The release of the recent Gospel Topics essay on Heavenly Mother has unleashed a flood of conversation. The questions that have come up are fascinating: what does it mean to assign gender to God? What’s at stake in believing God is embodied? If we do affirm the existence of a Heavenly Mother, why don’t we talk about Her more? Why don’t we see Her in the temple? Does the language of “Mother” and “Father” even seem adequate to a divine force that can somehow encompass and exceed the full range of human experience?
I’m going to admit that I have no idea what the answers to these questions are or ought to be. But I’m also going to admit that I don’t think I can find the answers on my own.
I think it’s easy to risk getting too cerebral with this stuff—especially for men. Sure, we have skin in the game, but not in the same way that our sisters do. It’s easy for talk of Heavenly Mother to become an intellectual puzzle, and for us to get caught up in the thrill of moving the pieces around. I’m not saying that men are intellectual and women are spiritual—anyone who believes that women can’t be intellectual ought to go read Lynnette’s stuff at Zelophehad’s Daughters, or a host of other examples, emphatically including here at BCC—just that on this topic it’s easier for men to make an intellectual game of it, and that this way of talking about the subject is altogether inadequate.
For this reason, people’s spiritual experiences should factor heavily in the conversation. Women have been documenting their varied experiences in relation to Heavenly Mother for some time (for a taste, see the Heavenly Mother’s Day posts at The Exponent and the Connecting to Heavenly Mother series at FMH—and of course Ashmae’s recent post here). I think it’s important to listen to these voices, and not to use abstract theological categories to dismiss them.
Mormon theology isn’t a fixed thing, written in stone by the finger of God. In his April 2012 General Conference address, “The Doctrine of Christ,” Elder D. Todd Christofferson acknowledged that not even pronouncements of the President of the Church automatically gain doctrinal status; rather, in the words of J. Reuben Clark, “The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.”
President Clark’s words mean that the spiritual searchings of ordinary members have something crucial to add to the process of working out Mormon doctrine. But they also mean that Mormon theology is inherently a communal process. Certainly there’s much to be said for the private work of contemplative discernment, but there’s also a place for undertaking our God-talk with other people, sharing our experiences, listening to other people relate their experiences, and taking the time to sit with what they say.
If part of the difficulty with the idea of a Heavenly Mother is that we don’t talk about her much, then we can hardly afford to leave women standing silently on the margins of the conversation about her; indeed, women’s voices and their spiritual experiences should have pride of place in that conversation—and not just about Heavenly Mother. Belief in a feminine deity can hardly be cordoned off from the rest of Mormon theology: if we’re serious about this belief, it should inflect everything we do in some way. I simply don’t see how we get there without a serious amplification of women’s voices. They must increase, and I must decrease.
So, I’m grateful to all the women who’ve had the courage to share your spiritual yearnings (and even your anger!) on this topic. I still don’t know anything for certain about Heavenly Mother, but I feel your witnesses stretching my soul. As Joseph Smith would say, the spirit attending that stretching tastes good. I look forward to learning more from and with you.