This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Mormon scholars are mourning the sudden death of a Catholic theologian who took seriously LDS beliefs about God, grappled with them, explored them from every angle, and, ultimately, found much to admire.
"No contemporary non-LDS theologian engaged with Mormon theology with more care and rigor than Stephen H. Webb," says Blair Hodges of Brigham Young University's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. "This isn't an exaggeration. He was unique in the Mormon/Christian interfaith discussions because he spoke from within the Catholic tradition rather than Protestantism."
Webb, who died Saturday at age 54, was raised in Indianapolis as an evangelical Protestant but later converted to Catholicism. After earning a doctorate at the University of Chicago, he returned to his hometown to teach religion and philosophy at Wabash College for 25 years and recently offered a course at the ecumenical Christian Theological Seminary there.
Even before Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, Webb "publicly defended Mormons from the charge of not being Christian," Hodges says. The Catholic writer "made his unpopular case in the Christian publication First Things in an essay titled 'Mormonism Obsessed with Christ' and extended his case in a book called 'Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints' with Oxford University Press (2013)."
Of particular interest to Webb: Mormon founder Joseph Smith's teaching that God the Father and God the Son are two distinct, embodied beings.
In other words, writes Hal Boyd of Eastern Kentucky University in a tribute to Webb on the Mormon blog By Common Consent, Webb "inferred from [Smith's] vision that the world consists of multiple levels of physical reality rather than simply two kinds of substances, one material and one immaterial."
Much of Webb's work on Mormonism was prompted, Boyd writes, by Smith's statement 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."
Webb believed that view, according to Boyd, "held the potential to rejuvenate what he saw as moribund mainline theology."
In his 2011 book, "Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter," Webb "reacquainted readers with an ancient tradition that suggested Christ's embodiment extended beyond his mortal life, using the broad category of Incarnation to imagine how it might be that God could be material," says Samuel Brown, a Salt Lake City physician and Mormon author. "In this work, as in his other work, he stretched both Mormons and other Christians, drawing on various traditions to see what was possible."
Though the Catholic writer's thinking appeared in LDS publications including BYU Studies and the Mormon Studies Review Webb was not just a sympathetic observer, Hodges says. "He also didn't shy away from pointing out weaknesses he saw in Mormon theology while offering suggestions about how Mormons could overcome them."
On the whole, Webb was "ecumenical in the best sense," Brown says, "honoring what was distinct and best in each tradition and bringing it into conversation with what was distinct and best in the others."
Adds Boyd: "It's a stunning tragedy to lose one of Mormonism's great friends and intellectual allies."