I would indeed be ungrateful if I didn’t acknowledge the contributions of my co-bloggers; Petra read an earlier draft and made a lot of great observations, many of which are included in the footnotes, and Kiskilili and Melyngoch kindly allowed me to quote them.
Many of you are probably familiar with Valerie Hudson’s talk, “The Two Trees.” (You can go read it here.) In this talk, Hudson explains that one of the things that she values about the church is its feminism. In her words, she seeks “to review the main points of LDS doctrine that make this a revolutionary religion from a feminine perspective.” I can see why people are drawn to the talk; it has some powerful imagery. I have to give her credit for arguing for an equality that in some respects goes well beyond standard Mormon apologetics about women’s roles. I like how she emphasizes roles for both Heavenly Parents, and is not shy about bringing Heavenly Mother into her scheme. I also like that both men and women are explicitly connected to spiritual power.
Nonetheless, as appealing as it sounds in places, I have some serious questions about this essay; I think Hudson’s methods of interpretation are often problematic, and sometimes have a rather sleight-of-hand feel to them. This comes through in the very beginning of the piece, when she says that D&C 132 makes it “absolutely plain that polygamy is an Abrahamic sacrifice.” This, she continues, means it is necessarily “temporally bounded,” and there will at some point be a ram in the thicket. It is true that polygamy is brought up in connection with the Abraham/Isaac story (see vs. 34-37), but I think it a real stretch to say that this makes it “absolutely plain” that polygamy is an Abrahamic sacrifice; a more straightforward read, I think, would simply see those verses as an explanation that a particular behavior which is usually forbidden by God is can under some conditions be counted as righteous. More significantly, there is little if any support for the idea that there will be a ram in the thicket in the next life. And especially given the next-life orientation of the section, I find it very difficult to believe that this is describing a temporally-bound situation.
However, polygamy is not her main focus, and we could go probably go back and forth about the meaning of various verses in D&C 132. I simply want to note here that she takes an interpretation that is at the very least a debatable one, and states that it is “absolutely plain.” This tendency hurts her credibility, and I think this pattern is a problem throughout the essay.
So—let’s look at the topics that are her focus.
I. Revolutionary LDS Teachings?
Hudson mentions some LDS doctrines which she describes as revolutionary, asserting that they contrast with traditional Christian teachings. I would like to look more closely at the teachings she brings up; I think there are instances when she misrepresents both Mormons and other Christians.
1) The existence of two heavenly parents
Hudson explains, “We are taught that there is no God without men and women loving each other as equals. Heavenly Father is not an old bachelor. In fact, the one who’s an old bachelor is Satan. This is revolutionary.”
I agree that a corporeal male God with a corporeal female counterpart is indeed strikingly different from traditional Christianity. But while popular culture has indeed portrayed God as an old bachelor, theologically, the God of mainstream Christianity is a being without gender, making the “old bachelor” claim simply nonsensical.
This is not to say that I do not see a tremendous amount of potential in the LDS doctrine of a Heavenly Mother—but I think this is largely unrealized. (If you want to know my concerns, see this post.) I also want to note that many of those mainstream Christians who do not believe in a gendered God have proposed feminine imagery for God, and and have structured their speech and liturgy to reflect that. Some, particularly Catholics, also have spiritual practice tied to feminine figures. Given this, I have a hard time seeing LDS teachings on HM as particularly revolutionary for women.
2) Importance/eternal nature of the body
Hudson tells a story about Rosemary Radford Ruether, one of the most influential feminist theologians, and how Reuther looked forward to not having a body in heaven. Hudson’s response: “I find the doctrine that my body is a great blessing and I get to keep it, to be an important part of why I stay LDS.” I was a bit confused as to the point of this story. Hudson sees her body as a blessing; Reuther does not. Both are female, and both identify as feminists. I would imagine that many women inside and outside of the church have ambivalent relations to their bodies, and the doctrine that if you are female, you will eternally have a female body may sound like a positive to some, and a doom to others. I’m not sure how this is relevant.
