I want to begin with a simple Christian fact that all Christians acknowledge, though non-Christians doubt or reject it, and then show how Mormons can help other Christians appreciate and understand that simple fact. The simple fact is that Jesus Christ ascended in his resurrected body to heaven. Consequently, when we join him, we will exist in a physically transformed state that will share in his glory. God does not just liberate our immaterial souls from their physical bondage. Matter is not a weight that drags us down, ballast that needs to be discarded so that we can take spiritual flight. God is “for us” and became “one of us” because God values the whole of creation, persons and things together.
Although persons are more than just things, they are also not less than things. We are embodied souls, material and spiritual beings, just as God is forever defined by His oneness with that particular person named Jesus. God does not love us in spite of or instead of the world. God loves the world for our sake, and he loves us for the sake of His only begotten Son.
It might seem strange to say it, but I think the Christian faith is on the verge of a new era of appreciation for the whole person of Jesus Christ. One of the hallmarks of contemporary theology is the affirmation of the physical world and human embodiment. Every church is in a hurry to develop what Catholics call a “theology of the body,” and there is no body more precious that Jesus. In my own spiritual and theological journey into worshipping Jesus and thinking about Jesus, I have benefitted from no church more than the Latter-day Saints.
I was drawn to Catholicism because of transubstantiation, the idea that Jesus if truly, wholly and physically present in the consecrated elements of the Eucharist. I am drawn to the Mormonism because of the way it treats all of matter as transubstantiatable. I admit I made that word up, but the fact is that Mormonism has a higher view of transubstantiate than even the Catholic Church, or to put it another way, Mormonism digs deeper into matter than any church I know, and what it finds in none other than Jesus Christ. There is no more relevant or contemporary theology of the body than what Mormonism has been teaching for over 150 years. I’m here today to thank you for that, and to let you know about my own attempts to try to publicize, or translate, or spread some of Joseph Smith’s vision of Jesus Christ to other Christians.
There is an old saying that what goes up, must come down. Well, that holds true in our world, governed by the law of gravity, but there is a similar law in the spiritual world, as revealed in the Bible: What ascends must have descended. Jesus came down from heaven, the Nicene Creed says in words repeated at every Catholic mass. These words are drawn from Jesus himself in the Gospel of John, and they are startling. The Jews who heard him said, “Is not this Jesus, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say I have come down from heaven?” (John 6:42) This is indeed a great mystery. The very same Jesus that is flesh and bones is the foundation of creation (Eph 1:4). All things were created by, through, and for Him (Col 1:16; also see Rom 11:36 and Heb 1:2–3). The body of Jesus matters, and it matters eternally. If that is true, then the nature of matter itself must be found in Him.
So what is matter that God created it, enjoyed and loved it, shaped it in many forms, and planned from the beginning to become one of the material things of this world? This is the question that originally motivated my investigation of Mormon metaphysics. More than any other Christian tradition, Mormonism challenges traditional views of matter. The time is ripe to take those challenges seriously. The time is ripe for all Christians to listen to what Joseph Smith had to say about our Lord and Savior.
Here I must introduce two interrelated terms that belong to traditional theological and philosophical views of matter, hylomorphism and prime matter. Hylomorphism is the philosophical view that every physical object is composed of form and matter, and prime matter is what classical metaphysicians call the substratum, passive and indeterminate, that becomes something individual due to the active principle of its form. For a variety of reasons, hylomorphism is central to the theological position known as classical theism. If hylomorphism is fundamentally and fatally flawed, then theologians will need to consider new theories of matter as well as new models of God. That means, at the very least, that all Christians should look closely at Mormon views of matter and be open to learning how Mormonism reshapes many aspects of classical theism on the basis of a new theory of matter.
Prime matter has been around a long time, but only recently have theologians and philosophers begun thinking about how it is shaped classical notions of God and what it might mean for those notions if prime matter is rejected. There is much passion, some of it bordering on hysteria, about hylomorphism’s demise, since both critics and defenders recognize its fundamental role in providing the metaphysical framework for many of the assumptions, arguments, and aspirations of classical theism. Indeed, the passion for hylomorphism has increased in intensity in proportion to the deluge of criticisms against it—a sure sign that this metaphysical beast, if it is dying, is not going to give up its ghostly character without a fight. And prime matter is the ghost that haunts classical theism, or it would haunt traditional theology if it could be anything more than pure potency, for it has not even enough reality to be a spooky presence in the form-dominated world of Platonism. Prime matter is the physical stripped of any of its disruptive or creative power (just as classical theism’s God is the personal stripped of any of the signs of materiality). Such denuding, of course, can go only so far without ending up in nothing, which is exactly where it ends if matter is created out of nothing. For the less matter has to do with the divine, the harder it is to conceive of how we will be forever in the presence of God in our resurrected bodies.
