Monday, August 15, 2011

Sacred Tribes Journal, Stephen Webb, Mormonism, and Christian Materialism

The next issue of Sacred Tribes Journal due out later this year will focus on neglected issues of dialogue between Latter-day Saints and traditional Christians. A major facet of this issue will interact with Stephen H. Webb.Webb's forthcoming book on divine embodiment. Webb did his PhD at the University of Chicago, and he teaches in religion and philosophy at Wabash College. He has written on various topics, including Mormonism, where he came across Robert Millet and Gerald McDermott's dialogue book Claiming Christ, found the interaction and subject matter intriguing, and wrote a piece for Reviews in Religion and Theology.

As an outgrowth of this, Webb has written Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, November 2011), where he argues that traditional Christians can learn from Mormonism regarding the notion of divine embodiment. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue for a traditional Christian notion of God's materiality, and that orthodox Christian theology needs to reflect further on this topic. Here is a description of the book provided by Webb:

If modern physics teaches us that matter is more mysterious than people used to think, could the spiritual be more material than theologians ever imagined? This book conceptualizes matter and spirit not as opposites or even contraries but as the very stuff of the eternal Jesus Christ. The result is a Christian materialism based on a new metaphysical interpretation of the incarnation. Webb provides an audacious revision of some of the deepest layers of Christian common sense with the goal of constructing a more metaphysically sound orthodoxy. Taking matter as a perfection (or predicate) of the divine requires a rethinking of the immateriality of God, the doctrine of creation out of nothing, the Chalcedonian formula of the person of Christ, and the analogical nature of religious language. It also requires a careful reconsideration of Augustine’s appropriation of the Neo-Platonic understanding of divine incorporeality as well as Origen’s rejection of anthropomorphism. Webb locates his position in contrast to evolutionary theories of emergent materialism and the popular idea that the world is God’s body. He draws on a little known theological position known as the “heavenly flesh” Christology, investigates the many misunderstandings of its origins and its relation to the Monophysite movement, and supplements it with retrievals of Duns Scotus, Caspar Scwenckfeld and Eastern Orthodox reflections on the transfiguration. Also included are discussions of classical figures like Barth and Aquinas as well as more recent theological proposals from Bruce McCormack, David Hart, and Colin Gunton. Perhaps most provocatively, the book argues that Mormonism provides the most challenging, urgent, and potentially rewarding source for metaphysical renewal today.
Francis Beckwith at Baylor University, a Roman Catholic scholar, and Charles Randall Paul of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, a Mormon scholar, have agreed to review Webb's book and responsive and interactive essays. Other essays, and a book review of Joseph Smith, Jesus, and Satanic Opposition (Ashgate, 2010), will also be included in this exploration of neglected issues in Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

I have just begun working through an advance copy of the uncorrected proof for Webb's Jesus Christ, Eternal God in preparation for my editing of this edition of STJ. I think readers will find the book, and the interactions at STJ of great interest, and some level of controversy (as Webb himself acknowledges), particularly where Webb interacts with Mormon metaphysics. From Webb's Introduction:
Chapter 9 might be the most controversial of my book, because I am convinced that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has much to contribute to contemporary theology, especially on the topic of Christian materialism. Unfortunately, creedal Christians rarely take Mormonism seriously. Perhaps the main reason for this neglect is the Mormon rejection of creation out of nothing, which puts it at odds with most of Western meta- physics and Christian theology. None of its philosophical positions has made it more prone to scholarly condescension than this one. Moreover, any attempt to articulate the perfectibility of matter runs the risk of being accused of a con- spiratorial alliance with the hermetic tradition, a confluence of magical, religious, and philosophical teachings that made every effort to infuse spirit into matter. Hermeticism is the opposite of Gnosticism; it seeks to enable matter to reach its potential by discerning the seeds of creativity planted therein (and thus is the father of emergent materialism), while Gnosticism sees matter as the evil product of an evil creator. I defend the Mormon tradition from the charge of esotericism, though admittedly its metaphysical presuppositions can be reconstructed in a variety of ways, given the informality of much Mormon the- ology. I think that traditional or creedal theologians have more to learn from Mormonism than any other religious tradition today, and that the Mormon position on matter can be reasonably defended, though I offer some suggestions on how to revise it in the light of the teaching of heavenly flesh.
We are planning on this issue of the journal being published by year's end. I highly recommend Jesus Christ, Eternal God for those interested in pursuing significant theological topics, particularly those that intersect with Mormon theology. The book can be ordered through Oxford University Press.


Noel Hausler said...

Interesting book. What kind of body would God have? Male? if so why would God need organs like a penis and buttocks? Would a material God eat for pleasure? What kind of DNA would such a body have?

John W. Morehead said...

Noel, thank you for your comment. I suggest waiting until you read the book, and perhaps the exchanges between the scholars on the topic at Sacred Tribes Journal, before asking such questions, or perhaps formulating more applicable questions related to the subject matter.