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Editor’s Note: Over the next several issues of SquareTwo, we will be publishing portions of this extremely interesting and important exchange between Webb and Paul. Paul’s review will be published in five parts, and then we will publish an essay by Webb responding to Paul’s book review. To introduce this series of articles, SquareTwo editor Ralph Hancock provides the following context.

Introduction to the Series by Ralph Hancock

The untimely death of Stephen H. Webb in 2016, a week before his 56th birthday, deprived Christians of one of their boldest and most penetrating theologians. Webb was a restless and relentless truth-seeker. Raised an evangelical, he passed briefly as a young adult through affiliation with the Disciples of Christ and then with Lutheranism before embracing the Roman Catholic Church on Easter Sunday 2007. But Webb’s Catholic communion by no means ended his spiritual and intellectual quest. As he pushed up against the boundaries of creedal Christian orthodoxy, he demonstrated a singular readiness to engage the Restoration Christianity. In 2015 he published Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints, and, with Alonzo L. Gaskill, Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation. But it is his most venturesome and fundamental theological work that is discussed here: Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (2011). It is here that Stephen Webb’s boundless thirst for truth and understanding lead him to a more than respectful dialogue with the Restoration, including engagement with Joseph Smith and with now retired BYU philosophy professor David Paulsen. There he argues that “Mormons” are the most valuable partners traditional Christians can have in testing and refining their beliefs. “No other religious movement lies so close to traditional Christianity,” he observes, “while speaking, at times, in such a vexing yet enchanting voice… Mormonism speaks straight to the heart with the clearest of proclamations about the believer’s longing for intimacy with Jesus Christ” (p. 243).

As indicated by Webb’s title, the questions of divine embodiment or “heavenly flesh” and therefore of the metaphysical status of “matter” lie at the heart of Webb’s openness to the teaching of the Restoration. Everyone knows that the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “materialist.” “All spirit is matter … [W]hen our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (D&C 131:7-8) But the Latter-day Saints have not agreed about just what that means. It certainly means embodiment: “The father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the son also” (D&C 130:22). This certainly means, to be sure, that human embodiment is not a corruption or a regression, any more than is Christ’s incarnation; the clothing of the spirit with a tangible body is not a lapse into an inferior condition, but a step, a critical step, towards divinity.

But just what is the meaning of “matter,” of this “tangibility,” in this upward looking -- this spiritual -- materialism? Adam Miller aspires to employ philosophies of radical materialism as the foundation or the implication of a pure, Pauline, theory of grace. Miller’s materialism of grace would redirect our spirituality away from a religion of moral effort positing a telos of moral perfection. (See https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/beyond-agency-as-idolatry/ and http://www.squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleMillerSymposiumHancock.html.)

Terryl Givens likewise emphasizes that “matter and spirit are not just similarly eternal; they are ultimately two manifestations of the same reality or substance.” “The consequence in Smith’s thought,” Givens continues, “is a collapse of the radical divide between body and spirit, the earthly and the heavenly. From Plato through Paul and to Descartes, a thoroughgoing dualism has prevailed in Western metaphysics. Smith rejected this entire heritage” (Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity, Kindle 1300).

Givens cites Spinoza and Hobbes as apparent antecedents of the Prophet’s materialism. But early modern materialism’s rejection of “dualism” was also inseparably a rejection of freedom of the will, since moral freedom requires the soul’s orientation towards a purpose not dictated by “material” necessity. Thus Givens’ “monism” seems to embrace a kind of practical dualism: “In a monistic scheme, where spirit and matter are two manifestations of the same substance, it is a small step to hold that physical and moral laws are also but two manifestations of universal law.”

Just how can Restoration Christian (my replacement for “Mormon”) “materialism” overcome the problems of the “dualism” that Givens understands to run from Plato to Descartes without denying the moral agency that lies at the heart of Restoration sensibility and vision? How can divine embodiment lift embodied agency to an eternal perspective and not reduce divinity to a flat, “materialist” embodiment? Had Stephen H. Webb lived a little longer, we would hope to be learning more from the unfolding of his thought and of his faith on these matters. Of course, fully to benefit from Webb’s quest we would have to share some of his boldness and willingness to question our own understanding of just what is at stake in positing a continuity between matter and divinity.

