It’s high time I confess a heresy that may put me at odds both with many Mormons and with many feminists: I’m not really all that enamored of the idea of the divine feminine, of the doctrine that we have a Heavenly Mother.
I don’t recall when I first encountered the teaching that we have a Heavenly Mother as well as a Father—though I can say that the idea that Heavenly Father had multiple wives was one that rather horrified me (it still does). But even beyond the potential polygamy problem, the notion of an Eternal Mother was one that left me feeling a bit icky. I projected the kinds of saccharine rhetoric about women that I heard about church onto her, imagining a Mother who was always soft-spoken and dripping with sentimentality. I figured that if such a divine personage did indeed exist, I didn’t want anything to do with her.
For this reason, I didn’t give much thought to the prayer issue; I never felt any great personal need to communicate with Heavenly Mother. Truth to tell, I don’t think the subject bothered me much at all until I encountered some of the discussion surrounding the question. As with some of our other attempts to justify particular practices, I frequently found the explanations more offensive than the original practice. Heavenly Mother was too special to talk to? Heavenly Father was protecting her from her children? Worshipping a woman would lead you in the direction of pagan fertility rites? That’s just the way things had always been done (this, in a church which claimed continuing revelation)? Each argument seemed sillier than the last.
However, I’m still ambivalent about the doctrine. A number of LDS feminists have advocated giving it a more prominent place, of incorporating Heavenly Mother more into our religious discourse and practice. On the one hand, I’m quite sympathetic to many of their arguments and aims. Worshipping a male God without a female counterpart undeniably puts males in a privileged position; God is like them in a fundamental way that God is not like women. I cannot believe that an environment which conceptualizes the divine in exclusively male terms does not to some extent influence the ways in which we think about women and men, and their relative capabilities.
On the other hand, from a feminist perspective, I am not persuaded that the doctrine of Heavenly Mother is actually all that positive, at least in the context in which we have it. If we have no Heavenly Mother, women have no divine role model which pertains to their gender, and that is indeed a challenge. But if Heavenly Mother exists, what we have is a divine role model for women which may be more disturbing than no role model at all–one in which women are silenced to the point of invisibility, in which they seem to disappear altogether into the identity of their husbands. Though I find the idea that God is a married couple to be appealing, I am unsettled by speculations that the Father in some way represents both of them, or that she is listening or involved despite the fact that we are permitted to address him and him alone. Some suggest that this setup exists because the two are so perfectly unified. But why, I wonder, does unity seem to require that women (but not men) sacrifice their individual identity–in this case, to the point where we can only guess as to whether a female is even present in the relationship? I find it bad enough when we refer to a married woman as “Mrs. John Smith,” but in this situation, we can’t even do that much; we in essence say “Mr. John Smith,” and then suggest that there might be a “Mrs.” hiding somewhere in there.
It also seems to me that the doctrine of Heavenly Mother profoundly reinforces the idea that gender roles are eternal. If there is no Heavenly Mother, women as well as men can confidently aspire to be like their Father, to somehow share in the life of God and all that goes along with that—but the existence of Heavenly Mother indicates that females are on an alternate path. Women, like men, might lay claim to some spark of the divine; but when one talks of women becoming god-like there is always an asterisk, because we do not know what female divinity entails. Teachings about Heavenly Mother can as easily be used to reinforce traditional gender roles as to challenge them; the fact that we see no evidence of Heavenly Mother exercising any kind of power or authority, for example, might be one reason why we are reluctant to give priesthood authority to women on earth. (Though on the other hand, the fact that Heavenly Father seems to be the only parent involved in nurturing the children hasn’t exactly translated into making that men’s primary responsibility here.) And much as I would like to project a 21st century egalitarian model of marriage on to our Heavenly Parents, I cannot rule out the possibility that goddesshood, whatever it is, involves subordination to the presiding male.
Obviously we have very little information about how eternal relationships work, and I am not trying to claim otherwise; I am only trying to explain why the possible existence of a Heavenly Mother does not necessarily quell my anxieties about gender in the eternities—and, in fact, in some ways makes them worse. To put it bluntly, I sometimes think I might rather deal with the difficulties of no Heavenly Mother at all, than with the challenges posed by the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother who is irrelevant to the Plan of Salvation, and who is either unable or unwilling to communicate with her children. With apologies to Eliza R. Snow, I find that it is this latter possibility, even more than the notion that in the heavens parents are single, that truly makes reason stare.
- 7 November 2007