Over the four years I’ve been blogging at BCC I have written dozens of unfinished (and therefore unpublished) posts about gender issues in Mormonism. I’ve found it very frustrating that I can’t finish them. Yeah, there’s a lot I don’t finish, but blog posts that I can’t finish are especially depressing. Because let’s face it, how “finished” does a blog post need to be, really? Well, at some point I figured out the problem: I can’t finish because there’s simply too much to say. And on a subject like gender or gender inequity, which so many people have such strong feelings about, leaving something out means providing a big elephant in the room for your readers to start a threadjack with in the comments section. (I find that last independent clause extremely problematic, but this is only a blog post, after all; I’ll fix that sentence when someone pays me to do it.)
The only thing more frustrating than not being able to finish a blog post is publishing a blog post and watching everyone else have a conversation about something you didn’t bother to address in the original post because you didn’t want to bite off more than you could chew. #firstworldproblems
But heck, I’ve got nothing better to do, and if you’re here reading this, you probably have nothing better to do either. So let’s do this thing. I’m going to start publishing these unfinished posts about gender issues in Mormonism, and I’ve decided the best place to start is my least favorite threadjack-meat of all time: the Men-Priesthood:: Women: Motherhood analogy. I kid myself that by getting it out of the way first thing, I’ll never have to discuss it again.
I’m going to be a good girl and avoid asserting that the priesthood-motherhood analogy doesn’t work and is full of crap because I want to give the appearance of intellectual humility, i.e. a willingness to consider that I might be wrong. Even though I’m not. (Also, “full of crap” is not polite language.) So I’m just going to say why I don’t like it. And then you all can feel free to tell me why I should buy it even though I don’t like it. Bloggers have to blog, commenters gotta comment.
I’ve heard/read a lot of beautiful things about the purposes and functions of motherhood and comparing the act of childbirth to the Atonement and the act of mothering to priesthood service, and it is all very thought-provoking and lovely. I don’t mind the comparisons. Not at all. Childbirth and motherhood are things that many women experience and can easily relate to. There is nothing wrong with comparing them to other, non-mothery, non-birthy things in order to illustrate a point, any more than there’s something wrong with likening the kingdom of God to a woman searching for a lost coin. (I’m sure some of you might expect me to take that parable and accuse Jesus of saying the kingdom of God pays the Tooth Fairy’s salary, which is clearly untrue and therefore that analogy doesn’t work—but no, I’m not going to argue that at all.)
I have nothing against using motherhood as a metaphor for priesthood. Anything that helps us understand the Atonement or the priesthood or any gospel principle is just jim-dandy fine with me. What I don’t like is framing the priesthood-motherhood analogy as explanation and justification for ordaining only men to the priesthood—because while there may be lovely and poetic similarities between priesthood and motherhood that make for fine metaphor, there are substantial differences that render the metaphor inadequate as a means of doctrinal explication. (Man, I think I hate myself a little bit for typing that last sentence. Make that “render the metaphor full of crap.” I’m not cut out for this much politeness.)
To be ordained to the priesthood, a man has to meet certain criteria of worthiness. Yes, sometimes unworthy men are ordained to the priesthood because the human beings in charge of ordaining men are not omniscient. Sometimes unworthy men are allowed to exercise institutional authority because they have been ordained despite their unworthiness (which is hidden from the right people), but they do not exercise the power of God under those circumstances. God knows and cares whether or not a man is worthy of his priesthood. It makes a difference. The only way a man can hold the priesthood and exercise it effectively is to be sufficiently righteous.
By contrast, there are a number of ways women can become mothers and exercise this creative power that people expound upon so beautifully when they’re comparing it to the priesthood. None of these ways involves a woman’s personal worthiness. You don’t have to be baptized a member of the church to become a mother. You don’t have to live the law of chastity. You don’t have to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea. You don’t have to do anything but conceive a child in your womb by any means necessary. You may be an angel or a monster, but you can bring life into the world either way.
