Live Blog: Indianapolis Interfaith Fireside with Stephen Webb and Alonzo Gaskill

Indianapolis LDS Interfaith Fireside featuring Catholic scholar Stephen Webb and BYU scholar Alonzo Gaskill, co-authors of  Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation.

24 October 2015

Stephen Webb is a Catholic scholar, who wrote a book entitled, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints.  He was a recent speaker at the 2015 FAIR Mormon conference. He grew up Protestant, and converted to Roman Catholicism.

Alonzo Gaskill grew up Greek Orthodox and converted to the LDS church. He now teaches at BYU.

Gaskill:  Stephen Webb has more access to Church leaders than I do. He is like a rock star in the LDS Church. I’m not.  I once went to a temple for a wedding, and the temple president came in to speak with me for several minutes. The temple president then asked me what quorum of 70 he belonged to. When I told the president I was just there for a wedding, the president excused himself and left.

As new member and college student, I attended Notre Dame, and was concerned I would have defend my faith. I found that the doctrines of Catholics and LDS are not far apart. I wrote an article for Notre Dame on “holy envy”. It is that you can see things in other religions that can inspire you and help you grow closer to God. I noted things in Catholicism that I love and wish Mormons believed.  I wanted to write a book with a Catholic that didn’t hate Mormons, and Stephen came to mind.

There are things that were an epiphany to me as we wrote the book. Neither of us will say, “one religion is wrong here”, but discuss holy envy on things we like. Stephen felt comfortable talking about things he wished the Catholics could change, but noted Alonzo did not respond in kind. LDS seem to be less ecumenical, almost feeling that it makes our traditions feel less true.  BYU students often begin uncertain about learning on other religions, but finish the course learning their own faith grows stronger by appreciating others.

Liturgy is also a great topic. The Greek Orthodox was strong on liturgy. I missed it in the Sacrament meeting, but found it in the temple. We fail preparing our children of the temple liturgy. You learn in Catholicism of sacred space once you enter the chapel.  If you couldn’t be quiet in the Greek Orthodox chapel, you weren’t allowed in.   Once at the LDS Sacrament meeting, I heard, “the cow says ‘Mooo!’”. Someone had brought in a See and Say toy, something you would not see in the Roman Catholic church. It amazes me that members can attend the temple for decades and not understand the symbolism, and so cannot answer their kids’ questions. What is important is we must seek revelation on these things.

LDS are more focused on doctrine than modern Catholics. When asked if we worship the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, some are uncertain about the Son or Holy Ghost. We do not have a strong theologic base.  In Catholicism, transubstantiation is the literal change of wine and wafer into blood and flesh of Christ.  LDS do not believe this, but we do not understand what it means to partake, that we can reach back 2000 years and gain the power of Christ’s sacrifice in our own lives. We take the Sacrament as a habit, not contemplating of the miracle that occurs each time we take it. We can learn this from the Catholics.

Revelation is encountering God through a friend or a sunset.  LDS need to think about these little things: God, I’m grateful for a motor or other inventions. If we see God’s face in other faces, or listen to someone on a phone, it is a miracle.

LDS say they do not like relics, but we have our own, such as at Carthage Jail. Death masks, the jail, Sacred Grove, etc.  I noted in a scholar talk about Sacred Underwear in various traditions. One place had a claim to have some of Jesus’ blood. It may not have actually been his blood, but it caused me to still think about Jesus’ sacrifice. Whether the relic may not be historic, it represents something important. It helps the Spirit to testify of true things.

Stephen and I discuss the Great Apostasy a lot. It is offensive to Catholics, and Mormons tend to try to push it as doctrine. How can Catholics be the Great and Abominable Church, if they did not start until the 4th century?  If it weren’t for the Catholics, Joseph Smith would not have had a Bible to lead him to the Sacred Grove, believe in baptism, the Sacrament, etc.   Catholics did not cause the apostasy. We should be grateful for those Catholics that provided a great service of serving Christ and provide the world with a belief in Christ.

Stephen Webb: Of all the books I’ve written, this was the best. The book may not fit in a stocking, but Christmas is coming up, and you are invited to purchase them for your friends.