Nonetheless, I will say that I too appreciate the value of the body found in LDS teachings, and I have to note that the reclaiming of the importance of embodiment has been a significant aspect of contemporary feminist theology. But I have some unease with Hudson’s emphasis on this, because so often in LDS discourse women are defined in terms of the capabilities of their bodies; in fact, in this particular essay, womanhood and motherhood appear to be indistinguishable.
3) Issues of equality
Unfortunately, Hudson immediately jumps to the classic straw-person argument about equality, asserting that too many people do not understand that equality does not mean sameness. To demonstrate this point, she observes that “there are no two men who are identical, and yet they stand as equals before each other and before the Lord.” I think this is a poor parallel, because two non-identical men still have the same gender role; the situation of a man and a woman standing before God, on the other hand, is a qualitatively different one, because their relation to God is intertwined with gender roles.
Hudson quotes what has generally become the model for marriage in LDS teachings; according to Elder Perry: “There is not a president and vice president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family.” I have to note that this is a recent notion, and is still not taught univocally by the Church, but I think it is legitimate to point out that this egalitarian model has become more and more dominant in LDS discourse.
However, I was seriously taken aback by this comment:
What an incredible vision! Especially for a Christian religion, many of which believe in some type of doctrine of submission of wives to husbands. That is not what the LDS believe.
I find this roughly similar to a Jew celebrating the fact that she, unlike those of other less enlightened religions, is allowed to eat pork. It simply makes no sense. And it requires ignoring a whole lot, most obviously the language of the temple and the FamProc.
However, while at first read I thought this comment was simply disingenuous, after reading the whole essay, I think it might make some sense in the context of the worldview Hudson is attempting to build. Nonetheless, the idea that Mormons are ahead of other Christians on this still makes me flinch—it is arguably true that some evangelicals, for example, have more hard-core patriarchy than do LDS, but there are also many, many Christians who do not require a submission/obedience/hearkening model that has to be explained. (Though to be fair, she says “many” Christians, not “all.” I just have a hard time seeing LDS to be particularly radical on this subject.)1
II. The Garden of Eden
I now turn to Hudson’s discussion of the Garden of Eden, which is a crucial aspect of her argument.
1. Different Stewardships
Hudson makes the common argument that women and men have different stewardships, and she uses the traditional priesthood/motherhood parallel. I have to give her points for being creative in the way she describes it. “Women escort every soul through the veil to mortal life and full agency.” Even Adam, she notes, had to enter mortality “from the hand of a woman.” Here her two trees metaphor comes in. Eve gives the gift of the first tree (mortality), and Adam gives the gift of the second (ordinances of salvation). “Just as the veil into this life is guarded by the women, the daughters of God, so the veil that brings us home, is administered and guarded over by the sons of God.”
Despite this appealing imagery, this model does not solve any the problems of a motherhood/priesthood parallel. This particular issue has been discussed so often that I don’t want to spend too much time on it here, but I will note a few basic issues. The priesthood is something given to men who are worthy. Motherhood, by contrast, is a biological capacity not tied to worthiness. These are simply not parallel situations. Notably, fatherhood does not even come up. And as usual, women who don’t have children are simply relegated to the next life. But since the Two Trees are about entering and exiting this life, women who don’t have children in mortality are failing to give the gift they are supposed to give, leaving their life purpose somewhat questionable.
I will say, however, that if the priesthood were only about saving ordinances, I would find this interpretation much more palatable. If women give birth, and men give re-birth (i.e., baptism), there’s some nice symmetry there. But the priesthood has a much, much broader scope than performing saving ordinances. And it does not naturally follow, for example, that because women have the special role of bringing children into mortality, they should have little voice in the highest levels of their own church, or be shut out from giving healing blessings.
