How Bodies Matter: A Response to “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother”

This is the first in a series of responses to Taylor Petrey’s “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,” recently published in the Harvard Theological Review.

Margaret Toscano is an Associate Professor of Classics and Comparative Cultural and Literary Studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Her research focuses on religion, myth, and gender. She has published extensively on Mormon feminism. 
Taylor Petrey states his complaint against certain Mormon feminists (i.e., me–Margaret Toscano, Janice Allred, and Valerie Hudson Cassler) on page 16 of “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother”: “Mormon feminists writing about Heavenly Mother have been complicit in heteronormative narratives that universalize a subset of women as the hypostasis of ‘woman.’” Taylor’s argument ignores the complexity of the god narratives I have explored over the years, as well as the multiplicity of images I have put forth to represent women and the Female Divine.

Taylor says I put forth “a singular mother who represents the plurality of her daughters” (9). It is only possible to assert this if you pick out statements where I focus on the Heavenly Mother and ignore those where I explore other goddess figures from Mormon sacred texts. In my 1992 “Put on Your Strength O Daughters of Zion: Claiming Priesthood and Knowing the Mother” (Women and Authority), I suggest a female trinity of Mother, Daughter, and Holy Spirit who could easily parallel the male godhead in form and function; and I do not line them up as heterosexual couples. I also investigate Eve, Mary, Wisdom/Sophia, Zion, and the Bride as female divine figures, asserting that in Mormonism “there may be more than one female deity” who “have been intimately involved in our creation, redemption, and spiritual well-being and growth.” In my slide presentation “Images of the Female Body, Human and Divine,” given many times and available online, I praise multiple kinds of female bodies and goddess images, including non-human ones. I ask the rhetorical question, “How would our pictures of reality change if we saw God the Mother as black, not white?” to suggest the appropriateness of the idea and to show the problem with both embodiment and images, which are inherently limiting.

Taylor criticizes me, Janice, and Valerie for being gender essentialists, though he does acknowledge that Janice and I try to avoid this problem. I admit I believe differences between male and female bodies are part of physical reality and not simply a cultural construct (though our perceptions of reality are shaped by our sign systems). But I also want to emphasize that I have never said anywhere that there are certain characteristics or roles that are inherently male or female because I do not believe it. All humans are capable of displaying and occupying many roles, qualities, and sexualities.

What I have not made clear, until my recent speech, “The Gender of God, and the Diversity of Human Sexuality,” is my belief that even as biological descriptors “female” and “male” are complex and not singular. There are multiple genotypes, as well as variations on internal and external sex organs and hormones. I want to state clearly that I am committed to full social and legal rights for all people, whether they identify as intersex, androgynous, transgender female or male, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or some other category of gender identification and sexual desire.

Nevertheless, I still believe that “woman” and “man,” and “male” and “female,” are meaningful categories because they reflect most people’s lived, bodily experiences. No woman wants to be reduced to her body, but bodies do matter. The very fact that transgender women want to claim the term reinforces the meaningfulness of the category “woman.”

If there is one regret I have about Strangers in Paradox that I wrote with my husband Paul, it is that we didn’t make homosexuality visual and theologically viable in Mormonism (though we hoped people would see the possibility with our emphasis on polytheism). When we wrote the book between 1984 and 1989 we had other major concerns. For me, it was creating legitimate spaces for women within the all-male priesthood and godhood structures. For Paul, it was a concern for moving Mormonism away from corporate power toward Christ’s gospel of grace and love. And we asserted the interconnectedness of these two goals; a gospel of love should not erase women, or anyone for that matter. Since then both of us have affirmed same-sex expressions as “natural,” “spiritual” and valid within Mormon Christianity. I do not have space for references, but I want to emphasize that even back in the early 1990s I tried to create places for Lesbian voices through the Mormon Women’s Forum.

