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. 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.

V. On the Personhood of God

Webb’s definition of Christian theology is important.

“God exists, but not in the way we ordinarily use that term. From this perspective, the same aspect of the divine nature that limits our knowledge of God provides the foundation for God’s knowledge of us. That is, our knowledge of God is limited precisely because God is unlimited, but the unlimited nature of the divine means that God can be present at all times and in all places. It would be an exaggeration to say that God’s love for us is dependent on our ignorance of God, but only a slight one. Is there a way of conceiving of God that does not trade knowledge for intimacy? In other words, can we think of God as being not only knowable in the way we know other things in the world but also loving in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend?”

People “have feelings” for each other they cannot fully comprehend—if such a thing as “fully” iss even possible. This is especially true when describing what love is and calls us to and how and why we more or less understand and trust others whose minds and hearts we cannot read any more than God’s. Even with bodies visible, even with technology that charts and correlates the brain and endocrine system with thought and feeling, humans remain veiled from each other in their radical freedom to choose, to take real, surprising chances by making momentous commitments in advance of any certainty. Going to war, joining a religion, getting married and having children are prime life and death examples of choices based on hopeful trust.

“God’s personhood is unique because God is the origin of all persons. This can be understood with reference to our own experience, where personhood is both a thing (something physical that can be manipulated and killed) and the origin of things (we make things to figure out what things are). Christian metaphysics is a reflection on the way in which God, as the essence of personhood, is also the origin of persons and things. Just as human beings are both things and not things, because we are the kind of thing that can think about everything else, God is both a person and not a person, because he is the person who creates people. God creates a world where personhood is the culmination of Being because God wants that world to be his own.
Still, many readers will think that I am taking most if not all of the mystery out of the divine, but I would suggest that the concept of mystery is meant to protect God from being confused in an idolatrous manner with impersonal objects and not from the ultimate reality of personhood. When conflated with the category of ineffability, mystery renders the metaphysical priority of personhood problematic. The incarnation keeps ineffability in check by providing the key to understanding how mystery and personhood are conjoined in the divine. The incarnation keeps the mystery of God located in the way God intensifies personhood, in the richness and depth of God’s agency, not in the way in which God is supposedly unknowable by being beyond existence altogether. God is as different from us as we are from impersonal things, but we are still things, just as God is still a person.”

Webb states that “God is both a person and not a person because he is the person who creates people.” Here he sticks with the ontological difference of creator/creature that LDS theology resists strongly with its description of eternal intelligences of which God is one in a material universe that is not created but continually reorganized by non-compulsory agreement of acquiescence of eternal intelligences. Nevertheless, Webb’s affirmation of God’s prior position as a material person allows for particularity and with that some form of social pre-mortal relations that were replicated on the Earth and beyond the grave. This is congenial with the hopes of most people and allows theological room for the LDS belief in divine Heavenly Parental Gods, and in collaborative voluntary plans of salvation (or growth) that might be freely challenged by those with rival ideas.

Webb overcomes the problem of abstract “personal intimacy” of an “inhuman” God through Christ’s eternal body. It delivers divine love into range for humanity, but in doing so he still worries along with those that crave an absolute certainty of salvation that people might think God’s humanity in Christ translates to potential unreliability of salvation:

“. . . 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.”

But what is trust (or faith) if not a loyal action taken in the face of possibilities that things will go awry? I hear a contemporary Williams James (and Joseph Smith) saying the social universe is not controlled by coercive forces. The social order among eternal beings that cannot be threatened with death is based on freely given love that persuades collaborative association. Loving Gods therefore can use all the help they can get to improve the chances for more joyfulness. The Gods are not so impressed with techno-super-powers, as they are those that can inspire more love and collaborative creativity among eternal free agents. The risk of rejection and failure is real, but so is the joy of winning through.

What purpose could an eternal being that has already lived forever still be unfulfilled? More joyful love is the short answer. The risk in that? Consider this: How does an eternal being win the heart and make a friend of another eternal free soul—especially one that is troubled with envy and resentment at those souls that have surpassed his capacities and influence? Nothing demonstrates the value of another more than sacrificing one’s life for him or her to thrive. Think how many mothers have given their lives in childbirth for children they do not yet know? But how can immortals do such a thing? They apparently cannot. So we can see how mortal life with apparent death was desiged to produce more weighty value to influential sacrificial love. Immortal souls embodied in mortality can be moved to love by the painful mortal suffering of another for them. This is one reason why the story of Christ’s sacrifice has moved billions to change for centuries. His vicarious sacrifice for humanity moves people to repent and love (who have forgotten their eternal identities) who actually believe they might disappear when they die—or those who are suffering guilt so intensely that they want to die. Remembering this mortal experience, some eternal day ahead the friends of Jesus might be more inclined to lay down their autonomous lives, to give themselves to a mutual cause that would trade ME for US trusting that more joy would result.

