This lecture is a great and humbling honor for me. When I first started a serious study of Mormonism, I read the works of two men. The first was David Paulson, and I would like to dedicate this lecture to him. Although I never had David Paulson in the classroom, I would be very pleased to be counted as one of his students. The other scholar was Truman Madsen. His book Eternal Man was unlike any theology I had ever read. I did not even think such theological views were possible, let alone that they could be delivered in such refreshingly inspiring and engaging probes.
Reading these two men convinced me that I was going to be in for a transformative and joyous ride with Mormon theology, and I have not been disappointed. On the day that I was putting the final touches on my book Jesus Christ, Eternal God, which includes a discussion of Mormon theology, I was rereading the Book of Mormon. I don’t think I had really seriously read the preface that Joseph wrote to it, and I was very happy to find in the preface that Joseph used those very same words as my title, calling Jesus Christ the eternal God. That confirmed to me that I had found a kindred spirit.
With Mitt Romney’s defeat in the presidential election, it might be tempting to say that the Mormon moment is over. I think that would be short-sighted. It is probably true that the media will turn its attention elsewhere looking for something new that will sell the news, but I think interest in Mormonism sparked by Romney’s campaign has the potential to open up a Mormon moment of much greater duration and lasting significance. This longer moment is what I call the new Mormon Ecumenicism.
Ecumenical means ‘of worldwide scope or application’ and Mormonism, with its impressive overseas growth, is clearly ecumenical in that sense. But ecumenical also means ‘the attempt to restore unity to Christian churches separated by history, doctrine and practice.’ At its best, the ecumenical movement tries to show how the various branches of Christianity are all nourished by and contribute to the same root. The ecumenical movement, unfortunately, has fallen on hard times. Old theological battles have not been won or lost, and little progress has been made by replacing theological dialogue with social engagement. Nonetheless, there is reason to suspect that Christianity is on the verge of potentially radical transformations. The rise of a truly global Christian community is breaking down not only geographical barriers but also doctrinal walls that have kept churches divided for centuries. A fresh start is needed, and what better way to revisit Christianity’s past and to re-envision Christianity’s future than to examine one of the youngest branches on the Christian tree?
The Mormon branch of Christianity is young, but it is also gnarled with the wisdom of the ancient past. Scholars categorize Mormonism as an example of nineteenth century restorationism. Many of the early leaders of and converts to Mormonism were inspired by Joseph Smith because they did not find what they were looking for in any other church. Lots of people in America’s frontiers shared this general dissatisfaction with the state of Christianity. I grew up in a restorationist church that is part of the Campbellite-Stone tradition. For us, restoration meant going back to the Bible. We thought that the only way we could counter the forces of secularization was by rising above history in order to return to a simplified version of the New Testament church. Mormon restorationism is unlike this or any other version. For Mormons, restoration requires an arduous work of reconstruction that leaves no room for a nostalgic view of the past. Rather than abridging the gospel, Mormonism dares to maximize it in all of its lush complexity. So much of Christianity’s richness was discarded in the early Church’s struggle for institutional stability and theological consensus. Those hard-fought theological battles left scars. They were not so much healed as they were covered up by the questionable medicine of amnesia. Joseph Smith’s most important intellectual virtue, it seems to me, was an ability to look into the past with an utterly fearless and therefore expansive, not contractive, imagination. Christianity today, for all of its global success and growth, remains a divided and fragmented faith. What if Mormonism could help Christians find the unity that is so central to our common witness to Jesus Christ?
Early Mormon thinkers like the Pratt brothers and Brigham Young, following Joseph Smith’s lead, were drawn to the speculative prospects of ideas like divinization, materialism, and ongoing prophecy. Their eagerness to explore the intellectual train of a fully embodied divinity strengthened them in the struggles they underwent for their faith. Mormonism spread far and wide, but many of its most important ideas about God did not sink very deeply into America’s theological terrain. The idea that God is embodied, in particular, had little appeal to America’s emerging class of professionally trained theologians. They were eager to prove that they were the match of their European peers and anxious to salvage, by the end of the nineteenth century, the moral ideals of Christianity from Darwinian materialism.