“Heteronormativity” is not a neutral term. It implies an insistence that heterosexuality is the only valid way to express sexuality and that all else is not “natural.” This is not my position at all. But if a person values heterosexual relationships, is this the same as marginalizing everything else? And why is the Heavenly Mother blamed for heteronormativity? Why is it the Heavenly Mother who needs to be rethought? Why is she the problem? Why not the Heavenly Father? I have noticed over the last thirty years as I have interacted with Mormon male theologians that they never think there is a gender or sex problem until the Heavenly Mother is introduced. They see an all-male divinity as neutral and the male-subject position as normative and most topics as gender-free zones.

This is obvious with the work of Blake Ostler, whom Taylor highlights. Since Blake often focuses on the interpenetrating love of the male godhead and talks about humans with male pronouns, his work is conducive for the male homosocial and homoerotic interpretation Taylor gives it (whether that was Blake’s intent or not). This same view is reflected in Taylor’s cosmology in his “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” where he states that the “creation of the earth, organization of the elements, and even the creation of the living bodies of Adam and Eve all occur without the presence of female figures” (I guess Eve doesn’t count). It is unclear whether Taylor is simply describing what he sees as possible within Mormon theology, or whether he sees this emphasis on male love in the godhead as only positive. But the introduction of the Heavenly Mother seems to be a problem for him; she seems only to represent heteronormativity for Taylor. While it is true that the LDS Church mandates heterosexual marriage for members, its godhood teachings focus on God the Father and the Son. The official language focuses on God as male with a male body, not on a heterosexual godhead. The Heavenly Mother barely makes it into official theology; and usually she is just one of our heavenly parents.

I guess that without the Heavenly Mother we can eliminate heterosexuality from heaven and all will be well again. But how far does this move us toward an expansive Mormon theology that includes many sexualities and subject positions? It seems to me that it takes us back to Plato, the patristic fathers, and medieval monasticism where male love is praised and women are allowed only on the sidelines until they can become more fully male.

Those of us who have tried to emphasize the divinity and necessity of female figures in a Mormon cosmology where embodiment is central are seen as troublemakers who want a kind of Proclamation on the Family heteronormativity. But this is an inaccurate portrayal of our work. Janice, Paul, and I have worked to oppose the hold of patriarchal hierarchy. By emphasizing male godhead constructs Taylor does not loosen the stranglehold of patriarchy in Mormonism. He merely diminishes femaleness as a reflection of divinity.

These are hard issues to sort out. Hopefully this discussion can suggest new possibilities for valuing many sexualities within Mormon theology.



  1. Jared vdH says:

    I’d have to agree with Margaret here that while reading Taylor’s original article, his arguments seemed to reduce to a male figure or figures encompassing both masculinity and femininity. While his article is interesting, it seems to accept male figures as the norm and capable of encompassing femininity, but no female figures capable of encompassing masculinity. I also can’t see how it at all addresses the very real structural issue of a male divine figure wielding divine power and no female figures wielding divine power which leads to the male only priesthood we have today.

  2. Christopher Lewis says:

    Margaret has tenure, you need to correct her title in your intro.

  3. To the rhetorical questions “Why is it the Heavenly Mother who needs to be rethought? Why is she the problem? Why not the Heavenly Father?” — I agree with the suggestion that sexual identity in heaven is a topic that can and should be addressed with only a Father in the room. However, it seems that in fact, in practice, talk of Heavenly Mother carries that weight. I don’t know who’s doing it (because I really don’t know; not because I want to choose sides). I just take Professor Toscano at her word. The fact that it happens–that we don’t talk about rethinking Heavenly Father first–to me is one more illustration of a theology that is so male-centric that most of the time we (culturally) don’t even see it.

