Two weeks ago, prolific American theologian Stephen H. Webb died. For a beautiful tribute, see this essay.
I knew Stephen because we read and reviewed each other’s books.
About five years ago or so, I was sitting in the Dallas airport waiting for a flight to a conference. Whenever I’m going to a conference, I always try to pick out those at the gate or on the plane who seem like fellow academics. This is usually not a hard task. We are a nerdy bunch.
In any event, I was able to deduce from his conversation with another colleague that the gentleman across from me was Stephen Webb. Other than the fact that he had praised a book of mine (an obvious sign of a discerning mind), I didn’t know that much about Stephen. But we shared the coincidence that we had both recently begun an interest in Mormonism.
In Webb’s case, the metaphysics and doctrines of Mormonism attracted him to the Latter-day Saints. In his Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter, the evangelical-turned-Catholic Webb explained that the Latter-day Saints share with certain strains of early Christian thought a belief that Jesus Christ possessed a heavenly body prior to his earthly life.
In his more recent Mormon Christianity, Webb unflinchingly declared that attraction. “I am not a Mormon,” he began, “but sometimes I wish I were one.” It is not a sentence that very many non-Mormon scholars of Mormonism would write. Webb explained that Mormonism’s tight-knit social community reminded him of his fundamentalist childhood. First and foremost, though, he admired the materialist metaphysics of Mormonism, and he declared that Mormonism’s creativity and capaciousness (and here he probably had Joseph Smith in mind more than the contemporary LDS Church) reminded him of what had attracted him to Roman Catholicism.
His final essay for First Things began with the observation that “Christians don’t talk enough about depression” and that for Christians, depression is when “your need for God is as great as your feeling of God’s absence.” Webb speculated that “Jesus himself must have experienced depression while being famished for forty days and nights in the wilderness, praying while his disciples slept, and descending into hell.”
One of Stephen Webb’s last published writings reviewed Terryl Givens’s Wrestling the Angel. Webb concludes at the end of his review:
So much of classical theism is devoted to the protection of God’s divinity, as if it is a scarce quantity that would lose value were it to be widely shared, but Mormon metaphysics assumes that there is more than enough divinity to go around. Our bodies both enable and limit the ways in which we share ourselves in this mortal state, but in heaven, matter will be a pure conduit for unlimited personal development, guided by the dominating presence of the personality of God.
I wish for Stephen Webb the peace in heaven he struggled to find on earth and the continuation of the exuberance and joy that he so aptly expressed in his books and essays.