NOTE: To be published by SquareTwo in five parts: 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. The five parts will be followed by A Responding Essay by Stephen H. Webb to Charles Randall Paul.

Note also that the old form “LDS” is used in this essay, as it was in use when the essay was originally written.

Cosmology, Consciousness, Chaos, Law and Order

Webb believes God enjoys being a Person who leads people to enjoy being Gods:

“It could be that matter’s original form, from all eternity, is chaotic, and if so, what order matter expresses, and the laws that encapsulate that order, can still be thought of as the creation of God. In other words, order, if not matter itself, has an absolute beginning in the divine. Arguably, this must be the case if the divine is the goal of every creature. Divinization is a purposeful activity the course of which is determined by its end.” [My emphasis]

Latter-day Saints have difficulty with phrases like ‘absolute beginning in the divine.’ This applies to the apparently ‘given’ order of things, if you will, the consistent repetition of patterns, both physical and social. Joseph Smith said that in heavenly pre-mortal councils, laws were ‘instituted.’ While some LDS think ‘instituted’ means discovered (as necessary forms) and implemented by God, others think it means constructed (as contingent forms) and implemented by God. In the latter case, in the infinite past divine councils might have acted as lawmakers to design orders that would accomplish different experiences for eternal intelligences. There is an idea of social agreement over the regime of law—physical and spiritual by which all in the regime agree to be governed. LDS cosmology does not define chaos—referring instead to ‘unorganized matter.’ Radical chaos is indeed difficult to imagine—utter formlessness? Motion and stillness together? Void without frame? Thus, the LDS lean toward a notion that un-created matter exists in various relative changing states of organization that might have threshold borders between them, e.g., unorganized, organized, disorganized, reorganized, transorganized, etc. Since Gods are also matter, they are always more or less in motion, too. To continually become is the ‘unchanging’ option for material beings.

Webb addresses the ancient and contemporary question: Is matter conscious of itself? Is there a duality to being—immaterial conscious mind and material unconscious forms? There is no firm answer in LDS tradition. It is true that material beings, humans and Gods are conscious of themselves, their desires and plans and those of others like them. Currently in vogue, the term ‘complexity’ refers to a gradient of material organization that corresponds to levels of consciousness emerging from the material forms—humans being the most conscious so far. The idea of self-organizing matter is strong with the human form. Using this notion, Webb can fit God into the puzzle—always having been in the complex form of conscious matter.

Latter-day Saints would agree that material divine/human bodily and social forms have a history that is more and less consciously retained in memory for useful employment in future practical and social projects. The conscious intelligence or person has a mysteriousness in its originlessness—its infinite regression of existence has no essence other than permanent historical duration and change, no fixed foundation other than its history of relations—remembered (reassembled) each ‘now’ as a floating launching pad to allow leverage for continuing identiy and action. This is similar to feeling solid on Terra Firma even though it is moving rapidly through space under out feet. Consciousness remains firm enough relative to the motion around it to give our next psychic step purchase. This relative difference in rates of change in the physical and social world allows humans to feel and observe order and law. All is is mutuable but because different things move slower or faster than others, enough solidity emerges for identities to form and loyalties to matter.

Whether matter is all there is or only part of it, whether consciousness is innate to matter at different levels of complexity or imposed on matter from another sphere of immaterial being, there is no question that conscious entities live in or as matter on purpose. So Webb moves from where consciousness might emerge from, to the undeniable fact that conscious material entities are aiming for something more than the status quo: He states bluntly that since all matter is eternally with God (if not what God is), then matter would under the divine influence intend toward divinization—the preferred way to exist eternally.

On this subject that leads to distinguishing God the Father and the Son, I interpret Webb to believe either 1) that the Father and Son and Spirit were once timeless and eternal, and at some eternal ‘moment’ they organized semi-eternal forms of matter out of timeless chaotic matter, or 2) that the Son has always been historical eternal and has persuaded the Father that it’s the best way to go compared to timeless eternity. Whether the Father has followed the Son as of yet, is not settled.

Telos: Why Would God or Anyone Desire to Be Good?

Webb: “. . . the divine is the goal of every creature. Divinization is a purposeful activity the course of which is determined by its end.”

