Remembering Stephen Webb (1961-2016)

Remembering Stephen Webb (1961-2016) June 8, 2018

 

First temple in Indiana
The Indianapolis Indiana Temple     (LDS Media Library)

 

I’ve been thinking, the past few days, about my late friend Stephen Webb.  Here, accordingly, are some remarks that I presented on 12 March 2016, at the second Interpreter Foundation conference on Science and Mormonism.

 

Good morning.

My name is Daniel C. Peterson.  I’m a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University.  However, thanks to the charity and the abysmally poor judgment of my colleagues, I also serve as chairman and president of the Interpreter Foundation.

On behalf of the Foundation, I would like to welcome you to this, the second Interpreter Science and Mormonism Symposium: “Body, Brain, Mind, and Spirit.”

The First Interpreter Science and Mormonism Symposium was held on 9 November 2013, with a focus on the topics of “Cosmos, Earth, and Man.”  I’m pleased to report that an expanded volume of the proceedings of that event will very soon be available from the Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books as Cosmos, Earth, and Man: Science and Mormonism 1.  I actually have one copy of the softcover version of the book with me here, for display.

Let me explain to you, very briefly, what the Interpreter Foundation is.

Established late in the summer of 2012, the Foundation is a nonprofit educational organization focused on the scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, early LDS history, and related subjects. All publications in its journal, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, are peer-reviewed and are made available as free internet downloads or through at-cost print-on-demand services. Our first article went up nine days after we decided to organize the new foundation; we have now published at least one article every Friday for 190 consecutive weeks.  We’ve also published six books, and have posted 160 video-recorded scripture roundtables, keyed to the adult Sunday School curriculum of the Church.  Other posts on the website, such as our blog and our “Resources for Students and Teachers,” are not necessarily peer-reviewed, but are approved prior to posting by Interpreter’s Executive Board.

Our goal is to increase understanding of scripture through careful scholarly investigation and analysis of the insights provided by a wide range of ancillary disciplines, including language, history, archaeology, literature, culture, ethnohistory, art, geography, law, politics, philosophy, etc. Interpreter also publishes articles advocating the authenticity and historicity of LDS scripture and the Restoration, along with scholarly responses to critics of the LDS faith. We hope to illuminate, by study and faith, the eternal spiritual message of the scriptures—that Jesus is the Christ.

Although the Board fully supports the goals and teachings of the Church, the Interpreter Foundation is an independent entity and is not owned, controlled by, or affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or with Brigham Young University. All research and opinions provided on its website, in its publications, and at its conferences are the sole responsibility of their respective authors, and should not be interpreted as the opinions of the Board, nor as official statements of LDS doctrine, belief or practice.

The Foundation is, with a few exceptions where professional services are required, a volunteer organization.  Neither authors nor roundtable discussants nor members of the Foundation’s board are paid for their services. 

Yet, for all this, there are expenses.  And we rely on the generosity of donors to enable us to organize conferences such as this with free admission and to make our publications available at or near cost.  Our goal is to get our materials out there, as widely and easily accessible as we can.

 

Permit me now, for just a moment, to change topics:

We at the Interpreter Foundation were deeply saddened only a few days ago to learn of the unexpected passing of our dear colleague, the Catholic philosopher and theologian Stephen H. Webb, on Saturday, 5 March 2016—a week ago today.  Among other things, we had been looking forward to spending time with him this coming weekend; he was scheduled to speak at this symposium.

“Christians don’t talk enough about depression,” Stephen wrote for the website of the superb magazine First Things on 19 February 2016, slightly more than two weeks before his death.  “Emotional pain, for one thing, can be hard to share.  Despair can feel very physical for the sufferer, weighing heavily on the heart and clogging the brain, but its surface features can be easily overlooked or missing altogether.  A depression that finally lifts leaves no scars on the skin to show how deep the wound was and how long the healing took.  Besides, such anguish is so personal that it is hard to share it with anyone other than members of the family or the medical profession.”[1]

It was, so far as I’m aware, his final publication.

Steve graduated summa cum laude from Wabash College and then received his doctorate with distinction from the University of Chicago.  He taught religion and philosophy at Wabash for twenty-five years.  Recently, he had been teaching at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis and serving in several prison ministries.