By even further contrast, there are many righteous, worthy women who are not mothers and some of them will never be mothers in this life. Some of them are infertile. Some of them are unmarried. Some of them are financially unable to get in vitro fertilization or adopt. It really doesn’t matter why; what matters is that the circumstances of their lives have rendered motherhood impossible. It is beyond their control. That is just not true of men and the priesthood. (Unless the men are black and it’s before 1978. Which it’s not. Thank God.)
The priesthood is sui generis. It is unique in its characteristics. It not only doesn’t have a complement, it doesn’t need a complement. It’s the power of God. One can argue—argue eloquently—that the ability to grow another human being inside you and bring it into this world is a God-like power, and you will get no argument from me. I’ve grown human beings inside me and given birth to them. It’s pretty awesome. But it’s not like the priesthood—which I could have, if I were a man. I wouldn’t even have to be a healthy man or a man with a sexual partner. Life circumstances beyond my control would not determine whether or not I could be ordained to the priesthood and serve the church in that capacity. (Perhaps I’m overlooking something really obvious—some circumstance under which a worthy man might be denied the privilege of holding and exercising the priesthood…after 1978. But it’s just not coming to me.)
As I said earlier, motherhood is pretty awesome. Beyond the whole growing-a-human-being-inside-you business—which not every mother participates in—the experience of mothering is unlike any other experience that I have had. I wouldn’t even argue it’s the equivalent of fatherhood. I’ve never been a father, but I’ve observed that fathers, on the whole, tend to experience parenthood quite differently than mothers do—and not because they’re less involved in their children’s lives but because men and women, generally speaking, tend to think differently and perceive things differently. So motherhood is important and even holy, and it is different from fatherhood–but it’s still not like the priesthood.
Fathers don’t need the priesthood to be good fathers. Fathers need the priesthood to be good priesthood-holders. Good priesthood-holders can serve their families with the priesthood. They can also use their priesthood to serve outside their families. Good priesthood-holders can be fathers or not fathers. A man’s potential for fatherhood is just as subject to factors beyond one’s control as a woman’s potential for motherhood.
I’m okay with rhetoric about metaphorical “mothering” (i.e. nurturing, serving in a mother-like role to people who are not your children), but it isn’t appropriate for every situation because metaphorical mothering is not the same as actual mothering (i.e. nurturing and caring for one’s own children, whether they be born to you or adopted or, under some circumstances, acquired through marriage). When you say every woman is a “mother” or called to be a “mother,” well, that may or may not be “true,” but it can be a hurtful thing to say to a woman who desperately wants children of her own but has been denied them. Regardless, it is more accurate (and possibly less potentially offensive) to say that any woman can be a “mother” metaphorically if she chooses. And any man can be a “father” (metaphorically) if he chooses. The metaphors are still just metaphors.
There’s a reason no one talks about metaphorical priesthood: it doesn’t exist. You can’t exercise it metaphorically. Your actions are either sanctioned by priesthood authority or they’re not. There is no metaphor. If there were, we wouldn’t need the priesthood at all. And last time I checked, Mormon doctrine says we do.
I’m not one of those people who think “equal” means “the same.” (I’m a Republican, for Pete’s sake. You know how loosely we define “equality.”) In theory I don’t even have a problem with a male-only priesthood, assuming that is the way God wants it (and I have no evidence that it isn’t). I also wouldn’t have a problem if the situation changed. A lot of women claim they don’t want the priesthood because they wouldn’t want the responsibility. I don’t want the responsibilities I have now, but if God saw fit to dump some more on me via the priesthood, I’m sure I’d continue to shirk them with the same grace and gentle humor that He’s come to expect from me. I’m less concerned with whether or not I have the priesthood than with what the church teaches about the nature of womanhood and the female role in mortality and eternity. But that’s a whole other subject, isn’t it?