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.”