I’m the luckiest theologian in the world.  Most theologians only know Mormonism from an oppositional sense. I found a richness of doctrine and cool stuff.  I felt I would gain a richness from it. I wrote a book, “Jesus Christ, Eternal God”. I was looking for pre-Christian evidence of Jesus. I thought about Joseph Smith and his views of Jesus. I read the Book of Mormon and it says, “Jesus Christ, Eternal God” and I started reading more and fell in love with a lot of the richness, how there was a reality of it all before the incarnation actually occurred. The book had a chapter on Joseph Smith’s Christology. I then wrote a paper “Mormons, Obsessed with Christ” in a Christian journal. Mormons extend and deepen the belief of Christ. I received many emails from Mormons thanking me. I also got many emails from Catholics and Protestants asking me if I really believed it.  I then wrote another book on it, which led to the current book with Alonzo.

The book is not a debate or argument. It notes the overlap and goodness in both. For me, Joseph Smith had a deep catholic sense of thinking. He lived in a world where Protestantism was deeply divided, and looked for a universal (catholic) church. Where many were focused on closing the canon, Joseph Smith believed in an open canon. Catholics believe in continuing revelation, as the Virgin Mary and others are seen often in visions and miracles.  Joseph was the most fascinating theologian in the last few hundred years.

Catholics prayed for the dead and to the saints. Joseph believed we can still do things for the dead via proxy baptism. A connection between living and dead was nothing Protestants wanted, but connected Catholics and Mormons. Joseph Smith believed in ongoing revelation. Catholicism lost much of its concepts like this since Vatican 2.  Catholics believe there is a closed canon based on theological decision, however, they also recognize there are many ancient and modern thinking as needed to understand the Bible. The Book of Mormon teaches us how to find Christ in the Bible. The Catholics use creeds and doctrines on how to read the Bible to find Christ in the Bible.

Joseph Smith taught that grace alone is insufficient, as Protestants seek cheap grace. Catholics agree with Joseph Smith of the importance of works, rites, and doctrines. Grace is dynamic, requiring a response and a holiness in the journey, is accepted by Catholics and Mormons. The idea of heaven has changed in Catholicism. But anciently, it was similar to Mormonism, such as in Dante’s levels of heaven is similar to LDS belief.

There are centuries of reflection on heaven by the Catholics that Mormons can learn from. Mormonism teaches us that perfection is not static, but we continue to grow. Joseph anticipated changes and reforms back to early Catholic beliefs. LDS can stand on its own terms in relation to Catholicism, because it has a catholic imagination, seeing the church as a whole.

Mormons do baffle me on some things. I hear LDS do not have systematic theology. Yet, I see Mormon intellectual life is active and dynamic and is developing. It is just getting going. Joseph sought to restore not only ancient rituals, but also restore the intellectual life of the church. Joseph’s vision of Christianity has a foundation for a theology that is as strong as many ancient Christian theologies. There are many theologians at BYU and elsewhere that are finding golden nuggets.  For example, Mormonism believes in God being some form of matter, perhaps the perfection of matter. It shows that science and theology can work together. There is no other church saying that.

Many are suspicious of authority. However, LDS and Catholics rejoice in authority, love their leaders.  The Indianapolis Temple was my first temple to see during the open house. It opened my eyes. On architecture, Roman temples/cathedrals are dark to show an interplay of light and darkness and the need of privacy. Confessionals, altars for private space. The LDS temple shows a different piety. It is more horizontal and light sacred space. Catholic cathedrals are vertical and show God is up there.  The temple is not designed for private discourse, but for bonding and binding. There’s much more for me to learn in that.

Gaskill:  In Mormonism we speak of people being foreordained. We talk about Protestant reformers are foreordained. I believe Webb is foreordained to be a voice for our Church, in a fair and loving way. He calls us out when needed, but is a gift to us.

We like to doubt each others’ experiences. Mormons doubt visions of Virgin Mary, while they doubt the First Vision. God has called and given revelation to many of the reformers to take the people of the world to a higher level. If these can receive revelation we can believe in, we should honor and believe God can reach back to those who reach out to God. Revelation comes in different ways, just as near death experiences, we see those we are associated with (Jesus, Buddha, etc).

