NOTE: To be published by SquareTwo in five parts: Part One was published in the Spring 2020 issue with an introduction by Ralph Hancock; Part Two was published in Summer 2020. Part Three was published in Fall 2020; Part Four was published in Spring 2021. The five parts will be followed by A Responding Essay by Stephen H. Webb to Charles Randall Paul.

Note also that the old form “LDS” is used in this essay, as it was in use when the essay was originally written.

Love in Particular Is the Best Experience of Eternal Life

The late Harold Bloom remarked about Antony and Cleopatra that Shakespeare showed that no telos is greater than erotic love. Antony said of himself and Cleopatra, “We stand peerless.” Bloom agrees, saying the play shows that “erotic passions in Antony are the source of his capacity to apprehend a human satisfaction manifestly greater than that of being the world’s sole ruler.” Joseph Smith understood this in his own life and projected it onto the highest of all: God the organizer and the redeemer had even better things to do after work.

Before saying more, I must state that erotic love among theologians has been underrated. Agape, filia, storge—these pass in heaven, but eros, really? Of course, anciently, eros referred to more than drive for passionate sexual union. It also suggested an intense desire to become more, and to influence others to change in response to one’s driving passion for some new end. Eros was radical—the first and foremost motive power for procreation out of chaos. The other “loves” were ethical ways of channeling eros. Fearing association with the promiscuous scandals on Olympus, theologians could not endure the thought of a resurrected God Jesus with all his body parts. Procreating divinities living in social circumstances were just too human to think of worshiping. What if things went awry again, like in Genesis when the “sons of god” took advantage of their superhuman powers? Keeping dangerous eros under control was the job of Apollo and later, the job of the Christian Almighty. In a sense, the eastern way of naming desire as the problem of existence was reflected in the western way of quashing troubling erotic desire. There was no marriage in heaven, and celibate priests helped with this process.

How I wish Joseph Smith had had more time to add more corrective and creative lines to his doctrine of heavenly marriage and male and female divinities. Suffice it to say, Gods with material bodies probably really enjoy sharing mutual erotic desires in all their procreative aspects. Eros energizes all caring passions, be it love between people, friends, close and distant family members, or love for the beauty and adventure of what yet can be. Webb does not address this directly, but he understands that at least eternal marriage for the LDS includes erotic co-procreation in the sense noted above. Further, any God who is “love” includes all aspects of the experience of love without ranking them. Of course, the New Testament does little to support this notion. It took an expanded restoration to begin to enlighten humanity around the notion that Gods are gendered bodies, male and female, and not anerotic androgens.

The staid Apollonian temple rites of the LDS (derived from a Protestant aesthetic) belie the passionate Dionysian theo-anthropology they espouse. Eternal marriage is arguably the highest LDS rite (actually sempiternal). This marriage includes the bonding of children to parents in a chain of family for eternity. An LDS couple, committed to each other for eternity, seeks to have the Holy Ghost witness and ratify by way of promise or prophesy that they will be sealed together (using Peter’s gift) in Heaven as they are on Earth. It is instructive to note that in LDS sacred temple liturgy, engaged couples—after making personal promises to live lives of integrity and sacrifice for the collective well-being of the entire human family—enter into heaven and then face each other, take each other’s hands, and kiss, agreeing to become as Abraham and Sarah: spouses that through their progeny continue the infinite “royal” chain of souls that is also constituted of God the Father’s children.

The LDS ritual and practical emphasis on marriage is a reflection of the eternal marriage of Heavenly Parents, (God the Father disclosed in LDS scripture, God the Mother yet undisclosed in LDS scripture) that LDS believe will reunite them with all their immortal children-collaborators after the resurrection. LDS understand that all mortal parents are actually “godparents” assigned to care for the spiritual-material children of God sent into their keeping from the premortal realm. Note that all intelligent beings are the same ageless age. Mortal children are actually brothers and sisters of their mortal parents from a primordial marriage of heavenly parents that procreated the material-spirit bodies of the humans on this planet and the innumerable other worlds perhaps similar to it. Yes, the Gods the LDS try to emulate have a big (mostly friendly) family—a kind of everlasting mafia. Once in, the members are changed by that association forever. (Referring back to my earlier note, LDS theology allows for eternal intelligences to experience unidirectional sempiternal stages of changing forms.)

