By Holly Welker
One reason Robert A. Rees’s call for a feminist Mormon midrash is so important is that it can help us create a more nourishing, expansive idea of Heavenly Mother. As the essays from Janice Allred and Margaret Toscano make clear, she is presently a source of at least as much discord and confusion as comfort and faith, in large part because current teaching casts her as closer to the epitome of a very bad mother than a very good one: she gives birth, sends her children into the universe, then has no contact with them—even at points when they could truly use her nurturing and guidance, because . . . ? We don’t know why. We only know that our elder brother has instructed us not to attempt to speak to her, for reasons we don’t understand and aren’t supposed to question.
Both Allred and Toscano quote President Gordon B. Hinckley’s talk “Daughters of God” in which he states, “in light of the instruction we have received from the Lord Himself, I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to our Mother in Heaven.”1 Let’s underscore this: the son’s influence and authority somehow far exceed the mother’s.
Both also quote President Hinckley’s statement that “The fact that we do not pray to our Mother in Heaven in no way belittles or denigrates her . . . . None of us can add to or diminish the glory of her of whom we have no revealed knowledge.”2 Toscano notes that
While acknowledging the “glory” of the Mother in Heaven, President Hinckley asserts there is no revealed knowledge about her. The implication is that since nothing has been revealed about her, there is nothing we can really say about her—that anything we do say is merely speculation and therefore dangerous . . . . Its intent is to close all discussion about the nature of the Female Divinity.3
Not only does President Hinckley’s statement attempt to close all discussion about the nature of the Female Divinity, it also serves to make Mother in Heaven irrelevant to our spiritual progression on earth, if not downright detrimental—after all, Latter-day Saints have been chastised, disfellowshipped, or excommunicated for discussing her. Among the reasons that we have no revealed knowledge of Heavenly Mother is that our theology implicitly teaches that we do not actually need it. We can learn all we need to know of our divine natures and the plan of salvation without anything but vague speculation and faint guesswork about one of our divine parents—the parent some of us hope someday to emulate. Mormon discourse tells us that to develop spiritually, we must know Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ as deeply and personally as possible, but we do not need to know anything of our Heavenly Mother—except that she exists.
If this is the proper order of things, why are Mormon women encouraged to stay home with, nurture, teach, and care for children? Why are mothers not instead encouraged to do as Heavenly Mother does, and have as little contact as possible with their children, leaving their care and guidance entirely to their father and an elder brother?
The ideal Victorian woman was personified by a figure known as the “angel in the house,” a self-effacing presence who asks nothing, sacrifices everything, and is as close as a human being can get to being devoid of parts and passions. Our current concept of Mother in Heaven seems to be a deified version of her—someone you can easily ignore. Ideals of womanhood and pragmatic notions of what motherhood involves have evolved in the past 150 years, but ideas about Heavenly Mother seem to have been arrested in the mid 1800s. It is astonishing that our leaders are so content to leave her in the shadows. It seems that she is acknowledged in our theology primarily because, as President Hinckley and others admit, given the rest of Mormon doctrine, she is a logical and biological necessity—because imagining that God is our literal spiritual father and not also imagining that we have a literal spiritual mother is a thought that “makes reason stare,” to quote Eliza R. Snow in “O My Father.”
A male reader of an early draft of this afterword commented, “You are right. And I am starting to feel bitter and powerless.” This of course is how many women feel when confronted by arguments that make reason stare, such as the claim that submitting to male authority is a form of equality in this life, and that doing it for all eternity is the greatest glory a woman can aspire to. Questions about God the Mother which may seem academic to some men are of vital, visceral importance to many women—to the way they feel about waking up each day and seeing a woman looking back in the mirror.
Whether individual gods are real, worshiping them and idealizing the attributes they embody may shape values, beliefs, and behavior. Devotion to a warlike god seems liable to foster such attributes as violence and pugnacity among his devotees; veneration of a just and loving god is at least one step toward encouraging love and justice in human beings. Neither faith nor doubt—in Mormonism specifically nor Christianity generally—precludes the conviction that both desperately need the healing influence of a powerful, intelligent, creative goddess. As long as we muddle along without any real understanding of—or even curiosity about—the divine female, our notion of divinity will necessarily be male, and our notion of femaleness will necessarily be earthly and impoverished.
People sometimes remark on the fact that so many of the Church’s highest leaders are businessmen. It makes perfect sense when we consider that our beliefs about the celestial kingdom indicate that its basic unit of power and structure is not the family but the family business. The partnership enshrined in our prayers, our art, and our theology involves not husband and wife, but father and son. It is the father and son who make and execute plans together, as when they appeared to Joseph Smith. The wife and mother matters because she produced the son and heir, not because she contributes something of herself. (Similarly, daughters seem to matter only in their capacity to one day become mothers.) With this power dynamic constantly emphasized as the celestial ideal, it is difficult to imagine a divine order in which God the Mother is truly equal to God the Father. For all the statements about how of course the Mother is equal in power and glory to the Father, there is not one single shred of proof or support for that equality.
