange presents Stephen Webb’s critique and suggestions that he wrote in response to Paul’s review. He framed his critique as Four Aporia (or perplexities) emerging from LDS theology. Paul responded to Webb’s comments with a few of his own recorded here. Unfortunately, circumstances did not allow Webb the time to continue the conversation.

Webb’s words will be the default font.
Paul’s emphasis of Stephen Webb’s words in italics.
Paul’s words will be underlined.

I am very grateful to Charles Randall Paul for his careful, engaging, and encouraging response to my book. My reflections on his response take the form of the following essay, which I gratefully dedicate to him.

1. On Supernatural Nature

Modernity is another name for the crisis that begins when the supernatural is severed from the natural. This breakdown is so thorough that no area of society has been left untouched. Whatever its origins (and various theories blame many candidates, including the decline of metaphysics, the ecclesial fragmentation of Christianity, the rise of nationalism, the ideology of consumerism, and on and on), its consequences are clear: The modern world provides no room for a meaningful connection between human fulfillment and religious discipline. At the heart of the crisis is the meaning of knowledge. The success of science in the mastery of matter has led to the triumph of a materialistic view of the world over all competitors.

That triumph is fueled by technology’s seductive and monopolistic promises to alleviate the human condition by enabling people to live longer and enjoy life more fully. These promises put religion in an awkward position. How can Christianity criticize the unlimited ambition and godless arrogance of secular humanism without looking like it is saying no to the universal desire for a better life? By rendering religion otiose and obscure, education and piety become strangers who have nothing to say to each other. With religion marginalized and privatized, believers find it hard to grasp an intrinsic relationship between religious rituals and everyday habits. Worshipping God becomes inconceivable as the primary grounds for human flourishing. In moral terms, the more modern people become, the less natural the natural law looks. Perhaps the most striking theological aspect of the crisis is the common assumption, even among the very devout, that the promise of heaven is irrelevant to the pursuit of happiness here and now. For modern Christians, heaven is unimaginable, while hell is unthinkable; the afterlife is barely more than an afterthought.

Roman Catholicism has fought a stalwart battle against modernity, but the case can be made that its only serious competitor in trying to heal this breach is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons conceive of all life, from the heavens above to the earth below, as governed by one common law of spiritual development and material transformation. Time has no limit no matter which direction, past or forward, you look, and space too is unbounded, with new and unimaginable worlds yet to come. Through this grand and unfathomable scheme, the faithful can advance from strength to strength, with God ever before them but never in an absolutely transcendent beyond. All that people love here and now will be preserved and enhanced in worlds without end. The more we come to know ourselves, Mormons wager, the more we will realize that our bodies are destined for a glory that our minds cannot comprehend. Nature is already thoroughly supernatural right down to the smallest atom, and the supernatural is nothing more than nature in its most intense and concentrated form. In the next life, the supernatural will become our second nature, so that the deeper into the divine we go, the more we will become who and what we already are, right down to our most basic bodily functions. Heaven never looked so beautifully ordinary.

CRP: I predict that in coming years people inside and outside the faithful LDS flock will begin to interpret provocative LDS theological positions attempting to clarify some of the ambiguities that have yet to be addressed by new revelations through the prophetic authorities. These interpreters will speculatively advance some important ramifications of Joseph Smith’s revelations that should yield a more coherent understanding of the purpose and destiny of humanity. This will especially appeal to those who now find the “miracles” of scientific technology more impressive than religious “mythology.” Webb, in his theological way, is emphasizing material spirituality. From the other side, spiritual materiality, or supernatural nature, is a wonderful way to describe a contemporary way of looking for purpose and destiny of humanity. This is congenial with LDS thought that affirms material science boldly as an unfolding of more truth, albeit partial always. I trust that coming generations of seekers that feel liberated to look at all truth claims and evidence will not fear the interplay of theological and scientific inquiry. LDS Christianity—more than most other traditions—has the potential to be both ritually pure and theologically expansive. Onward and upward, further out and further in—worlds without end.

2. Pre-Mortal Flesh

Celsus called Christians a philosomaton genos—a flesh loving people—because Christians wanted to take their bodies with them to the afterlife. [1] If we take Clesus’s definition to heart, then Mormonism is the most characteristically Christian movement of all Christianity. The afterlife is more life for Mormons, not another kind of life altogether. The result is a Christian movement that is as fantastic and inventive in its rituals and doctrines as it is simple, and even simplistic in its hopes and dreams.

Can Mormonism articulate a theological platform with enough intellectual coherence to support these ambitions? On the face of it, Roman Catholicism has the obvious and overwhelming advantage of being guided by one of the most systematic thinkers in the history of philosophy. Thomas Aquinas was as clear and careful in his appropriation of Aristotelian logic as Mormonism is carefree of philosophical jargon and colorful with concrete images. But before we rush to the judgment that Aquinas would surely win any and every debate against a whole team of Who’s Who in Mormon theology, we need to think through Aquinas’s central metaphysical commitment to immateriality.

In my book, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, 2011), I develop my own version of Christian materialism by defending the idea that Jesus Christ brought his celestial flesh down with him for the incarnation. I call this Heavenly Flesh Christology. Aquinas knew about this idea, took it very seriously by giving it exacting attention, and utterly rejected it. Aquinas thought the body of Christ could not have descended from heaven because the Son of God was not in any place from which he could descend. “One can say pertinently of the Word of God that He descended, not by some local motion, but by reason of the union to a lower nature.” [2] The Word occupied space for the first time when he became incarnate. If it moved to occupy that space, then it would have withdrawn from a previous place, but such a thought is frivolous given God’s omnipresence. [3] Yet Aquinas accepts the idea that Christ ascended to heaven in the form of his resurrected body: “To ascend into heaven plainly belongs to Christ.” [4] This asymmetry is inelegant at best, given Aquinas’s systematic ambitions, but it also indicates a bothersome inconsistency in the life of the Son. What Christ is at the end of time is utterly distinct from what he was at time’s beginning. To maintain the coherence of his immaterialism, it seems, Aquinas must sacrifice consistency in the life of Christ.

