Women are endowed with special traits and attributes that come trailing down through eternity from a divine mother. Young women have special God-given feelings about charity, love, and obedience. Coarseness and vulgarity are contrary to their natures. They have a modifying, softening influence on young men. Young women were not foreordained to do what priesthood holders do. Theirs is a sacred, God-given role, and the traits they received from heavenly mother are equally as important as those given to the young men.
—Vaughn J. Featherstone, October 1987
This past year I was asked to give a talk on the value of motherhood in our Mother’s Day sacrament meeting service. As I prepared the talk, I posed two questions to a number of women and mothers I know, including my wife.
What is the thing you most enjoy hearing in talks about motherhood?
What is the thing you most dread hearing in such talks?
The answer, it turns out, in virtually all cases, was identical. For both questions: that mothering is the most important, sacred, divine work we do. This answer was especially polarizing and problematic for the women I questioned when articulated by men. It’s strange that, at least in the anecdotal cases from my own experience, such a sentiment can be simultaneously the most rewarding and disillusioning thing that men can tell women in a devotional setting about the value of their roles.
I thought for a long time about the answers my female interlocutors gave me. What is it about how we talk about men and women and men’s and women’s roles and responsibilities, abilities and gifts, that makes it condescending or even potentially insulting for men in the Church to tell women how important and divine and wonderful their work as mothers is? Is it possible that our efforts to formally honor what women do nevertheless come across as demeaning, as something quite different from the insistent, repeated praise and unrestrained awe that characterize our official rhetoric on the topic? If so, why? What does that have to do with Heavenly Mother (the ostensible topic of this post)?
Our understanding of what it means, both practically and in the grander scheme of things, to be a man or a woman has changed over the course of Church history, the practice and then abandonment of plural marriage contributing significantly to the shift. Most recently, “The Family: A Proclamation To The World” has distilled and crystallized some of our ideas on the topic in concrete, quasi-canonical (certainly authoritative for the vast majority of Church members) form.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Proclamation (aside from its overt, if indirect, invocation of a Heavenly Mother) is how it projects gender/sex forward and backward into the eternities. If you are a male, it is because you always were and will forever be. What the Proclamation calls gender (i.e. biological sex) is an eternal characteristic of our individual identities, of our core selves. Significantly, the (probably stylistic—“sex” is just too scandalously non-euphemistic for an apostolic document) choice to use gender to refer to biological sex creates a semantic slippage with far-reaching consequences. Whereas sex, to put it in simplified terms, typically denotes chromosomal/anatomical categories, gender encompasses the behaviors, capacities, natural inclinations, ideals, etc., which people, in a given time and place, ascribe (often prescriptively) to members of the two sex categories. Sex is male/female; gender is masculine/feminine. Gender, then is far more culturally dependent and socially constructed, more variable and changeable, than sex is.
The Proclamation synthesizes an identity between the two, in part by laying out certain expectations and ideals appropriate to the two sexes, and in part by describing sex as an immutable trait of our eternal, individual selves and calling it “gender.” The idealized qualities of masculinity and femininity are thus corralled into the logic of eternal biological sex, and we call these now fully overlapping venn circles “eternal gender.” A decent first year social science graduate student would point out how this conflation naturalizes what is historical, taking something culturally specific (our current ideas about what constitutes properly masculine and feminine behavioral norms, social roles, predispositions, etc.) and imparting to it a natural and immutable status akin to ovaries, Y chromosomes, or increased upper body musculature. But it does more than this because at the same time that it naturalizes current ideals regarding gender, it also eternalizes the natural (biological) categories of sex. What, for example, could in theory be described as, say, a consequence of the Fall (the social subordination of women to men, the dependence of the former on the latter for protection, provision, and instruction) is instead a reflection not just of inherent male and female human nature, but of an unchanging, divinely ordained, Eternal Cosmic Order.
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Finally, remember: When we return to our real home, it will be with the “mutual approbation” of those who reign in the “royal courts on high.”… Could such a regal homecoming be possible without the anticipatory arrangements of a Heavenly Mother?
—Neal A. Maxwell, April 1978
Our neverending concern with defining, clarifying, and reinforcing the nature of the sexes as well as the expectations and obligations with which they are respectively associated is, I think, a natural result of a distinctly Mormon family centered theology. From the opening chapters of the Book of Mormon (think Lehi’s dream) through the adoptive and sealing rites of Nauvoo Mormonism and right down to contemporary debates about the (non)place of homosexual relationships in the Eternal World, it has been clear that salvation cannot really be salvation unless it is family salvation. If the same sociality which prevails now will, on some level, also characterize our eternal lives together, then it stands to reason that our mortal family relationships—again, at least to some extent—must be paradigmatic of the kinds of relational bonds which set apart and define what it means to be exalted in God’s kingdom.
