Heavenly Mother in the Harvard Theological Review

We’re pleased to host a series of guest posts on Taylor Petrey’s recently published article on the Mormon theology Heavenly Mother. Taylor will introduce the series, and later in the week, we’ll have commentary from Margaret Toscano, Caroline Kline, and Kristine Haglund. This is intended to be a discussion of Taylor’s article, not a grab-bag of ideas about Heavenly Mother, so please read the entire linked article before commenting.
–BCC Admin.

Taylor G. Petrey is Lucinda Hinsdale Stone Assistant Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College, where he teaches biblical studies. In 2016-17, he is Visiting Associate Professor at Harvard Divinity School and a research associate at the Women’s Studies in Religion Program where he is pursuing a project on Mormonism and gender.

This post is for the discussion of my new article, “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother” in Harvard Theological Review 109.3 (2016).

In this article, I compare Mormon feminist analysis of Heavenly Mother to broader feminist theologies of a Divine Woman. The revival and rearticulation of Heavenly Mother in Mormon feminist thought roughly parallels the rise of feminist theology.

In particular, I look at the conversations around one feminist philosopher, Luce Irigaray. Her views have striking similarities to Mormon feminist analysis of Heavenly Mother.

Since Irigaray’s advocacy for a Divine Woman, other feminist philosophers of religion have critiqued her on a number of fronts. I join in these critiques, and argue that they also apply to Mormon feminism’s views of Heavenly Mother. For instance, the notion of Heavenly Mother has often been advanced as an argument for gender complementarianism and heteronormativity.

The final section of the article offers some alternative ways of thinking about the divine realm than its current heterosexual framework. These solutions are within the space of a “generous orthodoxy,” or a more expansive view of the plurality of human and divine experience that begins from orthodox Mormon thought.

In many ways, this article is a follow-up to my earlier article, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” in Dialogue. While the “Heavenly Mother” article stands on it is own, it is part of a broader project that the earlier article laid out first in 2011.


  1. It’s a fantastic article, Taylor. Congrats! I’m excited for the discussion here.

  2. Aaron Brown says:

    Can’t access it on my iPad, for some reason.

    Aaron B

  3. Should be fixed now, Aaron.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m reasonably certain that this is the first time I have ever been cited in the Harvard Theological Review (p. 322 at n. 37). Woo hoo! Taylor, next time I see you the ice cream is on me.

  5. Looking forward to the discussion, with a couple of random comments:
    1. I find it useful to work with a searchable pdf. An OCR scan of the article is pretty easy (I’ve done it for myself).
    2. The “homoerotic tension” in traditional LDS accounts of the three male person godhead seems kind of obvious (to me) but I’ve never before seen it labelled. Am I missing a whole literature? (Or is this a ‘nobody wants to go there’ topic?)
    3. I’ve thought that Mormon materialism would be a limiting factor, making Petrey’s project ultimately impossible. So long as female means giving birth (whether or not combined with other attributes) I believe that gender essentialism is going to creep in. At least it’s a question–is materialism out? If we say “female might instead come to signify plurality, fluidity, and multiplicity” (or in an older tradition, that female is identified with wisdom) what does that do to materialism?
    4. Luce Irigaray is a new name to me (which is my ignorance–near complete regarding feminist writings on religion outside the Mormon tradition). Petrey suggests that Irigaray is a useful foil because she links anthropology and theology. I suspect this is all part of trying to work “within the space of a ‘generous orthodoxy'” and would like to see the assumptions and requirements (for a ‘generous orthodoxy’) teased out.

  6. Christopher J. says:

    Nice. Glad to see this in print and looking forward to the responses.

  7. Wow. Really good stuff, Taylor. I especially appreciate the treatment of Christ’s maleness. Notions of Christ being an exception or “singular transgression” to gender compartmentalization are fairly new to me. Most of the teachings I’ve received in the church present Christ as the end-example of how we should all be (male and female), not as something foreign.

