Saturday, 21 November 2015

Mormon Christianity, by Stephen H. Webb

Stephen H. Webb, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-Day Saints, 2013 Oxford University Press

"Another reason Mormons are sometimes thought to possess the attributes of a cult is related, I think, to their healthy-mindedness. The young men and women on their missions, for example, are so uniformly and nicely dressed, and they wear name tags no less! They look like young recruits at a Fortune 500 corporation, and they are so inevitably polite and respectful that their old-fashioned virtues can make them appear almost robotic. The Mormons that I know smile a lot and seem very happy, which some people mistake for shallowness or mindless obedience to their church. What is strange is not how well adjusted most Mormons are, but how cynical most Americans can be about them. I have come to realise that the main reason Mormons are suspected of being cultish is that they do not manifest any trace of the religious guilt and self-reproach that are still inculculated in many traditional Christian churches. They seem too happy to be Christian!"

Stephen Webb is becoming one of my favorite writers. He is a Catholic convert who admires Evangelicalism who is willing to explore unconventional ideas. His ideas are bold and exciting, but he does show a lack of willing to set boundaries on just how far the envelope of orthodoxy can be pushed.

In this book, Webb confesses that he has what he calls 'Mormon Envy.' While Mormonism is commonly regarded by Christians as a cult, he admires much in Mormonism; its discipline, its sense of community and its radical approach to metaphysics. He paints a picture of Mormonism as a complex combination of the high church ritualism of Catholicism with the simplicity of conservative Evangelical Protestantism. To an extent I share something of his admiration for Mormonism. I think it is breathtaking that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints can field such a sheer number of missionary labourers. There are Mormon missionaries in practically every single town in the UK. Mormons are labouring for converts all over the world. Many Christians attack the Mormon teaching that believers can become gods. Yet this is actually one of their teachings that is true. The Bible truly does promise that we can become divine, heavenly beings. The doctrine of theosis or deification is strongly taught by the Orthodox, acknowledged by Catholics and is recognised by some Protestants too. The highest example of humanity brought into deity is that of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When Protestants accuse us Catholics of worshiping Mary as a goddess, they are half-correct. We adore the union of humanity and divinity that we behold in the glorious Queen of Heaven. The error of Mormonism is not in teaching that human beings can become gods, but in reducing God to the level of human beings. I also love seeing photos of young Mormon missionaries; they seem so delightful in their innocence and purity. I wish I could see the same devotion and commitment to Christ in Catholic young people.

When I was involved, as an Evangelical in street evangelism, I used to have many debates with the Mormon missionaries. We would trade Bible verses back and forth. In the end, these conversation would invariably conclude with the Mormon young men declaring "I believe that Joseph Smith is a true prophet of God." They might just as well have been saying "There is no god but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet."

Webb argues that at the core of Mormonism is a radical system of metaphysics that holds that there is no difference between matter and spirit. Spiritual beings are truly physical beings. Our author suggests that there is a lot of merit in this alternative to traditional Christian metaphysics. Oddly, he leaves the meat of his discussion of metaphysics to two appendices. I have no idea why he did not include this discussion about the merits and problems of Mormon physicalism in the main body of the book. There was a time when I might have found this idea appealing. I once held that angels had bodies with similar properties to human beings. Yet I am not at all comfortable with such a radical revision of the Christian view of the cosmos. I believe that classic theism is an essential part of the Christian tradition and to depart from it will lead to theological aberration.

Mormon Christianity attempts to show that Mormonism is a true branch of the Christian faith. Webb makes this claim on the basis of the strong emphasis of Mormons on the person of Jesus Christ. I do not think we can truly accept this. No matter how much Mormons may profess to love Christ, we cannot deny that there ideas about Christ are heretical. If the doctrine of the Trinity is central to the Christian faith, then Mormonism cannot be truly regarded as Christian. Maybe I am simplifying things, but this book did not persuade me to a contrary conclusion. Nevertheless, I found this is an enjoyable and deeply interesting read.

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