All of that has changed today. Theologies of the body abound, for example, driven by the goal of overcoming dualistic theories of the mind and the need for better understanding of God’s relationship to the material world. Scientists continue to discover new forms of matter while philosophers speculate about how novel properties can emerge from the interaction of relatively simple physical systems. Physicists have poked so many holes in the atom that there seems to be little left of our common sense preconceptions of what matter is. The physical world is not as solid as it once appeared to be.
The scientific mysteries and metaphysical complexities of matter indicate that the time is ripe to reconsider the old Platonic axiom that God is pure spirit. If so, then Christian theology might be ready for transformation every bit as momentous as when the Church Fathers made the crucial decision to align themselves with the best of Greek philosophy. Like all restorationists, Smith taught that the Church had lost sight of its original message. Many Mormon scholars have identified the alignment of Christianity with Platonism—or, to use more colorful language, Augustine’s baptism of Plato—as the source of theology’s decline. Caricatures of Plato’s philosophy should be avoided, but we should not shy away from recognizing Plato’s achievement in being the first philosopher to articulate immaterial entities. Plato’s metaphysical breakthrough, when appropriated by Augustine, became Christianity’s common sense. The idea that God, the soul, and all heavenly realities are immaterial, however, pushed the divine beyond the reach of most people’s imagination and (according to the Mormon account of Church history) separated the institutional expression of the Church from its revelatory ground. The removal of God from the realm of sense perception resulted in a crisis of religious authority. The systematic ambition of creedal formulations increasingly took the place of testimony and prophecy.
Note that the problem that plagues Church history from this perspective is not institutionalization in itself. The saints, unlike radical reformation groups, are not wide-eyed decriers of the impulse to organize religious sentiment in hierarchical structures. Unlike churches in the radical reformation tradition, the saints are not nostalgic for a form of primitive Christianity that preceded Christendom, the period in which Christianity united cultural, social, and political authority in Western Europe. The saints are thus not tempted to privatize Christianity by denying credibility to any and every political authority and withdrawing from the world of social responsibility and civic engagement. The problem with creeds, when seen in the light of what I would call a metaphysical reading of church history, is that dogmatic consensus grounded in the philosophical abstractions of an immaterial world view can never do justice to the reality and power of Jesus Christ. Whatever else it is, Mormonism is a reminder that the past is never completely over, gone, and forgotten. Roads not taken can appear out of nowhere as possibilities for future exploration. Options and alternatives that once seemed closed can open up in surprising ways.
As a Roman Catholic, I believe that the early Church was guided by divine providence towards creeds and hierarchies that were necessary for institutional survival and theological coherence. Christianity had to set itself apart from the violent world of pagan mythologies, gnostic fantasies where gods fought each other, and a cosmos governed by neither mercy nor law. Most of the alternatives to Christianity portrayed the material world as evil, a proposition that struck many people in the ancient world as common sense, given how short and painful life could be. Even the gods who were sympathetic to the human plight could hardly be bothered to take notice of human souls trapped in heavy, decaying flesh with its fleeting pleasures. The better gods kept their distance in the heaven, above all the cruelty and carnage here below. In this cosmic drama, the gnostic one, humans were nothing more than a sideshow with no one to save them and no guarantee of a happy ending.
The early Church took a variety of measures to turn back the tide of these metaphysical fables with their monstrous spiritual implications. Theologians posited that God created the world out of nothing in order to show that matter was under God’s complete authority and thus not mired in evil. The immortality or preexistence of the soul was denied in order to make sure that everyone understood that God has no competitors—or even allies—in his status as the only eternal being. The doctrine of Providence began eclipsing the belief of human free will in order to assure the faithful that God is in control of the universe. Arguably, all of these positions were good, rightful, and needed in their day, and they were affirmed by devout followers of Jesus Christ for the best of reasons. Nonetheless, there might be reasons in our own time to give their alternatives another look.
Mormonism is about more than matter, of course. A strong case can be made for the importance of other Mormon teachings in the revival and reunification of Christianity today. The question of matter, however, for me lies at the heart of modern perplexities about religious faith. Atheism is widespread because so many people think that every aspect of existence can be reduced to a set of physical causes. Even while scientists keep pushing the limits of our ability to imagine what matter is, what the world needs now is what it has always needed: a renewed and renewing sense of the reality of God. How can God matter to the modern world when people today have a worldview that is so thoroughly enmeshed in the physical world? This is where Joseph Smith’s revelations about the nature of God have the potential to guide the Church into a new age. Could it be that Smith, who had virtually no formal education, put in motion ideas that could overturn all of western theology and philosophy? That claim sounds incredible, but it is actually very plausible.