Thus, the notion of a Heavenly Mother did not emerge as the result of any formal revelation, but rather as a kind of indispensable category, as the speculated but nevertheless apparently necessary result of taking more explicit features of our theology to their logical conclusions. Remember, as the great hymn notes, Truth is Reason. It simply stands to reason that She must exist.
Yet if Heavenly Mother is a necessary ontological category in our peculiar theological framework, it is also a relatively empty category. Despite continued and often enthusiastic (if also kept in check) interest in Her, we have very little authoritative material to work with. The same is almost as true of Heavenly Father too. He is something of a mysterious figure if gauged through authoritative, canonical texts. Of course some extremely interesting claims have been made about Him outside of the standard works (from King Follet to Adam-God). But we’re also less troubled by what little the scriptures have to tell us explicitly about our Father in Heaven, because we’re comfortable inferring a great deal about His character and nature, for example, by consulting what we do know about the life and nature of Jesus. We presume, with very good reason, that we can learn much about our Father through reference to His Son.
But even more than this, we have life in the Church from which to draw analogic inference. Heavenly Father does what Mormon men do. Mormon men aspire to cultivate godly traits as exemplified by Him, to become like Him. And we presume much about what He does through reference to what we know we’re supposed to be doing and what we see the men we look up to and hold in highest respect doing. Like Mormon men, Heavenly Father leads. He governs. He teaches and clarifies truth. He plans and executes on exceptionally large scales. He brings things to pass, great and marvelous things. He gives instruction. He presides. And, as a Priesthood Leader, He expects to be obeyed and submitted to.
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[W]hen we sing that doctrinal hymn and anthem of affection, “O My Father,” we get a sense of the ultimate in maternal modesty, of the restrained, queenly elegance of our Heavenly Mother, and knowing how profoundly our mortal mothers have shaped us here, do we suppose her influence on us as individuals to be less if we live so as to return there?
—Spencer W. Kimball, April 1978
It is worth noting that some Church members, with very sincere hearts and very sound reasons, question whether Heavenly Mother exists at all. We simply have so little to go on. Even our authoritative accounts of Creation—that most divine and meaningful of acts which we, as couples, males and females, can actually participate in here in mortality—are not heterosexually procreative but homosocially constructive (i.e. involving male figures only working cooperatively on stereotypically male creative projects: organizing, building, coordinating, experimenting, traveling, colonizing, speaking and being obeyed, etc.). How is it, if She really exists, that we simply have so little to work with, other than a mysterious reference to the Queen of Heaven, a popular hymn (written, of course, by a woman), and a bone-throw mention of “Parents” in a document that, it turns out, isn’t even a revelation?
It is, of course, possible that She doesn’t exist (and if She does, well, we’re certainly not meant to think or care too much about it). But even if She does, perhaps there is a very good reason why our Mother in Heaven is just an empty logical placeholder, rather than a fleshed out, multi-dimensional individual. Like it or not, women in the Church exist primarily for the benefit of men. They birth, nurture and care for, provide companionship for, and ultimately exalt men. For men exaltation consists in doing and having all that the Father does and has (including an eternal companion). For women exaltation consists in hearkening to, being sealed with, a helpmeet to, and presided over by an exalted husband.
Is it possible that She remains inscrutable and invisible to us because we’re only capable, in our present state, of conceiving of Her as a Heavenly Wife to our Heavenly Father? That we aren’t given knowledge of Her because the moment we learned definitively of her existence we would immediately see Her as primarily an incubator and nurturer of God’s children, as a helpmeet to and presided over by Heavenly Father? Suddenly what always seemed like such an outlandish rationalization—that we don’t talk about Her out of respect—acquires an ironic and deeply disturbing logic. Is it possible that Heavenly Father, assuming that He fully and completely loves and respects our Heavenly Mother, simply will not grant us speculative access to Her? Or, better yet, is it even more likely that She refuses to reveal Herself, Her true identity, to a people who are likely to imagine Her as speaking nothing but deference and submission to male leaders in the dulcet tones of Primary Voice? Given how we infantilize and subordinate women, their roles, their duties, their nature, and their potential, perhaps even thinking about a Mother in Heaven, much less talking about Her in such subservient terms, is a kind of blasphemy, a consummate act of disrespect toward One who deserves much, much better.