The Stakes of Heavenly Mother

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.


  1. Thanks, Taylor. This, and your readers’ comments, have been incredibly interesting and invigorating.

  2. Taylor, I commented on Margaret’s post that I largely agreed with her that your article appeared to be dismissive of the need for a Heavenly Mother at all. That in your article you seemed to argue that her very existence was problematic and asserted a heteronormative paradigm.

    However after reading your response here it appears that that was not your argument. It is likely that my reading was superficial and I did not fully understand your position in its entirety. Thank you for your contributions to this discussion.

  3. Clay Bench says:

    Thanks Taylor, Catherine, Kristine, and Margaret! This has been a very interesting interaction!

  4. In Christian theology God is not male, but Spirit. I am surprised that you don’t refer to this as I distinctly recall a pair of missionaries mocking that very concept; I believe they told me I worshipped a “blob”. the missionaries seemed to believe that the God of most Christians has no gender…

  5. Well, vajra2, if nothing else, this conversation is good for demonstrating that positing an embodied God does not solve any theological problems as neatly as those missionaries thought! (And I’m sorry and embarrassed that you had that experience; Mormons are, on the whole, painfully uneducated about other Christians’ theologies.

  6. I appreciate this whole series. Thanks.
    My primary take-away is that there is a lot of work to do. The rest of this comment started in response to Kristine’s post, but I bring it here in response to Kristine’s “go read Taylor’s response and engage with his points!”
    In thinking about the boundaries or requirements of a recognizably Mormon theology, something that could lie within “generous orthodoxy,” I come back repeatedly to three things:
    1. I think we really do have to envision an embodied Mother in Heaven, with all the gender and sexual specificity that implies. Taylor Petrey (this OP) says “I have some reservations about the continued reification of sexual difference as bodily . . . but I am confident that these conversations may be worked out in greater detail.” I’m happy for the confidence, but I believe it cannot be a side project (not just “the rest is details”), but belongs in the center.
    For what it’s worth, I elide the “trans identity” part of Taylor’s sentence because I believe that a robust theory of embodiment will naturally and easily treat trans identity; it does not feel (to me) like a separate or even corner solution kind of issue.
    2. I want/need a Mother in Heaven with power and authority. ‘Mere’ existence is not enough. The ‘eternal womb’ theory I have heard bantered about (mostly dismissively, to be fair) is not enough. In Mormon discourse, where priesthood is exclusively male and touted as the power of God, with and through which relationships are sealed, truths are revealed, and worlds are made, in order to ensure a place for women in the grand scheme, that place has to be asserted in the language of power (my opinion; het- white Mormon man speaking; probably contrary to some varieties of feminism). I want a vision of Mother in Heaven that belongs in, and that puts women squarely in the middle of, D&C 121:34-46 (“many are called . . . powers of heaven . . .no power or influence . . . faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death . . . everlasting dominion”).
    3. I am convinced that a strong monotheism and too sharp focus on individual salvation will not work. Mormonism speaks of families, multiplicity of gods, eternal relationships, bonds that endure. More speculatively, I would venture that any fixed number (of Gods, of aspects of God, of Virtues), whether one or three or six or sixteen, is likely to run into trouble. I suspect that naming, differentiating, justifying, will always end up in a theology that’s exclusive and limited.

  7. christiankimball, your thoughts on keeping the discussion recognizably Mormon give me pause, because my thoughts on this whole subject are increasingly not recognizably Mormon. To your points, I agree Mother in Heaven needs to be embodied, whatever that means. I am A-OK with talking about Her using powerful language. Regarding a sharp focus on individual salvation, I find myself turning toward individual salvation in response to what I see as a too narrow focus on the traditional nuclear family, but I also want a theology that saves relationships. A more expansive LDS theology could do that job well.

  8. Emily U: It matters what we want the project to be, and what audience. I understand Taylor Petrey and others as striving for a “generous orthodoxy” and I applaud and want to support the effort. For myself, I remain skeptical that it can be done, and my private devotional life long ago veered off in directions not recognizably Mormon (but probably not the same as your “increasingly not recognizably Mormon” thoughts. (?; !; :-))

  9. Emily U, just as the original purpose of sealings was to organise us into “kingdoms”, but that was later reworked (both as a narrowing and an expansion) into organisation along family lines, I think we’ll eventually be able to see a more expansive set of connections, and be sealed to each other in more creative ways than current practice, and perhaps a more narrow focus on individual salvation won’t be incompatible with that.

    I think that these conversations are important steps to figuring out how heavenly communities may look, and to what extent we are (or should be) mirroring that now.

  10. “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.”

    I think people get too caught up in the male/female physical dichotomy when looking at a divine embodied pair. Biological sex in a human body can arguably be seen as a spectrum. While apologetic feminism uses Heavenly Mother to reinforce the binary, there is significant room for others to interpret Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother as representing either side of a spectrum, allowing room to explore the shades of gray in-between. That would allow much more flexibility when contemplating relationships and identities.

  11. Groping in the dark for what’s been in front of you all along in the light for those that have eyes to see and ears to hear.

    Man and the prophets haven’t hidden Heavenly Mother. They’ve always pointed to where you can find her. You’re just not listening to the spirit and praying fervently over the answers.

  12. Thank you for your generous response here, Taylor, the willingness of each of the guest bloggers to engage with the article, and BCC for hosting this “mini-seminar.” I feel the conversation has been very enriching, particularly for those (like me) who aren’t really up to speed on the state of the theological and philosophical work on Heavenly Mother. Here’s to seeking more light and knowledge until the perfect day.

  13. Sounds like the feminists want to introduce goddess worship.

  14. The great Utah actress Maude Adams had a home in Ronkonkoma a century ago. That was undoubtedly the last time that name was associated with anything recognizably Mormon.

  15. Thanks for your gracious response, I read and understood it all (I think) and appreciate having my understanding stretched.

    When I examine my wounds from being in a world where women are not always considered fully human or fully divine, I’m unable to notice how others are wounded from their particular ways of not being considered fully human or divine. It’s occurred to me repeatedly that being unable to see another’s pain because one’s well-being (or privilege, pride, or whatever) blocks their empathy is itself a certain kind of lack. Speaking for myself, when I finally can see my cluelessness, it is repugnant to me, and my greatest desire is to grow some distance from it. I believe the revelations that God exists, and loves us all equally and wants us to learn to do the same, and because we haven’t addressed these inequalities, as the scripture says, the world lieth in sin.

    Addressing these inequalities, trying to create balance and fairness, *asking* others to create balance and fairness is messy business indeed. I appreciate your contribution to the effort.

    But what I really desire is to someday be as concise and erudite as Ardis.

  16. I loved your comment, MDearest, it really resonated with me thanks!

  17. “But what I really desire is to someday be as concise and erudite as Ardis.”

    So say we all!!

  18. That’s a great comment, MDearest. And Ardis rocks.

  19. Because we should not goddess worship.

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