Stephen Webb’s Mormon Christianity

Stephen Webb’s Mormon Christianity January 25, 2014

I recently had the pleasure of reading Stephen Webb’s Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints (Oxford, 2013). My review is up on the Books & Culture website — I characterize Mormon Christianity as “brilliant, provocative, and occasionally maddening.” The maddening, from my vantage point, is what I consider a rather needless critique of Calvinism that emerges strongly at the end of the book. On the other hand, Webb is not quite so unkind toward Calvinists as the first generation of Latter-day Saints, who joined in the anti-Calvinism sweeping through large segments of the American Christian landscape.

Webb’s subtitle is instructive. His is not an exhaustive examination of Mormon theology or culture, and he dispenses rather quickly with the question of whether or not Latter-day Saints are Christians. Instead, he carefully lays out the materialistic metaphysics of Mormon thought and argues that the idea of a permanently embodied Christ and an embodied God have much to offer the wider Christian world.

My summary of this point:

God is material, knowable, embodied, “not radically different from everything else that exists.” As spirits, human intelligences are eternal, existing before mortality in the presence of heavenly parents. That God is “one of us” does not impede Mormon wonder, awe, or love of the divine. Human beings can become more like God or even become gods, but in a universe of eternal progression God is also “ever becoming more Godlike.” Per Webb, Mormon materialism fosters a healthy, optimistic understanding of God, human beings, and the universe. Other Christians, Webb suggests, have a “breathtaking opportunity” to discover “the full intellectual richness of the Christian tradition” through Mormonism.

It is one thing to argue that other Christians might find much to admire among the Latter-day Saints: their expectation for lay service (makes sense when you have no clergy), their well-organized humanitarianism, their evangelistic zeal, their appreciation for music and the arts, to name only a few examples. I think most individuals who spend some time among the Latter-day Saints feel a few pangs of Mormon envy. While preparing to move my family to Germany for a year this past summer, it occurred to me many times that it would be nice a) to know where we would worship once we arrived; b) to have people help us move in and out; and c) to have a ready-made community of coreligionists. Needless to say, there was no Presbyterian welcoming committee.

As I write at the end of of the review, though, Webb faces an uphill battle in persuading other Christians to engage Mormon metaphysics (or ideas in general). As Richard Bushman once lamented in the wake of Rough Stone Rolling’s publication, “No one outside of the Mormons is taking Joseph Smith seriously.” I think one could actually take Joseph Smith too seriously and in the process miss out on his considerable mirth and occasional levity. He was a prophet whom one could find in the forest chopping wood or engaging in playful wrestling with his friends. Nevertheless, his words (in print and in sermons and in small gatherings) worked a powerful influence on those who encountered them. For instance, consider this reaction by Joseph Fielding to Smith’s 7 April 1844 sermon:

Joseph’s Discourse on the Origin of Man, the Nature of God and the Resurrection was the most interesting Matter of this time and any one that could not see in him the Spirit of Inspiration of God must be dark, they might have known that he was not a fallen Prophet even if they thought he was fallen.

Smith delivered this sermon less than three months before his death, at a time when there were more than a few church members in Nauvoo, Illinois who had concluded that he was a “fallen prophet.” The sermon in question is now known as the King Follett Discourse, prompted by Smith’s reflections on the accidental death of a church member named King Follett. Other Christians tend to find the King Follett Discourse highly objectionable and hubristic. Here Smith discusses his belief that God in heaven “is a man like yourselves” and discusses the potential for men to “arrive at the station of a God.” He rejects the doctrine of creation out of nothing, and he discusses the responsibility that church members have toward their “dead” (i.e., those who died outside of the church established in 1830): “the greatest responsibility that God has laid upon us to seek after our dead — the apostle says they without us cant be Perfect — now I am speaking of them I say to you Paul, you cant be perfect with[ou]t us.” [I am drawing here on the reports of Wilford Woodruff and Thomas Bullock].

Certainly, students of American religious history have to take Joseph Smith seriously on one level, as the founder of an indisputably significant church. Should one take his ideas seriously? As a Protestant Christian, I do not accept the central conclusions of the King Follett Discourse, but I can still appreciate both it and Joseph Smith. There’s Smith’s theological pluck and audacity, for starters. But also, as Webb points out, Smith’s ideas about matter and divinity, while unusual in antebellum America, were not entirely foreign to either the history of Christianity or the broader history of philosophy. And Smith’s emphasis on binding together the generations has an undeniable beauty even if one does not accept its necessity. As Smith outlined in an 1842 letter on the subject of baptism for the dead, “their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers — that they without us cannot be made perfect — neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” [The reference is to Hebrews 11:40, I believe]. Joseph Smith could move the hearts of men like Joseph Fielding because his emphasis on the communal nature of salvation spoke to deeply felt human needs and desires. Men and women already perceived eternal value in their earthly relationships, and Smith provided them with theological explanations for that value and provided them with rituals designed to make certain their eternal duration. To Smith’s ecclesiastical descendants, those ideas have certainly proved powerful and enduring, continuing to animate the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints nearly two centuries after its founding. And thus, as Webb contends, perhaps it is time for other Christians to take seriously those ideas and the metaphysics that lay beneath them.

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