Latter-day Saints raise the cheeky question: Why in heavens would anyone (created ex nihilo or uncreated intelligence) desire to become as God is? The answer lies in knowing ‘our’ God, Ahman, the Man of Holiness, was once as humans are, and that the current mortal life shows all humans have already chosen to follow the Father’s (and Mother’s) path to higher divinity. In this process it is not known whether they are just starting in boot camp or are almost through grad school. But the LDS take mortal life as a sign for why immortal intelligences would desire to become more like God is. In Hebrews 12:2 one reads, ‘for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross.’ Latter-day Saints read in the Book of Mormon that ‘Man is that he might have joy.’

Unless humans are being duped by a group of cynical divine torturers, the Gods enjoy loving humans and sharing joy with them. Eternal life implies the desirable quality if not the extension of social relations. Eternal lives inplies mutual giving of joyful friendship that is pro-creative—creatively working on something wonderful, challenging, surprising, with people you love. All eternal history leads to the capacity for divine collaborators to build new ‘worlds’ together, presuming an infinite variety of beauty and design for original experiences that further expand the scope and depth of joyful loving relationships. Webb understands this LDS aspiration very well, pushing the belief in divinization to similar infinite possibilities:

“If God has a spiritual-material form, and so do we, then no matter how close we come to God, we will still be ourselves; indeed, the closer we come to God, the more we will be endowed with the spiritual matter that we share with God. We will become, that is, gods. And if heaven is spatially located, there will not be room in it for countless gods. That is why the saved will have to venture out on their own, and what will they do with all of their power if they do not create worlds of their own? To see these points, begin with a simple question. If we advance in knowledge of and unity with God in the afterlife, how can we remain the same limited creatures?”

Focusing more on purpose, theologians might query, why would anything divine ever want to change? How can one improve perfection? The response from Webb might be that divine spiritual matter is infinitely capable of becoming more or less ‘concentrated’ in a divine person or persons in relationships. The insatiatiable desire for MORE (the term William James said best described God) is not greed or excess when sacrificial love and elevation of mere others to friends is the infinite goal. Gods that love are free to do so or not, and as such must thrive on extending mutual trust that love will continue if that is their highest desire. In this respect, they are likely confident that so far in their eternal experiences, the risk is worth the reward—more loving friendships trumping any rival purposes at least for those intelligent entities that desire to emulate the God of Love.

Still, there is no final explanation of why living forever as loving friends will necessarily always yield joy. Nor is there a prescription for ‘what friends do’ forever that might sustain friendship. The eternities are domains for developing more penultimate purposes—collaborative, original, creative projects. These are the main events of eternity that disclose in the free act of experimental originality what real mutual love inspires next.

And what of the risk for eternal souls? What do eternal intelligences have to worry about? Is there anything that happens that really matters in the long long long run of eternity? After a few short years of mortality will not the vicissitudes of mortal life seem but an instant in the context of the forever that will presumably burst again upon the consciousness of resurrected humans not too long after mortal death? Will not almost all then say, ‘wow, what a trip . . . but even the suffering was worth it. Look at us now!’ Maybe. An enormous maybe. Robert Frost penned the question aptly for humans this side of glory:

A Question
A voice said,
Look me in the stars
And tell me truly men of Earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.

Thus Latter-day Saints can speculate that councils in heaven will decide the artful agenda in celestial worlds to come. God is a collaborative King of kings, not a pontificating king of creatures. Heavenly Parents have family councils—that can lead to more love or war. The great Christian myth of the War in Heaven is emphasized by the LDS because they believe angels are spirit-material persons prior to becoming mortal humans, and the pre-mortal war was between spirit-material brothers and sisters in the presence of God. Conflict over differences, envy and anger, these also are heavenly facts of eternal lives of freedom and love. In short, Gods have to deal with social ills among free intelligences. The wisdom of the LDS view is that mortality is a carefully designed learning experience to improve social relationships in the eternal worlds. There is risk of unhappiness everwhere in existence even among Gods that identify with and as love.

It is clear that conditions allowing more love to thrive must allow for eternal peace to be disturbed. The elegant social design for ‘growing true love’ includes a lively option for divisiveness among intelligent beings in heaven or anywhere. It is elegantly designed to grow and temper love in the fearful human crucible of envy, greed, hunger, loneliness, ignorance and death. As the ill-fenced Garden of Paradise and the Aborted Tower of Babel both show, God designed this world to test humans with unavoidable conflicts whereby they meet rivals, aliens or traitors that have conflicting interests and often do not even understand the same meanings when they try to communicate. God’s design diverts our mental-emotional attention toward threatening conflicts over the fundamental order of their lives using ‘skillful means’ to help people discover what their hearts most desire under pressure. (I like to think the angels that are not busy elsewhere observe in suspense the great contests unfolding at center court. Who wins or loses most? That is weighed by the judges based on how well these rivals and opponents will treat each other—heretics, infidels, critics, despisers—in their frustrating conflicts over the true way that allow no final closure in mortality.)