CRP: Stephen Webb warns, “But before we rush to the judgment that Aquinas would surely win any and every debate against a whole team of Who’s Who in Mormon theology, we need to think through Aquinas’s central metaphysical commitment to immateriality.” Webb then says that Aquinas had an inelegant, asymmetrical non-solution to the problem of materiality. St. Thomas could not give up on an omnipresent “entity” that was beyond time and space in which to be omnipresent. Moreover, Aquinas had this infinite entity become finite in a body forevermore. Christ as a triune God came from “no place” but ended in a particular place, heaven, a body among other resurrected bodies.

Webb’s whole project turns on the idea that, theologically speaking, Christian materiality is an improvement on immateriality—if the latter was ever a coherent reality at all. Bluntly, the Triune God is all material. Christ’s particular bodily form might well be something the Father adopts (and perhaps the Holy Spirit when the time comes?). Webb believes heaven to be place where extended beings dwell—including God the Father with His Son. He therefore respectfully rejects the old ambivalence about material and non-material reality not only for its theological incoherence, but for its hesitancy to prioritize the sociality of heaven—interpersonal love expressed between particular resurrected persons including at least the divine Son.

Webb’s critique of St. Thomas introduces a monistic ontology into Christian thought—eternal materialism all the way up and down in space and also back and forth in time. I want to briefly respond to this via two categories: epistemology (about knowing) and psychology (about choosing.)

Epistemology: In Hebrews, we read that Jesus became perfect or complete by learning through the things he suffered in mortality. Apparently, Christ as a premortal God did not “know by experience” what he came to learn in this world. This becoming Savior God that was also eternally God presents a theological problem with change in time and space. The eternal materiality of divine flesh in relation to others requires a place to be in motion.

How can we consider the God represented in scripture worship-worthy if we don’t have a coherent understanding of who or what God is? This takes us back to why Aquinas thought and wrote—and to Stephen Webb’s question about the meaning (or as I prefer, the purpose) of theological speculation or knowledge. Aquinas said all his writings were as straw compared to the richness of his prayer experiences. Why, then, did he not spend his entire life praying—perhaps throwing himself in service to the poor when his knees were stiff? If a loving God is translated to communing with God and serving the needy, then why waste time with theology or scriptural reasoning at all? Billions haven’tknown anything of Christ and yet they have been tested in the fundamentals of prayer to God and loving the poor and their adversaries. Is passing that test not sufficient to achieve the highest heaven without superfluous theological reasoning?

If you have a lover, do you focus on the science of his or her ontological or material composition? The man who was asked how Jesus healed him from blindness said, “I don’t know, but I do know I now see.” So why are we trying to make mysterious reality more intelligible through careful ordering of our concepts? Why any revelation of words at all? Why did God not just reveal to human hearts feelings of love that are self-evidently purposeful as they are joy-producing? Moreover, why bother with hearts at all? Just asking: Why not just be content, as God, with immaterial being and immaterial love that pervades all immaterial reality (where there is nothing in particular . . . to love?) Oh, am I right that even YOU need stuff—particular forms of matter that freely and intentionally respond to you—if you want to experience the joy of relational love? Is that it? I will take your silence as consent.

Knowledge of and with others in their unique particularity is the knowledge that matters. To know as we are known is instrumental in experiencing the sadness and happiness of true love that Gods desire. Interpersonal gnostics all so lovers all. Revelation is ongoing between all intelligences—Christ being the leading example of divine desire for love purchased from human hearts at the price of unjustified suffering and forgiveness at the least sign of repentant desire. Revelation of the desire of God for intimate friendship with each person is the grand gnosis in which any other content is wrapped.

Psychology: The most frequent Christian response to the question of the purpose for human souls affirms that God created souls ex nihilo with free will to have entities to which Omni-Being could express divine love—lifting beloved creatures to be able to freely respond with their love to become one with God. Note that God valued receiving love enough to avoid forcing any response to his advances. But psychological freedom of the creature is problematic from the outset because the creature knows its form of the creation automatically limits its freedom—especially obvious in comparison with other creatures. The creature can justifiably “blame God” for creating these limitations. Webb is aware of how LDS eternal anthropology evades this creature/creator issue, but he then plumbs the eternal uncreated soul to discover another mystery of freedom in the material order that limits eternal psychology. Whence free intentional desire in matter? And then, why are there such unequal intentions among equally material beings?

We LDS who affirm creatio ex nihilo has been debunked by intelligent eternalism must face a different conundrum: creatio ex libertas. Given so much freedom in all matters, why have choices led to an infinite variety of things (and persons) instead of a complete unity? If loving unity IS the highest way, proven in an eternal past, why is there still a question about it for so many? Why do thoughtful beings continue to ask why? With all eternity “behind everyone,” what question remains that has not already been answered by Gods that supposedly know all the answers? Intelligent eternal beings continue to desire different goals and choose different methods when they all have already had all the time there ever was to figure out THE HIGHEST PURPOSE and THE TRUE WAY? Why hasn’t everyone by now just surrendered all this particularity selfhood business and “become one with” God who has figured out what is best for everyone and everything?