Material, passionate, social bodies yearning to endure difficult experiences to become more at one with the Gods that love and lead them is the grand narrative theology of the LDS. This theology presents a Romantic, dramatic quest structure that the LDS accept in concept, but rarely practice in daily life. The risky but optimistic Romantic mood of their grand story is dampened by the traditional Christian inheritance of human helplessness—if not depravity—in a world fallen because of human envy toward God. The LDS could, and I believe someday will, really emphasize with Eve that the fall was a blessing designed by the Gods to become as the Gods—not an evil trick of the devil.

LDS social and family life is so practical with everyday needs fulfillment that the would-be Gods lose touch with the spiritual eros that propelled them to this mortal crucible. Indeed, the same could be said for all humanity. Thus eye hath not seen the future beauty of lovers, ear hath not heard the beauty of future songs, nor hath entered yet into the heart of humanity the joy that waits for those who endure this test as lovingly as they can. Although suffering is a tragic reality for attaining joy, LDS trust that the best is yet to come. Agape, storge, filia, and eros will provide the compensating joy ahead.

Webb might find this thought congenial with his eternal Christ: After a mortal challenge like no other, including deprivation from a full social and family life experience, the Son of God is to have his wedding feast at last—and it won’t be figurative at all. The healing atonement of defamed eros, so long handicapping the world, will yet be fully revealed in Jesus Christ (if I may prophesy).

The social work of eternity aims for the Christian miracle of heart-welding joy produced by experiencing mutual happiness. If resurrected humans choose to be good gods, they will not envy the highest Divine Couple, as did Lucifer, nor envy each other’s particular happiness. Facing down the temptations of ever-tragic limitations, they will love each other’s loving—and be, as Shakespeare proclaimed, “precious winners all”—at least for a while. Another war in heaven is always possible as long as eternal beings have the freedom to resist the risky work of love.

Confessing God and Professing Theology in Conversation with “Outsiders”

Webb asks the fundamental epistemological question around knowing the God we worship. Are believers just making things up about some Ultimate Santa Claus with powers greater than what we can imagine? Webb writes:

“Every theologian uses abstract ideas, of course, so it cannot be held that philosophy is alien to the Christian faith (no matter how much some theologians enjoy making this charge), but still, the question remains concerning the origin and shape of [later Christian ideas about God not found in the Bible]. Can we really find out what omnipresence and omnipotence are like just by closely unpacking the logic of those words? If God is present in Jesus Christ, who walked the earth as a man, and if God’s power is made manifest in the cross, upon which Jesus Christ suffered and died, then don’t we need to rethink what omnipresence and omnipotence mean? The idea of divine omnipotence, for one, has undergone so many critiques and revisions in modern theology that it would be churlish to use it as the premise in an argument against God’s embodiment. The attributes of God are too contested to serve as a stable basis for rejecting the supposition of divine corporeality.”

The Gospels report the experiences of Jesus and his disciples, not their theological or philosophical ruminations about their experiences. Jesus is transfigured with ancient prophets while Peter, James, and John look on. The text does not follow the event with a discourse on its purpose, or on how transfiguration occurs from the point of view of physics or metaphysics. That it occurred was the most important matter for the gospel writer. Paul Ricoeur and David Tracy may talk profoundly about how our semantic symbols can lead us to understand and agree about some meaning of the event, but they are talking to an audience that is often on the edge of thinking “the event” as described never happened. God doesn’t visit planets and transfigure people—even very good people. Therefore, the MEANING of the text is what matters.

Webb writes in a forthright confessional manner. He talks to readers as if they might believe that events like the transfiguration actually occurred. It is this tone of respect for the tangible event that will make his work feel so congenial to Mormon scholars. In his Ricoeurian second naivete, he starts with material, non-mortal bodies and works backwards into theology, metaphysics, hermeneutics, and science. Although quaint to most deep thinkers these days, Webb’s approach honors historical witnesses to bodily events that include God as in and perhaps of history. In this respect, Mormons should welcome him as a fellow traveller in their camp, even if he is still tempted to believe God is worship worthy because IT is “Awesome Omnipotence” instead of “The Most Loving Person of All.” After reading Webb, Mormon intellectuals might be less tempted to shake off the “embarrassingly” recent claims that resurrected men—including the Father and the Son—visited upstate New York in 1820.

