This is Taylor Petrey’s response to the responses to his Harvard Theological Review article. Caroline Kline’s response is here, Margaret Toscano’s is here, and Kristine Haglund’s is here.
I am extremely grateful to those who read this essay and who provided such amazing feedback. It is an honor to have these impressive minds take the time to respond to my article, and I thank them for their feedback and critiques. I am also thankful for the rich discussion in the comments on these posts.
There is an interesting convergence in these responses. While Toscano suggests regressiveness in my work, Haglund suggests that I have “leapfrogged” too far ahead. These concerns both point to a lack of attentiveness to the present that Mormon feminists inhabit. Basically, the concerns Mormon feminists have raised over these past decades have not been addressed. These arguments, in all their conditioning from a certain era of feminist theory, still remain “radical” in contemporary Mormonism. Bypassing these vital questions to move to critique and reformulation may seem premature, or mark me as ungrateful for the work of those who have sacrificed for this cause.
Among the contested aspects of my article is my argument that a significant strain of much of earlier Mormon feminist work is aimed at addressing the (heterosexual) female absence from LDS theology and ecclesiology. While others may read this work differently, I have based my arguments on citations from these texts that I see as working from within a particular feminist paradigm, one that shares a great deal with Irigaray, among others. The applicability of this project to alternative sexualities and genders is, perhaps symbolically, found in fleeting observations or footnotes. The theoretical models of “partnership,” “complementarity,” and a binary notion of parity are the primary drivers of this project of heterosexual female inclusion. I applaud the work of Toscano, Allred, and others who have attempted to create space for others, and for their acceptance of non-heterosexuality, at least. I see my work as gesturing toward a theoretical and theological basis for that inclusiveness and more.
I also consider their important feminist work to hold multiple options for reappraisal, and I invite that work. On Toscano’s work, she and Kline point to some possible resources for addressing the plurality of women. There is no doubt there are some possibilities embedded within Toscano’s writings, just as I had suggested there were within Allred and Hudson. To what extent these options may address the fixity of male and female difference, and the emphasis on dyadic parity and complementarity, remain to be developed, and I am hopeful that the conversation will continue. I have some reservations about the continued reification of sexual difference as bodily, and the particular treatment of trans identity in relation to biology, but I am confident that these conversations may be worked out in greater detail.
I want to address a serious criticism that Toscano has made of my article. Is the result of my theological work in this essay and others an exclusion of female characters? Is it true that for me “the introduction of Heavenly Mother seems to be a problem”? Does Heavenly mother “only represent heteronormativity” to me? Do I see male-male love and or creation as the only model? Do I believe that “without the Heavenly Mother we can eliminate heterosexuality from heaven and all will be well again?”
I think that these are rather serious misreadings that either mistake my descriptions for prescriptions or overlook explicit statements to the contrary. My goal is not to eliminate Heavenly Mother, nor to eliminate heterosexuality, and I believe that I state so clearly. Neither do I believe that these accusations describe the unintended effects of my theology. To imagine a heaven that could accommodate non-heterosexual relations in no way entails the elimination of women or heterosexuality any more than the existence of same-sex relations constitutes the erasure or diminishing of heterosexual relations. Any framework that construes male homosexuality as a threat to women, or a threat to heterosexuality, is precisely the object my critique. The either/or binary is not a suitable model for thinking about sexuality and gender, and I have instead suggested how we might accommodate a both/and approach.
Still, I want to acknowledge the critiques that my work has received from Toscano, Hudson, and others as representative of a broader theoretical tension between feminist and queer interpretation and politics. This problem is a familiar one to any scholar navigating these topics. Laura Schneider has articulated the issue well: “What does it mean for us today, in thinking about and configuring the divine-human relationship in light of and in some continuity with biblical imaginings, to find evidence of sexuality diversity that further masculinizes divinity? The queer sexuality thus far unearthed is, as Ted Jennings so carefully points out, a fairly consistent hyper-masculine homoeroticism that leads, in the case of the founding of the kingdom of Israel at least, to a further marginalization of women….This leaves contemporary women exegetes of all kinds, and queer women in particular, in an awkward (and all too familiar) position.”