Materiality and motion, desire and persuasion, direction and purpose, comparison and hierarchy all come together in the psychological experience of the self in relation to others. Intelligent beings ask why they are “here” in the order of things and not “there.” In the LDS context, why are some free intelligent forms so “smart” or so “good” as to become Christ and others “not so much?” Given an eternal past, all have shared all the time there is to do anything or become anything! Why did Gods become the Gods that many worship and you and I did not? Did they, somehow in eternity, inherit privileges that gave them advantages, or did they just have more plucky ambition to toil upward in the night while you were sleeping?

My best response is this: desire and purpose are the fundamental givens of intelligence, and intelligences never began so there was no base equality ever—it has been plurality and comparative difference for all time. Thus, the eternal existence of innumerable intelligences has always been conditioned by their mutual social influences. The race that always was “started” unfairly if equality is fairness. The game that matters is therefore one of relative influence that intelligences mutually grant to each other. Whose desire will be most influential in the infinite mix of desires to move freely related entities toward some collaborative goal? Intelligences do not measure each other for leadership based on how much they “know” as compared with how inspiringly they desire. Of course, a desire that inspires one might not inspire another—and this hearkens back to the mystery of difference that is so overdetermined by an eternity of influences that the question makes even the Gods say, “Oh, that one has no satisfying answer, so we just live eternally looking forward aiming to surpass each other in different ways. We all have time to win—and then to be surpassed later. This is not an exhausting rat race. It is in this sector of reality at least an exhilarating love race—where we try to out-love each other. It has kept our experience of eternity interesting, at least so far.”

3. Webb’s Heresy: Contra St. Thomas, God Is Material

Aquinas’s metaphysics keeps the spiritual and the material essentially separated, but Christ’s resurrected body awkwardly straddles the fence. The same can be said for our own resurrected bodies. Aquinas knew about theological positions that try to imagine how material bodies can become a finer grade of matter so that they are, in effect, transformed into spirit. He vigorously denied that this is possible. “Things do not change into one another unless they have matter in common.” [5] Our bodies in the afterlife will not be spirit-bodies. Neither will they be comprised of a celestial substance, because Aquinas thinks that celestial bodies, following Aristotle, are perfectly spherical and, besides, celestial bodies do not change and thus do not have tangible experiences. Our resurrected bodies will be higher than celestial bodies, yet they will be bodies that “one can handle, composed of flesh and bones.” [6] We will be resurrected as flesh and bones human beings—only without the corruption that belies our bodies in our sinful state.

Does Thomas’s position make sense? Let me raise several questions. First, if God the Father is beyond all space and unable to move from one place to another, how could Christ reign in heaven in his glorified body while sitting at the Father’s right hand? Of course, one can say that such language is metaphorical, but the metaphor in this case must point to a real place—heaven—if Christ rules it and we, in our resurrected bodies, will worship him there. If heaven is material in some way, what form will God the Father have in it? Second, is Christ’s resurrected body a merely temporary and tentative form of his divinity, or is it really who he is? Could it be something that he might give up some day, shrugging it off like an old set of clothes? Or is it the case of “once incarnated, always incarnated”? The dilemma I am trying to expose in this set of questions is the following: If Christ really is joined to his body in heaven, and he does not experience it as some kind of restraint, then it must be an aspect of his nature, yet how can that be the case for Thomas, who has defined the Word as essentially (but not, evidently, eternally) immaterial? Third, and related to the second point, if Christ’s heavenly, resurrected body is a glory to him, then how is the Son not more than the Father—unless, that is, the Father himself is also material in some way? Moreover, if the Son increases in glory as he becomes embodied, what does that say about Thomas’s understanding of divinity as unchanging? Fourth, if immateriality is the true nature of the Son, then his visible presence in heaven will not reveal God to us. Heaven will not be an eternal state but a halfway house toward more intense and greater (a more immaterial!) participation in the divine. We will need to transcend heaven in order to know and worship God more fully. Doesn’t that mean, however, that we will need to get “out” of heaven in order to get “into” the divine? Isn’t there something wrong with a theology that seems to suggest that we will need to be saved from heaven?

Aquinas opens up these kinds of questions because, on the face of it, he appears to both accept and undermine the absolute gulf between immaterial spirit and physical bodies. God is not material, and yet the Son’s reign is embodied. Matter and spirit cannot be mixed together, yet our resurrected bodies will be superior to the stuff of the stars (the objects that occupy the celestial region). Our bodies will be perfectly agile, he says at one point, and thus not limited by space. He makes this point in response to critics who wonder how our bodies will be able to pass through the celestial bodies of the stars. “For the divine power will bring it about that the glorious bodies [our resurrected bodies] can be simultaneously where the other bodies are.” [7] The evidence he posits for his claim demonstrates that this is no minor point. The resurrected Christ, he reminds his readers, was able to pass through shut doors (John 20:26).

The idea of physical entities that can occupy a space already occupied by another entity is nothing new to the bizarre world of modern physics, but it certainly defies the logic of Aquinas’s Aristotelianism. The question naturally arises, then, if Aquinas has not shifted the ground of his criticism of Heavenly Flesh Christology. If our heavenly bodies can move in apparently miraculous ways, defying the laws of gravity and the limits of time and space, then why couldn’t Christ have had a body that he brought with him when he came down from heaven? Will we have bodies in heaven that are superior to the form Christ had before he was incarnate?

A Thomist will respond that the pre-existent Christ existed prior to the creation of time and space. Therefore, he did not need to have a body that could both transcend and occupy a place (or occupy multiple places at the same time). Two problems remain. First, Christ must have had some form (he was a person who shared the divine substance with the Father and the Holy Spirit). Isn’t a form that can be somewhere as well as everywhere greater (better than) a form that can be everywhere because it is nowhere? Why wouldn’t the Father want the Son to have a body like that? Second, why would God create a world full of bodies before giving Christ one? Once time and space are brought into being, and place becomes good (it is good to be in a specific time and place), wouldn’t the Father first give this good to the Son? Is the incarnation the first “movement” that the divine experiences? That seems unlikely, given God’s involvement in the world prior to the incarnation, indeed, God’s physical appearances to many of the Old Testament prophets. To take but one example, who was walking in the Garden of Eden if God had no body before the incarnation?

