One of the most frustrating, perplexing, bewildering, thought-provoking, and finally powerful books on Mormon theology that I have ever read is Strangers in Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology by Margaret Merrill Toscano and her husband, Paul Toscano. In celebration of Margaret Toscano’s recent guest post at Feminist Mormon Housewives, and also as an opportunity to express the exhilarations and frustrations that are my subjective response to her work, I would like to offer a brief appreciation of her contributions to Mormon theology. In my view, Toscano is one of the most important Mormon theological writers of our generation. She, more than perhaps anyone else currently writing, asks the right questions and offers fascinating, challenging, and sometimes flabbergasting responses. I am hard-pressed to think of any other recent writer who has done more creative work with the theological symbols of Mormonism.
Toscano’s approach to Mormon theology is one that has often cut against the grain for many readers. This may be in part for reasons connected with her personal history; as most readers will know, she was excommunicated as part of the spate of church disciplinary actions against Mormon intellectuals during the first half of the 1990s. Yet this should not be an obstacle to our ability to read and engage with her ideas. The LDS church excommunicates people, not publications. I am, of course, ill-equipped to determine what, if any, effect Toscano’s excommunication may have for her own spiritual life. Whether that effect is large or small, positive or negative, we ought to set aside our ideas about it when thinking about her work. When we read a book, we engage a text, and the author is present only through her chosen words and crafted ideas.
A second obstacle for many Mormon readers is Toscano’s chosen mode of intellectual endeavor. History is almost certainly the dominant intellectual mode among Mormons, yet Toscano does not write history, and indeed calls on history only to provide moments of inspiration, clarification, or illustration for theological ideas. Rather, Toscano works directly with theological ideas and images; she is a crafter of myth. In her words,
History is often characterized as the opposite of myth because history deals in the scientific discovery of verifiable facts and events, while myth is seen merely as the product of imagination. The modern, objectivist world prefers history and often denigrates myth. But each contributes interdependently to our culture and our understanding of the world. Where history attempts to reconstruct the past fact by fact, myth attempts to see the meaning of the facts as they relate to one another, and to the whole fabric of human knowledge and human experience–past, present, and future. History deals largely with cause and effect; myth deals primarily with modes of understanding…. Objective fact is not unimportant. On the contrary, it is extremely important that hypotheses and theories be tied to reality–to actual experience–lest we construct worldviews of delusion that lead people to deny their real feelings and experience. Myth, then, is not white-washed or fanciful history but an acknowledgment that facts, like salamanders, are slippery things, that objectivity is also a point of view, and that data is usually determined by what individuals perceive. (“Beyond Matriarchy, Beyond Patriarchy,” pgs. 32-33)
For the intellectual accustomed to historical arguments based on close readings of primary source texts, or on disputes regarding the relative credibility of competing narratives, this mythic approach is often unfamiliar and, perhaps, challenging. Even for Mormon theologians, however, Toscano’s work may be challenging and somewhat unfamiliar in its intellectual methodology. In comparison with such theologians as Sterling McMurrin or Blake Ostler, Toscano is far less interested in linking European analytic philosophy with Mormon thought. In comparison with scriptural exegetes, she is less prone to privilege original authors’ intended meanings for sacred texts. While these attributes are in many ways a departure from Mormon theological custom, they are intellectual moves that place Toscano squarely in the newer tradition of feminist theology. Feminist theology refuses to recognize a distinction between the objective and the subjective, instead insisting that personal experience must and should play a central role in how believers understand the object of their belief. In Toscano’s very Mormon words,
The point is that we must rely upon our own experience to understand the meaning of scriptural tradition in our own lives. In a sense, we are each like Joseph in the grove, who realized he must approach God for himself, since the teachers of religion “understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible” (JS-H 2:12). (ibid, pg. 35)
Toscano’s work in bringing this subjectivist, experiential approach to bear in thinking about Mormon theology is a major contribution, and one of the reasons I regard her as a great and probably lasting voice in Mormon religious thought. Yet what she has done with these intellectual tools is at least equally important.
Margaret Toscano has, for decades now, boldly and consistently forced her readers to confront the increasingly muddled state of Mormon thought about the place of women in the Kingdom of God, on Earth and in Heaven. In her work on the feminine and the divine, as well as on women’s proper place in the church, Toscano has offered a wide range of images, myths, and reinterpretations that move Christian and Mormon ideas from the domain of patriarchy into a new realm in which the masculine and the feminine have the potential to be mutually reinforcing and perhaps even, in a word I will misappropriate from Joseph Smith, “co-equal.” Toscano has given us (in the Dialogue article linked above) Eve as a mother goddess, Jesus as the mortal insult to patriarchy, the Second Coming as a literal marriage and revelation of the divine feminine. In “The Missing Rib: The Forgotten Place of Queens and Priestesses in the Establishment of Zion”, she reminds us that women become priestesses through the highest temple ceremonies, that they act with ritual authority to initiate other women into temple rites, and that they are the agents in performing the final steps in the highest mortal ordinance. Thus, in priesthood as in other things,
…in God’s plan men and women possess balanced responsibilities. For while males are intended to initiate, females are intended to complete and bring to fruition.