For me, Webb opens the door to a refreshing breeze of naturalist theology that coherently allows for the eternity of matter and forms that do not place God outside of them. In the spirit of William James, Webb allows for material reality that is currently unmeasured by our instruments. He seems to believe science, philosophy, and theology are useful tools for tentative conclusions about the nature of God and humanity, but he applies those tools to his prime fact of history: Jesus Christ as a material person revealed the true God and the true human to the world.

He believes in this line of thought: What is good enough for Jesus—material form—is good enough for God and all those who would be raised in incorruptible bodies. He extrapolates from material forms into the social relations of love—taking the lead from friendship that was the high title Jesus gave to those he and the Father loved. Although it doesn’t rule it out, Webb’s social trinity does not necessitate mystical unity (in some reality beyond matter) for loving relations between divine entities, as well as between them and humanity.

The existence of separate bodies that veil in some sense the “full person” requires communication in some language that cannot express everything at once. In fact, given the openness of the future and free agency, to know someone else (including God) is to be aware of the creative possibilities that are yet to be made manifest each instant. To know and be known includes the awareness that each person can surprise and be surprised—in a radical way this also holds true for Gods that await the free response of others to decide what “their love” will do next. This openness is why trust (faith = pistis = trust) is the first principle. We trust God if we choose to. With radical freedom, even knowing God, we still trust God to continue to love. It is the same for human relations. We trust that God (or a spouse or friend) is resolutely loyal in their active desire to love us—and we them—which frees all parties to change the way they will express their love. Surprise is always possible, and even likely if originality is valuable in eternity. To know God and Christ (and everyone else in the eternal family that loves) is to experience them as supremely trustworthy and competent lovers, making eternal lives very worth living.

The great gift of eternal life is not the duration of existence, for all intelligent entities have always existed and always will. Therefore, what matters is the quality of that everlasting existence. This quality is most influenced by what we freely and surprisingly give to each other in social relations. Gods choose to be social beings—specifically making love their cherished currency (if they are Christians!).

Eternal matter seems to crave awareness of its organization in particular parts. Eternal persons consisting of matter seem to desire (as noted above) to organize infinite, beautiful varieties of material forms—especially as social experiences. In conversation with any kind of mystical finality, eternal life according to Smith and Webb will not be the perfect finisher of things. Creative free souls (unless they desire to pretend otherwise) will not come to an end by annihilation into chaos or by assimilation into undifferentiated Oneness.

There is a mysterious gnosis veiled within the eternity of particular intelligent beings. It is not a hidden knowledge of where beings began, nor what constitutes that on which beings stand. It is the mystery of radically uncaused personal freedom to desire to desire differently—to become more or less than we are now. (It relies on the reality of billions of real possibilities or chances that are not yet determined by all that has already happened.) As Webb elucidates later, Joseph Smith’s material Gods were not driven by necessity to become what they have become (so far). There was no necessary FIRST CAUSE pushing or FINAL TELOS pulling divine intelligences by any coercive or compulsory means, or toward a predetermined destiny. As Whitehead describes it, the universe is full of alluring enticements that are utterly resistable. No ultimate purpose resounds from behind or announces out ahead. Yet the universe(s) is full of lively possibilities to be realized by chance of our desires and decisions together. As spiritual-material persons living now “in eternity,” each intelligent entity continually decides with Gods where our desires will take us next, ad infinitum. If mutual love is the primary desire, Webb and Smith trust joy is ahead, making worthwhile what Frost aptly called all our soul-and-body scars.

Webb’s Christological Conclusion and Hidden Criticism of LDS Theology

“. . . [I]ncorporeality stems from an incomplete Christology that attributes to God only those aspects of the human person of which we are most pleased and proud, while everything that incorporeality excludes comes pouring back in the incarnation . . . [But] all the conceptual maneuvers that guard God against the embarrassment of having or being a body collapse in the light of Christ.”

Webb encourages us to resist our own bodily embarrassment as we compare our animal-like form to our notions of pristine divine substance, or to our visions of rapidly evolved trans-humanity. When it comes to experiencing the happy sadness or sad happiness that leads to joy, we are now all with each other—living and dead—the “right stuff”; and Christians especially, trust that our “stuff” will become even “righter.”

