Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints
by stephen h. webb
oxford, 232 pages, $27.95
In the Evangelical world in which I was raised, “Mormon Christianity” would have been treated as an oxymoron. The Latter-day Saints were a devious cult who spoke like Christians but were intentionally hiding the fact that they meant something very different.
This harsh appraisal is still typical of much of the “counter-cult” movement, but it is no longer the generally accepted assessment of Mormon life and thought. For one thing, many Evangelicals, along with other Christians who hold right-of-center views about some much-debated matters these days, cast their votes for a Mormon candidate for the presidency—not the kind of thing you do if you simply accept the don’t-trust-the-Mormons narrative.
Even apart from Mormonism’s newfound political visibility, though, the “cult” image of the LDS doesn’t fit today’s realities. Brigham Young University is a world-class academic institution. Mormon authors write best-selling books. With over half of the 15 million Latter-day Saints living outside the United States, Mormonism has become an important global religious movement. Learning about Mormonism’s relationship to mainstream Christian and Jewish thought is becoming an important exercise, for cultural as well as theological reasons.
It is not surprising, then, that many people in the religious world are asking questions—typically, these days, with genuine puzzlement rather than overt hostility—about the content of Mormon belief. A friend of mine, a businessman, captured the tone of this concern when he asked me for practical theological advice: “One of my business partners is Mormon. A great guy. When we have lunch together, he offers to pray over our food. He sounds like he is talking to the same God that I pray to. Is he?”
On the level of straightforward theological formulations, I would have to say he is not. Mormons believe that the divine and the human are, as one of their leaders once put it, “of the same species.” Like human beings, the members of the Godhead, Mormonism teaches, have physical bodies. That contention stands in sharp contrast to traditional Jewish and Christian understandings of God as the totaliter aliter, the “Wholly Other,” who, self-contained in his own being, called forth the creation ex nihilo.
From a mainstream Christian perspective, Mormonism’s denial of the unbridgeable ontological gap between God and humankind is deeply troublesome. How can we take seriously Mormons who claim that they represent the true restoration of biblical faith when they depart so radically from what Jews and Christians have always taken as the most basic fact about the God of the Bible?
Mormons willingly admit that they have a very different conception of God than the rest of us, but—as my businessman friend was discovering—when they talk about their faith in “Heavenly Father” and pray over their meals, they actually seem to be closer to us in their understanding than we are led to believe by their doctrinal formulations.
Take, for example, the orthodox-sounding declaration by Joseph Smith, on the occasion of the founding of the LDS Church in April 1830: “We know,” he said, “that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them.”
It is that kind of talk about the deity that explains why Mormons like to sing “How Great Thou Art,” even when the rest of us are not listening. This should lead us to be a bit more trusting when Mormons tell us what they believe. There is no good reason, for example, to doubt that the late LDS president Gordon Hinckley was speaking candidly when he was asked in 1997 by Time magazine about the idea that God the Father had at one time been a human being. Hinckley’s response: “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. . . . I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it.”
Robert Millet, Mormonism’s best-known present-day theologian, when pressed to explain how to reconcile the Mormon denials of the “omni-” divine attributes with their ways of actually talking about God among themselves, suggests that for Mormons the metaphysical distance between humans and the divine is “almost infinite.” And it is precisely this move closer to the traditional formulations that encourages us to keep pushing our Mormon friends on these matters. The great nineteenth-century Calvinist preacher Charles Spurgeon once remarked that while he had very serious objections to John Wesley’s theology, he did take comfort from the fact that when Wesleyans were on their knees they prayed like Calvinists. Similarly, some of us are convinced that we should pay careful attention to the kind of theology that seems to be at work when Mormons are on their knees.
Stephen Webb will have nothing to do, however, with any effort by traditional Christians to prod Mormons toward more orthodox formulations in their doctrine of God. He does not want them to change. Rather, he thinks that it is the rest of us in the Christian world who should do the changing. Webb is convinced that the “same species” ontology contains profound insights that the rest of us would do well to incorporate into our own understanding of God with humanity.
Full disclosure: Webb spends several pages criticizing me in this book. He sees me as “asking Mormons to swallow Calvin with a big helping of Plato thrown in for good measure.” While I don’t think that I have pushed John Calvin’s theology very hard with my Mormon friends, I have urged them to do some tasting of Reformation formulations regarding the relationship between faith and works.