There is no better start to an investigation into this fundamental question than the marvelously brave and expansive conversation between Randall Paul, president of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, and Stephen H. Webb. It is hard to imagine a better Restoration interlocutor with Webb than Paul, a similarly venturesome and faithful seeker whose doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago addressed in the context of religious contestation theological questions between Protestants and Mormons. The following dialogue, which begins with Paul’s heretofore unpublished review of Webb’s Jesus Christ, Eternal God, will be an important part of Webb’s unique legacy to Christians of the Restoration, as well as to traditional Christians. This is the first of several parts that will appear at SquareTwo. If you find this interesting… well, you won’t be able to resist what follows.

--Ralph C. Hancock

Book Review by Charles Randall Paul for Stephen H. Webb (2011) Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter, NY: Oxford University Press


[Editor’s note: Since the review was originally penned in 2012, it retains the older acronym “LDS” in use at that time.]

This serial essay is a form of conversation between Stephen Webb and me. About seven years ago after reading Stephen’s book, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter, I sent a lengthy unsolicited book review to Stephen in appreciation for his intrepid pursuit of truth through a private dialogue he initiated with Latter-day Saint (LDS) sacred texts and faithful often scholarly interpreters. Webb’s pithy and gracious response to my review astounded me. It was such a clear and cogent critique of LDS theological thought that, upon reading it, Ralph Hancock, thought it should be shared with the readers of Square One. A shorter account of my review and Webb’s response aimed at scholars of religion that was published as “God is Somebody to Love,” in Sacred Tribes Journal (Vol. 7, No. 1, 2012).

While most of Webb’s book addresses traditional Christian theological issues around the material incarnation of Jesus Christ, this review will focus on the book’s engagement with LDS theology in a chapter focusing on Joseph Smith’s revelations. Webb’s originality and rigorous logic will likely impress any reader to reopen the early Christian texts that were finally judged heterodox. The chapter on Joseph Smith’s thought in dialogue with the traditional Christian sources will amaze those that have never plumbed LDS theology in context. Several LDS scholars have published excellent comparative theological works especially with historical Christianity. This book, a rigorous, engaging comparative work from ‘the other side’ should delight those pioneering LDS authors and provoke many fruitful conversations.

In this essay I share my full book review that quotes at length from Webb. You will grasp the depth of his thought and, I trust, find interest in my comments that follow his citations. At the end of my review, you will read Webb’s response to me and my further commentary. The last section (to be published after the review) might be called Four Tantalizing Aporia of LDS Theology. No one has done such a cogent and concise job of critically appreciating Joseph Smith’s basic theology or what Webb might call theosophy.

To entice non-persuaded readers to dive into Webb’s work, I start with a summary preamble.

Stephen Webb Engaging LDS Theology

“What would happen . . . if we thought that matter is more like the fields of energy that animate the whole cosmos rather than incredibly small particles held together by external forces? What would happen if we thought of matter as the stuff that makes relationships possible, including our relationship to God? What would happen if we thought that matter and spirit are just different names for the same thing, depending on how you look at it? . . . Is it really bad theology to imagine that we will see God face-to-face one day? Is it really childish to think that God can actually speak as well as feel, think, and act? Is it nothing more than vanity to suppose that, since God created us in his image, our existence, including our bodies, is the best clue we have to figuring out what God is like? And here is the biggest “what if” question of all: What if Joseph Smith’s vision of God really does have something important to say to all Christians today? What if his insight into the materiality of the divine is what the world today most needs to hear? And what if Christian unity can be achieved by recovering the physical power and presence of the divine? (Stephen Webb, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints, 8–9)

Webb again, (From here on all citations are from Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter)

“Mormonism speaks straight to the heart with the clearest of proclamations about the believer’s longing for intimacy with Jesus Christ. Mormonism can be a controversial topic for many non-Mormon Christians, but I have come to the conclusion that no theology has ever managed to capture the essential sameness of Jesus with us in a more striking manner. At the heart of Mormon cosmic optimism is the idea that the incarnation of Jesus was not an afterthought to creation or a contingent response to an accidental fall of humanity into sin. Christ embodied is the center of the cosmos; he lived as we do before we were created to be like him.
“. . . Of all the branches of Christianity, Mormonism is the most imaginative, and if nothing else, its intellectual audacity should make it the most exciting conversation partner for traditional Christians for the twenty-first century. Mormonism is ready to be discovered by the rest of the Christian world and its exploration will be the next great adventure of creedal theology.”