He wrote over a dozen academic books on theological aspects of topics ranging from rhetoric to gift-giving, from vegetarianism to Bob Dylan—most of them published by Oxford University Press—as well as hundreds of essays, articles, book reviews, book chapters, and web pieces.

“In the past few years,” notes his obituary in the Indianapolis Star, “he truly enjoyed his connections to the wonderful people of the LDS community.”  And that enjoyment was heartily reciprocated—and not merely because we were astonished to be treated with such unaccustomed respect by a thoughtful believer outside our own tradition.

Steve was a warm friend of the Latter-day Saints, both intellectually and personally.  His books Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints (Oxford, 2013) and Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation (Oxford, 2015), written with Alonzo Gaskill, have been very well received among Latter-day Saint readers, who were delighted to find that their author was also a wonderful human being.

His remarks on “Why Mormon Materialism Matters,” delivered at the August 2015 FairMormon conference, are available online at http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2015-fairmormon-conference/why-mormon-materialism-matters, as is his article in BYU Studies, entitled “Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints” (http://byustudies.byu.edu/content/godbodied-matter-latter-day-saints?utm_source=BYU+Studies&utm_campaign=7b4e1ac911-Daily_Features_March_7_11_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e4342d96b2-7b4e1ac911-73903809).

Also online is a video of his remarkable discussion with Margaret Barker at the Interpreter Foundation’s August 2015 birthday party, which I was privileged to moderate.  (http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/an-evening-with-margaret-barker-stephen-webb/).

We had hoped and expected to hear much more from Stephen.  More importantly, though, as humans and as his friends we are heartsick at this terrible loss.  We pray that God’s comfort and blessing will rest upon his wife, Diane Timmerman, and their five children, upon his parents, and upon the many others who knew and loved him.  And we look forward to the day when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

I share with you now some notes that he had sent to us from the presentation that he intended to give at this conference here today:

 

Every theologian from every church tradition wants to rethink the relationship between spirit and matter, the supernatural and the natural, mind and body, and sacred and secular. Post-Enlightenment theology and philosophy have often treated these paired terms as dualisms that stand opposed to each other. As a result, the world appears to people of faith to be off-kilter and out of balance, as if being religious means keeping one foot on the firm and reliable foundations of modern science and technology and the other on the shaky and murky grounds of ancient beliefs and misty remnants of otherworldly wisdom, with the two realities rarely aligning to create a level playing field. Occupying two disparate spaces at the same time, especially when one is so clear and present that it makes the other appear to be remote and distant, is a difficult feat, which can make the religious life seem awkward and strenuous. Reconciling these dualisms requires focused intellectual labor in philosophy, science, and theology, but it also involves a journey of inward healing that has consequences ranging from cosmology to social justice. Making progress on an intellectual problem like the nature of matter means little if it does not change the way we think, feel, and act regarding the most basic elements of our quotidian lives.

 

Spirit and matter is first in my brief list of dualisms because rediscovering their proper ordering provides the key to unlocking the right relationship of all the other pairs. Being modern means being at home in the physical world in ways that pre-modern people never experienced. We are masters of matter, breaking open the smallest units of physical stuff to reveal secrets and unleash powers that the ancients hardly dared imagine. Matter to us is the name we give to opportunity, progress, and growth. Matter for the ancients smacked of limit, decay, and demise. That is why the divine was so often defined in terms of its immateriality. By immateriality, the ancients did not mean nothing. But they did mean something like “the opposite of material.” God is not limited, does not change, and never dies. God is eternal, beyond time and space, because God is immaterial. Immaterial does not signify something substantial. Instead, it suggests a negative. It is, quite literally, the opposite of material. It is the argument of this book that defining God according to immateriality, which involves a complex edifice of various philosophical assumptions and arguments, does not do justice to the way we modern people interact with the material stuff of everyday existence.

 

I would even go so far as to say that we are much more comfortable today in finding immateriality within the material, rather than outside of it, since we understand as the ancients did not that the stuff of the universe is not only saturated with forces and relationships that boggle the mind but also that matter itself has little to do with standard qualities like hardness and resistance. In the atomic age, it is hard not to think of matter as the smallest conceivable bits of stuff, even when we know that there are massless particles and that particles correspond in some weird way to anti-matter, not to mention that particles disappear altogether in dark matter, whatever that is. And we know that there are more states of matter than solids, liquids, and gases. First there was plasma, then various forms of matter that do not exist naturally, like degenerate matter, supersolids, superfluids, something called quark-gluon plasma and, most recently, a new kind of liquid dubbed “dropletons.” The more scientists discover about matter, the less material it seems to be. If scientists can help us think about immateriality in new ways, then thinking about matter should help us to think about God in new ways too.