Now, it is one thing to criticize the classical theism as represented by Thomas Aquinas, but it is another thing to overthrow that tradition altogether. Those who seek to undermine it need to be reminded of its staying power, its intellectual beauty, and the formidable logical power of its many defenders. Indeed, in my lifetime, the number of classical theists has been growing, and their critics only make their arguments stronger. Any Christian should enter into these debates with strong doses of humility, if not fear and trembling. Blake Ostler and David Paulsen, in this respect, can serve as role models for all of us who dare to go down this path.

CRP: Walking in the garden conversing in the afternoon with the first couple is God. How quaint to think of a primitive anthropology that includes a divine helper with whom to converse! But whatever evolutionary biologists think about the provenance of humans, they can agree that what humanity now has become began in earnest when they began to communicate purposefully with words, naming particular things, animals, each other, their enemies, and Gods. Material forms lead to social forms that lead to comparative differences of forms including size, shape, movement, and capacities. This, of course, yields cultural evaluations of differences, one of the most obvious being sexual biology.

While Webb did not directly address material sexual and cultural gender issues from a Roman Catholic theological viewpoint, his essay opens the door that this LDS respondent cannot easily resist. So I will quickly comment on a developing LDS theology of material bodies in the forms of human males and females. While the LDS await more light and knowledge on the marriage of their Heavenly Parents and how spirit children came to be, revelations exist that at least confirm that a material Female God, Heavenly Mother, is as real as the Godhead. This places the LDS in first place among religions that ask where is “the feminine in God?” The LDS reply with bold concreteness: She is a God too, a personal partner of other Gods, all of which have important things to do together and apart from each other that have yet to be revealed in any clarity. The notion of actual material, bodily Goddesses and Gods has yet to move in mainstream theology from naïvely primitive to smartly sophisticated. But if Webb succeeds in contaminating the Christian bastion of immaterial omniness, the Triune Godhead, with material bodiliness, who can criticize any other believers from teaching that material deities make sense from the viewpoint of a material planet Earth.

The trend to denounce essentialism in the academy in the 21st century has opened a strange appreciation for concrete matter and especially corporality and sociality among theologians trying to seamlessly connect God with a material world that according to recent science is made of really thin and unpredictable stuff not unlike old concepts of spiritual substance. Feminist theologians are riding the top of this concrete wave: Either there are superior female gods, or gods of various genders or none—but for sure, the supremacy of any male deities is finished. This “heretical” focus on the particular forms of a lately indescribable, formless deity is actually healthy for a revival of robust Christian materialism that relies on the promise of bodily resurrection for male and females—including the Son of God. However, this is ushering a new theological revolution that has only begun to influence the cultures on Earth. Now, Eve is at last standing up straight and true in her divine form with Adam—created male and female as the Gods described, “in Our image.”

Before saying more about social and bio-sexuality as it might relate to eternal material forms, it should be clear that humans are mysterious to themselves. Matter is mysterious to humanity. Webb’s book presents matter as miraculous and thus makes science like theology a search for intelligibly grasping “what is really going on.” When the subject is human material life or divine material life, the changing patterns versus constant replication of the identical, are most interesting. What physical and social form humans will take in thousands of years (let alone over eternal duration) is, if the past is indicative, not identical to what is today. I am going to assert that the organization of material bodies or souls and their social relations are always in motion that reflects myriad intentions of material entities for social collaboration. In short, forms of material order, physical and social, are not fixed. What these forms become over time is a function of collaborative desires among conscious entities for more experiences.

I presume God’s material and social organization is also in motion—his current human-like body in current friendship relations with other human-like bodies—functions well to achieve whatever purposes God is exploring with his collaborative friends. In eternity, I presume there are infinite forms of bodies and social orders to be fruitfully explored by Gods. What joy not to be had in the current human form would a more liquid body produce? What joy not to be had in the current social forms of family, marriage, friendship, and rivalry would different social organizations produce? What if reproduction were no longer the goal? If it remained important, what if it took three liquid beings of different biological forms or “sexes” to combine to reproduce a new entity or child? Would the ménage-a-trois not become in that society the orthodox family way? In this sector of reality, Gods are creative, and intentional forming or organizing are just as eternal as the matter always being reformed. Things seem solid only because of the different rates of change between forms. What’s next is always what is already becoming. Gods collaborate persuasively or fight coercively over the next organization in their sector of innumerable worlds without end.

Those that believe in an essential fixed and final form of material human body in the divine image, male and female, likely think that at some time in evolutionary development the human body arrived at the eternal form of God—or that the evolution of humanity never happened: God placed Adam and Eve in bodily perfection on the planet outside any evolutionary linkage. The question of the detail of the divine material body reflected in the human form is then open. For example, if the material human bodies of Adam and Eve are identical images of the divine bodies of Gods, then presumably a God has an appendix, a colon, genitals, etc., and these would be very useful in eternal worlds—indeed, all that would ever in eternity be needed. Why else would perfect Gods at the top of their game design their perfect bodies with anything that was not required forevermore? Six fingers and toes would be too many, extra eyes in theside or back of the head would be awkward and require too frequent of haircuts for functionality—if hair grows in heaven.