Indeed, Webb understands the LDS idea (implied in Doctine and Covenants Section 88 and elsewhere) of the radical freedom of God and all eternal persons from the necessity of love. This concept provided Joseph Smith the reason any responsible, intentional human or divine action has moral and inter-personal value, either virtuous or vicious. It creates the context for laudatory heroism and despicable betrayal. Freedom converts existence from a pre-written puppet show for ONE puppeteer to an unfinished tragi-comedy observed by all the actors and directors. Smith said that God is a loving parent that desires the best for his children, and tellingly, ‘none but fools trifle with the souls of men.’ Note that foolishness, not evil is the derogation here. Latter-day Saints trust that Heavenly Parents are not fools, and that their love is real and the stakes for mortal proving are high. Humans should trust that God is not trifling with them, and that to be godlike they need to be trustworthy themselves, refusing to trifle with each other’s honest desires to love and be loved. This sounds like a place where to be God is actually work—and who wants that forever? Well, when work is potentially joy-producing, Gods do.

LDS speculative theologians are not focused on the age-old task of enlightening ‘simple-minded people’ to understand that in the face of evil on Earth, God is not like a powerful Santa Claus. Latter-day Saints take eternal lives at different grades of joyfulness for granted. (The bereaved rarely cry very much at LDS funerals.) So LDS theologians tend to ask teleological questions like why God, with a massive capacity for love and the inevitable massive suffering that accompanies such love, would continue through eternity to desire to be God—and by extension, why humans might be enticed to become as God is, loving and suffering forever.

Joseph Smith’s undeveloped theology entailed eternal lives, raising the social issue of purpose for extending and expanding lives infinitely. Indeed, taking eternity as a social psychological reality raises the question of an ultimate purpose—an unsurpassable final goal greater than any which might be desired in any condition for eternity. This ultimate question is in fact the silent partner accompanying all why questions.

Before Friedrich Nietzsche (negatively, repetitively) or William James (positively, pluralistically) announced that nature provided purposelessness as the problem to which humans and gods (if any) must respond by their choice of action, Joseph Smith heard from the Source that God’s ultimate purpose (if any) was not disclosed, but His penultimate purpose relevant to humanity is to work on building more mutual joy in eternity with eternal souls in infinitely interesting procreative collaborative relations of trusting loved ones.

The telos disclosed so far by inspired revelation about God and his Son is in the book of Hebrews (12:2): “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross . . .” Looking into these words, however, we see that there is no definition of joy in itself. By the example of Jesus, we are shown how friends love by giving their lives for each other. This love is desire and action for the good of others and for oneself in relation to them. “Good” for Latter-day Saints is defined by the ancient prophet Mormon as that which leads people to desire and act in Christlike love. This in turn yields peace of mind and joy. Joy itself seems to be a shared social experience of love in action, the telos of intelligent love-in-process.

Plato’s abstract formula actually needed to be concrete. Love of a particular beautiful person leads to desire for the most beautiful of all, which is goodness itself or “the good.” The abstract good is not defined, however. Christianity reverses this order with its radical elevation of particular resurrected material bodies. Aligning with the idea of the good is a reach for the ultimate telos, but it never arrives. The continual loving process of expanding concrete, loving, joyful collaborative friendships of actual persons is a telos that is infinitely open, always arriving—worlds without end. Simply then, to fulfill the craving to disclose something really important, the ultimate purpose for eternal Gods is to create together more purposes for their eternal lives.

So the great LDS insight is that the ultimate purpose of joyful process has no final definition. Mutual love is not reduced to any formula of action. Lovers as true friends continually decide in creative collaborations where their love leads them NEXT. Thus, eternity is an endless history of penultimate goals that can be achieved as projects aiming for joy that is measured ex post facto. The closest definition of joy might be the awareness of the continual process of desiring and fulfilling loving relationships. The desire for and attainment of more joy is the motive for eternal life among Gods with which humans have to do. In this district of the pluriverses, Latter-day Saints worship the Gods whose joy expands by love; love that best grows in the forms of concrete friendships and familyships. Joy and love are both ‘open ends’ in themselves—joy being the intense awareness of loving and being loved, and love being the active desire to discover together and then do good for others.