Prime matter is ghostly, but it is real enough to be the source of classical theism’s enervated state in the modern world. Notice that one of the premises of classical theism is that matter can have no influence on God or how we think about God, yet this is not the case. Classical theism is committed to the proposition that matter is to potency as God is to activity. Matter is at the bottom of the metaphysical scale just as God is at the top; the two are connected because the very idea of potency and activity are derived from how we think about the natural world. Classical theists, of course, will deny that matter has any bearing on God, but at the cost of denying that we can know anything about God at all. God’s remove from matter means that God, among other things, has no parts, nor does God have a nature. God is best understood as pure mind, which suggests that we can connect to God in moments of peak experiences where consciousness transcends our bodily limitations. Prime matter and negative theology go hand in hand. We are left with the contemplative ascent, which is a far cry from Christ carrying the cross on the way to his crucifixion.
Prime matter, in sum, is not sufficiently weighty to carry the Christian conviction that Jesus suffered, died, and was resurrected from the dead, and that our bodies will be transformed in heaven. Nonetheless, many theologians and philosophers hesitate to throw out the category of prime matter because they think that the only alternative is a reductive materialism. I think the alternative to prime matter is Christian materialism, and that the best way to think about matter is to think about the body of Jesus Christ. For that, Joseph Smith, of all theologians I know, leads the way. That Jesus had some kind of material form prior to the Incarnation is, for me, the best way to make sense of the many theophanies that can be found in the Old Testament. Did Ezekiel see Jesus in his vision of “something that seemed like a human form” (Ez. 1:26)? If he did, was that form completely different from the human nature into which he later was born? The Incarnation, if I understand Joseph correctly, is an intensification or completion of Christ’s identity, not a radical alteration of it.
Still, non-Mormons will be puzzled by the idea of a material God. If God has a material nature, then doesn’t that mean that God is dependent on matter in some way, and doesn’t that mean that matter is eternal? Here again Mormons are way ahead of the curve in thinking through these questions, and I want to quote from my friend and co-author, Alonzo Gaskill, in a section on matter from our book: “Eternal life is necessarily connected to a knowledge of God’s nature because one cannot fulfill God’s dictate to become like Him if we do not comprehend what kind of a being He is. To the people of the Book of Mormon, Jesus declared: “What manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). We cannot emulate that which we do not understand.” Where Alonzo and I ended up agreeing is the proposition that the divine substance is neither matter as we know it nor something that is to be identified with immateriality, whatever that is. In other words, God is not immaterial in the sense of being the opposite of matter. Perhaps we are reduced to paradoxes or awkward locutions like, “God is material in an immaterial kind of way.” Perhaps transcending spirit-matter dualism is as more of a practical affair than a theoretical problem, which is what Joseph Smith implied in his May, 1843 revelation: “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; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified [or resurrected] we shall see that it is all matter” (D&C 131:7-8). We have to become something more than we are today in order to understand that our physical reality has dimensions of depth and endurance that we can only imagine. What I especially like about Joseph’s statement is that he holds to what I would call a dialectical relationship between spirit and matter. Spirit is not simply matter’s purity, which might mean that we could perceive spirit here and now if we were only better men and women, morally stronger and thus metaphysically clearer in our sight. Refinement is not a concept; it is an image that points to the possibility that spirit and matter are located on an ontological continuum, and that matter needs to be transformed before it can be re-conceived (and re-located) in a maximally spiritual state.
The eternity of matter is not something given to us to comprehend in its fullness until we have shared in Christ’s triumph over death. God is the master of matter, but more like a person who is completely in control of himself than someone who is a master of somebody else. God’s relation to matter is self-mastery. The laws of matter are his laws because he is completely at one with his own nature. As Alonzo writes, “The laws by which He operates are eternal—unchanging, as most Christians believe God is. He wasn’t a God who existed outside of eternal law and then invented a law by which He would function. Rather, God is eternal and so is the law which, by nature, is like Him.” God, we could say, is the One eternal Person in whom matter and mind unite, eternally and completely.