Again, because materiality is stuff in motion and change—always in relation to other forms of moving and changing matter—the very concept of an unchanging material body is beyond comprehension now. Thus, I posit continual change—intelligently influenced—for eternity. The perfection or telos of God is in the continual, intentional, and collaborative process of formal change. So, for example, gender is eternal as similarity/difference is eternal. The forms genders take depend on the material and social experiences desired by the Gods. What limit is there to gender forms if there is no final limit to experience? If sociality is eternal, what infinite forms might it take to expand experience and love? What infinite forms of and beyond family and friendship might be “natural” in worlds without end?

Does the emotional and mental design of the human body have to remain as it now is for perfection? Or will there be infinitely different “emotional” and “mental” experiences that require a different organization of bodily matter in social relations? Will memory be just as it now if our material bodies are fixed in the perfect image of God? Resurrected incorruption of which St. Paul speaks does answer the question of a fixed versus a fluid form of material organization in heaven. Webb’s emphasis on materiality, in short, provokes LDS to cease their fixation on current forms for humans or Gods. Eternity is not motionless and timeless if it is material. Death is a useful fraud. It is an experience of finality designed to help eternal beings appreciate continual change. Anything utterly motionless is dead. Matter in its various forms is alive, and material intelligences are negotiating new directions to move together from their sub-, sub-, sub-atomic sector to their cosmic sector. LDS are wise to project that their current forms of bodies and social relations—eternal marriages, sealings, and families—are not ever finished or final.

Webb faces the question of eternal law versus eternal will in a moment ahead. This issue could reduce to the idea total finality in space time. Is there an eternal structure in and through all things that is immutable—the Real Fundamental Turtle on which all others rest? Or is chaos another name for faster moving purposeless matter in motion between slower moving purposeful forms? Are the bounds set forever for everything? Or are the bounds of forms always subject to novel change? Is changelessness an experience of very slow-moving forms in the context of much faster moving forms?

Who or what matter influences matter out of chaos into purposefulness? Answer: material forms that have becomeconscious of purposes and desires for their accomplishment. What form will accomplish this next purpose best? That is the continual, eternal question of the Gods that enjoy changing so they are different persons doing different things with each other always for the first time.

4. Three Aporias of Mormon Thought

Before proceeding with this section readers should note Webb’s section title is not Mormon doctrine, but thought. This usage purposely eliminates the difficulty among the Latter-day Saints of making authoritative revelatory claims outside the official organization that requires the LDS First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve to unanimously agree on a new “canonized” revelation, and then it is presented to the whole adult church for sustaining ratification. My responses to Webb’s response to my review—generally and in this section particularly—present my speculative thoughts that I find useful and even inspiring.

Since I want to pursue a way around immaterialism that strictly follows a Christology as maximal as possible, let me raise some of my hesitations about Mormon thought. More specifically, I want to reflect on what I call three aporias of Mormon theology. These aporias, which concern God, man, and nature, are more than creative tensions but less than outright contradictions. All of the aporias have to do with the fascinating way that Mormonism affirms both radical freedom and a thoroughgoing materialism. They are genuine puzzlements that appear to leave thought at an impasse, yet they emerge from the consistent and through examination of convictions that are indispensable to Mormon metaphysics. As the etymology of aporia suggests, they reveal no safe passage in the realm of theory even as they persistently invite further meditation.

THE FIRST APORIA concerns the relation between a radical voluntarism in Mormonism’s view of God and its commitment to an eternal law that governs both spirit and matter, both God and everything else. The coherence of each of these ideas, considered independently, is, of course, open to debate; good arguments can be made for and against them. Their combination, however, is deeply problematic. If God’s nature is one of absolute freedom, then God does not have a nature at all. Mormon speculation about God makes this absolutely clear. God is who he is precisely because he has exercised his freedom in the most maximally creative manner. What, then, is the eternal law to which God’s freedom conforms? If it is a rule to which he submits, how could his freedom be maximally creative? What further complicates this problem for Mormon thought is that the eternal law is not simply the regularity inherent in physical matter. It is something imposed on matter, and thus its origin lies in the act of a free agent. Yet this law cannot be something that God gives to himself. It is not, therefore, his nature; it remains ultimately alien to him, since he is free to choose to follow it. The law, it seems, is something like a God above God, an impersonal karma that regulates all action, physical and spiritual. If so, then God is not nearly as free as Mormonism suggests.

CRP: Webb has focused on the first—and in my view the foremost—aporia of LDS theology. With Webb’s nudge I will help the LDS understand that for now at least they can conceive of eternal laws NOT as fixed orders discovered by God(s), but as orders that bring new or original forms to intelligent existents. What is eternal is the ordering of what is eternal, and the ordering is—eternally—a dynamic process of collaboration of free agent God(s) that desire to experiment or replicate (depending on their collaborative “mood”) order in which to live together for an eternal while. What we call physical law or moral law are up for grabs, so to speak, based on the God(s) we eternal intelligences find most attractive, interesting, or loving. Our bodies—individual humanlike persons in social relations, interdividuals really—like our God(s)’s bodies are “merely” the latest model of joy-enhancing forms that our Gods, who make love their priority ordering experience, have decided to employ for now. Probably there have been an infinite number of potential experiences behind us and ahead of us. Our current dynamic experiment is not with cyclical reincarnation that eliminates past “lives”—but with historical incarnations (all the way back in pre-mortality that allow (full or selective?) memory of past experiences). The veil is the most important operative form as it makes this experiment a potent attempt to appreciate eternal duration by contrast. We will have the memory of being mortal amnesiacs, fearing annihilation at death, and that will be valuable in the next round.