Many saints have been canonized. I wish Joseph Smith or Gandhi could be canonized. I am drawn to Mother Theresa. Where would she have done more good? In India, or as Relief Society President in Salt Lake City?

1 John 4:8 tells us that God is Love. Mother Theresa said that is what we are here for, to love. Some see others besides themselves as bad. We must stand up for the truth, but do it in Jesus’ way, else we are not representing Christ.  I asked a Muslim at BYU how his experience is. He said it was great because BYU has his standards, and no one is allowed to convert me, so they leave me alone. Another student said she had SSA, and people reject her.

Whose doctrine is right?  When we get to heaven, the Lord will not ask who got the right theology exactly right. God won’t damn us because of what we know, but if we had love for others, and had God in our countenance. The way we live is what matters, by accepting and loving others. It isn’t about understanding all the doctrine, but to have the doctrine change our souls.

In studying others’ faiths, my love for Christ has grown and been enriched.   We need to seek to break down walls and find more Stephen Webbs to enrich our lives.

Questions:

Gary (rameumptom):  In a recent Maxwell Institute podcast with Terryl and Fiona Givens, Fiona noted that a great way for LDS to learn about high church (high ritual) to prepare for the temple is to attend a Catholic mass.  What are your thoughts on how we could do a better job at preparing our kids for the high church rites of the temple?

Webb: Sunday morning is low church and the temple is high church. You read about temples, but it is a closed world of what Mormonism is. The structure of the Sunday service is spontaneous and laiety driven. You don’t get the richness of the doctrine.

Gaskill: first, you have to go frequently to help your kids. LDS go infrequently, who want their kids to attend frequently. Second, keep a temple journal on things that are revealed to you. So when you take the child to the temple, you can share the answers with them. If you don’t have answers or thoughts, they will feel it must not matter. The Mass does have something to offer, a little less than preVatican 2. I would have my kids read about the evolution of Christian rituals, which were absorbed into the Mass.  A 6th century rite, the priest would anoint and touch different body parts on the person, giving blessing to the  person, noting different parts of the body being anointed (head, ears, etc). Share this, so when the child goes through initiatory, they would say “interesting”.

Narrative is part of the Catholic liturgy, such as Easter. The Creation and Fall are discussed as part of Easter, to show we are fallen. The priest raises his hands during the Mass, to represent coming before God with clean hands and a pure heart.  They had a list of sick people they would pray over, now done in a special mass called a Requiem.  Every 25th year is a Jubillee for the Catholics. They open a door at the cathedral, taking down the bricks, knocking 3 times with a hammer to enter to the altar, which represents the throne of God. The three knocks represent the Trinity, and Faith/Hope/Charity. It also symbolizes the need to pray three times a day.  I would love to write a book on these things, but I can’t, and you know why.

Question:  What are some of the practices Catholics can pick up from the LDS?

Webb: Catholics used to have a privacy on its most sacred rituals. Liturgy used to be split in two, so the Eucharist could be a closed ritual. There are aspects that should be held for the members alone, so there is a two-fold worship. To have a temple for those that are ready to receive the higher mysteries is important.  However, once it is gone, it is hard to put it back into the bottle. If you were to open the temple, you would be hard put to close it back up.  Mormons have a Sunday Mormon protestant soul, and a temple Catholic soul.

Question:

What do you know about the LDS temple being built in Rome?

Webb: we hope to get an invitation to it. Not sure if there is a date yet. I’m sure there will be a lot of media coverage, but it is still being built and is out of the way. Once ready, it will open a lot of dialogue between Mormons and Catholics.  It is a source of tension as Mormonism grows among former Catholic strongholds.  It is a good reason for more dialogue, and the connection between  the two.

Gaskill: I wondered why we didn’t build something more Gothic/Rome? But we need to make sure we keep it unique from Roman Catholicism: something that does not imitate, but shows beauty.

Question:  Who should we worship in the Godhead?

Gaskill: the Brethren have not been consistent in their language on who we worship. I recently gave a paper, where we asked different faiths who they worshiped. They were uncertain. We struggle with that answer as others do.  We see that Jesus deflects worship to the Father in the scriptures.  We are worshipful to him, but he deflects it to the Father.