God is a person for the Saints, not Being Itself or the Ground of Being. To be more specific, God is three persons, united in more intimacy and belongingness than any three other persons ever could be. This, of course, goes against classical notions of the Trinity, which hold that God is one substance that takes the form of three persons.
Classical theism insists that God is simple, without parts, which makes it very hard to distinguish the divine persons, other than saying that the Father generates the Son and the Son is begotten by the Father (and the Holy Spirit proceeds from both of them). If God is simple, then the divine relations are not God’s parts, nor are they something like aspects of the divine oneness. The relations are, instead, simply what God is; God is a set of relations that are identical with the three persons who are so related. In this scheme, the word begotten has no meaning other than that it refers to the relationship that constitutes the Son’s difference from the Father. Consequently, God the Father is not really a Father, nor is the Son really a son. Indeed, the three “persons” of the Trinity are not individuated from each other in any ordinary way. This leads to a bundle of paradoxes, mysteries, and confusions. Mormonism provides an alternative. If the substantial unity of each divine person is constituted by something like matter in its most perfect and refined state, then the Trinity would make much more sense as a relation of equals who are set apart not so much by what they share but by how they share it.
The power of the Mormon position is perhaps best seen in a perennial theological puzzle that the classical tradition has never, to my mind, provided an adequate answer: Why did the Son become human instead of one of the other persons of the Trinity? From the standpoint of the Trinity itself, it seems to me, the Son must be sufficiently different from the Father to warrant being chosen to become human. This difference, however, is not permitted by classical theism. Classical theists permit only the minimal difference between the Father and the Son of begetting and being begotten, and since this is an internal difference, it cannot be the ground for the different roles the divine persons play in the world. The ad intra relations are eternal and unchanging and thus provide no foundation for the ad extra relations in the economy of salvation. Aquinas is very clear on this point, and rightly so, given his understanding of divine simplicity. God’s being is not shaped or influenced, let alone determined, by anything that God does beyond God’s internal self-relatedness. In fact, to safeguard the absolute equality and unity of the divine persons, classical theists hold that even in the ad extra relations, there are no real differences between the persons! Thus classical theists are committed to the dubious proposition that the divine persons are not distinguished by their acts. What one of them does, all of them do. That, I must admit, is a proposition about which I can make absolutely no biblical sense.
Contrariwise, if the Son is really different from the Father—sufficiently different to account for His incarnational destiny—then what is the divine substance such that it can account for this difference? The divine substance must have difference built into it. It must be composed of real relations, between real persons, which means it is false to say that God has no parts. Just as Aquinas had to introduce space into prime matter in order to account for its divisibility, it seems to me that we must introduce something like space into the Trinity to account for the Son’s Incarnation. There is difference in the divine substance, a potential for divisibility we could say, and as Aquinas has taught us, matter is the source of potency.
So let me return to and conclude with the question of matter. Physicists today speak of matter not just in terms of sub-atomic particles (the smallest bits of stuff that we can know) but in terms of energy, relations, and fields. When matter is conceived relationally, many of the old metaphysical dualisms between spirit and body start to disappear. And God Himself becomes a little less opaque. The fact that we are bodies means that our identities are constituted by our relationships, and the same holds true for God, whose identity is established by the relationships among the three divine persons. The energy the Father and Son share, we could say, is the Holy Spirit, which provides the field within which all of matter participates in the divine. In any case, we know that whatever bodies are, they do not cease in this life, and that the body of Jesus Christ has already been transformed, or to use that other word, transubstantiated, into the next life. Our bodies, in that new state, will expand the range of our own relationships to include none other than God himself.
Q: Here’s a question about the Holy Ghost. Well, Margaret Barker was speculating about the Holy Ghost yesterday, so I thought I could too, but … Yeah, is the Holy Ghost a representation or reality of our holy Mother in Heaven?
A: Well, first of all, buy my book.
Scott: Which, by the way, is on the table by the window out there.
A: Thank you. Yeah, no, Professor Barker’s work is amazing, and I’ve tried to write about it, and I’m still absorbing it, and there are biblical grounds for seeing the Holy Spirit as the feminine side of God. There’s so much to think about there, and I’ll just say, the one thing in terms of Catholic tradition – I think Catholics go at this issue inductively, if I could, whereas Mormons go at it more deductively. For Mormons there is a revelation or there is teaching about the Heavenly Mother, and it’s kind of discreet teaching, right? And Catholicism is also discreet but it begins everything with the Virgin Mary and so, as you know, there is throughout church tradition there is a kind of elevation, an intensification, of Mary’s role, or our understanding of Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation. So Catholics do eventually come to affirm, and affirm today, Mary as the Queen of Heaven, for example. Catholics and Mormons, I think, share a very strong sense that whatever heaven is, and we all have to be humble about this, but whatever heaven is, that there is a Mother there, who will welcome us one day. I think that from there you can explore and go in many different directions, but I think this is something that Alonzo and I have been trying to work through.
