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KELLNER: Scholar delves into Mormon ‘lessons’ for Christians

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney brought with it at least one potentially positive byproduct: a greater public examination — and perhaps more understanding — of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more popularly known as Mormons, after the church's Book of Mormon, which members consider "another testament of Jesus Christ."

Mr. Romney, in case it escaped your notice, is not only a Republican but an active member of the Mormon faith. His religion was the subject of much scrutiny — and not a little ridicule — by those in the media unfamiliar or uncomfortable with candidates professing a strong faith that has made an impact in their lives.

One person who tracked the so-called "Mormon Moment" of 2012 had a scholarly interest in all this. Stephen H. Webb, then a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College, some 45 miles northwest of Indianapolis, said he saw interesting contrasts and connections between the Mormon faith and the rest of Christianity.

So Mr. Webb, who recently retired from teaching to pursue a writing career, did what academically inclined people often do: he sat down and wrote a book. Unlike so many academic efforts, however, what he came up with will, I predict, get people talking.

"Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints," has just been published by Oxford University Press, and offers the view of a non-Mormon theologian — Mr. Webb, a longtime evangelical Christian who was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 2007 — on a group whose beliefs and core theology may not be as familiar as the presence of temples and missionaries-on-the-doorstep might suggest.

This is, to be sure, heavy-duty stuff. Mr. Webb examines views of the very nature of God in examining Mormonism compared to more "mainstream" Christian beliefs, and such an examination is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, it's the kind of material more often debated at scholarly conferences than expounded from megachurch pulpits on Sunday mornings.

The first question to ask, according to the author, is whether God is a mere undefined "spirit," or does he have a material body of some stripe? Before you jump in with an answer, remember that many, if not most, Protestants and Catholics believe Jesus is not only God the Son, but also was raised from the dead and presently "is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us," as Paul records in his Letter to the Romans.

Mr. Webb asks: If Jesus has a resurrected body and is in heaven, where does that leave God the Father?

"The idea that God and matter are not eternally separate from each other, that matter is not just dead matter but can be an expression of the divine and is not alien to God, and that we can think of God in some ways as being material, this idea was something that was bubbling in the back of my mind for years," he said in a telephone interview.

"When you take away a body from God and a form, and any of the properties you attribute to matter, then you get a pretty abstract God," Mr. Webb said. "I think the increasingly abstract deity that we have in Western theology is one of the causes of atheism. God becomes more and more remote and less relevant."

With its belief that God himself has a body, Mr. Webb declared, "Mormonism puts matter right at the heart of the divine. If there's one Christian tradition that's thought about it, that's Mormonism."

It is, Mr. Webb added, "time for the rest of us to take Mormonism seriously."

That seriousness, for Mr. Webb, occupies 232 pages of a book aimed at parsing the theological ideas of Mormonism and contrasting and comparing them with traditional Christian beliefs. He suggests that the Mormon understanding of God's nature explains Mormons' preference for modesty, extending to the "temple garments" faithful adult members wear under their clothing: If God has a body, and we are made in God's image, Mr. Webb said the reasoning goes, then our bodies, too, must be treated with honor and displayed modestly.

Whether or not one agrees with Mormonism's teachings and theology, those interested in learning its nuances and relationship to the larger Christian community likely will profit from Mr. Webb's work. It's a fascinating subject, and one Mr. Webb covers with a penetrating, thought-provoking approach.

Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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