Hudson does seem somewhat aware of the ecclesiastical issue—she explains that “the Church is supposed to be a gift to the family, the gift given by the sons of God, and that there is another gift to the family, and that gift is given by the daughters of God.” I presume that the latter gift is that of bearing children. I’m not entirely clear about the former. Is she saying that men run the church, so that they can bring that gift to their families? What is the gift, exactly? Being part of an ecclesiastical organization, and the benefits that can give you? Notably, women are not agents in this vision of the Church, but are those who receive it as a gift; and significantly, their participation is contingent on men.
2. Adam, Eve, and the Fall
One thing I like about the way Hudson depicts the Adam and Eve story is that both play agentive roles. I am also intrigued by her proposal that it was appropriate for a woman to take the fruit and choose mortality, because of the burdens that women bear in particular. Yet once again, I see problems with the way she sets it up.
First of all, we have the creation of Adam and Eve. As we all know, Eve was created as a “helpmeet,” which Hudson argues means “equal in power to save.” This, says the Hebrew scholar on our blog, is a dubious interpretation.2 And as I have posted in the past, whatever the meaning of helpmeet, the fact that Eve was created for Adam is already a problem, because it leaves Adam as the main subject, and Eve in a supporting role. It is true that Hudson has an explanation for the chronology: she explains that Eve had to come second to demonstrate to Adam his helplessness before the First Tree. But this account, once again, values women in terms of what they can provide for men.
In considering the Fall, Hudson emphasizes that 1) in LDS beliefs, the fall was a good and necessary thing; 2) Eve did not sin; and 3) Eve was rewarded. I won’t dispute the first. The second is a little murkier; the challenge of making the fall a good thing but also a sin has led to a curious split between “sin” and “transgression,” a distinction I find questionable. But it is the third claim here with which I take the most issue. I think it is very hard not to read God’s proclamations to Eve as curses.
Hudson, by contrast, does not see them in a negative light. On the childbirth issue, she explains that “To have children, to be able to fully give the gift of Eve, is one of the most soul-satisfying parts of a woman’s life that she will either experience here or in the hereafter if circumstances have prohibited it here.” This sounds lovely, but I’m having a very hard time connecting it to the text: Eve is told that she will have sorrow in childbearing, not that it will be a soul-satisfying experience for her. The text does not say, or even hint at, an interpretation along the lines of “Blessed are those who bear children, for they will have a rich experience.”3
And then we get to everyone’s favorite: Adam will rule over Eve. Hudson draws on the popular notion that what this really means is that he will rule with Eve. Again, I will note that this seems to be a implausible read.4 According to Hudson, “the concept of interdependent equal partners is well-grounded in the doctrine of the restored gospel.” I would say that it’s well-grounded in ideas in the second half of the twentieth century; her reading strikes me as notably anachronistic. I would also note that if you want to draw on LDS interpretations of this verse, President Kimball (for example) changed “rule” to “preside,” and preside is still a role specifically assigned to males (not to men and women together).
3. Reciprocal hearkening covenants?
Hudson proposes several ways of dealing with the hearken covenant. She points out that Adam first hearkened to Eve in taking the fruit, which presumably sets up a reciprocity in which after the fall, Eve is commanded to hearken to Adam. I don’t think this works, for several reasons. People have offered numerous ideas as to why Adam went along with this (he knew it was ultimately the right thing, he didn’t want to lose Eve, etc.) But significantly, he has a genuine choice in the matter; he is not under a covenant to obey or hearken to her.5
Hudson also suggests that “it’s quite possible that en route to the First Tree there was also a covenanting where the sons of God covenanted to hearken to the daughters of God,” but she has no support for this. I would say that the fact that she has to conjure up a completely extratextual scenario like this in order to support her arguments is actually indicative of the lack of textual support for a situation of equality. In any case, it is worth noting that in our liturgy, men, like Adam, are not put under covenantal obligation to hearken to their spouses; only women have that burden. Additionally, Adam’s hearkening to Eve in taking the fruit is a one-time instance; women, by contrast, do not covenant to hearken to their spouses only with regard to one particular situation.