The world of ideas today seems to be stuck between a rock and an empty place. That is, between the hard, reductive, yet scientifically successful explanation of all things by reference to material causation and the insistence that our minds, as well as all that we most value in life, are not the product of arbitrary and random physical forces. The mechanical view of matter treats nature as a machine that follows the laws of strict causal determinism which leaves no room for freedom. Immaterialists respond to reductionists by insisting that our minds are not identical to our brains. Our thoughts and ideas are real, but they do not occupy physical space. Reductionists scoff at the possibility that anything could exist without being located somewhere while immaterialists bemoan the picture of our world bereft of all the qualities that make human life meaningful and unique. The debate between these two camps seems interminable and unceasing. Is there a solution?
Mormon metaphysics opens the possibility of a third way between these two alternatives. Plato invented the idea of immaterial substances when he argued that our knowledge of something is really our knowledge of an idea of that thing. Matter, for Plato, was simply unknowable because our knowledge of matter is limited to the form it takes. Matter by itself, therefore, is close to being nothing, since it has being only when it is formed in some fashion. Aristotle is often thought to have had a better, more positive view of matter, but his definition of matter is pure potentiality left as a lifeless opposition to the pure actuality of God. The theologians who adopted the philosophy of Plato and his students were more concerned about the Greek insistence on matter’s eternity than the problem of matter’s knowability. Following Augustine’s lead, they put a stop to matter’s eternity by positing the idea that God created the world out of nothing. This had the effect, however, of making matter even more mysterious, since there is no analogy to human experience for someone being able to create something out of nothing. After Augustine, only something immaterial could be eternal, and a great gulf opened up between the divine and everything else.
Smith began bridging the gulf between spirit and matter with his first vision, in which he saw God the Father and God the Son as two individual and fully embodied persons. He could have denied the reality of what he saw by treating his vision as an example of how God, infinite and mysterious, accommodates himself to our finite state by appearing to be something he is really not. Or he could have treated what he saw as simply an empirical fact. That is, he could have treated his vision no different from seeing a couple farmers walking down the road. He did neither of these, I think. Instead, he accepted the reality of what he saw while at the same time affirming the even greater reality of what all Christians will see in heaven. In other words, he inferred from his vision that the world consists of multiple levels of physical reality rather than simply two kinds of substances, one material and one immaterial. Christians have always believed that our physical bodies will be transformed in heaven, and thus, deeply hidden within Christian faith, is the acknowledgement of matter’s potential glorification. Smith provided this belief with a truly cosmic foundation by showing how the very criterion of becoming spiritual entails the perfection, not the evacuation, of material existence.
Joseph Smith did not live long enough to develop his convictions about matter into a full-fledged theological world view. That task, though, is taken up by an early convert named Orson Pratt. There was nothing in Orson Pratt’s background to suggest that he would end up being Mormonism’s first systematic metaphysician. His intellectual labors were but one piece of his missionary work. He was the first Mormon missionary in Scotland, where he absorbed the heated debates about science and religion that were prevalent in Edinburgh. He took to writing pamphlets, almanacs, and books in defense of Smith’s revelations, but he was more than an apologist. In fact, he was a creative and quirky thinker of a kind that was common in the fourteenth century, but increasingly rare in the twentieth, when higher education became professionalized and the various fields of knowledge isolated by specialization.
I am convinced that Orson Pratt was one of the most inventive, fascinating, and bold thinkers of nineteenth century America. I am also completely aware that he was absolutely wrong about many of the scientific ideas that he proposed. It is true that, like most intellectual adventurers, he had too much confidence and too little self-criticism. His mind was endlessly active and his conjectures always original. Pratt put Smith’s vision of the continuity of spirit and matter to work by showing how it could be used to dismantle much of Western philosophy and point the way toward a totally new theological foundation for Christian faith. An unabashed atomist, Pratt defined matter as “Every substance in space, whether visible or invisible.” He thought material substance consists of “inconceivably minute, solid, hard, impenetrable, immutable, atoms.” For Pratt, atoms are both eternal and intelligent, by which he means that they have the capacity to feel or apprehend each other. This capacity is how intelligence comes into the world. Intelligence begins, then, with a rudimentary kind of awareness and grows from there.