THE SECOND APORIA concerns Mormonism’s optimistic anthropology and its continuity view of the afterlife. The pre-existence of the human soul as well as divinization are central tenets to Mormon belief, but if we descended once from a superior realm we can do so again (and again). This is especially true if the afterlife is going to be more of this life, richer and better but not qualitatively different from what we already are. In other words, is there enough transformation in the Mormon view of heaven to justify its optimistic anthropology, or is heaven so much like earth that Mormons end up with a cyclical, rather than linear, cosmology? The answer seems to be obvious: the making of gods is a process of elevation that necessarily entails demotion as well. Up is not the only direction intelligences can go. But if this is the case, how is Mormonism justified in holding to such an optimistic anthropology?

This aporia can be sharpened by comparing Mormon social theory with its critique of dualism. All dualisms of any kind begin in the ultimate dualism of spirit and matter, and critiques of dualism typically aim to reveal a pervasive unity that overcomes that division. Mormonism, however, has a social theory that is radically at odds with any sense of a unifying substance that bonds all people (and all things) together. Even God’s relationship with us, as Randy Paul makes clear, is determined by a free of act of the will that is motivated by nothing other than enjoyment and desire. God is thus “free to opt out,” Paul says, as are we. Everything depends on the steadiness of his (and our) purpose. Only constantly renewed dedication and hard work can keep social (and material, as we will see) disintegration at bay. Freedom here has no shape or form, and it also has no real goal (in Paul’s words, it “has no final definition”). Mormonism is thus dangerously close to treating freedom as little more than power. One might hope, of course, that this power will be used, by God and people alike, creatively, but if freedom is an end in itself, then its destructive exercise could be just as enjoyable as its creative. Without an ultimate good, a final goal, a body, we could say, that is the source, structure, and goal of all bodies, freedom cannot justify Mormon optimism about man.

CRP: This is why faith/trust in Christ/God is required for optimism. We trust their love will lead us to desire greater joy together ourselves and with them—no matter what form those bodies (spirit-material interpersonal forms) take next. The first principle of the good news is trust in Jesus Christ, eternal god that identifies as love, resurrected person, the way (method of having abundant life forever), truth (the one whose method works better than others), and life (to be intensely alive is to love as Christ loves) who lays down his life (suffers unfairly to move us to forgive each other so we can be friends) for the joy set before him with his friends (the definition of joy is in the desire for more loving friendships—an open teleological definition that allows for the mutual love of persons to have no precise referent because the “next” act of mutual love of eternal persons emerges in newness or originality of content, intensity and/or scope). This is neither eternal return nor eternal stasis. The LDS do not affirm a cycle of fully just reincarnation of souls that carry no memory of prior identities. They generally believe in a serial history of eternity that moves ever forward, and in which participants retain memory. This is endless life. While processes might repeat, the events spiral forward—up or down in relation to the order in which one dwells. It is guided eternal change that we trust will allow but not assure the mutual good that LDS call progress—but it could go in ways that most would consider bad. This latter notion does not receive enough emphasis.

LDS are trusters, yes, but not the pure optimists Webb suggests. They trust that most intelligences will opt in for the active love of the highest Gods and each other, but their grand narrative tells them this is not a sure thing. People you love can cause you suffering, so those that love big, risk big—in heaven as on Earth. Betrayal among eternal beings is a real possibility already realized. Indeed, among eternal free agents, heavenly “rest” is always aspirational, never a final tranquil peacefulness. As Robert Frost expressed in Trial by Existence, the eternal spirits go forth bravely into worlds (without end!), and when each adventure is over they are still surprised “[t]o find the utmost reward [o]f daring should be still to dare.” As Webb eloquently says, matter itself seems to be equated with intelligence, and the freedom inherent in “intelligent” matter is so radical that it can resist its own light. There is no inherent telos or final good in the order of eternal matter other than freedom. Thus the Gods institute or guide themselves and others—all material entities that desire to respond—toward the goods they hold most dear so far: namely collaborative, pro-creative, joy-enhancing, loving friendships.

This continual, risky quest saga of eternal improvement might for some, if not many, seem too exhausting. According to the LDS grand epic telling, a “third part” of God’s heavenly family in a pre-mortal spirit-body world decided what? . . . That they had risked enough already on so many worlds of growing experiences? Perhaps many souls—after an eternity of soul-differentiating performances, and feeling too far behind the leaders—demurred from further challenges. Then being thought cowards by those with energy for additional edifying trials (on Earth this time), they exploded the peace in heaven with pent-up envy and resentment. Then in response, the primary goal of the heavenly Gods became the reconciliation of their warring children, and preemption of further discord by means of a great sacrifice—the unjust suffering and death of a God—that would move the hearts of all to desire and act for atonement. Enter the need for someone that could do that with great potency but without compulsory means—a savior to heal heaven through means of a temporary veil of ignorance and mortal death trap.

THE THIRD APORIA concerns the relationship between matter and divinization. What is new about Mormonism, then, is its combination of the eternity of matter and the idea that God himself is material. Matter is thus both chaotic (eternally in need of being formed, organized, and shaped—this is the Neo-Platonic side of Mormonism) and good (it is the very stuff of the divine—this is, with different justification, the Christian side of Mormonism). That matter is both chaotic and good is surely as good a candidate for an aporia as it gets.

One could say that Mormonism thus wants to have its (very material!) cake and eat it too: it wants all the rights and benefits belonging to the early Church’s achievement in overcoming the Platonic heritage (of dark, mysterious, and somewhat evil inclining matter) while having nothing to do with the doctrine of creation out of nothing. Mormons view matter as eternal and thus, relatively speaking, unchanging, but they view humans as material beings who undergo significant, indeed unimaginable, changes. To understand how problematic this is, we need a brief overview of the metaphysics of matter. The orthodox Christian doctrine that God created matter out of nothing, while impossible to picture and quite possibly impossible to understand, served to save the dignity of matter from the malady of various dualisms that plagued ancient philosophy and religion. Putting an absolute beginning on matter made it not only good (its origin is in God’s will) and knowable (it is finite) but also absolutely subordinate to the divine will.