    However, as a pragmatic realist, I allocate relatively little mental space to railing against the injustice and asymmetry, and instead take the lesson that when it does come up, however it comes up, then hints and allusions and imaginative space is not enough. In other words, I too regret that “we didn’t make homosexuality visual and theologically viable in Mormonism (though we hoped people would see the possibility with our emphasis on polytheism).” I believe that without clear declarative sentences, Mormon culture will fill the imaginative space with a heteronormative Proclamation. (And to be appropriately cynical, that Mormon culture will usually ignore anything less than black-and-white declarations by old white het married men with titles.)

    What I like most about Professor Toscano’s response is this:
    “we can eliminate heterosexuality from heaven . . . But how far does this move us toward an expansive Mormon theology that includes many sexualities and subject positions.”
    My instinct is that eliminating heterosexuality is as much a dead end as eliminating homosexuality, and that we should turn toward an expansive theology that includes all of creation.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    Upon what basis do we assume it’s the same there as here? We know there’s a resemblance but not much else. The only real sources we have are a few verses saying our resurrected bodies resemble our current bodies (Alma 11) and then scriptures about a man and a woman only being exalted together (D&C 132 and in many readings 1 Cor 11:11). That’s not a lot of data to make a theology from. We then have Nauvoo teachings but there we start getting fuzzier for various reasons. (There certainly are parts of the King Follet Discourse the church appears to reject but then that raises the question of the authority of the rest for instance) There’s then the proclamation on the family which talks about pre-mortal gender but it’s not at all clear what is meant by that.

    It seems most of what we have on all sides is a lot of speculation but little grounding the speculations.

  5. I’m really grateful to see spirited discussion on these issues. Beyond that, I’ll just observe that (aside from a practical note by Kristine), all of the comments on this series so far have come from men. Sure, men can (and should) care about the feminine divine, but I still think that we should be careful about dominating the conversation.

  6. I, woman, will chime in on this thread. I largely agree with Prof. Toscano’s post, though I think it is not entirely fair to Prof. Petrey’s article. I too was shocked by the unselfconscious male bias in his initial Dialogue article several years ago, but I feel that he has demonstrated somewhat more critical awareness of this problem in this article. At the same time, I think it also seems clear from Prof. Toscano’s post and even from Taylor’s own article that his critique of Mormon feminist thought on Heavenly Mother is not entirely fair to Toscano, Allred, et al.

    In his earlier article and this latest one, Taylor is attempting to employ the resources of LDS orthodoxy to support his post-heterosexual/heteronormative project, which in itself is not an unworthy exercise. But in his earlier Dialogue article he rather uncritically employed the most problematically male-centric elements of Mormon theology as part of this effort. The problem with that, as Prof. Toscano suggests above, is that gender cannot be elided as a category in LDS theology while it is still so male-dominated, lest the ostensibly ‘ungendered’ default be maleness. Patriarchal LDS orthodoxy cannot be uncritically appropriated as the foundation for a post-heterosexual theology without silencing the lived realities of women in the church today and their visions of themselves in the eternities.

    In this article, however, Taylor seems to be trying to point the way toward an LDS theology that embraces the multiplicity of human and divine sexuality while also deconstructing the male-centrism of heterosexuality and our broader ontology and cosmology. After citing Blake Ostler’s writings, Taylor acknowledges that his “phallocentric description of God’s presence as a force that penetrates in order to impart life into other divine persons belongs to a specifically masculine-gendered metaphysics” and thus would need to be reformulated before becoming a “resource for thinking about how all kinds of bodies, persons, subjectivities, and identities may be incorporated into LDS articulations of deity.” Prof. Toscano’s post does not give Taylor credit for his critique and qualification of Ostler’s thought.

    More broadly, Taylor does seem to favor an approach wherein we deny our Feurbachian need to define ourselves as subjects in relation to a similar divine in terms of gender, and instead be more comfortable with divine love not being constrained to heterosexual (or homosexual) norms (p. 336). I do find this problematic for the reasons cited above, but perhaps it is because I feel that I have powerful–and gendered–personal experiences with Heavenly Mother. (Taylor even suggests that “Heavenly Mother is often used to diffuse this homoerotic tension” that we feel toward the all-male Godhead (!). I’ve never sensed Heavenly Mother fulfilling that role for me or others, though I can see how that could unconsciously be the case for some.)

