From The Archives: On Mothers and Fathers, Heavenly and Earthly

God The Wife.

God The Wife.

The latest bit of artfully produced Church PR—the Earthly/Heavenly Father video—has catalyzed much discussion. Ronan’s post prompts analysis of what the video draws from wider sources, both aesthetically and culturally/ideologically. And Alison’s excellent post at Times and Seasons already explores some of the themes I’ve chosen to excavate by re-publishing this old post of mine.

The fact is, I could not myself have scripted a piece of church produced media that better demonstrates and reinforces the original thesis I argued in the post. A timely reminder of one of the starkest and saddest spaces of invisibility in Mormonism.

tl;dr I told you so,

(You can read the original post and comments here)

God The Wife

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

[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.

Comments

  1. This is a classic post. Thanks for re-posting, because I didn’t catch it the first time around.

  2. Cheers, Chris.

  3. I’m visualizing our Godly parents, beating their chests and renting their clothing at the travesty that is planet earth’s treatment of women. Fascinating Brad.

  4. I wonder how much of the church’s seeming inability to recognize how it naturalizes social constructs is a function of its leadership being overwhelmingly drawn from business and law rather than humanities and social sciences. Granted I don’t have any idea what the numbers are but that just seems to be the case, and it explains why church authorities often seem blind to what, as you say, a first-year social science grad student can recognize. Of course, cue someone complaining that it doesn’t matter what professional background leaders have because they shouldn’t be relying on the wisdom of men, as though that doesn’t happen already…anyway, it’s a very back-of-the-envelope theory on my part but it makes sense to me.

  5. I enjoy your Facebook and BCC posts. You always make me very proud to be a woman.

  6. Thank you, Gigi.

  7. Fresh thinking! We have a clay replica of the figure in the accompanying photograph.

  8. I’m becoming increasing bothered by the fact that the prophets do not report ever having seen Heavenly Mother in a vision of heaven – nor do many women appear in visions of heaven. I was, though, encouraged by reading an account of a vision of Heavenly Mother, though the account is not part of scripture. http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=925

  9. melodynew says:

    Wow! Great post, Brad. Thank you for sharing it again – for those of us new (or sporadic) visitors to BCC. It’s always profoundly beneficial to me as a woman/feminist/Mormon to hear the feminist voice coming not only from good, courageous women, but from like-minded men. (This is where I shout to God, “Hey, Mom! Look what Brad did!) This post is going on the heavenly refrigerator door for sure.

  10. melodynew says:

    Thanks for the link, Nickel. This part. . .
    “A letter to the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in 1974 told of a Mormon woman spending preparatory time in meditation, kneeling privately to pray, and then calling out for the first time, “’Mother in Heaven, I believe you may exist. Are you there? We know the Father and the Son, but why have you not revealed yourself?’ And a wondrous voice clearly answered, ‘Good daughter, until this time, no one asked. The men have not thought to ask.’”39 “

  11. I think this is a good companion video to the father one. It makes me feel a little more connected to heavenly mother and the role she plays as nurturer, comforter, provider of wisdom and teacher, the one who teaches us gratitude.

  12. I believe a Heavenly Mother is more than an ontological speculation, but a revealed truth. There isn’t a lot said because there isn’t a lot commonly known combined with my presumption that what is revealed is kept confidential as its not meant for the world (we are not ready or the time is not right or perhaps some mysteries God intends to reveal directly to us… or some combination).

    I think the quote about the Lord revealing mysteries to spiritual blabbermouths could sometimes apply in this topic. I do know from personal experience that people do receive sacred experiences they are clearly directed are for them alone or some experiences that were instructed to be shared only at a much later date.

  13. This was and still is a very thought-provoking post. It strikes me that almost everything we know about the characteristics Heavenly Father (outside of his inherent male-ness) are actually gender neutral (merciful, just, omniscient, loving, etc). Many of us are so concerned that we don’t “know” anything about Mother, but when it comes right down to it, are there any attributes that couldn’t be equally applicable to both? That we are projecting our social understandings of gender on to those attributes is another discussion, but maybe we know more about Her than we think.

  14. Kevin Christensen says:

    Rather than complain about not knowing anything, I’ve read things like Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess, Dever’s Did God have a Wife?, Alyson Von Feldt’s insightful review of Dever in the Review, Margaret Barker’s recent The Mother of the Lord vol 1: The Lady in the Temple, and various other things.

  15. Jeremy Orbe-Smith says:

    I second Kevin’s recommendation.

    Ideally, someone should put together a packet of all the fantastic papers that have come out about this subject, like BYU did for evolution. I tried to compile an initial batch of sources in a post over at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion: http://www.mormondialogue.org/topic/59005-don-bradleys-fair-presentation-what-are-the-ashera-and-nehushtan-parallels/page__st__40#entry1209181292

  16. Brad, I found this post even more compelling now than the first time I read it (and I liked it a lot back then). So much to think on here. Great post.

  17. wreddyornot says:

    “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?”

    No. If you can posit this, you’re capable in your present state of conceiving otherwise.

    “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?”

    No. Likewise, if you can put forward the hypothesis, you can think beyond it.

    “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?”

    No. The notion that He could only grant speculative access is absurd.

    “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?”

    At least here She acts. But it seems a little silly, thinking Her revelation to us would be less accepted than His is. And why wouldn’t He just say: ‘She refuses to reveal Herself because you are only likely to…[etc.]‘

    “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.”

    What “we” are you referring to here? Patriarchy? How imature in our conceptulizations are we? So I ask: where is Mother in Heaven? Ask, answer. Seek, find. The boy grows up asking and seeking, not being talked out of knowing.

  18. It is interesting because this post implies that either the downside/devaluated tropes are reality or that if our ideas of gender are incomplete and wrong, then the concept we are applying them to is meaningless.

    I am going to have to think more on this.

  19. God mostly lets us figure things out for ourselves. This is what Oliver Cowdery found out about translating. Who and what Mother in Heaven is, is presented to us as a conundrum for us to figure out. When we figure it out then the temple blessings will become pertinent and alive.

    I pretty much agree that it would be hard to spell out the complex relationship between to co-eternal beings that exist in perfection and perfect freedom without trivializing this relationship. We would color it with our cultural preconceptions as you have indicated in the OP.

    This life is not necessarily a mirror of eternities. What one marriage is can be perfect for these two, but utter hell for the other two. Can we make any sense out of that to tell us what an eternal marriage would be like? Mostly, I think, we would like the heavenly marriage to affirm our earthly marriage. This is not possible.

    I try to picture two beings of infinite wisdom, power and love with infinite time. I try to project this N-dimensional perfection, where N approaches infinity, into our finite M dimensional relationship space, where M is a number around 10. A poor representation. However I try to live in that marriage, as limited as our relationship space may be. Maybe that is all we can do and all we need to know.

  20. As to the other question, it is incontrovertible that women hold the priesthood and deal in its power in the eternities. Jesus prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Mother in Heaven is a Priestess. When will God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven? How many men must be convinced? God knows.

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