VI. Heavenly Society

Mark Heim in his book Salvations argues from the Christian scriptures that God will provide different heavenly situations for all souls according to their desires. (He does not address if states of salvation are permanent, but I suppose he would allow an accommodating God to instigate an environmental change along to fit altered desires in eternity.) If the LDS have their heart’s desire, heaven will be where they can enjoy new projects with an ever-increasing circle of friends and family. They will exercise their divine capacities in the process, but that is not their primary interest. They want their loves to continue to expand—their love for and from people. Now if God eventually turns out to be “a benign ubiquitous impersonal unifying force” that invites all sentient beings to advance beyond bodies into a heaven void of particular persons, the LDS will be inclined to decline the offer.

On this point, the dialogue Webb creates with Karl Barth and Joseph Smith is intriguing:

“This leads [Barth] to a statement that could have come from the mouth of Joseph Smith. ‘God was not alone, nor did He work alone, at that beginning of all His works and ways. He was not without man’ ( CD IV/2, p. 32). Personal existence for Barth, as for Aquinas, is the highest expression of being, the culmination and perfection of every aspect of existence. It follows that there is no divine substance that transcends personal, individual identity. ‘The Godhead as such has no existence. It is not real’ ( CD IV/2, p. 65). What is most real is personhood, and what is most personal is Jesus Christ. He ‘is our first-born Brother’ ( CD IV/2, p. 69). He is our brother because he is the first to receive embodiment from the Father as well as being the body that defines every other body. His body ‘is clothing which He does not put off. It is His temple which he does not leave’ ( CD IV/2, p. 101).”
“The only reason, really, that Barth has for demoting the body of Jesus Christ after so much promotion is the old anxiety about divinization, which he makes explicit: ‘God becomes man in order that man may—not become God, but come to God’ ( CD IV/2, p. 106). Barth fears that all of this talk about divine flesh will lead Christians to think that they too can become gods, and this is exactly, of course, the conclusion that Joseph Smith reached.”

Webb reads Joseph Smith as saying, ‘God is more of a person than we are.’ Thus, Webb might see Smith’s precursor in John Milton who emphasized that theologians missed the whole direction of Christianity: it led not toward recessive anthropomorphism—god becoming man—but theomorphism: eternal beings becoming more fully divine through social relations in material bodily form. Webb pushes this thought to conclude that Christ’s anthropophany reveals the divine pre-mortal lineage of material form of some kind—presumably into either an infinite historical past or completely timeless stasis.

Webb warns LDS thinkers to keep in mind that “their eternity is an extension of Christ’s … and that they should balance their theological audacity by humbly giving credit to the atoning Lord … rather than to what we can do by our own nature.” It is true that humans would be spoiled, silly children if they gave no thanks to their loving parents that paid for their adventurous field trip. However, those parents desire no gratitude more than their children showing what they can now do on their own because of the learning adventure. The “works oriented” LDS do not say, praise God, very often presuming, I suppose, that God is not into being praised as much as being emulated.

The personal spiritual sensitivity here is crucial: Joseph Smith claimed that God did count on us for expanding His joy. Smith’s massive project to weld the whole human family into a loving society after this mortal life (if not before) was commissioned by Heavenly Parents. This was not a metaphor. Neither humanity nor God could be made perfect (or complete) without all of humanity being included in the reconciled divine family. Thus, it is in our power to make God weep in eternity if and when humans reject his invitation for friendship. There is a parity of freedom between humanity and God based on divine vulnerability to humanity’s free response. This inherent power of free eternal non-created persons cannot be diminished by intentional humility. LDS say out loud what the rest of the human family senses silently: If God did not desire to yield to the influence of others, then he never should have desired to engage in love. Love is experienced at its best as intense mutual influence—freely gifted—aiming for mutual joy.