Schneider recognizes two ironies in her complaint, that the categories of “male” and “female” are precisely what is being undone, troubled, and called into question by this line of inquiry; and that in her complain about the exclusion of women is an invocation of the heteronormative male-female binary. She answers in a way that is satisfying to me, at least, that “the question of sexual difference is not resolved in queer theory and should remain alive and unresolved in our queer engagements with biblical tales.” (“Yahwist Desires: Imagining Divinity Queerly, in Stone, Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible, 217-18).
The unresolved status of these questions seems to create a space for further conversation and the necessity of greater imagination. But I also hope that I have made clear that the presence of Heavenly Mother provides Mormon theology with a set of resources that the exclusively masculine divine of the Jewish and Christian tradition has not had access to. I join Toscano’s critique of Ostler on this point, and my call for a reappraisal of his phallogocentrism precisely because the Mormon theological framework cannot be reduced to an exclusively masculine space. In my conclusion, I argue that, “a Heavenly Mother breaks down the homogeneity of the male godhead” (340). This is a vital element in Mormon theology that must be lifted up, and may provide a solution to the tension Schneider articulates between feminist and (male) queer theologies.
My caution is not against a Heavenly Mother, but against using the Heavenly Mother figure to diffuse the homoerotic elements of that tradition, to intervene in a way that creates a heteronormative love as of a different order, character, and quality than the love between others, or to reify the essential difference between male and female bodies, characters, roles, and experiences. My critique is not with Heavenly Mother, but the way which she is put into discourse, the kind of work she is assigned to perform, and the exclusionary rhetorics that create a binary rather than undo it.
I want to point out that in this article I attempted to work within the constraints of a “generous orthodoxy.” On this point, one may debate whether or not orthodoxy is up to the task I have set forth. Perhaps something like Toscano’s polytheism offers a better solution. I give passing reference to these options in my article, and I am open to further discussion about them, but I have tried to limit my own possibilities to those within the realm of orthodoxy more or less as presently constituted. Of course, I must take responsibility for my decision to do so, but I want to acknowledge that the divine figures that I am working with, the Mother, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and a handful of others are those that the tradition provides. My task was to try to recast these in ways that could be inclusive of non-binary and non-heterosexual configurations. Much of this also depends on breaking down the notions of a binary between homo and heterosexuality and to allow for multiple, fluid, and dynamic relationships between these characters who provide multiple points of identification for human relations.
Among the numerous avenues I should pursue, I want to highlight just a few more. Haglund’s criticism is that in my engagement with “abstract theorizing,” I cover over questions of “lived religion” and do not pay sufficient attention to the marginalization of Heavenly Mother by the institutional church and the risks feminists have taken to fill in this lacuna. While I don’t know if I fully accept the distinction between lived religion and abstract theorizing, I share this concern about a lack of attention to the social realities of Mormon feminism, its history and its fractures. The history of feminists’ relationship to the institution is a story that remains to be told in greater fullness. I have attempted to sketch only a provisional and meager outline of these debates to set up the questions that I wanted to get to, but the absence of this story is felt.
Haglund makes a further claim that has me thinking: “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.” This is a provocative claim that points out a certain solidarity of invisibility between the heterosexual woman and the queer subject in Mormon thought. At the same time, this affective dimension as a regulatory ideal about certain kinds of theological projects reveals a longing for recognition and locates acceptance as the condition for well-being. This recognition does not exist, therefore well-being does not exist, only agony.
In spite of this agony, or perhaps because of it, it is a joyous gift to me that we can have these kinds of conversations, as messy, frustrating, and imperiled they may be. My thanks again to all involved, and I look forward to future chapters in the dialogue.