From these citations, and many more to come in this review, it is easy for an LDS believer to feel respectfully validated by Webb, a devout Roman Catholic unpersuaded by the claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to exclusive apostolic leadership. He acknowledged that LDS and Catholics are theological and ecclesiastical rivals that do not honor each other’s sacraments including baptisms, and that descibe each other’s Christianity as importantly deficient. Still, in my view he reflected Jesus’ hard teaching on the Sermon the Mount: More than our friends and families and tribe members (and as much as the needy) it is our rivals and adversaries that provide the test of love—how we treat them determines the actual potency of any religion and indicates if we are on track to wholesome godliness.

In short Stephen Webb, who unfortunately died recently, has earned his critical authority with me and many LDS scholars. I believe LDS generally will come to trust him too—even when he thinks LDS are likely wrong. I finish this preamble, asking only that readers will charitably observe my penchant for adventurous speculative theology that emerges throughout this essay.

I. On the Matter of the Bodies of Christian Gods

This book of historical and constructive Christian theology shows Stephen Webb as an erudite, convicted confessor coherently seeking to explain how the person, Jesus of Nazareth, was a material bodily person before, during and after his earthly sojourn. Webb believes that Christians took a wrong theological turn during the early centuries when, pondering how Jesus could be God and human, the mainstream decided that any form of matter was an impossible limitation on the omnipresent omnipotent Creator. They concluded that an immaterial God stooped temporarily into material mud through Jesus Christ—to redeem human bodies for their return to a heaven that is as tangible as earth.

Stephen Webb writes this book as a Christology with only one end in mind: to go farther than other theologians “in lifting up the absolute eternity of the incarnate Jesus Christ.” Why is Webb so keen on this goal? Why is the eternity of incarnation such a pivotal truth to him? It must have something to do with his desire to worship the right God, and more, to rightly know who this worshipper is. The eternity of the incarnate Christ points to the same eternal incarnate possibility for Webb and every human person. To be clear, if this doctrine that God is heavenly flesh from eternity is true, then humans can take an optimistic attitude about their experience in this material world, and look forward with hope for some kind of heavenly embodied social life that includes at least Jesus.

In several pithy paragraphs Webb states his thesis about divine materiality:

“The body Jesus Christ had on earth is a specification of the body the Father gave to the Son before the world began. If this seems abstract, it should not be. I am seeking the most concrete way of interpreting the claim that everything that exists is what it is because it has its being in Jesus Christ.
“If the being of Jesus Christ is conceived as an immaterial spirit to which we are related in a mysterious and miraculous manner (a manner which does not include our bodies), then it is hard to fathom how our being originates in and from Jesus. . . . [but ] If Jesus Christ is the prototype of all matter, the source and origin of energy, the sound that vibrates the world into being and the light that vivifies every atom . . . [then] The flesh of Jesus is both heavenly and earthly, both particular and universal, both personal and cosmic. It is the substratum, the essence, the beginning of creation, the model and prototype of all matter just as he is the original basis of human nature.
“Far from being nothing, and even further from being evil, matter is the means by which God gives us life, and as such, it is that which God has decided to be, from eternity, so that we too can progress eternally into the divine substance without losing our identities. We will take new forms, undoubtedly, in the afterlife, but those forms will be revisions and recreations of what we already are, since our heavenly bodies will not need to be created out of nothing.
“If the Son assumed a body just for us, then his body barely scratches the surface of the Trinity. If Jesus is not the flesh and bones of God, then how can we ever know what was really going on behind the curtain of his flesh? God did not stoop into the body of Jesus, as if putting on a disguise, costume, or cloak. If Jesus Christ is the truth of God, then he is eternally true, and the truth is his eternal divinity. . . . [and] if God the Father is himself a body, and the incarnate Jesus Christ is divine, then either Jesus must have been the Father or there must be (at least) two Gods.”

While allowing a polytheism in line with social Trinitarians, Webb cannot go so far as to think that God the Material Father could prefer human form:

“The Father can thus be said to be material but not anthropomorphically corporeal, while God the Son is anthropomorphically corporeal, in the sense that the body the Father gives the Son the form in which God determines to organize our matter as well. The Son is thus material in a way that the Father is not, since the Son’s divine substance (which he shares with the Father, making them equal and one) has a shape or form (a body) that the Father does not. The Son, however, is not material in a way that is identical with our matter, since the body of the Son is eternal as well as the source, plan, and goal of our bodies.”