For Webb, this concreteness of loving relations requires an analysis of the matter of which lovers consist—all the way down. Tellingly, love between persons, to have joy-producing value, requires free will to choose love in the face of the real chance one might not do so. A universe that is nothing but matter is usually thought to be determined like a machine, not a place where free will could exist except in an epiphenomenal feeling (that itself was determined.) The problem with elevating matter into God, or saying God is completely matter, is the gap between intentional and inert matter. It is not an ontological, but a biological problem. It is very much the matter of consciousness.

Webb describes God’s power and divinized humans in this way:

“Boredom is certainly not one of the problems with the Mormon view of the afterlife. Mormonism reasons that if we share in God’s power in the next life we will not be powerless, and power without the occasion to use it is power in name only. Indeed, if we have authority over the angels, what will we be able to do with that authority?”

It would seem from limited human perspective that conscious, peaceful rest for eternity would get old. Some eternal souls would eventually risk experiencing hellish worlds to avoid a achieving a final pinnacle of perfection from which any movement would have to be down. Indeed, boredom could be hell in heaven, like suspense is often hell on earth. In a theoretical heaven where everything that can be known is known, surprise is the scarcest and most valuable commodity. Where love is the highest experience, what surprise is latent in love? When the veil is lifted from our mortal and post-mortal (pre-resurrected) sojourn, and there is clearly no risk of death, the risk of losing love becomes more intense than it ever was in mortality when humans had many other pressures to pre-occupy them. In the eternal economy, presuming energy will likely be an almost unlimited commodity, immortal souls have only our loving attention to use as barter or bludgeon or blessing.

Webb implies that resurrected people have authority to command angels or any other free agents. However, Joseph Smith said the authority of God came in loving persuasion made legitimate by the willingness to die for those you love and desire to influence. So, one could say that the whole design of mortality was a set-up to create a temporary reality of death, allowing immortal persons (every human) to prove our love by ‘giving our lives’ for each other in one way or another.

Hannah Arendt taught that authority was granted to a leader by the will (or acquiescence) of the followers. The LDS idea of divine authority is this: when someone consents to emulate the desires and sometime actions of another person, the former grants authority to latter. God’s technical cosmos organizing power is relatively unimpressive—anyone can learn it, given enough eternity. However, God’s persuasive love (most fully disclosed in Jesus Christ) is the most powerful influence to move the universe (so far). To move free agents to change takes serious persuasion, not technique. The power of God’s influence comes at cost for God. Building worlds is easy compared to inhabiting them with eternal souls that are not sold on loving collaborations. The great soul Christians call the Christ, the author of their faith, suffered beyond comprehension to influence humans to repent, trust, and love as he did.

To Need Is Mortal, To Desire is Divine

“In ethical terms as well, Barth’s motives are unimpeachable: If God is the one who loves in freedom, then we owe God everything while God owes us nothing. We find our freedom only in obedience to God.”
“We know God only in his act, but given that what he does is who he is, we have access to his true nature as well. From our side of things, we first need God but only subsequently, through grace, are we enabled to love God, since love must be freely exercised, and need inevitably perverts love’s expression.”

Here I think Webb correctly inserts ‘need’ as problematic, but LDS thought defangs that needy tiger and allows love between man and God to be un-needy. This is possible because the ultimate contingency of man is the same for God—a matter of the contingency of freedom. Both are eternal beings that cannot create or destroy each other. They are both free to respond to each other. This radical, fearful symmetry was revealed to William Blake and Joseph Smith. God would not desire it otherwise. If God could wave a wand and make the universe such that He were the Supreme Being on which all else was contingent, He would destroy the wand like Frodo did the ring. It would make love impossible, and yes, even grace would extort from the needy, the love it desires.

Smith’s theology is so psychologically robust on the matter of love that there is none quite like it. Eternal persons do not need God for survival; but they desire God’s love almost as much as God desires theirs. Here is the theology laid bare: the most voracious lover has the most ardent desire; however, there is no weakness there. Instead the patience of loyalty hopes to win over the other without coercion in the long run. The hound of heaven is relentless, but its prey must come freely or it is no lover’s victory.