Pratt’s most creative application of his theory of matter is to the theology of the Holy Spirit. The third member of the trinity has always been a somewhat overlooked and neglected aspect of the divinity. Augustine defined the Holy Spirit as the mutual love of the Father and the Son. That does not give it much independence as a divine person in its own right. The Greek word for spirit, pneuma, means wind or life, which is an apt image for a force that is unpredictable or emotional. The New Testament also calls the spirit our advocate, consoler, and comforter. The Spirit inspires us to keep following Jesus after his ascension to heaven. Clearly, the Holy Spirit has tasks that make it distinct from the Father and Son, yet traditional theology hesitates to affirm any difference between the three due to the conviction that God is immaterial. If God is immaterial, then God cannot be divided. Even the work that God does in the world has to be one.
The ancient rule of the Church is that what one member of the trinity does, they all do. They act in absolute concert and harmony. It is this theological rule that has kept theologians from devoting sufficient attention to the distinct reality of the Holy Spirit’s power. By affirming a material God, Mormons have a more robust understanding of the individuality of each member of the trinity. For Pratt, the Father and Son are embodied beings in a way that the Holy Spirit is not. The Holy Spirit is a kind of super material substance that is in a class of its own. He often called it the ‘holy fluid’ because its substance was uniquely available and universally distributed. The Holy Spirit is a kind of gravitational force that, rather than pulling physical objects closer to each other, lifts this spiritual substance of every object toward higher levels of perfection. Pratt’s theology of the Holy Spirit never became Mormon doctrine, probably because he did not give an adequate account of Joseph’s revelation showing that the Holy Spirit has its own body with its own specific form. Another theological problem is that Pratt appears to elevate the Holy Spirit above the Father and Son in terms of importance and power. These theological deficiencies, however, do not take away from Pratt’s philosophical prescience.
Since Pratt’s time, philosophers and theologians have been scrambling to reformulate the basic propositions of Western metaphysics in order to keep up with scientific advances. Process philosophers talk about matter in terms of events which are so intimately related to each other that they can be said to ‘feel’ each other. The field of emergent order studies argues for top-down causation to explain how novelty emerges from chaos. Quantum mechanics suggest that the smallest particles just might exhibit some of the traits that we ordinarily associate with human freedom. String theory has given rise to speculation about multiple universes (which was a favorite topic for Pratt following Joseph’s vision) or “worlds without number.” In biblical studies, scholars are just starting to realize how deeply corporealistic the Israelite understanding of God was. The same can be said about the Stoic influence on the apostle Paul. In fact, an index of how far we have come from the New Testament world is that when most Christians hear Paul talking about the spirit, they automatically assume that he is talking about an immaterial substance when it is much more likely that he accepted the Stoic view of the material constitution of divinity. What would it mean for all Christians today to recover a sense of the real physical power and presence of the Holy Spirit?
Perhaps the most important legacy of Pratt’s voluminous writings is to make the case that a material God, besides being able to share our joys and sufferings, just might be even more mysterious than an immaterial God. After all, a material conception of the divine requires us to reconceive the majesty of the physical world in ways that the sciences have not yet fathomed. Only if matter is not perfectible does its attribution to God disparage and denigrate God’s glory. It certainly makes it easier to understand God’s love for us as well as God’s willingness to suffer on our behalf if we let matter into the heart of divinity.
Surprisingly enough, the Mormon view of God might not, at the end of the day, look so different from the Roman Catholic position. Indeed, Mormonism and Catholicism have a lot in common. In spite of the fact that Joseph Smith had little contact with Roman Catholics during his formative years, the two traditions share a love of ritual, an affirmation of the holiness of space, a robustly conservative moral tradition, a respect for the necessity of religious authority, and a strong sense of a community of believers that transcends the limits of time to include the dead. Mormons and Catholics also share a conviction that the material world can convey the substance of the divine. They express this conviction in different ways. For Catholics, everything about matter is concentrated into the singular moment of the Eucharist. Mormons, by contrast, have a very Protestant understanding of communion. This confused me when I first began studying Mormonism and talking with Mormons. How could Mormons have such a creative view of the ultimate destiny of matter and, at the same time, have a low, pragmatic, and somewhat informal view of the Lord’s Supper?