Webb writes that:

“Matter is the means by which God gives us life, and as such, it is that which God has decided to be, from eternity, so that we too can progress eternally into the divine substance without losing our identities. We take on new forms, undoubtedly, in the afterlife, but those forms will be revisions and recreations of what we already are, since our heavenly bodies will not need to be created out of nothing.”

Stephen Webb travels very far here! God is free to revise his or their mind-body-conscious social form—to expand the joy capacity of personhood infinitely. I presume all resurrected persons observing their Heavenly Parents would be able (and many would desire) to follow suit. Human scientific efforts to become superhuman might succeed before (or during the very process of!) a glorious resurrection. But it isn’t over with that either. For social divinities that love in forms, stretching forever in both ways, “super super” is coming just around the eternal corner—and super super super after that and so on . . . worlds without end.

Summing up, Joseph Smith, to the surprised delight of Webb, just might have revealed a rudimentary outline for a Christian theological “Theory of Everything”—marrying the divine (macro) and the mundane (micro) in a single eternal mode of material sociality. After Harold Bloom expounded the uncanny “religious genius” of Joseph Smith for bemused scholarly observers (The American Religion, 1991), Webb (20 years later) expounds the actual theological canniness of the prophet—circling in on the prophet’s yearning for those elusive, perennial perfections: unity and freedom in the form of material social life for God and humanity.

Webb simply says that traditional Christian theologians (and I would add Latter-day Saints too) would gain much from deeply considering Joseph Smith’s revelations on spirit materiality and the divine sociality that it allows: “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 [the eternity of ] matter can be reasonably defended, though I offer some suggestions on how to revise it . . .”

Stephen Webb is a splendidly clear critic of LDS theological beliefs. I will now focus briefly on several of his most cogent and fruitful criticisms. I will begin with quotations from the text of Jesus Christ, Eternal God, and then move to Webb’s detailed response to my review of his book that elicited more profound thinking from him.

Webb states:

“If the Father too began life in an embryonic state, then there must be an infinite regression of divinities, which is hard enough to conceptualize, but the question also emerges of who or what is in charge when all of the gods are busy being born.”

This is a regular question for LDS speculation. One LDS answer is that eternal intelligences “make do” with whomever is available to lead by manifesting persuasively the most light and truth at the time. With an infinite regression of immortal intelligences, there might well have been an infinite number of councils led by Gods, during which free agents could have agreed on the proposed order of things to come. There was never a time when all intelligences were born, so there were always “Gods enough” to organize things. Sustaining cosmic orders that theoretically change is a problem of “maintenance” for which all free agent intelligences are responsible. No single entity “out there” holds it all together. There is risk in eternity, and all intelligences are stakeholders in what will be. Some Gods rise to be leaders but not the creators or sustainers or redeemers on which all rely, because they can do nothing important all by themselves.

Is there nothing that has always been and will always be the fixed and final foundation for everything else? Well, that’s the essential-existential question, isn’t it? The LDS response is perhaps this: “Existence as a process of change has no beginning and presumably no end—so let’s make the best of existential historical eternity. All can make some difference in the future based on trustworthy promises, but there are no absolute guarantees.”

It is counterintuitive to those that presume gravity as now measured is an eternal given that grounds even the Gods, but LDS thought about the primacy of free intelligence can lead to the conclusion that physical orders of pattern repetition (so called laws of nature) as well as social orders (rules for behavior) are both based on the consensus of divine intelligences. For as long as an order is established with approval of divine councils, “things” will “hang together.” All the forces of nature discovered, the invisible “God particle(s)” posited by subatomic physics, and whatever new discoveries come next—these know their jobs and will stay loyal until instructed to change. Thus, chaos is unlikely to take over while Gods are on vacation, or while they’re experimenting with reconstituting their material intelligences in new forms. Presumably (just in case some kind of matter breaks with the program) they stagger their vacations so that someone with a comprehensive view and massive influence is awake at all times.

