Among Mormons motherhood is held up as the “highest, holiest service to be assumed by mankind [sic].” One might discern, then, a vaguely Mary-shaped silhouette in our discourse in the negative space between our focus on Jesus as the consummate man and our insistence on the near-divinity of motherhood. In the heavenly realm we lack anything other than a wisp of an ultimate example of maternalism, where in the earthly sphere our most promising candidate for filling the role of superlative mother lacks prominence.
It’s not that she’s entirely absent. “A precious and chosen vessel” (ouch!–are we talking about a person or a luxury ocean liner?), Mary probably gets as least as much airtime as Daniel in the lions’ den. Which is to say that she’s a lesser but still visible-with-the-naked-eye star among our interlocking constellations of heroic scriptural figures. By my calculations, this puts her about 121 lightyears away from and with a brightness about 60,000 times dimmer than that of the Catholic Mary. What accounts for this difference in attitudes?
Mary occupies a unique position in Christian thought in any event. You don’t have to get all Freudian to scratch your head over the celebration of a woman who achieved biological motherhood non-sexually, thereby (conveniently, one might argue) fusing the seemingly irreconcilable archetypes of the mother and the virgin.
It’s true there’s no religious group we’re more suspicious of than Catholicism, that “great and abominable church,” “the whore of all the earth” (or not, take your pick. Bruce R. McConkie took his–more than once). At the same time, the number of parallels between Mormonism and Catholicism is striking; one might even argue that part of our distrust of the Vatican stems from our very unease with those evident similarities. But Mary’s status is a clear point of departure. So while boundary maintenance vis-a-vis Catholics and an undeniable affinity for Protestantism likely play a role, I doubt this tells the whole story. Such factors aren’t preventing us from asserting that priesthood is mediated and transmitted through a hierarchical structure, for example.
On top of our aversion to all things “popish,” we’re also quite leery of anything giving off a whiff of the divine feminine. Is this in part a reaction to the Catholic Mary, or do these roots run deeper in our tradition? Perhaps Heavenly Mother is taboo in our worship to some degree in response to the Catholic penchant for praying to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. (Historically, it’s possible Heavenly Mother’s significance began plummeting toward its nadir as anti-Catholicism in the Church was cresting.) Or, looked at from the other side, does our chariness toward Heavenly Mother prevent us from talking more about Mary since her status borders dangerously on the divine in other traditions?
Finally, perhaps there are theological reasons for our lack of attention to Mary. In traditional Christian thought Christ is God’s Word, the power through which he called the world into being, and God’s Name and Glory whereby God is able to interact with the world without compromising his transcendence. (In Mormonism, in contrast, there’s no philosophical reason for Christ rather than God the Father to have created the world.) The Incarnation represents the ultimate expression of the bridging of that gap between the unknowable transcendent God and the immanent mundane human world. In taking on flesh, Christ entered fully into the realm of the human.
But for Mormons the mystery is not how Christ became man, but rather how Christ became God without first becoming man. All spirits come to Earth to obtain bodies; this aspect of Christ’s mission is downright ordinary. And since our anthropomorphic God lives in our ontological neighborhood to begin with, no radical bridge is necessary. By suffering for sin, Christ reconciles us with God in an ethical sphere, but no ontological reconciliation is needed. The Incarnation simply has no resonance in Mormon theology. And it is this very aspect of Christ’s mission in which Mary participates most directly. Perhaps as we sideline the significance of the Incarnation, Mary’s significance recedes with it.
- 1 December 2009