Q: I’ve not encountered commentary in your writings, “there is no space in which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space”.
A: I am not familiar with that. I’ve read the Doctrines and Covenants, but now that I’m actually thinking quite a bit about space that jumps out at me, and it jumps out at me as right. I’m going to keep that card and I will look up that passage. I made a reference to space and prime matter, but it was actually part of an earlier draft of this talk but what space is, is a very difficult metaphysical question and having some sense of space without … and space and matter are questions that are related, of course. Having some sense of God without having God be spatial in some ways is really quite difficult, to the point of being impossible. So the history of concepts of space, I think, are very interesting and that’s something that I’m also in the midst of still thinking through.
Q: I’m going to skip that question. Yeah, the Higgs particle.
A: In my first book on Mormonism, Mormon Christianity, I talk about that a little bit. I think it’s always … it’s fun and interesting, I like reading about physics and breakthroughs in physics. Of course, again, we have to be very modest and humble, those of us who are not professional physicists, to rely on or think about physics because it is so enormously complex, and it’s so speculative. I mean, no one knows what dark matter is, what dark energy is. In fact, you know, the physicists I talk to are really hesitant to give a definition of matter, just to give a definition of matter. And so, you know, to me physics is an inspiration and a prod to be more bold and speculative in our thinking, but also it’s a reminder that science cannot have the last word about the natural world. Scientists, too, have to be humble, and to me, it’s the job of the church to bring science and religion together or to show that the true faith of Christianity has nothing to fear from science Even though at one point scientists were very reductive when it came to matter, that if you just could understand matter, then you wouldn’t need any other way of understanding the world, including religious ways of understanding the world. I think scientists themselves have been chastised and humbled by the way in which they keep opening up new dimensions to matter and new complexity, with quantum mechanics and quantum physics. So matter is once again, to me, a deeply theological issue. One of my favorite thinkers ever is Orson Pratt, and I think he was just ahead of his time–that period of time in the 19 Century when you had an explosion of Mormon theology and philosophy, and there’s so much energy there and so much freshness. Of course, they were working with models of science that are now outdated. We know there’s no ether now, for example. But there’s so much to learn from that. There’s so much richness there that I find quite inspiring.
Q: What would you recommend my atheist scientific son to read on the issue of materialism?
A: Please read my book Mormon Christianity. I say that because I wrote that book for non-Mormon Christians, but also it’s an attempt to say that the Christian tradition seen afresh, seen through the eyes of Joseph, has so much to say about matter and about the destiny of matter. I personally think that when you look at things like quantum mechanics, which now breaks down causality –you don’t need any kind of [cause], the rules of causality are out the door – you can have causal events that have no discernable connection between each other. And so the idea that somehow we are purely material creatures means you know what matter is, and it means you think that matter is something that’s not mysterious, and that goes against what modern science has to teach us.
Q: Do you think eternal nature of matter supports or relates to the Mormon teaching of eternal marriage?
A: Yeah, definitely. If you have a view of heaven where you’re not really going to be embodied in heaven, where you’re a little bit unsure of what the role of matter is in heaven, then you’re definitely going to have a view of heaven that has no room for the kind of embodied connections, the kind of embodied reality, that we have in this life. And I must say, I think Catholicism itself is of two minds on this issue. Catholicism has a very rich tradition of heaven, through literature and art and very vivid, very graphic views of heaven, but there also is this very strong sense of the beatific vision – that heaven is going to be something like a mental intuition, a kind of timeless thought. And where that comes from is the Neoplatonic tradition, it comes from Greek philosophy, and it comes from the Catholic commitment to the idea that God is simple and therefore immaterial, and that what God is is a kind of one kind of unified thought, in a way, because God doesn’t do anything new; God doesn’t change. And so when we become one with God, we become, really, almost one of God’s thoughts – we think God’s thoughts, we think God’s thoughts of us. This can be the ground of great speculation and great philosophical conversation and discussion, but in the end of the day, it takes our bodies out of heaven. You see this even in Dante’s great poem, which is a great, great Christian work of art, of poetry, of heaven. But look at the last canto: the pilgrim ascends. He ascends and he ascends and he ascends until there’s nothing left to do or be except just to see, and so agency, activity ceases. And, of course, for Joseph agency is the essence of personhood and he could not imagine, nor should he have imagined, a heaven without some kind of agency.