    I would love for your article to continue into a discussion of Christ’s “likeness” being the ideal by which all will be judged – i.e., our salvation is determined by how alike we are to Christ – and, specifically, whether our salvation includes taking upon us Christ’s “transgression.” Can I, as a male, become fully like Christ if I do not know the toils of pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause as He does? Can my wife, as a female, become fully like Christ if she does know the corresponding toils of men? And if men and women can follow Christ to that “singular transgressive” ground, then isn’t Christ’s beacon call really a call to leave our gendered notions forever behind? Gender roles are inevitably incompatible with the complete oneness Christ requires.

    On a different tangent, I wonder if you’ve considered the implications of Mormon notions of “the gods.” If gender and sexuality really do continue into the eternities, then perhaps the solution to those who fall outside heternormativity is an expansion of the godhead. Heavenly Mother is a good start, but don’t end with Her. We do not have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. We have multitudes of Them. Pregnancy and childbirth may be one aspect of that parenthood, but there are infinite other roles played by our many Heavenly Parents in all their beauties and varieties.

  8. Interesting article, though a challenge to wrap my head around as a lay scholar. Two thoughts: 1) The Chieko Okazaki quote jumps out with deeper meaning in the context of the entire article, describing how Jesus understands women’s feelings and experiences more completely than any man ever could, and in this way, transcends sexuality. Not likely a perspective your average LDS man would have.
    2) We’re all just speculating here, but since we are, what do the ex-LDS feminists cited in the article base their complaints on, regarding the shortcomings of LDS feminist apologists views on a Heavenly Mother’s role as limited principally to motherhood? How do they or anyone else know what she does?

  9. Clark Goble says:

    Bro B, actually I think that’s pretty mainstream belief on the basis of the Gethsemene theory of the atonement which in turn arises from John 14-16. I had more to say by my comment was getting long enough I decided to turn it into a post. (I’ll wait a few days)

    To your second point I think he addresses that a bit about projection but doesn’t quite deal with the problem of projecting from such a state of ignorance. I think this besets not just our discourse of Mother but also of Father as well. Part of the problem (IMO) is that the meaning of those relationships beyond the biological into the performative are so socially constructed. That is, what fatherhood meant in many primitive societies is not what I’d want fatherhood to be. Ditto with motherhood. Given that fact it seems we should be very cautious lest we find our own social structures are themselves problematic in ways we are blind too much like say a 1st century family might be problematic to us today.

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Dave K, while I don’t think we need go through the atonement I wonder if we can truly be celestial beings like Christ or the Father without having the capability of the type of experiential omniscience we commonly attribute to Christ in the garden. What the difference between our gaining that and Christ’s isn’t at all clear. Of course one theory in the old rejected Adam/God theory was that we’d each have to become Christs. That seems inherently problematic and isn’t doctrine. An other theory is that what made Christ significant is that he alone was able to do this within his finitude. That is there was something about doing the atonement while mortal rather than resurrected that enabled him to be the first fruits. Again though this is a very undeveloped aspect of our theology – primarily because so little is revealed.

  11. Christian Kimball: Materialism doesn’t necessarily have to go. Judith Butler (a strong influence on Taylor’s thinking) has argued that even biological sex is socially constructed: we assign meaning to the configurations XX and XY, for instance, and there’s a pretty strong traditional drive to resolve cases of genetic or physiological ambiguity into our binary categories. As for multiplicity and materiality, in Irigaray’s earlier work (That Sex Which Is Not One), she derives multiplicity from a striking close reading of female genitalia, writing against Lacan’s notion of phallic unity in the 20th Seminar. There’s also a strong current philosophical emphasis on a materiality founded in multiplicity, drawing on Bruno Latour’s work. Adam Miller is pretty strongly influenced by it (he has a book on Latour). So, the possibilities are out there.

    That’s all a little bit to the side of Taylor’s excellent article, but I hope that it provides some useful context for people who haven’t been compelled to sit through a grad theory seminar. (Lucky souls!)