What is new about Mormonism is not its belief in the eternity of matter. The ancient Greeks shared that belief, but they could not go beyond equating the eternity of matter with an unbounded chaos. Mormonism is also not new in subjecting the divine to the basic laws that govern the material world. The Greeks too could not grasp how God could be exempt from the eternal law, which is why the God of Plato and Aristotle is like a mind that cannot be bothered with his body. The Greek God is different from the Mormon, of course, in that his activity is one of self-contemplation rather than self-surpassing creativity, but in both cases God is not infinite and thus is essentially not mysterious. It was Christianity, not Plato, who made God infinite. Both Greeks and Mormons reject the infinity of the divine without simply reducing God to the world, but they do so in different ways: the Greeks could contrast God to the material world only by making God immaterial, while Mormons locate that contrast in God’s capacity to use matter for ever greater states of enjoyment and loving relations. In any case, Mormon theology on these issues is actually as close to Platonism as it is to the early Church Fathers.

Let me be a bit clearer. When Mormons are being Neo-Platonic, they treat matter as force or energy that is in dire need of control. For Plato and his Neo-Platonic heirs, matter is of questionable ontological moral status. It exists only in a state of pure potentiality; it is insofar as someone makes something of it, and it resists being made into anything of lasting permanence. Consequently, matter must be continually made and re-made. Mormonism agrees with this view when it asserts, in Randy Paul’s words, that matter is “instrumental.” It is only what we make of it, and if we do not make anything of it, then it is very close to being nothing at all.

This instrumental view of matter leaves a trace of dualism between mind and body lurking within the heart of Mormon soteriology. How can we progress to becoming more like God, to the point of sharing God’s power and even, in a sense, becoming gods ourselves, without having our intelligence outstrip our bodies? Already in this life and on this planet scientists are trying to overcome every limit to the project of being able to make matter whatever we want it to be. When people become gods, won’t they complete this project by being able to exercise complete mastery over everything, including their own bodies? If so, then we are not reducible to our bodies, and heaven will be more than just an infinite series of meetings, councils and family gatherings, with plenty of time for love-making and recreation. Heaven will be, well, a material place that will become increasingly immaterial.

Those are the implications of Mormon belief when Mormons are being Neo-Platonic. When Mormons are being more Christian in their view of matter, they affirm its goodness, but they actually go much further than creedal orthodoxy on this point. By attributing matter to the divine, they also end up thinking of matter as having its own motion and, within that motion, its own direction. Matter moves inordinately toward the divine on its own accord (“desire is inherent” in it, Paul says), since it is ruled by the same law that governs God and us. Matter, after all, is just another name for everything and anything. Even souls and angels, let alone God himself, are merely organizational forms of matter too complex (or too perfectly and uniquely singular) for us to presently be able to analyze. If this is the case, then what is the potential for divinization that is born into matter? And what is the spirit-matter substance that matter is capable of becoming? Why not just call that spirit-matter substance an immaterial substance? If matter has the potential for self-transcendence, at what point does matter become something different from itself? And why are free agents needed to actualize that potential? Why doesn’t it happen automatically on its own? [8]

CRP: There are different definitions of infinity or infinite. One could refer to an utterly unconditional being (for me an oxymoron) that could have no limits ever on any thought or act—an infinite being. One could also refer to a being that—while limited to a current state or form or situation by all that has passed and influenced that being up to then—has infinite future options. Stephen Webb here uses the term “infinite” to describe God without conditions—infinite in the first case above. I do not think that reflects the common LDS notion of infinity. Gods are always situated in space-time history, limited by what has been but free to explore infinite options ahead. History—the relatively fixed past—matters greatly in eternity as it provides an adequately stable reality against which to leverage acts of creative freedom. This makes for both terror and delight—an open outcome in eternity that is never, even for Gods, completely orderly. Things are planned to be wonderful, but they could go awry through choices of radically free organized matter or collisions with “unorganized matter.” In either case, the future story of eternity will be infinitely interesting to extant intelligences.

Here, Webb nails the mystery of the source of novation or originality within LDS thought. As mentioned in earlier paragraphs, the LDS tend to think that their rejection of ex nihilo creation entities resolves most ethical issues by saying all intelligences have been responsible for what they make of their bottomless existential past. However, uncaused existence raises questions of causality for intentional change of intelligences. Since they all “started” at the same time as free, what caused some of them to change speed and direction, and especially why were some such originals—where did novation or the new come from? Where does the impetus for difference arise? Is matter so free to self-reorganize that it changes its own forms in agreement with or in resistance to the influences of other material forms of intelligent matter such as Gods?

Using Whitehead’s formulation, all past actual entities or relational events of matter in space-time are influential each instant, but they are not entirely definitive of the next instant. His famous equation illustrating the creative synthesis of past influences that yield something new is 1+1=3. The mysterious extra factor (intentional creative freedom) makes each instant more than the sum of all past influences. Aligned with the LDS idea of eternal duration and expansive space, the universes are never too big and there is always enough time for MORE creative novation to emerge (from where?) into an open future with a mathematically infinite number of possible events yet ahead.