Webb demurs from stating the Father is a body in human form—rather like how Moses only talks about seeing the hind parts of God or Milton only describes the feet of God. This he does to assure the divine sustaining function of cosmic order that presumably could not hold everywhere if that function were confined to a single body. However, I ask, if such a pervasive divine sustenance is required, could it not emanate for a bodily form? What breaks in the ordered universe or pluriverse if God the Father is in the same form as Jesus? To be cheeky about divine sustaining powers, how much sustaining attention do things require from God? If Atlas dropped The Ball, would he be called for an error by The Umpire or would the whole game be over—stadium and attendees emulsified? Regarding the order of things holding together, Webb seems to want to keep God from the degradation of going unemployed, but his argument for the usefulness of God does not require a cosmic maintenance function. But maintaining and expanding a cosmic environment congenial for love is another matter as we shall see.

II. Christ: The Revelation of Divine Human Love

Why do Christians find the God revealed in and by Jesus worship worthy? If we think in terms of assured salvation from death and hell in a world to come that sounds right. But the question for Latter-day Saints is not assuring salvation as much as offering more creative, loving friendships. Joseph Smith said religion begins when we realize we desire and can speak with God face to face as with a friend. Jesus in the end promoted his close disciples from being his servants to his friends. God (like anyone else) does not want to tend children forever, but to enjoy friends. To worship God as a King who Saves is not the same as worshipping God as a Friend who Helps. A sovereign cannot be intimate except with a peer. Of course this drives traditional Christians to tear their robes and reach for verbal stones. But Webb sees that bodies are the condition for loving friendship, and he along with Joseph Smith decided that God condescended to unfairly suffer to draw us to his love. He never condescended into materiality or bodily form because that is the preferred form (so far at least) for enjoying that which God most values, loving friendships!

Webb starts his train of thought by presuming a loving God would not expose his friends to fruitless pain and suffering and evil.

“What kind of body does God need—or what kind of relationship does the Father need to have to the body of the Son—in order to experience the kinds of emotions that we want him to have? . . . We should be able to figure out how God has emotions while still being God [without a body], but we should avoid the pitfall of imagining that God is vulnerable to creaturely manipulation or that God can be incapacitated by the experience of evil. Whatever we think about God, we should not doubt that he is the source of our salvation and that he will triumph over evil.” (my emphasis)

Most if not all theologians are trying to help people believe that whatever our fears or concerns, if we just acknowledge our utter dependence on divine omnipotence, then God will keep us perfectly safe from annihilation or suffering and give us fabulous perks to boot. That is to say, since God is responsible for making us, and (inscrutably) the risky universe around us, if He loves us, He ought take care of us. But, no God in a finite material human form could have the omnipotence required to assure human security amid dangerous cosmic forces and ever-looming chaos that require unlimited restraining power to keep from going haywire.

I add that even if God didn’t create everything from nothing, and even if God isn’t sustaining everything in order now, we humans are still here. Many of us still desire a God to provide the assurance that The Force will save us from the Big Bad (however we define it) that is threatening ahead. We cannot imagine any finite being having the power to block all that might go wrong, so we need something beyond all conditions if we are not to doubt that our good will “will triumph over evil.” So for theologians Jesus in limited human form (even resurrected) needs an infinite backup, and a trinity of defense has done the job: the Son, a divine human person to assure us we are loved, the Spirit, an all seeing eye that lets nothing sneak in on us, and the Father, an omnipotent power that cannot be limited to forms, to sustain order and quash any evil or random threats that might discomfit our bliss.

In sum, for many the only worship-worthy God is a) certainly on our side and b) certainly potent enough to make things comfortable and save us from all harm. (No weak, slave mentality critique from Nietzsche, nor the proverbial warning that hope is an unreliable opiate can counter the healthy human desire to act boldly with trust that a benign Force will eventually prevail.) The problem is that the certainty of divine love is necessarily defined in God, and that makes it impossible for God to be free not to love. Freedom and love are psychologically knit together: Love that is not an intentional gift is not love. While there is likely instrumental value of assistance from loving someone when there is no alternative, there is no desire exchange between lover and beloved that emerges as the joyful value of interpersonal love.

The craving for certainty is at odds with the joy of trust fulfilled in the free gift of love. This is at the heart of the theological ‘solution’ of divinity that is beyond personhood and social relations that allow envy and disappointment as the conditions for love and joy. Theology asserts the need for Certainty of God’s ubiquitous benevolence, while psychology observes the fact of Trust in God’s interpersonal love.

Many theologians have preferred the divinely finished cathedral of unquestionable certainty to divinely unfinished temples that are always under construction. So human reliance on a God without form of body and personality (a Pretend Person) is understandable. In the 21st century billions still want to believe in an unassailable omniforce that makes and takes care of them. By definition that God cannot be other than all benevolent, all knowing and all powerful with no limiting form to compromise omniness.