  12. Clark Goble says:

    Jason, I think we assign meaning often due to instincts. This gets into the whole nature/nuture divide which is often very muddled. (Since of course genes interact with the environment during development) Really though what social constructivists want to do is deny the influence of the biological. While this is a big drive in many fields, especially certain cross disciplinary new fields in the humanities, typically the science is not well engaged with. Saying it doesn’t make it so. That people want biology to be social constructed seems sure. That they have made good arguments seems an other matter entirely. (Which is why some then go to try and portray science itself as deeply problematic so they can dismiss it all)

    None of this is to deny biology is much messier than those on the other side want as well. Petrey touches on some of that but given much of sexual behavior is driven presumably by brain structures not easily open to change, it seems undeniable that limiting sex to the typical heterosexual structures is problematic. That said there is far less established here scientifically than most think as well.

    To the point of multiplicity and materialism, I think materialism is itself complex. What people mean by material is much more open than I think many realize. Latour touches upon this in several of his books. But even ignoring Latour just looking at analytic philosophy attempts to deal with material highlights how hard it is to define.

    The problem of extrapolating from mortal bodies to celestial ones is really the problem of DNA. It’s completely unclear that celestial bodies need anything like the complex code of DNA with its limited abilities to deal with everything (including brains) through the mediation of thousands of different proteins. One can I think deal with the resurrection as described in Alma 11 without embracing the idea of eukaryotic cells in a resurrected body with all the limitations and problems that brings with it. However simultaneously one must seriously deal with the role of DNA, cells, hormones, and the way our bodies now are materially constructed to deal with sex as we understand it. It’s just not at all clear sex for spirits is even sexual difference at all even if there’s some connection between the two.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    One of Taylor’s first footnotes was to Margaret Toscano, “Heavenly Motherhood: Silences, Disturbances, and Consolations,” Sunstone (April 2, 2012). (A pdf can be found with a google search.) Somehow I had never seen this, and given the date, I was curious whether she said anything about my Dialogue article. She did. Here is the relevant text:

    “That there is a lot of nervousness, not only about praying to Heavenly Mother, but about worshiping and discussing her, is shown in the 2008 Dialogue article by Kevin L. Barney. . . . Barney argues that the worship of the Mother God by the name of Asherah was legitimate at one time among the Hebrews. While I appreciate Barney’s attempt to legitimize Heavenly Mother discussion and worship, I think it is significant that he never quotes, footnotes or references any Mormon feminists, other than Linda Wilcox, who have written about the Mother in Heaven. He also ignores the broader scholarship about the Divine Female from liberal feminist theologians. The lesson seems to be that the way to avoid excommunication is to make sure you are a male who cites sources acceptable to farms.”

    I would like to offer a word of explanation about the genesis of the piece. It all started when there was a discussion about MiH on the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog (back when the blog was the situs of discussion, not FB). The general consensus was that it was impossible to say anything significant about MiH without getting excommunicated. I had sort of been kicking around in my mind the basic idea for my article, and I opined that I thought there was a way to say something substantive on the subject without facing church discipline. (That conversation was the genesis of the cheeky subtitle, “Without Getting Excommunicated”.)

    Margaret is right that my hope was to legitimate discussion of MiH in the Church, in two ways: first, by articulating a scriptural basis for her, and second by framing the Mormon acknowledgment of her existence in a sort of restorationist frame. (So yes, the piece does have a bit of an old-school FARMSish vibe; that was quite intentional.)

    Since my entire focus was on Asherah as the Hebrew Goddess, I’m not sure what prior Mormon feminist or liberal feminist scholars I was supposed to cite. The sources for the piece are set forth in the extensive bibliography of non-LDS scholarship on Asherah at the end of the article. (In fact, the actual bibliography was twice as long. Levi, the then editor of Dialogue, made me trim it by half for publication.) If prior Mormon feminists had previously written substantively on Asherah, I apologize for not having been aware of it. My piece was not meant to be a general theological treatment of MiH.

  14. Thanks all for reading, engaging, and providing some excellent discussion so far! I’m especially thankful that people are finding the theological proposals I make about Christ and the godhead interesting to think with, and I hope more people keep asking these kinds of questions.