At one point, Hudson addresses the men:“You covenant to be the equal partner of your sweetheart, to be faithful and true to her, and to help bring children into the world with her, and to raise them.” Maybe I’m overlooking something obvious, but I am baffled by this one. I appreciate the sentiment, with its equal partner aspect and its proposal that men should be involved in raising their families. I’m just wondering when exactly men make this covenant.6 My best guess is that she’s thinking of it as existing implicitly somewhere. However, it seems to me that a genuine belief in equal partnership would appear explicitly in formal covenants.
Hudson also suggests a rather unique definition of “hearken” in which it is only applicable when it comes to receiving the gift of the second tree. In other words, women are only commanded to hearken when it comes to matters which have to do with ordinances.7 Again, this is highly speculative, and not at all supported by the texts we have. This isn’t to say that I think there is no place for speculative theology, but the fact that she comes up with these sorts of interpretations without support makes her arguments much less persuasive.8
4. Patriarchy vs. patriarchal order
What about patriarchy? Hudson explains that a secular definition of “patriarchy” is “is an order in which men rule over women.” However, this is not true of the church, she argues; instead, we have the “patriarchal order,” which is the order “of family government as found in heaven based on the equal partnership of men and women.” This is a familiar argument; I would just say, yet again, that if we are actually rejecting patriarchy, let’s see if we can come up with a different word that doesn’t sound suspiciously like patriarchy, and can we please, please stop conflating “patriarchy” and “equal partners.”
5. Uses of priesthood
Hudson also describes the priesthood as giving “a God-ordained vision, of how men are to treat women.” She talks about men dedicated to chastity, who engage in child-rearing, who are dedicated to “upholding the safety, flourishing, and equality of women. Men who want to have children, and take part in raising them? Men who value their daughters as much as they value their sons?” I have to say here that I really do appreciate that the church offers a counter-narrative of masculinity, one which goes against many of the more troubling secular narratives. But I’m not all that confident that this is contingent on male-only LDS priesthood. For one thing, this description applies to many men outside the church. It is worth noting that there has been a broad cultural shift in the last few decades in terms of expectations for fathers; this is hardly unique to Church members. And if this were the kind of effect that LDS priesthood produces, one would think we would have been ahead of the curve on this. Additionally, if good men are ones who uphold the equality of women, this actually demonstrates a lack of equality, because equality is not assumed, but is contingent on men’s choices.
Hudson proposes that men have an apprenticeship to become HF, and women have an apprenticeship to become like HM. At first glance, I like the idea—and again, the appearance of Heavenly Mother throughout this talk is quite refreshing. But I am a little more depressed when I see what this apprenticeship is: for men, it’s priesthood; for women; it’s motherhood. This leads us right back to the model in which motherhood (not fatherhood) is the complement of priesthood. In fact, I think this idea makes the situation even bleaker. Defining HM in terms of her ability to be a mother opens the possibility that even in the eternities, women are primarily defined in terms of their reproductive abilities. (It is worth noting here that according to Hudson, female ordinances are “pregnancy, childbirth, lactation.”)
I do like this comment at the end:
That means that gender equality is not some “politically correct” ideal to the Latter-day Saints; it is not some maraschino cherry placed last atop a Zion sundae. No, relationships of gender equality are the bricks of Zion, without which you cannot build Zion, because gender equality is how Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father live.
This is great. I only wish church teachings gave me more reason to believe it.
I disagree with much of this essay, as I’ve explained at length, but as I said at the beginning, I see some power in it, some possibilities that go beyond our standard contemporary discourse about women. In this narrative, women are responsible agents, and Heavenly Mother matters. But I still find it disturbing. I see serious problems with Hudson’s attempt to make motherhood and priesthood equivalent, and her identification of women with their reproductive abilities. In addition, the fact that Hudson so often has to resort to speculation to make her case is telling. She’s created a lovely mythology (and that’s not mean to be pejorative; I’m using the term in the academic sense), even if it’s one that I find problematic in several ways. But regardless, if you’re going to argue that the church is revolutionary in its liberating possibilities for women, you have to rely on what the church actually teaches, not what you imagine might be the case.