Question: Church’s new statements on Mother in Heaven and role of women?

Gaskill:  Mormons and Catholics have a Goddess problem with the Virgin Mary and the Heavenly Mother. I am writing an article on a feminist approach to the temple. I read a paper from a feminist, who was offended by the temple. I realized what she wrote was not true. I encouraged her to become an ordinance worker and perform ordinances in the temple.  The temple used to say that the things regarding the man and woman is figurative.  It is a play, a ritual drama. We play different parts. Women play the bride of Christ, the Church. Christ must then come down and save his bride. With the Fall, we need a mediator, Jesus Christ.   When we look at it from a sexist position, we harm ourselves, missing many important teachings.  Scripture often use feminine metaphors to represent God (hen gathering its chickens, etc), all to show the importance of symbolism.

Question: Both Catholics and Mormons serve in humanitarian charities. How do they interact?

Webb: the two traditions connect very well. Both have great programs. Mormons organize better than anybody. They work together well on many things. We want to investigate why the theology overlaps so much on this between the two churches. Charity is a way to encourage theological dialogue. I’m also interested in exploring the family.  We both cherish it, but there are differences, such as Catholic priests are unmarried.  Mormons preserve family in heaven, which Catholics waffle on. What things continue in heaven should be a point of discussion.

Gaskill: The Catholics have such a great system all over the world, LDS provide a lot of supplies and money through Catholic Services. In the 1980s, LDS raised $6 million in one Sunday for Ethiopia, and we often distribute through Catholic Services.

Question: Your feelings before and after writing about Mormons, has it changed or not? And why?

Webb: I changed a lot of my thoughts and views. In the 1960s, many evangelicals believed Catholics were not saved. Protestants do not believe Catholics are evil any more, and so it is starting to happen with Mormonism. More are open to LDS, with a lot of the change happening with Mitt Romney.  The opportunities are opening up. The dangers are there too. The more Catholicism opened up, the more it became like Protestantism. Do not make our mistakes.

I always had in mind the history of the Mormons. What I didn’t have was the richness of the LDS theology. It was hard to figure out what was rich. The prejudice against Mormonism is reducing as there is more interaction.

12 thoughts on “Live Blog: Indianapolis Interfaith Fireside with Stephen Webb and Alonzo Gaskill

  1. What a delightful conversation.

    I do wish someone would write a book about “What to Expect When Worshipping With Others” to illuminate the insider view of different religions, including religions tha are no longer extremely and “non-religions” such as active atheism or general “don’t have to go to Church-ism.”

    I’ve enjoyed attending a Jewish Seder and found touch points to the restoration of the sealing power. Reading the Squaretwo article about the divine feminine, I came to have a better understanding of the ancient worship of Ashteroth, which appears to have been derived from the belief in the female portion of Elohim (El and Elah) which was referred to as Asherah (if I’m remembering correctly).

    I reflect on visiting a museum in Sant’Antiocho (Sardinia) where they had dozens or even hundreds of intricate containers that were used to hold the remains of the firstborn children sacrificed to Moloch. As horrific as many would find such a thing, it certainly has points of resonance with Christian belief in a God who sacrificed His son, and the clothing of that sacrifice in honor and beauty.

    For those of us who do embrace the universal family of man (aka, are catholic), I think such a book would allow us to better understand all our fellow.

  2. Sigh. I thought I had corrected all the “autocorrects,” but I seem some leaked through. Hopefully my comment is still understandable… Extant got changed to extremely and the s got taken off fellows, etc.

  3. Meg, are you sure you weren’t partaking of a little too much Eucharist wine? 🙂

    It was an excellent fireside. We hope to have more thru our LDS multi-stake Interfaith leaders.

  4. Meg: “I do wish someone would write a book about “What to Expect When Worshipping With Others” to illuminate the insider view of different religions, including religions tha are no longer extremely and “non-religions” such as active atheism or general “don’t have to go to Church-ism.””

    The “How to be a Perfect Stranger” series springs to mind (here is a link to the first book in the series):
    http://www.amazon.com/How-Perfect-Stranger-Essential-Religious/dp/1594731403

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