Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints
Stephen H. Webb
Oxford University Press, 2013
217 pp., 38.95
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."
From this metaphysical starting point follow many Mormon beliefs. 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.
Webb's book is brilliant, provocative, and occasionally maddening. His prose is clear, making accessible to wider audiences conclusions he has advanced in more detail elsewhere. He is unstintingly generous toward his subject matter. That generosity will no doubt rankle some readers, but one should remember that Webb's subtitle is "what other Christians can learn from the Latter-day Saints." His book is not an appraisal of every aspect of Mormonism, so Webb does not spend detailing aspects of Mormon thought or culture he finds less attractive.
Webb is correct that Protestant Christians in particular could learn a great deal from their Mormon cousins (which presupposes an acceptance of Mormons within the larger communion of saints). Moreover, while acknowledging that even some Latter-day Saints see little congruence within Mormon beliefs, Webb persuasively sketches the basic Mormon way of understanding the cosmos. He does not persuade me, however, that "Mormonism is its metaphysics." The social cohesion, the discipline, and the sense of purpose that Webb and others admire about Mormonism certainly has something to do with Latter-day Saint metaphysics. Such things, however, have at least as much to do with Mormon history as with metaphysics. For instance, the Mormon ethic of hard work and cooperation relate to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young's insistence that one could not separate the spiritual and temporal realms and that all sorts of labor could build up the Kingdom of God on the earth. They also emerged through the practical rigors of settling a colony in the Great Basin. Mormonism is much more than its metaphysics. Indeed, other Christian churches might well decide to give all of their members "callings" or more actively provide for their temporal welfare in the face of unemployment or sickness without embracing a materialistic view of the universe.
The maddening part of Webb's book is his needless skewering of Calvinism as the "debatable heritage" from which Mormonism might free American Christianity. Anti-Calvinism has a rich and colorful history in the United States. The proudly unkempt Methodist itinerant Lorenzo Dow spent years exhausting horses, telling fortunes, prodding sinners toward emotional conversions, and castigating a theological system he loathed. "You can and you can't," he mocked Calvinism. "You shall and you shan't; you will and you won't—And you'll be damned if you do, and you'll be damned if you don't." The early followers of Joseph Smith, who prized free agency and thought hardly anyone would be damned, loved Lorenzo Dow's quote.
Webb is as merciless as Dow toward Calvinists, if not as humorous. Webb describes Calvinism as "a sturdy, singular, and perfectly gray branch" of the Christian tree. Mormonism, by contrast, "is a branch that extends precariously up rather than out, with countless twisting twigs cluttering its many-hued bark." The Mormon branch, Webb provocatively suggests, is "closer to the center of the tree." It is a "bigger set of ideas than Calvinism."
Webb prefers Joseph Smith to John Calvin. Smith's kinetic energy, mirth, and audacity certainly have much to commend them, and his ideas—as inchoate and scattered as Calvin's were refined and systematic—have rarely received the treatment they deserve (even from members of his own church). Still, it is odd to end this winsome treatment of Mormonism with an unnecessary and ungenerous critique of Calvinism. For the very large majority of American Protestants (only a small minority of which are committed Calvinists), the question is not whether they should prefer Joseph Smith or John Calvin. It is whether or not they should bother with Joseph Smith at all. Stephen Webb makes a strong case they that should.
John G. Turner is assistant professor of religious studies at George Mason University and the author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Harvard Univ. Press).
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