Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints
Stephen H. Webb
Oxford University Press, 2013
232 pp., $27.95
John G. Turner
In a letter to his cousin Willard Richards, the future Mormon leader Brigham Young once mocked the idea of a "sectarian God, without Body parts or passion, his center everywhere and circumference nowhere." How could Christians believe in such a God? Most Christians, then and now, would have thought the joke was on Young and his coreligionists. How could the Latter-day Saints believe in a God of flesh and bones? In Mormon Christianity, the evangelical-turned-Catholic philosopher Stephen Webb encourages Protestants and Catholics alike to take Mormon thought seriously. At its center, he contends, is their iconoclastic but not unprecedented understanding of an embodied God.
"I am not a Mormon," Webb writes at the outset of his book, "but sometimes I wish I were." Webb is not alone; I have also felt pangs of what he calls "Mormon envy." After talking with Latter-day Saints about their current church "callings," I wondered why my congregation didn't ask everyone to pitch in a bit more. After researching the travails and triumphs of countless Mormon pioneers, I have wished I had such ready access to the details of my own ancestors. I certainly would love any additional assurance that I will be with my family (at least most members thereof) for eternity. And if the church offered short-term membership passes, I would certainly sign up whenever moving into or out of a home. Mormonism offers obvious attractions, cultivating—in Webb's words—"a sense of belonging, purpose, and focus that is not easy to find in many churches today." With the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter LDS Church) having surpassed fifteen million members worldwide, many Protestant communions might look upon their Mormon counterparts with envy.
Webb quickly dispenses with the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians. "If any follower of Christ," he writes, "had to choose between a Jesus who began his ministry long before he was born in Bethlehem and a Jesus whose ministry was hardly different from any other great moral teacher, I hope it would be a very easy decision." Whereas many mainline Protestant theologians "have backed away from strong claims about the divinity of Jesus Christ," he contends, the Book of Mormon "is utterly obsessed with Jesus Christ … everything it teaches is meant to awaken, encourage, and deepen faith in him." Webb dismisses other objections to the Christianness of Mormonism. Many outsiders view the LDS Church's dietary code, emphasis on tithing, and ecclesiastical discipline as cultish. For Webb, Mormonism brings back a sense of discipline and social cohesion integral to the fundamentalism of his youth and often missing from the evangelicalism that Webb has now left behind. Webb also sympathetically interprets distinctive Mormon beliefs and practices (from baptism for the dead to theosis) in the context of early Christian history.
The above points are quite reasonable, though Webb skirts some material non-Mormons often find objectionable. While the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith's early revelations are overwhelmingly christocentric, Webb might have mentioned that Joseph Smith's subsequent theological and ritual innovations (such as the church's endowment ceremony) were decidedly less so. Still, the LDS Church has become steadily more christocentric over the past several decades.
For Webb, Mormon Christianity combines the best of both Protestantism and Catholicism "in a way that is more than something that simply adds them together." He notes that Mormonism shares Catholicism's ritual exclusivity, the exhortation of emotions (in testimony meetings) associated with evangelicalism, and—in its opposition to creeds and dogmas—in liberal Protestantism's "ethos of elasticity." Given the quiet reverence of contemporary Mormon spirituality, it might be easier to argue that evangelistic zeal rather than emotion illustrates Mormonism's debt to evangelical Protestantism. For Webb, Mormonism's "philosophical richness, organizational coherence, and ritual completeness" add up to more than a fringe curiosity. In his mind, studying Mormonism is "an exciting theological adventure" that should lead outsiders "to revise their maps of what they think they already know about Christianity."
At the heart of the matter for Webb is the Latter-day Saint understanding of matter. Rejecting the longstanding Christian appropriation of Platonic philosophy, Mormonism "denies that there is any kind of supernatural reality that we can hold up as a contrast or opposite to the physical world." Everything that exists is material, even if some material is more refined or advanced than other. Webb argues that Joseph Smith unknowingly reintroduced ancient ideas, including those of the neo-Platonic philosopher Iamblichus and early Christian theologians who argued that the Son of God had possessed a heavenly body prior to his incarnation. "Take away Plato from Christianity," argues Webb, "and you will … end up with something very much like the Mormon conception of the divine."