Of all Webb’s insights, his observation that LDS material Gods spend their eternal time in self-surpassing material creativity is his most pregnant thought. It returns to the topics of teleology and social pluralism in the LDS imagination. Instead of Anselm’s Immobile Epitome God Concept (an entity greater than which nothing can be imagined), Joseph Smith conceived of many Gods in a continual virtuous rivalry to creatively surpass one another in persuasive love. If they do not take a Lucifarian fall into envy, they can take joy in surpassing each other in the win/win sport of out-loving everyone. The sport of the Gods is dethroning themselves so often and so quickly that the throne is no longer the goal—love surpassing itself is the goal. All of the divine human race is in the game although they have forgotten this. This notion of divine abdication to his Son and Son to his brethren (and sisters) was Milton’s fundamental and daring theological insight in Paradise Lost according to William Empson’s Milton’s God. Although the Kabbalists also affirmed material forms of divinity, Webb acknowledges the leader in our time of this old, deep mystery of human divinization and divine humanization is not the humanist New Age movement but Joseph Smith and his LDS.

The same old project and forms and the same old intensity and variety of love in eternity eventually (and thus already) suffers from staleness. As matter is always in motion, the intention for creative novation of social forms is intense among the Gods. It is the game of games: How to persuade other loving souls to collaborate in the next design change? More bluntly, matter is the stuff of love too; love only exists in material forms. Matter is always changing so love that mutually edifies is defined on the run by free intelligences. Love becomes constantly in creative social forms for different practical purposes that free divinities originate, contest, adopt and enjoy.

5. Telos: Transubstantiation of Humanity

If I had time, I would like to show how these aporias can be resolved by reference to the eternal body of Jesus Christ. (The lucid response of Charles Randall Paul to my book only confirms me in this conviction, and I am grateful for his words, especially his careful, helpful and informed attempts to draw distinctions between my work and the Mormon faith.) Indeed, with the spectacular collapse (both intellectually and socially) of liberal Protestant attempts to minimize the divinity of Jesus by moralizing his life, what two Christian traditions have more in common? I am leaving out Eastern Orthodoxy in these remarks, of course, because it would take too much time to fit it into this story, although it should be noted that Orthodoxy might point in interesting ways to a middle ground between Roman Catholicism and Mormonism on many of these philosophical and theological issues.

When I say that Catholicism and Mormonism have much in common, I mean not only the love of ritual, the affirmation of the holiness of space (the desire to worship in holy places), the robustly conservative moral traditions (especially a commitment to a complementary view of the genders), the respect for authority (especially in its role as an ongoing, institutionalized and living voice), and the sense of a community of believers that transcends the limits of time to include the dead. I also mean the core commitment that Christ initiates, instantiates and consummates the transubstantiation of matter, so that our hopes and dreams for fulfillment in God include all of who we are. For the Roman Catholic, transubstantiation is dramatized in a quite literal way in the Eucharist, where the bread and wine become the first fruits of the eschatological economy of Christ’s abundantly capacious body.

Catholics can easily misread Mormonism, since they treat the Eucharist as a common, ordinary and token meal, hardly more than a symbolic and visible lesson of invisible truths. It has taken me some time to realize just how far Mormonism is from a Zwinglian and memorialistic/subjective reduction of the Lord’s Supper. Mormons can take communion for granted because they read transubstantiation into the cosmos as a whole. Matter itself is bursting with transubstantiating power. The risk of the Catholic version of transubstantiation is an arid and formal ritualism, while the risk of the Mormon version is a vague and abstract cosmology that does little more than justify sentimental moralisms about the eternal validity of marriage. Mormonism needs Catholicism’s Christological intensity and philosophical density while Catholicism needs Mormonism’s expansive imagination and evangelical exuberance. They need each other to renew and reshape the Christian hope for Christ’s return in all his bodily beauty. The need for that engagement, from my perspective, is the providential meaning of the teachings of Joseph Smith.

CRP: I will close this commentary on commentary bearing tribute to Truman Madsen who liked to say the Roman Catholics had it almost right: transubstantiation is true, but it occurs in our bodies not in the bread and wine. Transubstantiation is not in the host but in us. “Us” equals all the souls that came down from heaven—that sooner or later, will have their true identities restored, enhanced and chastened by their bewildering mortal experience in this world and the one to come. I trust you will find Stephen Webb to be a superbly trustworthy and insightful theological critic of the religion of the Latter-day Saints. Let him be remembered respectfully by our people.


[1] Georges Florovsky, The Gospel of Resurrection (Athens: The Student Christian Association of Greece, 1951);, accessed Jan. 14, 2012. Celsus also thought that Christians believed that God has a body and that he brought that body down with him when he descended from heaven. See R. Joseph Hoffmann, trans., Celsus on the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 77. Plato, he says, would never have thought such a thing. [Back to manuscript].

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book Four: Salvation, trans. Charles J. O’Neil (London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), p. 166 (Ch. 34).
[Back to manuscript].

[3] Ibid., p. 156 (Ch. 30). [Back to manuscript].

[4] Ibid., p. 166 (Ch. 34). [Back to manuscript].

[5] Ibid., p. 322 (Ch. 84). Notice that Thomas makes his arguments against the continuum or convertibility of spirit and matter by drawing exclusively from what is known about natural phenomenon from an Aristotelian point of view. His position on this point is strictly grounded in natural philosophy. [Back to manuscript].

[6] Ibid., p. 321 (Ch. 84). For Thomas’s argument about celestial bodies, see p. 323. [Back to manuscript].

[7] Ibid., p. 328 (Ch. 87). [Back to manuscript].

[8] Paul says at one point that Mormons are “the most seriously teleologists on earth” and that Mormons “reserve their speculative energy for teleology.” I am surprised that I do not find more Mormon engagement with emergent theories of biological novelty and the various discussions about intelligent design. Mormonism obviously leans toward the former (that matter’s chaos can become self-organized from within, so to speak), but I suspect that a Mormon version of emergentism would have an explanation of that phenomenon that creatively draw from the theoretical commitments of intelligent design. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Webb, Stephen H. (2021) "Response To Charles Randall Paul," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 3 (Fall 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

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