Q: There’s a lot of questions here. I’ve often said if I were not a Mormon I would be a Roman Catholic. Do Roman Catholics ever say, if I were not a Roman Catholic I would be a Mormon?
A: Well, that’s something I’ve said, but I’m not sure how many other Catholics have said that. The Catholic-Mormon dialogue is just beginning and the Catholic Church, I think, has not really attended to Mormonism in any clear or careful or helpful way. And I think that’s about to change, in part because there’s a Mormon temple opening in the next year or two, I think, in Rome. And so far, I think, the most dialogue between Mormonism and other branches of Christianity have been with Protestants, usually evangelical Christians. But I’m convinced that Mormonism is much more Catholic in so many ways than it is Protestant, and that looking at Mormonism through Catholic eyes opens up a lot of fresh perspectives on Mormonism and makes a lot more sense of Mormonism. Even in the field of history, the view of Mormonism has been dominated by a certain kind of Protestant ethos. Most historians, American religious historians, in America are Protestant, whether they’re confessing, active Protestants or lapsed, but they have a sense of Protestantism being kind of their … Protestantism gives them their sense of what ordinary Christianity should be. Catholicism departs from that; Mormonism departs from that. In fact, in the 19th Century a lot of critics were astute in this that Mormons and Catholics were both departing from the Protestant narrative. It’s going to take some time, but I think when you overcome that Protestant-dominated narrative and you see Mormonism as a restoration of the fullness of the church and therefore logically much more doing what Catholicism does, and especially on any of the issues like relics or saints or grace–one of the chapters in my book with Alonzo–Mormons and Catholics both get put in the same boat of not being sufficiently grace-oriented, of having too much works-righteousness in their theology. But all these things disappear or are seen in new light when you see that Mormonism and Catholicism are natural allies, not only on social/ethical issues, political issues, but in theological and metaphysical issues as well.
Scott: Time to pick one more.
Q: OK, where … yeah, Heavenly Mother … What do you think … oh, that’s … Wittgenstein’s approach to matter … yeah … Please comment on the beginning of matter.
A: This is a good one. The Catholic church is committed to the doctrine of creation out of nothing, and I wrote an essay on creatio ex materia recently in a book edited by Tom Oord … but what I do in that essay is I try to say that creation out of nothing was a necessary doctrine for its time, that when the early church was dealing with a lot of gnostic views of matter that saw matter as this eternal threat to God, that seeing God as so above matter, not worried about matter, that matter was not a threat to the divinity, that God creating matter out of nothing was the proper thing, a good thing for the church to do. And, by the way, this is how I tend to handle all theological doctrines, looking at them in their providential role they play in history. And so I think the doctrine of creation out of nothing made a lot of sense, in its time. I think that now, though, that the church is ready to rethink that, or should be ready, and that … but I do think that Mormonism offers something more than just the eternity of matter. I think if you make too quick of a move to say, well, Mormons have a view of creation as being a shaping of matter, and that matter is just as eternal as the divine is, I think that does raise a lot of problems and a lot of issues. But I think Mormonism is actually richer and deeper than that and I tried to hint at that in this paper, that for Mormonism matter and mind, if you will, unite in the eternal personhood of God or the three persons of God, especially the Father and the Son with their full bodies. And if you see that unity as eternal, that God has a nature and that that nature is the potential for matter outside of God to be, then you can see that God’s creation of matter, is really not out of nothing but it’s also not just that matter is eternal, but rather that matter is God’s gift to his spirit children, that God’s creation of matter is creation of the world out of Himself, or out of the body of Jesus Christ, if you will. And so that’s another thing I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about, but I think I better bring this to a close. Thank you Scott.
Transcriber’s note: This question and answer section has been lightly edited for clarity.
 Stephen H. Webb, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints (Oxford University Press, 2013).
 See Doctrine & Covenants, 88:37.
 “Creatio a Materia ex Christi,” in Theologies of Creation: Creatio Ex Nihilo and Its New Rivals, edited by Thomas Jay Oord (Routledge, 2014), p. 69.