    On the materialism issue, I don’t see materialism as equivalent to a rigid biological literalism. Even with Mormon orthodoxy, spirit bodies, mortal bodies, and resurrected bodies are all manifestly different kinds of materiality, so within a Mormon materialism framework we have lots of leeway for defining what counts. Technology and transhumanism is really challenging notions of the body as well. But Jason is right that Butler is most influential on me here. I’m highly skeptical that we have access to some unmediated, uninterpreted materiality that answers any questions about sex and gender. And he is about the 10th person in the past year to remind me that I need to dive into Latour. I appreciate Clark’s input on this issue as well. The disjunction between mortal and resurrected (or divine) bodies has been a big interest of mine in my research on early Christianity (my first book takes up this topic), and so how Mormons deal with this difference is naturally an interest as well.

    Bro. B, I can’t recount the whole issue of the tensions between different kinds of Mormon feminists on this, and those who are proper historians of Mormon feminism need to tell this story more fully. Margaret Toscano is putting up a response to my article here tomorrow, so her response may raise more of these issues, but of course the bibliography in my footnotes might be a good place to start too.

    Kevin, I am going to make sure I get that ice cream!

  15. Regarding the gender-bending Christ, I’ve never been fully satisfied with the discussion. To be clear, I’d do the same in a pastoral sense, but all the while acknowledging an incompleteness. I think my real problem is I don’t get an aha! feeling but only a “maybe the best we can do” feeling. More analytically, I think that approach over-emphasizes His mortal aspect (paradoxically making him a unique mortal in doing so) and de-emphasizes His divine aspect, and the net result is to refer us back to the Father God.
    Regarding materialism, I did not previously know Butler by name or specific works, and Latour only slightly, but I am familiar with the arguments at least as they are characterized by others. Without debating the merits of those arguments, I do see significant potential for an embodied signifier of multiplicity. What I question is the elasticity of “generous orthodoxy” and whether it can reach so far. Another way to say it is that I do believe Mormon materialism has a biological core to it, that contra to Clark Goble above (and others elsewhere) ‘perfected’ DNA really is the name of the (Mormon) game.
    It’s worth noting that I personally applaud and enjoy this work, and I think it’s critically important. For my private devotional purposes the feminine divine is a combination of wisdom and generativity, for which evolution and life in tremendous variety is a suitable metaphor (if not the thing itself), and Gerald Manley Hopkins’ dappled things and Mary Oliver’s wild geese are tokens. Multiplicity is comfortable to me. As for materialism, it doesn’t seem to be my (personal, devotional) concern.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    Christian what does perfected DNA even mean?

  17. Clark, yeah. Hence the scare quotes. Not my words. I’m observing, reporting, not arguing (that point, anyway).

  18. Clark Goble says:

    Ah, OK. I just think DNA inherent to the way it works is imperfect. I confess though I don’t hear a lot of speculation on these points at Church. One big issue is the old 19th century canard about a resurrected being not having blood. So far as I know there’s not a good source for the origin of this speculation (which in turn probably has fallen by the wayside as most church writings have become far less adopting of speculative notions especially from the 19th century). Interestingly though it did pop up in the old Brigham Young PH/RS manual. (Although that’s getting near 15 years ago now, isn’t it?)

    “the blood will not be resurrected with the body, being designed only to sustain the life of the present organization. When that is dissolved, and we again obtain our bodies by the power of the resurrection, that which we now call the life of the body, and which is formed from the food we eat and the water we drink will be supplanted by another element; for flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God [see 1 Corinthians 15:50] (DBY, 374)”


  19. Linda Wilcox says:

    If Taylor saw my (only) work on Mother in Heaven as oppositional, and Kevin saw it as sort of meeting the “FARMish” standard, does that mean I hit the sweet spot without knowing it those many years ago?

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    Linda, I cited your article simply because it was a(n excellent) survey of the concept as a whole, which then freed me to persue the very specific take I wanted to explore in my piece. (Since for some “FARMSish” would be an insult, I want to assure you no such insult was intended by me.)

  21. Linda Wilcox says:

    Kevin, I didn’t take it as an insult, just found the term interesting. And I enjoy what you write.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks Linda, that means a lot to me.

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