This is the final response to Taylor Petrey’s Harvard Theological Review article. Caroline Kline’s response is here, and Margaret Toscano’s is here.
This is going to be one of those annoying critiques that basically complains about it not being the paper I wanted to read or the one I would have written, rather than pointing out any flaws in the paper’s actual argument.
For me, the crux of the matter is in Taylor’s concise formulation on page 6: “Mormon analysis of Heavenly Mother, then, is not abstract theorizing, but rather it articulates a divine model of human gender relations and female subjectivity.” But the paper fairly rapidly devolves into precisely such abstract theorizing. Of course, that is what the Harvard Theological Review is for, and Taylor can hardly be faulted for working within the constraints of the academic discourse in which he is a participant. But the paper I would like to read is the one that situates this theorizing in lived religion, that decries the marginal place of even completely institutionally loyal apologetic feminism, that notes the thin-ness of the theological resources and calls out the official commitment to maintaining the lacuna.
For instance, it seems critically important to note that Eliza R. Snow, the earliest source of semi-official discourse on Heavenly Mother, was the polygynous* wife of Joseph Smith, and subsequent prophets found it necessry to derive authority for her invocation of the divine feminine from her close relationship with the founding prophet and her subsequent status as the plural wife of Brigham Young. And even this authority was not enough for a woman to speak—it was still necessary for Wilford Woodruff to affirm “that hymn is a revelation, though it was given unto us by a woman.” (Millennial Star, 56:15, April 9, 1894)
In setting up “apologetic” and “oppositional” Mormon feminisms as poles of an extant theological discourse within Mormonism, Taylor brushes past the near impossibility of speaking as a loyal Mormon woman and the enormous costs imposed on feminists for being perceived as disloyal. Taylor elides the couple of decades between the excommunication of Mormon feminists in the 90s and the emergence of any “apologetic” feminism. Those decades matter, because they show how effectively the authoritative discourse of Mormonism silenced women, and how far “oppositional” feminists had to move the Overton window before “apologetic” feminism could exist at all. And those years matter, too, because they are an entire generation—a generation of young women who either left Mormonism or buried their feminism to continue being Mormon. And that means that the generation of Mormon feminists who might have grown up with feminism as their birthright and seen intersectionality as their own work was never born.
None of this is to say that Taylor’s call for an even broader understanding of God is unwelcome. It may well be that cis-heterosexual women’s interests are inextricably tied to those whose gender and sexual preference don’t fit those categories or any categories at all. Maybe leapfrogging waves of feminism is the most efficient way to do this theology, especially in the context of academia. But in the context of making a life as a practicing Mormon woman, it is plenty radical to insist on a God that includes a feminine complement, even if that complementarity is heterosexual and binary and limited. Part of what is radical about Mormonism is the insistence that God is embodied; he is not an abstract being representative of some essential maleness, but a particular male personage. Positing that he has a spouse who is also an embodied, particular being is thus not to exclude other particular, embodied beings from actual or potential divinity, but merely a logical initial site for disruption of Mormon henotheism.
I want a sense of the stakes for Mormon women, what it means that even the feminine persona closest to the Mormon ideal for human women—a heterosexual mother—is risky to talk about. Not as an excuse for Mormon feminists’ failure to break apart gender binaries and perform a potentially liberating queering of the feminine divine, but simply as an acknowledgment of how costly and difficult it is for Mormon women to assert any feminine subjectivity, even in the relatively privileged position of cis-het-married mother. This is not something that most practicing academic theologians can be assumed to know, and I think it is critically important that they should. For the moment, Mormon theologizing about Heavenly Mother ought to come from a place of agony, and failure to fully inhabit that subject position means missing how close it still is to the invisibility and unthinkability of the queer subject. As Cynthia Lee put it, in a comment at Zelophehad’s daughters (site of the best queer and feminist Mormon theology going these days!):
I’ve never felt a particular need to be ministered to by a Heavenly Mother. When I’m experiencing physical pains incident to a female body, or questions and frustrations about parenting, I don’t feel to pray to a Mother rather than a Father. I affirm the experience and needs of others who express such yearnings, but it’s never been part of me. Sure, it would be nice, but I’ve always felt that a sufficiently empathetic Father would be adequate for my nurture and comfort.
Yet I get white hot rage when others (cough*male theology scholars*cough) seem blase about the existence of a Mother, or approach the debate about whether a search of the LDS historical record yields enough evidence to conclusively support Her existence with a casual, semi-detached, intellectualizing air.
I don’t care about Heavenly Mother for Her sake, but for mine. The discussion about HM is important because I need to know if when I die I just go into the void like the atheists believe, or whether women exist in the afterlife. If we believe that earth life is boot camp training for exaltation, which means becoming deity (with a physical body) with your own planet, and there is no evidence in the temple film that women participate in those exalted activities of creation, and only flimsy evidence in the historical record, then we aren’t really sure if women have a path forward post-mortality. Then we aren’t really sure if I am a full human, because full humans (men) are agents for the purpose of that boot camp training. You know who else’s post-mortal existence we have only scattered evidence and authority quotations to support? Our beloved pet dogs and cats.
Men, think about that. Think about what it is like to worship in a religion where there is less clarity on whether you exist post-death than there is about whether Fido exists after his death. I’m glad that we now have the essay as an official weigh-in in support of her existence, but the authorities and evidence it cites struck me as so conspicuously thin as to actually have the opposite of a reassuring effect.
Heavenly Mother matters. She really, really matters.
*Indeed, throughout the essay, it seems like the complicating effects of Mormonism’s polygamous past are not fully explored. The well-known folk doctrine that there are multiple heavenly mothers seems like an unexploded mine in the middle of this field—the fact that not all non-binary arrangements are advantageous to a post-structuralist feminist position needs more than a passing mention.