Our current concept of Heavenly Mother does little but reveal how incoherent and contradictory so much official LDS discourse about gender, including statements about “equal partnerships in marriage,” really is. Church leaders tell us that our heavenly parents are perfect examples of parental love on which we should model our own families. But honestly and sincerely attempting to understand what implementing that model would mean for women, men, and their children reveals how abhorrent we would find it—for sons to forbid communication between mothers and their other children, for mothers to be virtually invisible to their children, for husbands to have, quite obviously, far more power and authority than their wives. Many Mormon marriages achieve impressive levels of equality, but they do so despite, not because of, the example provided by the heavenly parents posited in Mormon theology. If we want deeper and more fulfilling ideals for our marriages, and better models for our roles as individual men and women (after all, not all of us will marry or become parents in this life), we must seek and receive understanding about the Goddess.
A crucial scripture in Mormon history is James 1:5, the verse that prompted Joseph Smith to pray in the sacred grove: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” As President Hinckley acknowledged in the statement quoted above, we lack wisdom on virtually everything relating to Heavenly Mother. I won’t assume that he never asked God for the wisdom he lacked—frankly, I fervently hope he did. Perhaps he received wisdom which he chose, for some truly legitimate reason, not to share with the rest of us, despite the turmoil this profound lack inflicts upon so many. But I do find it remarkable that the rest of us are still told that it is “inappropriate” to pray to Heavenly Mother or to ask her for wisdom—about who and what she is, or anything else for that matter. Does she give to her children liberally? Is she allowed to? Does she upbraid us for needing and wanting the comfort, guidance, and love she can supply?
The Heavenly Mother I imagine would rival or surpass any Mormon mother in her devotion, love, and commitment to her children. A vital and vibrant goddess, she would be an active participant in her children’s lives, encouraging them to call upon her whenever they need her. She would rejoice in their exploration and growth; she would anticipate eagerly the day when her children would equal her in power and knowledge. She would defy anyone who expected her to maintain silence between her and her children.
(In fact, in the spirit of Rees’s encouragement to let our imaginations interpret and enrich scripture, I can’t help but entertain the notion that she did defy such a command. Unhappy when her husband banished a third of his children from his—and therefore her—presence, perhaps she expelled herself in order to seek out her lost children, leaving her husband to take care of the “good kids” himself.)
Although our leaders upbraid us if we dare ask for wisdom from and about Heavenly Mother, I cannot believe that her husband—our Father—truly forbids our communicating with her. On what grounds would he do so if they are equal partners and if he loves both her and us? Nor can I believe that the admonitions President Hinckley points to from Jesus Christ about how we should pray are any less anachronistic or outmoded than are Mosaic commandments to worship by slaughtering animals in the temple. How could a loving father and respectful husband allow one son to dictate the terms by which a mother may interact with her other children? On what grounds would a just and righteous son forbid his brothers and sisters to communicate with their righteous and loving mother?
If indeed there is a divine prohibition against praying to Heavenly Mother, it seems likely that it is the same kind of prohibition God gave Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: the “punishment” for violating it is superior to the reward for honoring it. The source of Adam and Eve’s greatest joys had root in their disobedience to the injunction against partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was suggested to me that the price to the institutional Church for pursuing knowledge of the Heavenly Mother might be onerous: Mormons would be considered well outside the Christian mainstream were they to pray to, or even initiate serious discourse about, a goddess. But as Allred points out, feminist theologians within mainstream Christianity are finding ways to feminize their experience of God.4 Furthermore, the Church has paid (and is still paying) a very high price for its refusal to grant the priesthood to black men and for its fight against gay marriage. Surely the cost of learning about God the Mother would be no heavier than these. And surely the new spiritual riches would outweigh it.
We lack the wisdom of our Heavenly Mother. We must therefore ask for it from every possible source. We must ask Heavenly Mother to help us understand both heavenly and earthly motherhood. We require all the wisdom and grace she can offer about what it means to be female. Dire and urgent is our need for guidance from her—on how to better respect and value the abilities and contributions of women and girls, on how to meet their needs and soothe their suffering. We must seek her and her wisdom for the sake of our mothers and our fathers, our daughters and our sons. None of us will ever be whole as long as the divine mother remains so silent and invisible that what we consider “salvation” can be achieved without knowledge of her. We need her explicit presence in our sermons, our theology, and above all, in our prayers and in our lives.
1. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Daughters of God,” Ensign, November 1991, 100.
2. Ibid., 97.
3. See page 74 of this issue.
4. See page 63 of this issue.