A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled “Why I Don’t Want to Believe In Heavenly Mother.” Basically, I argued that our teachings about Heavenly Mother in their current form raise more feminist problems than solve them, and I concluded, “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.”
Reading this post again several years later, I still pretty much agree with everything I said, in terms of the problems I see with our current discourse on Heavenly Mother (or maybe more accurately, the lack thereof). But my thinking on this subject has somewhat changed. For a number of reasons, I find that I do want to believe in Heavenly Mother. It’s a doctrine that deeply matters to me, for both theological and personal reasons.
James Olsen recently wrote a thought-provoking post at T&S titled “In Praise of Heavenly Mother,” making the case that “we, collectively, and particularly in the recent past, have not only failed to follow up on what is undoubtedly among the most profound truths of the Restoration, but likewise neglected even the bare glimpse of eternity that we’ve been entrusted,” and proposing some intriguing suggestions for how we might honor our Heavenly Mother in orthodox ways. I enjoyed the post, particularly the way in which he approached the question. But I found many of the comments disheartening. People described the doctrine of Heavenly Mother as something akin to speculation about Kolob—something not particularly important and probably better left alone, an idea that is a distraction from the essential teachings of the Church—even a distraction from worshiping God.
Even bracketing the theological debate about the role of Heavenly Mother, I find it more than a little outrageous that a teaching that is so closely bound up with something as central as the eternal theological identity of women could be dismissed as a distracting, speculative question. There is something very telling in such a dismissal; an undercurrent of women themselves being a distraction, a side question. If you focus too much on “women’s issues,” I hear, you might forget what really matters—as if women’s issues were not human issues, as if salvation and exaltation were only a male concern.
I find the Proclamation on the Family both heartening in its acknowledgment of heavenly parents, but also discouraging in its comment that we worshiped God as our Eternal Father—leaving Heavenly Mother, once again, invisible. It reminds me of Orson Pratt’s view that we should not worship Heavenly Mother, because the Father is the head of his divine household, and the concerns people inevitably raise about “goddess worship,” as if it were inherently problematic in a way that “god worship” is not. Why would it be dangerous to worship a female divine figure, but praiseworthy to worship a male one?
That said, I do understand some of the reservations that come up around this topic. I am not crazy about some of the directions feminists have gone with this—I am not interested in trying to dig up mythical prehistoric societies which revolved around goddess worship, or connecting the idea of a divine feminine to various New Agey elements. I don’t want to appropriate other traditions or cultures; I want to connect to Heavenly Mother in an LDS context. I have been encouraged by the work David Paulsen and his students have done in collecting some of the historical LDS teachings on Heavenly Mother–it is good to know that the current taboo has not always been in place. (Another take on the subject is Kevin Barney’s Dialogue article; also note BiV’s response and Kevin’s response to her. I’m not going to weigh in on that debate, except to say that it’s good to see these kinds of conversations.)
My sisters and I occasionally discuss the idea of a “feminist linchpin”—the idea that many feminists find that they focus on one particular issue which they see as central. For some it might be males presiding; for others, it might be lack of female ordination. Of course, all of these issues are interconnected, and I can see multiple legitimate starting points in grappling with feminist problems. But I have come more and more to see the silence of Heavenly Mother—whether her silence, or ours—as perhaps my feminist linchpin, a kind of theological black hole that allows for female subordination and marginalization.
I’ve had some moments when the utter strangeness of the situation has hit me. I was explaining LDS doctrine to an acquaintance, and I said, well we also have a Heavenly Mother, but we’re not supposed to talk to her, or maybe even about her. And it sounded so bizarre to me once I said it out loud that I wasn’t sure what to say next; I found it impossible to explain, and I began to wonder about my own acceptance of the situation.
I have a vivid memory of a particular Sunday afternoon last year. I was visiting my sister Kiskilili, and we were walking in a pouring rain. We finally ducked inside a Catholic church to dry off. I’ve been in lots of Catholic churches in my life, so it wasn’t anything new to see statues of Mary everywhere. But for some reason, this time it hit me in a visceral way, the profound lack I feel in my own tradition when it comes to models of female spirituality. And I wondered—what would it be like to believe in a God of your own sex, to be able to really see yourself as created in God’s image, without an asterisk? I don’t like the term “empowerment” because it makes me think of cheesy self-help books, but it’s the best word I have for describing the way I felt. I can only imagine what it would be like to grow up in a world where one could take that kind of connection to God for granted.
Still, it has been a shift for me to say that I want to believe, not just because of the theological implications, but for more personal reasons. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve been resistant to the idea because I don’t like the sappy way motherhood is described in LDS rhetoric, and I envisioned a kind of Heavenly Mother who was too busy being angelic and gentle and feminine to connect with real human beings. But I’ve had some particular experiences and challenges in recent years that have led me to think much more seriously about this, that have led me to feel on a very deep level that this matters.
You may have heard of the Bechdel Test for movies. In order to pass, a movie must meet three criteria: 1. It has to have at least two women in it; 2. Who talk to each other; 3. About something besides a man. It sounds simple enough, but once you start running the test, it’s pretty disturbing how many movies don’t have even this much (including, alas, many of my favorites). But even more disturbing is to find oneself living in a grand cosmological drama which not only fails to pass the test—it doesn’t even manage to get to (1). One of the continuing frustrations I have with LDS discourse about women is that so often our worth is defined in relation to men—women are important and valuable because men need us. But to think about women in the context of our relation to our Heavenly Mother is to radically break out of that paradigm, and I find something deeply liberating in that perspective. It potentially provides a basis for seeing women as fully human in our own right, and therefore able to enter into relationships with men as genuine equals.
In a BYU devotional earlier this year that was much discussed on the bloggernacle, Elder Glenn L. Pace concluded with this testimony:
Sisters, I testify that when you stand in front of your heavenly parents in those royal courts on high and look into Her eyes and behold Her countenance, any question you ever had about the role of women in the kingdom will evaporate into the rich celestial air, because at that moment you will see standing directly in front of you, your divine nature and destiny.
I found much of this particular talk deeply troubling in its portrayal of female roles, and I concede that it is not necessarily reassuring to consider the subject of Heavenly Mother in the context in which this comment appeared. And yet I was still encouraged by the fact that he talked specifically about Heavenly Mother. As we all know, President Hinckley said in a 1991 talk that we should not pray to Heavenly Mother. But that is a far cry from saying that we should not even talk about her or think about her. The cultural taboo on the subject, I think, is rooted in several things—the specter of polygamy, its historical tie to Adam-God, and the excommunications of feminists in the 1990s. But I cannot see any doctrinal basis for avoiding the topic. If a General Authority can mention her in a BYU devotional, surely we can talk about her, too, in our various local contexts.
To believe in a Heavenly Mother that is truly equal to Heavenly Father, I think, is an act of radical hope. Given our teachings about gender hierarchy here in mortality, as well as the doctrine that patriarchy is eternal, I can see all too real reasons to wonder about the position of women in the eternities. It is one reason why I have been lukewarm about the doctrine, and why I still grapple with the troubling theological questions surrounding it. But despite everything, and somewhat to my own surprise, I find myself with Eliza R. Snow. I believe in Heavenly Mother.
- 23 October 2010