 

These developments lend new meaning to the word “materialism.” Christians can feel threatened by those who think that only the physical is real, but they shouldn’t be, since the physical covers a lot more reality than it used to. The hard sciences are becoming more metaphysical in their attempts to grasp the mysteries of matter, so why shouldn’t theology become more material in its understanding of the divine? Scientists no longer know how to define matter, but they still believe that there must be a unifying theory that explains matter in all of its various manifestations and movements. That is, there must be something like an essence of matter, even if that essence is an awful lot like what philosophers and theologians used to call “spirit.” It is possible, of course, that the natural sciences will never discover this essence without relying on revelations about the supernatural, since matter has its origin, being, and end in God. The relationship between science and religion, then, has never been more open than it is today.

 

What is taking place in philosophy and the sciences is also happening among everyday believers who are eager to discover a holistic spirituality that integrates all of physical reality into a theological worldview. People are hungry to make sense of their material lives, and theologians are responding with new ways of thinking about embodiment. This theological development is happening across denominations and traditions. For example, Catholics, after Vatican II, talk of not just the sacraments but a sacramental imagination that begins with the liturgy of the mass but, far from stopping there, takes in an expansive  and material approach to God’s interactions with the world. Lutherans explore vocation as a way of embracing the embodied nature of our spiritual journey, and Presbyterian and other Reformed Christians continue to embrace the many ways in which grace extends to every area of human activity. Pentecostals have taught all Christians to be more open to the unpredictable and yet earthy and physical movements of the Holy Spirit. Evangelical Christians have brought the human body, with all of its emotional needs and concrete desires, right into the heart of worship. Megachurches appeal to every aspect of our personal, familial, and social lives, making room for every stage of life’s journey within the church. Progressive and conservative Christians disagree about a lot, but they agree that bodies matter, especially the bodies of those who are vulnerable, dependent, and weak. The physical form of life matters more to theology than it ever has. The Church is entering into a new era, it seems, where the resurrected body of Jesus is becoming the norm not just for our hopes and dreams about the afterlife but also for our appreciation for everyday matters and ordinary objects. The destiny of the physical world should be inscribed in how we treat the environment and how we value all bodies, especially the most vulnerable and marginal among us.

 

. . .  The subtle balance of power from the spiritual to the material has shifted so decidedly toward the latter that it is hard to imagine what needs to be moved to swing it back. When matter is mathematized, Christians are left appealing to the facts of revelation, whether those facts are located in the Bible or the Church, scripture or liturgy, and when the facts don’t seem clear enough, religion gets turned into an instrument of moral inspiration and social progress. Grace, in the old scheme, was a matter of the higher making room for the lower (and in Christianity, it was a matter of the highest making room for the lowest). But now space, whether its expansion is infinite or cyclical, appears void of depth even amidst its multiplying dimensions, and thus our material world no longer gives us the coordinates for distinguishing a vertical ascent from a horizontal maze. Given the triumph of math, we are forced to imagine that the relation of grace must be all one way or the other, since adding to one side subtracts from the other.

 

We are surely not done with being Platonic, but we just as surely cannot go back to Plato’s enchanted cosmos, where, in the Timaeus, the stars were both gods and animals, a perfectly reasonable thought if one supposes that perfection, form, and life can be one and the same. We are stuck with matter as our principal metaphysical subject, and we need a new metaphysics to respond to new advances in science. Those advances do not add up to a coherent cosmology, at least not yet, but they do dig deeper into the muck of physical stuff than anyone ever thought possible. We look up less than our ancestors, due to light pollution but also the demystification of the heavens—dark matter haunts us, where the night skies once illuminated the darkness—but we can take our theological bearings from what scientists are finding beneath our feet.

 

[1] Stephen H. Webb, “God of the Depressed,” First Things (19 February 2016)

 

Posted from Richmond, Virginia

 

 

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