Webb raises the old issue today one more time: Jesus went to heaven in bodily form and claimed he was coming back to live with us all in bodily form—even the express image of the Father. He is the God who loves friends—not a benevolent impersonal force. If we worship him we worship a body, too. Pick your poison! An invisible abstract idolized Omni-Perfection or a distinct Person resembling a human with a proper name with quirky, dangerous, amazing unpredictable ways. The latter even ‘morphed’ all the way into human flesh concrete enough to breathe and bleed. Webb reasons back from there to an eternal worship-worthy material person, and the Latter-day Saints do, too. They worship a Man of Holiness, a living, learning, loving leader of a God whose name is Ahman and whose Son is like him—and who presumably has daughters who are like His Wife.

Most Latter-day Saints do not feel tempted to worship an ideal or principle of perfection, beauty, truth, or goodness. They affirm free agency of intelligent persons as a condition for interpersonal love and friendship that yield the everlasting relations of marriage and family that Gods enjoy so much. This all takes concrete particularity of material forms. (Webb understands this, and plumbs into some critical ramifications of eternal material forms that progressively change later in this essay.)

Strange as it is, the LDS take everlasting social life of Gods quite literally, trusting that humans will wake up to the divine problem of eternity itself—and a kind of reverse theodicy results. Instead of asking why God would create a world of suffering (indirectly blaming him,) they ask why would anyone, even God, desire to live forever even in loving relations—FOREVER (indirectly empathizing with Him)? Without knowing it, LDS theology contains a standard Buddhist question: why would any entity desire to live forever even in bliss? (Buddhist response: even bliss gets boring and nirvana is ‘finally’ appealing enough to leave all caring.) With Webb’s focus on the eternal body of Christ, the everlasting question pertains. Should we have pity on the God(s) that can have no time for a vacation as God? Audaciously, the LDS thinks, how would I feel about this when I am an everlasting God? Would I as God not get tired of being worshiped by awestruck underlings or even beloved peers—you know, forever?

In dialogue, Christian critics ask, Has not your God set up the universe so He can heroically save the day for his duped creatures that don’t realize he caused the very suffering they thank him to relieve? Does your God exist with such low self esteem or in such boredom that He must create a universe of weaklings that He can dazzle for their applause and ‘save’ for their eternal gratitude?

Infinite love among eternal persons is the Christian answer that Webb would give along with the LDS who believe from infinite experiences of love between free agents emerge infinite differences that can provide the comparative grist for ever more original valuable joys. These possibilities for more joy in creative collaborations of love have brought us all ‘this far’ in eternal past and are likely to continue through an eternal future. It appears that materiality and form and freedom and social love have staying power.

In all this eternal material body business, Webb is joining the LDS by stretching for a theology that sustains a God-person who loves to love others—not just a personal God that people love to love. Negative critics might ease off on the LDS vision of becoming divine world builders: After all, the LDS are not so full of self-elevating hubris; they are empathizing with their otherwise lonely God by agreeing to become His family and friends!

Full Citation for this Article: Stephen H. Webb, Charles Randall Paul (2020) "Embodied Sociality as the Meaning of Divinity: A Roman Catholic-Restoration Christian," SquareTwo, Vol. 13 No. 1 (Spring 2020), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleWebbPaulSocialityDivinity.html, accessed <give access date>.

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COMMENTS: 1 Comment

I. Jim Gulbrandsen


Your review shouts the requirement that Intelligences must have been individuals from whatever passes for the beginning.

God, bored? Nonsense! Eternity is its own embodiment of a new form of nirvana as the endless creation of worlds is populated with the children of Creator Parents whose love for each child is matched by Their delight in watching the unfolding of that child’s creativity potential.

Then the laws and commandments are not the whimsical dictates of an overbearing Diety. Instead they mark the pathway down which the child can maximize his or her own creative powers and abilities.

The children find joy in the unfolding and the unexpected powers of creation; and the Creator Parents find joy in watching Their beloved child create through loving and rhapsodic obedient expression of curiosity.

An eternity of ever expanding “curiosity generated” creation. It is all embodied in the love of their Parents and the Savior whose act of atonement surely also transmutes the energy of the children’s collective goodness into the matter required for future creations. Nothing at all boring about that.

Growth through covenant keeping; organized as families; and administered through councils of unanimity. Not just friends, but companions.