This discussion raises the classic theological issue of divinely discovered eternal law and order as distinct from divinely instituted law and order that Webb will treat below. In passing, I note that from a philosophical viewpoint, the postmodern constructivists are much akin to medieval nominalists except that society is God for the former, while the radically free Omni-God rules absolutely for the latter. We’ll see ahead how Smith and Webb observe that LDS revelations lean toward the ultimacy of councils of radically free collaborating divinites—thus blending both medieval and contemporary notions of a founding order. The power or influence of any divine king is derived from a democratic consensus of collaborative divine royals that do not always rubber stamp their leader’s plans.

One of my favorites of Webb’s criticisms regards the radical openness of Gods to experimental theology. He writes: “The God Mormons worship could be just killing time in a brief experiment before pulling the plug to move on to another set of spiritual and physical specifications.” He is right. However, LDS trust that God is not doing this in a trivial way, especially since all humanity was “in” on the original experiment, even giving uncoerced assent before volunteering for it.

Webb continues:

“These conundrums do not mean that Mormonism is ‘wrong’. They mean that Mormonism should look to a theory other than the multiverse to explicate its doctrines of deification and eternal progression. More specifically, a doctrine of the ubiquitous and essentially capacious flesh of Jesus Christ could provide a better foundation for the teaching of eternal progression. The heavenly flesh of Christ is one flesh, providing the metaphysical foundation for our trust in the universal laws that govern the physical world. It is also a flesh that is created by one God and that belongs to one person, preserving monotheism even as it covers countless possibilities for new forms of spiritual progress. Moreover, its singular configuration is the source of a spiritual law that cannot vary across time or space. In this body, there is the room Mormons need for their eternal progression soteriology. Why posit countless universes when you have everything you need right here in Christ? Like the Church, which is one body with many living parts, matter can embody many possibilities but still reflect one basic shape. There might be many gods, but there can be only one Jesus Christ.”

After this analysis Webb adds:

“Even Mormonism’s circumvention of the established rules of metaphysics goes only so far, leaving Mormon thinkers so deeply entangled in standard theological debates that the future theological development of their church is an open question.”

There is an unspoken anticipation among the LDS for further revealed light on the relations of Gods, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, as well as their relation with humanity. Specifically, there are forms of God that beg to be revealed with as bold a clarity as would be helpful: Heavenly Parents (Mother(s) and Father(s) in Heaven) being the first of these forms, the universal Spirit of Christ compared to God the Holy Spirit being the second. If a form of God is explicitly to include female deities, what might that be? Will it be explicitly revealed that the Godhead is merely an administrative function to support the higher social form of collaborative friendships and married Gods?

Many centuries ago, Catholic theologians up-graded Mary as a potent mediator with God to address (in part) the yearning to embrace a feminine form of divinity. That yearning is pervasive among humans. The LDS are pregnant with a truth that will help revolutionize and civilize the whole world as Joseph Smith might have put it: Men and women are real partners in heaven as they should be on earth. The matter of polygyny and polyandry will be addressed eventually when the LDS receive a more sure word about Heavenly Mother. The purpose of sealing and the form of eternal family will all need to receive fuller treatment.

Indeed, the LDS have a Missouri river full of revelations ahead and I for one trust that most of them will be able to drink them in without drowning. Until then, the LDS wait on their prophets for such revelations, praying for the light to come down as soon as God sees fit. Perhaps these radical revelations are not forthcoming in part because many LDS, tired of being called non-Christians or seen as actually believing in a single sovereign all-powerful deity, hold a conflicting desire to fit their theology within the classic categories of old Christian traditions. As to these fundamental issues of LDS theology, an eventual (and hopefully respectful) contestation without contention over LDS fundamental theology is probably around the corner. Then the LDS will truly thank God for a prophet to lead them to know and worship God better . . . subject to their common consent as free agents, of course.

The next section of this essay, to be published in the Fall 2021 issue of SquareTwo, presents Stephen Webb’s critique and suggestions that he wrote in response to the above review. He framed his critique as Four Aporia (or perplexities) emerging from LDS theology. I responded to his comments with a few of my own, as well. Unfortunately, Webb’s untimely passing did not allow him the opportunity to continue our written conversation further. Even so, readers will likely find Webb’s response interesting.

Full Citation for this Article: Paul, Charles Randall (2021) "Part Five of the Book Review of Stephen H. Webb’s Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter, Oxford University Press, NY, 2011," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 2 (Summer 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

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