Webb’s toss-out reference to Plato points to Mormonism’s insistence that the Council of Nicaea set the Christian movement on the wrong course by imposing Greek philosophical categories onto the simple faith in Jesus set forth in the New Testament. It would be interesting to know how Webb responds to the wonderful way that Fr. John Courtney Murray deals with this “Greek influence” charge in his classic, The Problem of God. There the great Jesuit convincingly demonstrates that the classical creedal formulations about “being” and “substance” were not impositions of alien philosophical categories, but the result of a necessary search for words that could capture the sense of Scripture and guard against dangerous misreadings of the biblical texts.
There is much in Webb’s discussion that I would want to argue with, but I can’t help but like his book. He may overdo things in his effort to offer a best-case portrayal of Mormon theology. But given all the worst-case portrayals that we have had in critiques of Mormonism for the past century and a half, it is good to have an account that goes about as far as one could imagine in the other direction.
One of the instructive contributions Webb offers in his provocative treatment is his lengthy analysis of “materialism.” Indeed, scholars who are not especially interested in Mormonism as such can still find much of philosophical interest here. The very term “materialism” is, of course, passé these days. The preferred term in philosophical circles is “physicalism,” understood as the view that ultimately all that exists can be adequately explained within the framework of the laws of physics, where what physicists study—the likes of “fields” and “energy impulse waves,” for example—is a far cry from what was once thought of as “matter in motion.”
Webb looks at how Orson Pratt, one of Mormonism’s early scholars, explored topics that, as Webb sees it, anticipated much of the metaphysics of present-day physics research (including “the multiverse”), arguing that a Pratt-like combining of a scientific materialism with elements of “the magical” was, admittedly crudely, an anticipation of recent developments in physics.
More significant, though, is Webb’s insistence that in seeing God as fully contained within this “material” realm, Mormonism is onto something big. Indeed, that something is so big that it is inadequate simply to welcome the LDS as a sub-group in the larger Christian world. Mormonism should actually be celebrated, he insists, as “a complete form of Christianity” for the way it “presents a unique challenge and a breathtaking opportunity for American Christianity.”
Webb’s enthusiasm for Mormonism has, by his own admission, much to do with his own spiritual journey. He grew up in a fundamentalist-type congregation of the Stone-Campbell movement, and, finding that style of Christianity inadequate, he finally converted to Catholicism. At the same time, though, he has missed certain elements of the Evangelicalism of his youth; thus his attraction to the way in which Mormonism “combines elements of Protestantism and Catholicism” while being more than just the sum of the two. Like Evangelicalism, Mormonism appeals to the subjective elements of faith. But like Catholicism, it makes claims to the exclusivity of its core beliefs while exhibiting a considerable theological elasticity, in a manner that Webb finds compelling.
While Webb spends much time exhorting us to take seriously Mormonism’s “same species” metaphysics of the divine, it is difficult to grasp exactly what this all amounts to. Sometimes, as when he suggests that we might consider the notion “that matter and spirit are just different names for the same thing, depending on how you look at it,” his recommendation seems to be straight out of Spinoza. At other points, his positive formulations come across as only slight variations on recent process theology. He claims that these metaphysical contentions amount to “Mormonism’s strong suit,” such that “no other theology has ever managed to capture the essential sameness of Jesus with us in a more striking manner.” Well, some of us have been “struck” in very different ways by inspiring accounts in the Christian tradition regarding the incarnate Savior’s “sameness” with us.
In summing up his case for the virtues of Mormonism, Webb makes the bold claim that if he “had to choose between [Joseph] Smith and [John] Calvin, I would unhesitatingly choose Smith.” The dialogue partner that Mormonism needs, he says, is Catholicism. Both theologies are “capacious and expansive.” He laments that Mormons are often “too committed to being part of the Protestant world to recognize just how close to Catholicism they come.”
Yes, of course. It all began for the Mormon movement in Palmyra, New York, and when the young Joseph Smith expressed his confusion “in the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions,” he was clearly referring to the angry arguments among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians—Catholics were not primary actors in this setting. And yes, it would certainly be good for Catholic thinkers to take up the challenge of an extensive theological dialogue with Mormons. Webb is also right in wanting Catholics to urge Mormons to be sure that their metaphysical views are always “tightly grounded in Christology.” In our human attraction to Jesus, he says, “we are actually responding to our own deepest and longest reality. . . . All honor and glory should go to him.”
All that points to a fine agenda for a Catholic dialogue with Mormons. But it will be a richer conversation if Calvinists and other Protestants are also participants in the conversation. After all, the sixteenth century also had its “war of words and tumult of opinions,” and the issues at stake then were captured by the Protestant insistence on the three “solas”—grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone. A few of us on the Protestant side of those continuing discussions with our Catholic friends have also been spending much time in dialogue with Mormons on similar matters. It would be great to see all of that expanded into a trialogue, and if it happens we can express gratitude to Stephen Webb for his important prodding.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.