The answer to that question came to me when I began to realize that Mormons have their own version of transubstantiation, which is located in a different theological place than Roman Catholicism. Both Catholics and Mormons believe that Jesus Christ initiates, instantiates, and consummates the process of redeeming material creation so that our hopes and dreams for eternal fulfillment in God include our whole bodies. For Catholics, transubstantiation is dramatized in a quite literal way in the Eucharist, where the bread and wine become the first fruits of the eschatological economy of Christ’s abundantly capacious body. For the saints, Eucharist is a symbolic meal providing a visible lesson—indeed, a tactile reminder—of what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross.
You should know that Catholics believe that Mormons have imbibed a bit too deeply of the Protestant critique of ritual which turns communion in to an inward and subjective journey and away from matter. This reading of Mormonism is seriously flawed, I think, because it looks for transubstantiation in Mormon theology in all the wrong places. Mormons can appear to treat the Lord’s Supper as a memorial affair because the saints actually locate transubstantiation in the potential for every event, no matter how mundane, to convey God’s grace.
As Elder Holland said in a talk entitled Of Souls, Symbols and Sacraments (and I love this quote): “A sacrament could be any one of a number of gestures or acts or ordinances that unite us with God and his limitless powers. . . . [F]rom time to time—indeed, as often as is possible and appropriate—we find ways and go to places and create circumstances where we can unite symbolically with him, and in so doing gain access to his power. Those special moments of union with God are sacramental moments. . . . These are moments when we quite literally unite our will with God’s will, our spirit with his spirit, where communion through the veil becomes very real. At such moments we not only acknowledge his divinity, but we quite literally take something of that divinity to ourselves.”
Matter itself in Mormonism is bursting with transubstantiating power. Everything we do should rise to the occasion of the Lord’s Supper. Where Mormons focus their imagination of transubstantiation the most is in the afterlife. No Christian tradition has ever had such a concrete, specific, and creative view of heaven. Every good thing we do in this life the saints believe, we will do in the next, only with pure joy and greater results. In the next life, the saved will exercise power over matter sufficient to create and rule new worlds. The true limits of matter will be discerned as the necessary condition for matter’s rehabilitation from every evil, and all false limits on matter will be lifted. The cosmos, which Mormons believe is already infinite, will multiply exponentially. Transubstantiation will become the law of the cosmos, not just a Sunday morning ritual, and the glorious body of the resurrected Lord will be at the center of it all.
If a Mormon moment can usher in a spiritual vision worthy of our modern materialistic age, then I welcome it wholeheartedly as a providential ripening of Smith’s prophetic vocation. No other branch of the Christian tree is so entangled in complex and fascinating ways with the earliest and most neglected doctrines of the church, and no other branch extends so optimistically, embracingly upward and outward as it stretches toward a cosmic and Christ-centered horizon.
Question and Answer
Question: I was interested in hearing your view about materiality and the vicarious rituals that Mormons engage in in the temple—baptisms for the dead and such things—how that relates to your vision of Mormon materiality and how that relates to ancient Christian thought as well.
Dr. Webb: I think the temple rituals are really where the transubstantive imagination of Mormonism is at its strongest and clearest. Mormonism, like Catholicism, tries to articulate a bond between the living and the dead. One of the most significant things the Protestant Reformation did was draw a very hard and fast line between the living and the dead. The Protestant reformers did not want and did not believe in any kind of interaction between the two—praying for souls in purgatory, for example, and the idea that angelic beings or people in heaven could intervene and we could actually interact with them. These were things that were ruled out of the Protestant theology, and I think Christianity suffered from that.
Clearly, I think one of the many things that Joseph was doing to repair that breach, if you will, was to try to cross that barrier between spirit and matter. I think Joseph had a real sense that the power of the spirit, whether it be the Holy Spirit itself or the spirit of God, is a real power, a power that really connects. I think that when you don’t have that sense of the Holy Spirit as a real, physical power that actually connects matter to matter, then some of these rituals—whether it is in the Catholic Church, in terms of purgatory, or in the Mormon Church, doing baptisms for the dead—don’t make sense to modern Christians. That is where I think Joseph Smith has a lot to teach us and actually has something in common with Catholicism.