    However, despite this emphasis, Taylor also makes room for an alternative (or perhaps simultaneous) approach wherein we retain a Heavenly Mother in our theology while instead identifying and emphasizing more instances of the feminine divine, to facilitate a more plural and multiple conceptualization of femininity and gender more broadly (p. 335). And this is where his critique of Mormon feminist thought in the first part of the article (pp. 320-330) seems to have erected somewhat of a straw man, cherry-picking publications that underscore his critique of the heteronormative elements of conceptualizations of Heavenly Mother. From Prof. Toscano’s post above, and even from some of Taylor’s own citations in the latter section where he outlines a post-heteronormative approach, it seems clear that Mormon feminists have done precisely what he calls for here, emphasizing the intersectionality and plurality of female divinity in LDS thought and the fluidity of our ostensibly male gods’ gender (e.g. in his discussion of Allred’s “Jesus Our Mother” and Hudson’s portrayal of Christ as a mediator between male and female).

    Ultimately, this suggests to me that both Prof. Toscano and Prof. Petrey share the objective of simultaneously incorporating homosexual and intersex individuals and relationships into our theology even while supplanting the maleness of that theology by a more egalitarian (but nonexclusive) vision of heterosexuality. Thanks to BCC for providing them a forum to engage in dialogue around this endeavor!

  7. “Patriarchal LDS orthodoxy cannot be uncritically appropriated as the foundation for a post-heterosexual theology without silencing the lived realities of women in the church today and their visions of themselves in the eternities.”

    Excellent, excellent point. Thanks, Rachel.

  8. I haven’t yet read Petrey or the Toscano/Allred/Hudson Cassler work he critiques so I won’t try to comment on them (though I find Prof. Toscano’s question “And why is the Heavenly Mother blamed for heteronormativity?” to be a powerful summation of this whole issue).

    How does a divine posse composed of Father, Mother, Son, and Holy Ghost combined with a theology of eternal progression to godhood jibe with the reality of the earthly spectrum of human sexual identities and orientations? To my mind, this is by far the most pressing question in current LDS theology. Some possible answers are:

    1 – In the afterlife sexual identity and orientations change for some people, such that humanity is collapsed down to two types: cis-gendered, heterosexual females or males. (I don’t like this answer at all.)
    2 – In the afterlife sexual identity and orientation stay the same, but only the cis-gendered heterosexual couples who accept temple rites get exalted. Everyone else gets a lower level of salvation. (I don’t like this answer at all.)
    3 – In the afterlife sexual identity and orientation stay the same, and each person can be exalted. Possible units of exaltation are individuals, couples, polygynous or polyandrous groups, or all-female/all-male groups. The doctrine of exaltation exclusively applying to a man-woman couple is wrong. Father, Mother, Son, and Holy Ghost preside over all these many mansions in their kingdom on high.
    4 – LDS doctrines about God are so incomplete as to be wrong or misleading. Gender may or may not be a real feature of God (as opposed to God’s gender being human construct shaped by linguistic limitations), but it is not such an important feature as to be defining element in a soul’s progression toward godhood. Each person will progress as herself, a discrete consciousness in the universe, slowly accreting godly attributes as she becomes the new creation alluded to by the apostle Paul, changed one particle at a time by the grace of Christ. Relationships with others are part of eternal progression because without other beings to relate to godly attributes become meaningless. Perhaps some relationships are privileged with special intimacy and proximity, perhaps not.

    Of course there are legion other possibilities but my head hurts from writing just these few. In any case the problem is real: current doctrines of salvation and exaltation are inherently exclusionary, and current concepts of God are problematic if we take Joseph Smith’s ideas about eternal progression seriously.

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