Caroline Kline is completing a Ph.D. in religion with a focus on women’s studies in religion. Her areas of interest revolve around the intersections of Mormon and feminist theology and the study of contemporary Mormon feminist communities. She is the co-founder of the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent, and is a committed believer in the importance of online feminist forums and communities. She is also one of the four women who co-founded Feminism and Religion.
Taylor Petrey’s “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother” is an important piece of scholarship, as it stretches the bounds of Mormon theological discourse on gender. Reading this article for me was both enlightening and unsettling, as it helped articulate some potential problems with Mormon feminist theologizing of Heavenly Mother, theologizing that has informed my own stances. When I first read Janice Allred and Margaret Toscano’s work on God the Mother fifteen years ago, I was blown away by their courage to catapult this shadowy and all but forgotten divine female into the heart of the Mormon godhead. Their insistence on her equality with God the Father resonated deeply. Reading their work gave me, a young Mormon feminist, hope for an eternity where I as a woman would not be subordinated and pushed aside. It helped me to not despair over my eternal future. Their work on Heavenly Mother helped give me heart to cling to my Mormon identity and practice, even in the face of the horrors of Prop 8, last year’s exclusion policy of LGBTQ people and their children, and excommunications of prominent feminists and intellectuals.
That said, I appreciate Petrey’s explication of some potentially troubling implications of Mormon feminist God-talk on Heavenly Mother. As much as I want a Mormon theology that affirms women as equal to men, I also yearn for a theology that is broad and expansive enough to include all people, gay and straight.
Petrey suggests that much discussion by Mormon feminists has worked to cement heteronormativity and gender dualism into Mormon theological frameworks. I believe there is some validity to this critique. To insist that God is a divine married male/female couple seems to hold up as ideal heteronormativity. And since we, as Mormons believe, are in “one eternal round,” how deity is constructed has implications for our own eternal futures. If God is a married heterosexual couple, then how can we create theological space for LGBTQ people in heaven? How can we find theological room for LGBTQ people to form eternal partnerships with those of their choice and act as partnered Gods to enable new generations of humans to grow and progress and reach their eternal destinies?
These are important questions. I agree with Petrey that we need other theological formulations that disrupt heteronormativity and gender binaries. These other theological formulations, such as Allred’s gender-bending Jesus and Ostler’s interpenetrative male godhead, are liberating for those looking to create theological space for those outside traditional heteronormative frameworks. Thus these other formulations are useful, and I applaud Petrey’s and others’ ability to find these openings and spaces in unexpected places.
The huge question that I am left with after reading Petrey’s article is this: Can we retain Heavenly Mother theology while still disrupting gender binaries and heteronormativity? How? While I realize that Heavenly Mother discourse can be used to reify traditional gender roles, I believe that there is liberative potential in the Mormon feminist vision of an embodied Heavenly Mother equally partnered with an embodied Heavenly Father, who together form the entity known as God. I imagine two beings who exist outside the constraints of gender roles, who work with fluidity and equality to lead humanity – all humanity, gay straight, all colors and classes — to their cosmic destiny to be peers with them. Despite the potential problems, I’m just not ready to write off the feminist vision of Heavenly Mother as hopelessly limiting and reductive.
Some of Janice Allred and Margaret Toscano’s work on Heavenly Mother (not mentioned by Petrey) has, in my reading, actually laid a foundation for gender-binary breaking theologies that better include and affirm LGBTQ people. These are not fleshed out, admittedly, but they are hopeful openings for disruption to heteronormative theological formulations. The first is from Janice Allred’s postscript footnote to her original essay on God the Mother. She briefly discusses how she believes her vision of Heavenly Mother equally partnered with God the Father does leave open space for LGBTQ people to progress without limits. She believes that the essential characteristic of the marriage partnership of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother is unity (not gendered behavior or bodies), and that “the coupling (and grouping) of celestial beings is not necessarily static or based on sex.” Thus while our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother have chosen to exist in a heterosexual marriage relationship, she leaves room for other divine couples to embrace different kinds of partnerships, marriages, and identities.
Margaret Toscano has likewise offered a theological formulation (http://signaturebookslibrary.org/women-and-authority-18/) which has complicated divine heteronormativity and which has even offered a multiplicity of divine females. I like her suggestion that we might have a trinity of female deities that parallel the trinity of male deities. She wonders if perhaps Eve, Mary, and the Holy Spirit might form a female trinity of Mother/Creator, Daughter/Redeemer, and Holy Spirit, all of which “have been intimately involved in our creation, redemption, and spiritual well-being and growth.” Toscano points out that there is scriptural and historical evidence that Heavenly Mother might be connected to each of these three figures in various ways. Eve has particular potential as an important savior goddess, since she, like Jesus, sacrificed her life to propel humanity forward. If theologians were to flesh out this potential female trinity, could they develop similar concepts of oneness, interconnectedness, and partnership that have been used to discuss the unity of the members of the male godhead? Could this likewise show the complicated and deep connections that deities can form with one another amongst members of their own sex and thus also challenge heteronormative theological constructions? This is all highly speculative, of course, but I see in Toscano and Allred’s theological musings ways to retain an active, involved, equal God the Mother, while simultaneously disrupting gender binaries and heteronormativity.
The various theological formulations Petrey mentions in his article –from the Heavenly Mother/Heavenly Father diad to the all-male interpenetrative Godhead — have their costs and benefits, their strengths and their weaknesses. They radically include in some ways, while potentially excluding in other ways. Like Petrey, I find a variety of theological formulations useful. I am grateful to Petrey for his work in lifting up these other formulations for their potential in disrupting gender binaries, and I am likewise grateful to Toscano and Allred for their theological work which disrupts patriarchy and androcentricism. Petrey’s cautions about reifying heteronormativity in Mormon feminist theological formulations are extremely important. I do, however, see some scope in Mormon feminist theologizing of Heavenly Mother for including LGBTQ people and disrupting heteronormativity and gender binaries. If future Mormon feminist theological work can retain Heavenly Mother as equal to Heavenly Father, but nuance this male/female pairing by bringing forward and theologically developing other divine groupings and formations — particularly female ones like Toscano’s female trinity — then I would be one happy Mormon feminist.
 Janice Allred, “Toward a Mormon Theology of God the Mother,” in God the Mother and Other Theological Essays (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 55.