Question: I really appreciated your insights about the potential of our church to speak to and forge bonds within the Christian body. Since the Mormon movement spoke beyond the Christian body as well (the entire country, in some ways, was looking at our church and our culture), are there ways that your Mormon ecumenical moment speaks not only to Christians but to those of other faiths or those of a non-theistic background? Does ecumenism only extend to the Christian body, and if so, why?
Dr. Webb: I think it does, because as Christianity becomes more connected globally, one of the central questions on the table is, “What about the relationship of Christian theology, as it developed in the West, to the Greek Platonic metaphysics that it adopted and assimilated?” So if you are a church like the Catholic Church or the Mormon Church, any church with global connections, what do you do in seminaries? What do you do in training? What do you do when you educate people in other parts of the world about your faith? Do you insist that they also absorb not just the faith, not just sacred scripture, but also all of the philosophical accoutrements that were pulled along with that?
I think that is a very complicated question. Do you ask Christians in Asia or Christians in Africa to have the metaphysical foundation of a very Western-style philosophy that is not a part of their tradition at all? I think, increasingly, we will see that the Platonic system can’t be imposed globally. If it can’t, that is going to mean some very important things. That means that Christianity is going to open up again—not only to real diversity, not only to accepting a variety of forms of expression of Christianity as all part of the Christian tree. There will continue to be squabbles about who is the biggest branch or who is the branch closest to the roots, but I think there will be an opportunity for all Christians all over the globe to go back and say, “What would have been the alternative history? What would Christianity have looked like if it had not taken certain metaphysical paths?” Of course, the Mormons will be ahead of the game in that sense, if you will, because they are a form of Christianity that already had not taken those paths. They already had pulled out of the past ideas and practices and beliefs that were discarded because of that particular trajectory. I think that is why Mormonism and Mormon beliefs will play a crucial and fascinating role in some discussions yet to come.
Your other question was about the atheistic world. I think the most pressing need for any philosophy of religion today is to deal with the question of matter. The reductive theories of human nature just proliferate, and people in higher education, people in the elite culture seem to hardly believe in freedom and free human agency anymore. There has got to be some way of rethinking Christianity’s view of matter and making human agency seem more real to people. Again, that is going to require a really different thinking through of matter.
The Platonic tradition really did end in a certain kind of dualism so that the soul or the mind is not really connected to the body. For the past 300 years or more, or at least since Descartes, philosophers have been squabbling about whether it is possible to have an immaterial view of the mind and how it is possible to connect the mind and the soul to the body. By the way, most philosophers have given up on that so now they are just trying to work through a reductive materialism. Matter is all you have. No supernatural, no spirit, no soul, no freedom. I think the most pressing need, really, with talking to unbelievers, is to rethink what matter is and to have a Christian version of materialism. If my reading of Joseph Smith is right, something that we really need to do as philosophers of religion is, once again, prepared for by—and has already been done to significant extent with—Mormon theology.
Question: This is something I have been wondering about for a while. You know how you were talking about the philosophical accoutrements? A lot of times with atomism and materialism, there is this automatic go-to towards determinism, which takes away a lot of moral responsibility. How can materialism work and still have free will? The only thing I can think of is some sort of chance, but I don’t know.
Dr. Webb: Well, I am hoping my study of Mormon theology will explain that to me. These issues aren’t easy, but clearly, we have to change our view of matter. If you define matter in terms of causal determinism, if you think of the explanation and understanding of matter as being exhausted by describing its causal nexus, then yes, materialism is viciously against any form of humanism, religion, or Christianity—any view of human freedom. I think there is a way to think of matter other than in that kind of mechanical model. By the way, I think science itself is pointing in these directions. No one knows what is happening causally on the quantum level, so the deeper you get to the roots of matter—whatever matter is—the less clear our theories of what causation actually is.
Question: Could it have something to do with chance? In quantum theory, the idea of collapsing wave forms, it is either there or not there at the same time?
Dr. Webb: Right, the indeterminacy of locating an electron.
Question: What I am wondering is, could some form of indeterminism allow agency?
Dr. Webb: Here is my view of that. There has been a lot of interest by Christian theologians, thinking about chance. Maybe chance is the magical doorway back into human freedom, since there seems to be chance—randomness—not only in biological systems but in the smallest of physical systems. Perhaps that is the way that we can think of freedom because the causal loop isn’t closed. I think that is a dead end. Chance is chance. Randomness is randomness. I don’t see how that leads to freedom, and I don’t see how God works through chance unless it is not really chance.
