Honoring Stephen Webb

We are sorry for the occasion of this post, but grateful to Hal Boyd of Eastern Kentucky University for this tribute to someone whose work many of us at BCC have learned from and deeply appreciated.

The man who so often contemplated eternity has now stepped beyond its threshold. Dr. Stephen H. Webb passed on this weekend.

A protestant convert to Catholicism, Dr. Webb increasingly dedicated his immense intellect to Mormon theology.

For him, the Latter-day Saint doctrine of an embodied God held the potential to rejuvenate what he saw as moribund mainline theology. The Mormon notion of the material essence of “spirit” was a novel breakthrough.

According to Webb, Christian theology had long built its foundation on an immaterial God. And yet science and society necessitated rethinking this theological proposition.

“Atheism is widespread because so many people think that every aspect of existence can be reduced to a set of physical causes,” he explained in a lecture at Brigham Young University. “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.”

So, he wondered, “How can God matter to the modern world when people today have a worldview that is so thoroughly enmeshed in the physical world?”

His answer: “[Joseph] 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 … 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.”

These and other ideas catalyzed a remarkably prolific period of his life in which he published numerous articles and several notable books on Mormon theology such as “Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation,” (Oxford, 2015); “Mormon Christianity: What Non-Mormon Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints,” (Oxford, 2013); and Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford, 2012).

As Dr. Webb explained it, much of his work on Latter-day Saint doctrine was inspired by Joseph Smith’s revelation that “there is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes.”

The passage continues, “We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.”

It’s a stunning tragedy to lose one of Mormonism’s great friends and intellectual allies. Our collective prayers and thoughts are with Dr. Webb’s wife Diane and their children.

This is a time of outreach to those Dr. Webb left behind. It is also a time of mourning; personally, I have found at least some solace in the thought that Dr. Webb is now home—delighted to finally see for himself that it is indeed “all matter.”

Comments

  1. I graduated from Wabash College where Dr Webb taught. I got my degree in philosophy, so I knew Dr. Webb. I remember once when I stopped by his office and we were discussion emotivism, the theory of ethics advanced by logical positivism that has its roots in the Scottish enlightenment philosophers Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith. Of course, that approach was not his cup of tea, and very few philosophers find the approach plausible in any case. Nevertheless, we discussed it for some time. I referred him to an essay by Rudolph Carnap on the topic, and the next time we spoke, he’d read it. He was always engaging and friendly and intellectually challenging no matter who he was talking to. AJ Ayer once said of Bertrand Russell that he possessed a talent that few others possessed: Russell could make anyone he was speaking with feel like they could contribute to the conversation. Dr. Webb also had that quality.

    Dr. Webb was one of the faculty members who handled my senior seminar for philosophy, which at Wabash College consisted of seniors preparing and presenting papers to each other and to the faculty. And I remember how he continued to challenge me to clarify how I formulated the difference between Donald Davidson’s and WV Quine’s approach to language, and he helped to make me a clearer thinker.

    Last year, after I replied to an email on the lds-phil mail-list, I was thrilled to get a personal email from Dr Webb, who — much to my surprise — also belonged to that mailing list. And — even more to my surprise — he saw my post and remembered me and recognized me by name (pulled out of any conceivable context in which he’d remember me) after two decades and untold numbers of students passing through his classes and his office. His email was entitled “Greetings from an old teacher,” and it started “Hey, remember me?” And how on earth could I not.

    Dr. Webb was a wonderful man and a terrific teacher. I was shocked and saddened to hear of his death.

  2. Thanks for these memories of the man (and thanks, DKL). What a loss.

  3. His passing is a real loss to our community. I only had the pleasure of corresponding with Stephen, a conversation that proved so engaging, deep, and rewarding that I had to satisfy myself with the now obviously false assurance that we had decades of discussion ahead of us. That email exchange finished with the observation that “the world needs more articulate bridge-builders to and critics of the Mormon faith,” a claim especially true now. His loss is not only our loss: it is the world’s loss. May all who loved him mourn our own diminished state at his passing.

  4. Adam Miller says:

    Rest in peace, Stephen. Our prayers are with you and your family.

  5. I loved his talk at the FAIR Mormon Conference last summer. This was my first introduction to him and his generous, inclusive theology. Now Stephen will “see Him as He is.”

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Thak you for posting this. We have lost a remarkable thinker and friend. My condolences to his family.

  7. There’s no better way to honor someone than by emulating them. In tribute to Professor Webb, may we be as charitable towards those outside our faith as he was towards ours.

  8. Terrible loss of a great mind.

  9. I spent 15 minutes talking to Webb one-on-one at the FAIR conference last summer. We had a friend in common (another Wabash faculty member) and Webb was warm and interesting. A real loss to several religious communities, including our own.

  10. Joe Sorensen says:

    Let me second the first comment: “AJ Ayer once said of Bertrand Russell that he possessed a talent that few others possessed: Russell could make anyone he was speaking with feel like they could contribute to the conversation. Dr. Webb also had that quality.”
    I met him last summer at the FAIR Conference as well, also spoke with him one on one for an extended period. He was thoroughly interested in hearing about my family, which, like his, includes adopted children.
    I think this is a rare time, when I am shedding tears for the loss of someone outside my own family.
    At the FAIR Conference I shared D&C 88:37 with Dr. Webb. He said he’d not previously encountered it but was intrigued by its implications. He said he would investigate. I was looking forward to following up with him at the Interpreter Symposium this weekend.
    I start divinity school this fall, and had looked forward to developing a correspondence with Dr. Webb. I am sincerely interested in helping to relay the torch he carried. Can anyone point me to those who may have worked with him in his work on Mormonism?
    It sounds like Dr. Boyd may be a good research. I also saw Samuel Brown commenting in a news article commemorating Dr. Webb.
    Again, interested in carrying Dr. Webb’s work forward. Any suggestions?

  11. Dr. Webb came to an SMPT conference. He was both knowledgeable and charitable. His sense of “holy envy” of Mormonism and the ability to both value and teach was what was valuable that we had missed were invaluable. He was a perfect example of everything that Mormon theology should be.

  12. Perhaps we can support his widow and children by buying one or more of his excellent books. I don’t have the latest one . . . yet.