So Webb reminds Christians of all stripes to always remember the Son of God that broke his body and shed his blood, and suffered in a way inconcievable to them for the wrongs they have done to each other—and by this act hearts are moved to no longer desire to demand eternal suffering for their repentant abusers in heaven. Heaven won’t be heaven unless we are heavenly people that desire to love and work together eternally. The family of God would therefore need to be healed after the brutal experience of mortality. So LDS believe a pre-mortal Jesus Christ agreed to take the brunt of the retributive pain we would demand of our traitorous family members, who under the press of mortal ignorance would break their pre-mortal vows of loyalty and love. When we feel the healing influence of Jesus Christ we feel a desire to bring home and forgive those who trespass against us and to desire to make recompense to those against whom we have sinned. The atoning focus of the love of Christ centers on his pleading for people to forgive each other. LDS trust that humans inspired by Christ’s sacrificial love can be filled with a Christlike desire to suffer the consecquenses of sin for each other if needed to move hearts to desire reconciliation with their repentant betrayers, thus bringing true peace to heavenly society.

VII. Anselm Revised: The Divine Delight of Being Surpassed

“The idea that the Son is eternally embodied, however, does not have to mean that the Son is a mere creature just like us. This is what Arius could never fully explain—how the Son can be different from the Father and yet not simply one of us. For that reason, the position Arius held was rightly condemned, but what if his position could be clarified in a way that does not suggest inferiority? What if the body of the Son was an addition to his divinity, made to bring him glory and to demonstrate the Father’s love of the Son? And what if that body were made of a substance that is the perfection of every good that matter gives to us? If so, then saying that the Son is like the Father is not a diminution of his divinity. Likeness in this case would be not an affront to the status of the Son but an elevation of the significance of the incarnation. For example, the Son could be like the Father by being, in some respect, more than the Father, not less.” [my emphasis]

Webb here tries to redeem Arius (baptising the dead) by giving the Father an unspecified material form that is less than the bodily form of the Son in eternity. Here Webb’s daring theology goes to its limit by elevating the bodily form of Christ above the Father. (Milton did something astoundingly similar in Paradise Lost: In the poem God the Father steps down from his throne, and yields it to his Son the Christ. Here the son has superceded, if not surpassed, the Father at the will of the Father. (The question of the material body of the Father presumably sitting on a throne is obliquely set aside, however in one tell-tale line, Milton does disclose the Father has a foot!)

Webb uses Karl Barth to establish the ontological path between God and humanity through the material body of Jesus Christ. Barth also creates human brother and sisterhood through the same means—remarkably claiming, “our co-humanity is constituted not by our relations to others but by our relation to him.” This helps clarify for LDS a messy matter regarding divine parenthood: although persons might have been related as similar beings of spiritual-material form from eternity, not until the event of joining the family of God did they become family. Then, through their decision to enter mortal life, they chose Jesus Christ as the generative father of their second spiritual birth making them “new creatures.” (This could be the third birth if the mortal delivery were counted.)

What however, is the goal of this second birth? Was not joining the divine family–living in the presence of God—good enough for us? No—and not for God either. The natural flow of Mormon speculation about the family of God is that since all are free to change and eternity is forever, then there is “enough time” to grow in love and light such that any eternal person might out-love and outshine God. So what? What breaks down if this happens? This is a win/win/win for God, for the new top lover, and for all who desire to participate in greater love. This is of course such a wild speculation (even for LDS) since they don’t tend to believe anyone will ever “catch up” with Heavenly Father’s light and love, but it is useful to think to the limit of the idea that God is a person among persons. God’s influence is in and through all things—but that does not mean all things are dependent on God for their existential reality.

That is the radical point: all humans could theoretically get along without God because all are eternal uncreated beings in temporary mortal status. But all are also, and have always been, intelligent entities-in-relation that at some point chose to “affiliate with” a very influential intelligence—God. Presumably, as other intelligences have done for eternities, these relationships were voluntary, based on trust and not necessity. That is likely why trust is the first principle of any relationship between eternal beings that are free. The LDS questioner is not concerned with certainty about the existence of Someone Up There who creates, sustains and redeems the Cosmos. LDS can live with uncertainty about their eternal environment and its direction—but they crave trustworthy leadership and assistance in their quest to build everlasting and ever-growing friendships and families that can face whatever comes together. God’s work is (at least) to inspire humanity trust him when he commands them to love and trust each other especially in stressful situations when the choice is sacrificial.

Returning to a now familiar theme, the teleological primacy of sociality can be deduced from the fact that interacting intelligent material forms or bodies exist. Matter is infinitely moldable, so eternal intelligences intentionally design forms of matter for particular purposes. The forms in which intelligences currently choose to dwell are instrumental to the production of loving pro-creative relationships. Matter and form as inextricably united in telos. Even unorganized matter exists in some form allowing further teleological definition. Presumably human sociality is now (at least) the most effective form for humanity and for the Gods that desire trust and love to prevail.

