One of the questions which came up in my post last fall about my reservations concerning the doctrine of Heavenly Mother was that of female exaltation more generally. It’s an issue that’s been at the back of my mind ever since. The discussion on my recent poll about the Celestial Kingdom inspired me to re-visit the topic, and attempt to sort out what thoughts on the subject I have thus far.
I’ll begin with the somewhat more basic question of whether women are even in the Celestial Kingdom. The last time I looked at D&C 76, I found myself particularly struck by verses 55-58:
They are they into whose hands the Father has given all things—
They are they who are priests and kings, who have received of his fulness, and of his glory;
And are priests of the Most High, after the order of Melchizedek, which was after the order of Enoch, which was after the order of the Only Begotten Son. Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God—
A recurrent problem in interpreting the scriptures is that it’s not always clear when gender-exclusive language is actually meant to be inclusive, and when it’s only referring to males. There are of course plenty of instances when it seems reasonable to deduce that “man” means “humankind.” I think the language in above passage, however, is androcentric enough that female inclusion is at least questionable.
However, we do have scriptural evidence elsewhere which at least refers to the presence of women in the world to come. In Joseph F. Smith’s vision recorded in D&C 138, he reports that included in the righteous dead, he saw “our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages and worshiped the true and living God.”
In other words, women haven’t disappeared altogether in the next life. This is also, of course, supported by temple ordinances, and the LDS understanding of the marriage relationship as eternal. So I don’t mention D&C 76 to make the case that women aren’t in the Celestial Kingdom; I think such an argument would be difficult to support. But I do think it’s interesting that Joseph Smith fails to mention seeing them. I can see a couple of possibilities:
–This could be simply be a language issue, and “sons” really means “sons and daughters,” “priests” really means “priests and priestesses,” etc.
–Joseph Smith didn’t actually happen to see any women in this vision, but this fact has no theological significance.
–Although there are women in the Celestial Kingdom, they aren’t included in the D&C 76 description because their role or status is fundamentally different. In other words, these verses are specifically a description of what celestial existence means for men. This is the possibility in which I’m most interested, for reasons I hope to develop in this post.
Discussions of exaltation are inevitably speculative. However, based on the ways in which the term is used, I think I can make two general assertions about what it involves: 1) a particular kind of relationship to God; 2) inheriting all that God has and is; becoming like God and sharing in the divine life. I have questions about to what extent either of these can be applied to women.
First of all, the question of relationship. Clearly one of the benefits of the Celestial Kingdom is that those there have a relationship with God which goes beyond that described in lower kingdoms. The notion of more direct, more intimate, closer communion with God is one of the blessings of being in a celestial realm. Such a relationship, I would argue, is not merely a side benefit of exaltation; it is in some sense actually constitutive of it. It is for this reason–that relationship with God is so central–that I find the hierarchal marriage model portrayed in the temple so disturbing. I see it as raising serious questions about female access to God, and therefore the ability of women to achieve exaltation (at least in this sense).
Of course, it is quite clear from the scriptures and from prophetic teachings–not to mention the reports of thousands of believers–that God does indeed interact with his daughters directly. LDS teachings don’t instruct women, to give just one example, to consult their husbands about the veracity of the Book of Mormon; they, like men, are told to go directly to God, and that God will answer them personally.
Given that this democratic, universal access to personal revelation is such a central feature of Mormon life, why give so much weight to this one particular covenant? Why project it into the next life? My answer is that this is precisely what the temple purports to be: a glimpse, however faint, of the eternities. I do not think it completely implausible to suggest that the way in which God relates to men and women inside the temple is meant to give us a clearer notion of what eternal life looks like than does the form that this relationship takes outside of it.
I can imagine, for example, the following scenario. It is possible that in the context of this limited and fallen world, for practical reasons, God chooses to interact with everyone regardless of gender. Not all women are married, not all married women have husbands who are in a position to receive revelation, and the revelation that does get communicated is often ambiguous. In other words, universal access to the divine might be a telestial practice, one necessary in this situation of mortality. In the celestial sphere, however, when presumably all men will be righteous and able to to unproblematically represent God to their wives, there might be no reason for God to interact directly with women.
I realize this is quite speculative, and I am certainly not arguing that such a scenario is clearly indicated by LDS doctrine. However, I see enough in church teachings suggesting that the celestial order is one in which men are in some sense connected directly to God, and women are connected to their husbands–in other words, that women and men do not have the same kind of relationship to God–to see something like this as at least a serious possibility.
The second aspect of exaltation I want to examine is that of inheriting what God has and is; of becoming like God. Given that LDS teachings assert both that God is male and that gender is eternal, it is clear from the outset that at least in some respects, women cannot become like God in the way that men can.
I imagine that many at this point will object that God is not in fact male; rather, God is a married couple. This, of course, brings us back to the problem of Heavenly Mother, and how little we know about her. If such a being does exist, the fact that she is not a member of the Godhead, and that we do not worship her, raises real questions about whether she is even divine. Some argue (see for example the discussion in this thread) that what the scriptures tell us about the Father’s attributes can be similarly applied to the Mother, but I see no reason to assume that this is the case. We simply lack scripture or revelation which tells us anything about her.
What this hole in LDS teachings leads to, I think, is a giant question mark about the meaning, and even the possibility, of female exaltation. Can women receive “all that the Father hath” in the same way that men can?
We do know, of course, that men cannot achieve exaltation without women. This is made clear in D&C 131:2, which tells us that to obtain the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom “a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage].” Again, however, we have the problem of gendered language. Does this passage also refer to the exaltation of women, or does it simply indicate that men require women to achieve their own exaltation?
Perhaps the passage which gives the strongest evidence for the possibility of female exaltation is D&C 132:20, which describes the situation of an exalted married couple:
Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.
In this verse, whatever is going on in exaltation appears to be happening to both husband and wife. What does it mean to say that they are gods? It seems to be related to being in the marital relationship; verse 17 explains that the angels “remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods.” This suggests another definition of exaltation: the state of being in an eternal marriage relationship. In this understanding of the term, I think there is no question that it is available to men and women alike.
However, I would note that this does not preclude husband and wife having very different roles. The fact that an exalted unit of men and women is “everlasting” and “has all power,” does not rule out the possibility that women nonetheless remain subordinate in the context of that unit. I mention this because this passage shows up in D&C 132–a revelation in which women are frequently described as objects which are given (and taken) from men. Whatever exaltation includes, at least in this context it does not seem to include both parties being treated as agents in their own right.
Both the scriptures and the temple promise great blessings to both faithful men and women in the world to come. However, I think we have good reason to suspect that the form which exaltation takes is substantially different for men and women. The question I have might then be better framed not as, “can women be exalted,” but rather, “what does female exaltation mean?”