In the provocatively titled, “If Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843, Why Aren’t They Using It?”, Toscano confronts the paradox that, although women receive the priesthood through temple ordinances (either the endowment, as Toscano, Quinn, and others argue, or the second anointing as many, including BCC’s own J. Stapley, assert), they are not visibly using it in the modern church. Yet, this is in part because we fail to recognize the moments when women do exercise priesthood:
This is evident in the lives of faithful women of all dispensations from Sarah the princess of peace to Huldah the prophetess, from Eliza R. Snow the high priestess to Cheiko Okazaki the healer.
Yet, she reminds us, more could and should be done. Many women do not prepare for priesthood power because they believe that God denies it to them. Others abstain because they do not want to join a hierarchical system of authority. These obstacles are not, for Toscano, inevitable or permanent; she concludes with an invitation for us to find ways of rebuilding God’s kingdom along lines of love, persuasion, and equality — ways that would invite both women and men to fully develop all spiritual gifts. A powerful recapitulation of all these themes can be found in Toscano’s contribution to the seminal edited volume, “Women and Authority: Reemerging Mormon Feminism.”
In the book that I regard as both her and her husband’s masterpiece (at least to date), Strangers in Paradox, Toscano invites us to explore how areas in Mormon scripture and Mormon prophecy that most regard as difficulties or even obstacles to faith may offer resolutions to the problems of patriarchy and matriarchy, male and female, sexism, authority and individualism, and grace and works. Rather than finessing such issues as the apparent differences between the Book of Mormon’s view of the Godhead and modern Mormon conceptions, or Brigham Young’s repeated and adamant teaching of Adam-God theories, the Toscanos embrace such concepts. The Adam-God teaching proves particularly fertile; if Adam was an exalted being made mortal, so perhaps was Eve. Perhaps, for Mormons, Eve truly was a mother goddess, in a literal sense inaccessible to other Christians. Such a position, which builds on statements by Brigham Young and other 19th-century Mormon leaders, gives us an incarnation of feminine divinity and makes us all created in Her image as well as His. In addition to these thoughts about the Godhead, the book offers provocative insights — or insightful provocations — regarding priesthood, redemption, marriage, and the temple. The scope, breadth, depth, and intelligence of this text are, in my view, without peer in the Mormon theological writing of my lifetime.
Last, but far from least, we may consider Toscano’s more recent work. Internet versions are available for two recent papers or articles: “Is There a Place for Heavenly Mother in Mormon Theology? An Investigation into Discourses of Power” and “Are Boys More Important than Girls? The Conflict of Gender Difference and Equality in Mormonism.” The first is a fascinating, and perhaps one-of-a-kind, exploration into the power dynamics behind the creation of legitimate Mormon theological discourse. The second is a thorough and rhetorically powerful exploration of gender inequality and gender identity in current official Mormon discourse and practice. Allow me a heartbreaking anecdote from the introduction to the paper:
“Are boys more important than girls?” This question was asked by an 8-year old Mormon boy who had been left behind with his mother and sisters while his father and older brother attended the October 2004 priesthood session of general conference. When the boy’s mother answered that boys and girls are indeed equally important, this eight-year old contradicted her with bracing candor: “I think,” he said “that boys are more important because Jesus and Heavenly Father are boys, and boys get the priesthood and girls don’t.”
For all the intellectual importance and social and spiritual value that I see in much of this work, I remain frustrated. Three problems, in particular, remain unresolved. The first is an experiential problem of my own. My experience of God is that divinity is most accessible to me when my ideas are the simplest. Yet the egalitarian force of Toscano’s theological ideas comes from their complexities. I admire the power she develops from Adam-God conceptions, yet I find such concepts difficult to embrace; they seem to demand a cosmology of numerous mortal rebirths and of a multiplicity of divine incarnations, a cosmology that stretches far beyond my simpler faith. Toscano’s work convinces me that there must be more than I understand, that women must not be absent from the realm of heavenly action. Yet her solutions to this problem are rather too baroque for my more austere experience of the divine.
Second, I worry that, in celebrating the role of the feminine in God’s plan above and below, Toscano risks reifying, even deifying, gender conceptions that are mortal, transient, contingent, and perhaps even unjust. If the “feminine” is something other than women, then exalting the feminine may paradoxically serve to trap individual women (and men) in roles they would not choose and are not, perhaps, suited for. In resisting sexist conceptions that place women below men, I hope we can make progress without essentializing culturally-specific theories of gender traits and roles that often underpin sexism in the first place.
Third, I worry that a renewed emphasis on the complementarity of men and women, and on the union between Heavenly Father and Mother deities, risks further marginalizing gays and lesbians within the Mormon community. If God is, in the fullest sense, a union of exalted man and exalted woman, then a gay man who has no desire for a female partner is fundamentally less like God than a straight, married man. This theological move seems to have the potential to enhance the position of straight women in Mormon theology and myth, while simultaneously pushing other currently subordinated groups even further from the Mormon limelight.