The Christian Jewish and Christian religions affirm an outrageous androcentric bias: the form called humanity in the image of Gods is more interesting, indeed loved, than all the galaxies or multi-verses that exist in their gorgeous, fearsome splendors. Persons are interesting because they are free to originate new desires—to procreate new purposes together. This is the deep mystery of infinite desire (primal eros) that divine/human persons exhibit to the cosmos.

Moreover, the mutual influence of desires from eternity to eternity is the fundamental activity of eternal persons who inevitably measure their relative power by their “amount” of non-coerced influence they have on each other. (Those who are familiar with the theories of Rene Girard will resonate with this idea.) So the question is not to be or not to be for each of the ageless intelligences—hierarchically differentiated as a result of different free choices over the eternities. In their eternal social environment to envy or to love, to resent or enjoy each other, that is the question. How does an eternal soul feel about influential “rivals”? In facing this unavoidable fact of eternal differences, God, the Greatest Influencer, has provided an exemplary answer—Jesus Christ being the supreme manifestation at least so far.

Intelligence makes distinctions. Hierarchies of comparative value are inevitable and desirable among intelligent entities. MORE Christ-like love is BETTER than LESS. So here is the bold truth: Christ would have us out-love him just as God the Father would delight in being surpassed in love. (Greater things than ye see me do, ye shall do!) As the Chinese say, unless children surpass parents, both have failed. Thus, every person we see is a loving “rival” to God as revealed in the—so far unsurpassed—divine lover Jesus Christ. (Recall Milton’s Satan envied God and lost it all, while Christ loved God and received all.) The LDS temple rites place each initiate on a symbolic throne by the power of Jesus Christ. There are no paintings or statues of Jesus or the Father on thrones. Every man and woman on earth has the destiny of divine royalty. We are all anointed ones. A resurrected man (not Jesus or God or a spirit) stands tip top on LDS temples trumpeting the higher destiny of anyone that desires to love enough (or sacrifice enough) to receive it.

We do not do formal theology as orthodox practice because its prime purpose from the first was to prove that God is not a man, and thus, man is never destined to be a peer or superior to God. Joseph Smith revealed the key to the dangerous door that theologians dare not unlock for fear of showing God unworthy of worship and man haughtily independent. As Webb observes, Smith was uncannily confident about his relationship to God—and he projected that confidence on behalf of anyone that would honestly approach the “throne of grace.” He really thought God was a loving Father in heaven that wanted the best for all his children. (He claimed to have spoken with Him and with Jesus Christ as a friend does face-to-face.) It was that sense of kinship intimacy, and not Promethean arrogance, that infused his theology.

What I am saying is not orthodox doctrine, but it reflects one train of Mormon theological thought to a natural conclusion. In the spirit of C. S. Lewis’ Weight of Glory, however unlikely it seems, every person is potentially a good rival to God as Christ exemplifies in his relation to his Father. This keeps eternity very lively as a contest over the greatest lover—a contest that excites and never exhausts us no matter the outcome. And since eternal life is open, don’t count on the Father allowing the Son to sit on his loving laurels without a comeback attempt! They would both love it, of course. And because of that they are our exemplars. In love they have found the way to mutually enjoy hierarchical comparison without envy—and thereby they have created a heaven that entices us all.

So the LDS say with St. Paul that all are anointed ones. That is the great truth codified in LDS temple ritual whereby each person that has ever lived is vicariously anointed to a throne that can only be attained by the consensus of those who are loved. We are all called to be royals, but we must be chosen by our constituents to reign. And the vote is taken based on who loves the most like Christ loves. We do not do formal theology as orthodox practice, because its prime purpose from the first was to prove that God is not a man, and thus, man was never destined to be a peer or superior to God. Joseph Smith revealed the great key to the dangerous door that theology refuses to open for fear of making God unworthy of worship or man hubristically unrestrained. His speculative theology left the social hierarchy of eternal life forever open to new possibilities—even to God. In doing this Smith allowed that the pluriverses could hold together without Someone assuring each instant that they would. He knelt before a God he trusted as his best friend who would do all he could to further the joy of others.

[Part FOUR will be published in the Spring 2021 issue of SquareTwo.]

Full Citation for this Article: Webb, Stephen H. (2020) "Part Three 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, By Charles Randall Paul," SquareTwo, Vol. 13 No. 3 (Fall 2020), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleWebbReviewPaul3.html, accessed <give access date>.

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