For protestant theologian Karl Barth, humans are given a God who is really free to love, and with humans who really are not free to reciprocate. We must first obey God to be free to love god. This sounds like a Catch 22, if not subtle extortion. Can we even begin to love God unless we are free to reject divine love? It was Calvin that made it clear that God owes us nothing as our sovereign creator. This is only true if God were not claiming to be our loving friend. Jesus wrapped up his mortal life calling his disciples—no longer my servants to boss around—but my friends. This was momentous: friends are peers, and councils of peers can dethrone kings. What is God doing here? We can of course pretend that our little children (or puppets) are our friends, or that our CEO is our buddy, but we know better in truth. Real friends have a mutual respect and affection based on a sense of equal status. For lovers to bond for life they must also become friends. God knows this, so the instant someone is seduced by divine love, God owes that person fidelity of friendship. Likewise, when someone makes an oath of love to God, it is a serious vow to befriend God faithfully. Smith saw this relationship of friendship could only be valid between eternal being of the same sort and of the same age—eternal intelligences that were ageless.

Indeed, Joseph Smith provokes the idea of radical freedom to love or not—to give a gift or not. There is no threat or bribe involved in the free gift of love. However, once the desire to give or to love is extended and reciprocated, the form of love—the particular form of mutual giving--is a matter of negotiation. The hearts are granted, and now the collaborative project of love needs definition.

Webb says that God’s independence from any need is the basis of God’s capacity to love without reserve. However, if there is a form to materially experience love, that form is ‘needed’ for the experience to occur. Thus, while no single experience is necessary, the form of any action necessarily influences the experience. In sum, forms are not optional to existence. Existence ‘essentially’ takes forms. Those forms, however, are moving, not fixed, because they are part of a living context of active influences that create novel conditions making ‘old forms’ new. Indeed, the idea of an absolutely fixed form (conceive of the perfect triangle) has different existential purposes or interpretations in each new instant of historical eternity.

The difference between ‘need’ and ‘desire’ is another aspect of Christian theology that aims to prove God is really not humanlike at all (except for Jesus Christ, very temporarily.) Both in the East and the West, the problem of desire exists for Gods and humans. Desire is infinitely unfulfilled purposefulness. It is most often positive, not negative, not based on lacking but on creating. Need is belief that one cannot survive because one lacks something. It is negative and fear-based. The theologians were not very impressed with any omni-God that needs. The eastern sages went further, observing that even brilliant gods with infinite creative capacities would eventually become exhausted by so much enjoyable fulfillment. So the enlightened place to rest, in the Western philosophic mode, is disinterested deism or stoicism, and in the eastern mode, desireless eternal nirvana. These justifications that decommision desire have also called into serious question any theology that touts an eternal God or Gods that primarily identify love as that which they intentionally do.

Although trying to coherently describe an eternally passionate, eternally embodied, eternal God, Webb is still concerned about demoting God to enable a truly honest (even intimate) relationship of mutual influential desire between would-be peers. He uses Barth to back-peddle from eventual divine-human peerage in favor of an upstairs fellowship with the downstairs servants. God was being merely gracious, but not serious about eye-to-eye friendship that can only exist when there is no need on either side for it, and the desire for it is mutually balanced.


“Why does Barth retreat from his own most original insight? Clearly, he is driven away from his own best insight in part by the worry over salvation as deification. Significantly, he declares that “man is not created to be the image of God” ( CD III/1, p. 197). If we are created in an image that is a perfect version of what we represent imperfectly, then our destiny is to move from the shadow to the light and thus become the reality that we presently only dimly reflect. From the perspective of Barth’s critique of natural theology, that kind of progressive view of salvation blurs the boundaries between the human and the divine. Barth talks about the exaltation of the human creature, but he means that we will ultimately find fellowship with God ( CD IV/2, p. 6), not that we will have a direct share of his nature.”

Webb’s concept of matter is both passive and active in degrees—not unlike persons in relations of fluctuating mutual influence. The LDS imagine that matter organized by the Gods with whom humans have to do, moves in a kind of serial, spiral fashion—changing intentionally—not in a fixed repetitive circle. There is no formal pan-psychic doctrine among LDS. However, the intentionality of matter all the way down seems to work on a ‘complexity scale’ from almost no self-aware intention to almost complete self-aware intention. The LDS hold the idea that all things are related, more or less acting and acted upon—but the intentional action of a sub-atomic wave, for example, is much less complexly formed and expressed and influential than an act of a complex human or God.

[Part FIVE will be published in the Summer 2021 issue of SquareTwo.]

Full Citation for this Article: Paul, Charles Randall (2021) "Part Four of the Book Review of Stephen H. Webb’s Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter, Oxford University Press, NY, 2011," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Spring 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

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