- “In the same vein, she comments that it’s “radical, revolutionary” to believe that men and women are equal in agency, potential, value, etc, which I think fails as an assertion both for Christianity, as you comment, and for other religions—though the actual treatment of women varies, many other religions have equality-oriented scriptures. For example, the Qur’an (in translation) says “Their Lord responded to them: “I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female – you are equal to one another.” [3:195] (Petra) [↩]
- “I’m skeptical that Hebrew ‘ezer cnegdo indicates an equal distribution of power. It means something like “helper as his counterpart.” Sure, she’s his complement. But it’s a strain to extrapolate from this phrase alone that Adam and Eve therefore have equal power, let alone equal power to save. Eve is an appropriate counterpart to Adam; she suits him in a way the animals do not. Yet, even in the story itself, Eve is created for Adam, and her value is contingent on his.” (Kiskilili) [↩]
- “Asserting that childbirth is soul-satisfying for a woman, period, seems overly bold. Maybe mothering is soul-satisfying for everyone, but childbirth itself? To make such strong statements about what a woman should feel spiritually about something so physical is problematic for me on many levels, not least because of the wide variety of medical care around this physical act women have had through the ages. Has a woman failed at the “gift of Eve” if she was unconscious for the birth, 1950s-style? If she has a C-section? If she dies in childbirth? And what does it mean for a woman’s performance of her role if she just doesn’t find it soul-satisfying? Also, the “in the hereafter” thing is really problematic for me—if a woman’s full earthly role is to bring children from the pre-existence to mortality, does it really make sense to promise that a woman who doesn’t get to perform her role on earth will do it in the afterlife, after everyone has already been through mortality? Also, given my discomfort with the idea of childbirth as automatically and universally spiritually wonderful for women, I’m worried at a feminist who relegates women to afterlife childbirth so easily.” (Petra) [↩]
- See this discussion if you’re interested; in sum, Kiskilili comments, “I would be interested in seeing even one passage (besides Gen 3:16, supposedly) in which the phrase means “rule with.” I think we’re left with the uncomfortable fact: Adam rules over Eve, like a king over a kingdom.” [↩]
- If you want to see a thorough discussion of what “hearken” means with reference to obey, check out this post from Melyngoch, who asks in conclusion: “But if we do mean “listen + obey” by “hearken” (and I think the context, in which Adam and Eve’s disobedience is the event that catalyzes the hearken covenant, strongly suggests this), then I wonder if it’s not just a little disingenuous that the word has been changed (although I am, as I’ve indicated, grateful for it.) Is this just a way of retaining that gendered structure of obedience, but trying to make it look and feel better for a culture that’s no longer so accepting of the expectation that women will obey their husbands? Am I being tricked into feeling better about making effectively the same covenant as I would have before the change?” (Melyngoch) [↩]
- “Where is she getting the idea that the priesthood holders in the room covenanted to share all burdens “including housework” with their wives? The endowment doesn’t do that and the temple marriage ceremony doesn’t do that either—in fact, the only covenant in the marriage ceremony is one that says the wife gives herself and the husband receives her. That doesn’t sound like an equal burden-sharing covenant to me.” (Petra) [↩]
- “Adam hearkened to Eve in the context of being re-born via the First Tree, the place and time where Hudson argues that “even Adam was born of Eve.” It seems reasonable here to draw the inference that men are bound to hearken to women only in that context, i.e. only when the women are their mothers. In some grand sense, then, yes, women command men when men are children and then men command women when they are both adults, but that’s not really equality.” (Petra) [↩]
- Petra makes another good point about this: “Hearkening/obeying is very easy when you agree, but what if husband and wife disagree on spiritual matters? With the examples she gives, would she have said “you bet!” because of her covenant if her husband had said “honey, I don’t want anything to do with the LDS church and I’m not going to allow our children to be baptized”? After all, that’s a matter that has to do with ordinances, and she’s covenanted to hearken, so by her own argument given here she should follow him.” [↩]