I think most of these discussions of chance have led nowhere. There have been some very interesting attempts to recuperate, if you will, the role of chance as a potential in thinking through some of these issues. The much better way to go is to think about the relationship between God and matter and to think about the potentiality of matter to be an attribute of the divine—in other words, to think of matter in new ways. I think that can perhaps usher in a better understanding of the relationship between freedom and matter.
Question: In approaching this topic, I would be interested in how you see this conversation between not only the Mormon faith and the Catholic faith but through Christianity and the world at large. How do you see that developing, given the fact that for a lot of it, we as professors, university students, and people who have the time and attention for higher education are grasping at the straws and barely broaching the subject? How do you see this conversation really affecting the individual and the world at large?
Dr. Webb: The conversation between Mormons and creedal Christians or other Christians?
Question: Yes, especially the breaking of the lines, the boundaries between certain doctrinal differences.
Dr. Webb: I am very optimistic about that. I think it is really just beginning. Bob Millet has done wonderful things, such as dialogues between Mormons and Evangelical Protestants. There have been some great things going on. I think the potential for dialogue between Mormons and Catholics has not been tapped at all. There has been very little done for that. The potential to me is perhaps infinite.
You have to start small. You have to start with conferences, with books, with your neighbors, and you just have to start talking about these things. I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about Mormonism, and I think Mitt Romney’s campaign did a lot of good. I think people are now thinking about Mormonism and willing to think seriously about it. I think the anti-Mormon prejudices are dissipating, like the anti-Catholic prejudices started dissipating by the 60’s. They were very strong in America. Protestants didn’t think Catholics were Christian or even trustworthy people.
I see the same thing. I think that we are experiencing the last bubble of anti-Mormon prejudice. It is just going to go away. The Mormon Church is too true to Christ, too generous, too charitable, too interesting, the theology is too biblical, and it is too fascinating to be dismissed like that. The more people know about Mormonism, the more they read about Mormonism, the more they think about it, the more these dialogues will happen. That might be up to your generation to do as well.
Question: Mormonism’s description of itself as the restoration of all things goes beyond the restoration of early New Testament Christianity and reaches back into the Old Testament quite substantially, particularly where you situate the idea of transubstantiation in temple ritual, which is definitely strongly connected to Old Testament thinking. I wonder if you have any comment about Hebraic elements and ancient Hebrew thought about matter and God and how that relates to Mormon thinking?
Dr. Webb: One of the things that I love most about Joseph is his Christocentric reading of the Old Testament. Before a more immaterial view of the divine became widespread and became the consensus in theology, early Christians read the Old Testament as a testament about Christ. For example, when the prophets or other people in the Old Testament saw God—and they did see God a lot—the early Christians said, “Well, what they saw when they saw God in human form was Jesus Christ.” When Ezekiel in Chapter 1 saw a human figure, divine, sitting on a dome, Christians said it was Jesus Christ. They might not have known it was Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ already is a fully embodied person with a spirit body, to use Mormon language, who was working in the world and was preparing the way for his own incarnation.
That is a beautiful reading of the Old Testament. You can trace out the exegesis of Ezekiel 1 and you can see them worry about that when you have a turn to immaterial divinity, because Jesus can’t have a form before the incarnation. So what was Ezekiel seeing? Well, he was seeing the God, the one God who was momentarily appearing as a human form but that wasn’t really who God was. So Ezekiel didn’t really see God, did he? So the Christological reading of the Old Testament drops out.
Another example of that is the role of Christ in creation. The apostle Paul says that the world was created in, through, and for Jesus Christ. Christ was at the foundation of the world. The early Christians believed that and preached that. This is another one of those doctrines that drops out of Christian theology. Not completely, but pretty much does. Why does it drop out? Well, when you have an immaterial understanding of the divine, as I think I said in my talk, what one does, they all do. There is a unity there that you don’t want to divide. So you can’t assign creation to one member of the trinity. You can say that God created the world, or maybe God the Father, but you don’t say that God the Son created the world. You don’t say Jesus Christ created the world. I was very moved when I started understanding and studying Joseph to realize that he understood that Jesus Christ is a creator. There are things like that that I think do affect our reading of the Old Testament and what the Old Testament is all about. These issues are at stake, and they are very important.