Nature, Wisdom, Spirit, Mother

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This is an expanded and re-written version of a Mother’s Day sermon I gave in church last week, on May 13, 2018. PLEASE SEE THE NOTE AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST.

I’m pretty certain that ever since I became old enough to wonder about matters theological, I hadn’t been all that enthused by the Mormon idea of Mother in Heaven. The Christian message which consistently spoke (and still speaks) most strongly to me was Pauline, Augustinian, and Lutheran; I took (and still take) seriously the omniscience and omnipresence of God presented through the Biblical tradition, and saw His relationship with us as profoundly grace-centered and not at all humanist. This left little room in my thinking for the discourse about Heavenly Mother that I was most familiar with, which seemed rooted in deeply literal and humanist presumptions about God’s identity, sexuality, and relationships. “In the heav’ns are parents single?/ No, the thought makes reason stare! / Truth is reason; truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a mother there“–to a great many of my fellow Mormons, for many years, the claim made in this old hymn seems both persuasive and obvious. But it wasn’t for me.

I write all that in the past tense, though, because not too long ago I read an essay which made me realize that maybe, just maybe, I’ve actually been thinking about, and perhaps even worshiping, Mother in Heaven all along. But let me work around to that.

Over the past two years, a large number of the trees which once lined the run-off beside the street in front of our home were affected by a blight, and were removed by the city. Last summer, they were replaced with saplings–many of which, I noticed over our long dry winter, got snapped off. Maybe the wind did it, but more likely it was stupid kids wandering along the street. And yet today all of them, even those that were left stubby and close to the ground, are growing. Rain finally came to this part of Kansas, and growth has too.

One of the most common themes in our sacrament meetings is “gratitude,” and this is something I’m grateful for: the abundance of the natural world all around us, the rhythm of growth that returns, again and again, even in the face of all the harm we do to creation. It’s an abundance we are invited, despite all our environmental crimes, to contribute to and benefit from, and by so doing learn from as well. That’s something else to be grateful for: the satisfaction–and the often humbling learning which precedes that feeling of satisfaction–of being a part of nature’s cycle of renewal and bounty. I grew up working in gardens, bailing hay, tromping through alfalfa fields, milking cows by hand, and the productive interplay of us human beings with the growing, gracious things that fill our stomachs with food and our minds with beauty is something that, even as an academic, attends much of my thinking. If you’re looking for a romantic agrarian, someone who enjoys weeding the tomato plants and contemplating the meaning of the soil as I turn it over with a spade, you’ve got one right here.

The week before I was assigned to speak, we sang in church one of my favorite hymns: “All Creatures of our God and King.” The fourth verse, in particular, caught by eye:

Dear Mother Earth, who day by day
Unfoldest blessings on our way,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
Let them His glory also show.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Alleluia! O praise Him! Alleluia!

The lyrics of this hymn are a slightly changed version of those composed by William H. Draper, who in the early 1900s translated St. Francis of Assisi’s poem “Canticle of the Sun,” which was written around 1224, and inspired by the 148th Psalm. Here’s a translation of the relevant passage from the poem:

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Draper was inspired to see in that poem a hymn something he wanted to his congregation to be able to hear and sing for a Whitsunday service–Whitsunday being an old English liturgical term for the Day of Pentecost, the day, seven weeks after Easter, that the Christian world celebrates the blessing of Holy Ghost which comes to surround and sustain Jesus’s disciples and all who come into His community. There is a reason, I think, why this particular work by St. Francis spoke to Draper as he made plans for this holy day–specifically, the association between the manifold gifts of the spirit, and the diverse fecundity of the natural world, which Francis placed all together in his poem as a family: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire. Note, though, that his “Nature” is not only a sibling; she is also a “Mother,” by which and through which the governing, productive rule of life–the fruit and herbs we consume from the world, and the flowers by which it is decorated–is sustained.

Where did this idea come from, that the natural world, the world we work in and are sustained and enlightened by, is both feminine and maternal? If you turn to non-Christian history and mythology, there are plenty of ancient examples: Durga in Hinduism, Gaia from the Greeks. But these deities often are understood as embodying the wildness of the natural world, and are indifferent to, or often hostile towards, actual human beings. What of the image of nature as something which mothers us, feeds and teaches and overseas and loves us, and to which we owe the respect that we do to a mother?

The earliest example of a “Mother Nature” that I know of came from the pen of the French cleric Alain de Lille, who wrote, perhaps 60 years before St. Francis’s “Canticle,” a Latin work of theology titled (in translation) The Plaint of Nature. There is much in this work of prose and verse which audiences today might find strange or offensive–but it also gave the Christian world, for the first time we have record of, the idea of Nature as a ruling, feminine figure:

O child of God, the mother of Creation, bond of the universe and its stable link….you, who by your reins guide the universe, unite all things in a stable and harmonious bond and wed heaven to earth in a union of peace; who, working on the pure idea of Divine Wisdom, mold the species of all created things…

In the words of James Sheridan, translator of The Plaint, Nature comes to declare that “it was God’s will that by a mutually related circle of birth and death, transitory things should be given stability by instability, endlessness by endings, eternity by temporariness, and that the series of things should ever be knit by successive renewals of birth.” The idea of an immanent order, always linked, always disciplining, always rewarding.

I learned about Alain de Lille’s Plaint from a long essay by Wendell Berry, the poet, novelist, critic, farmer, and agrarian, who once famously declared “I’d rather rely on Mother Nature’s wisdom than man’s cleverness.” Contained in his latest collection, The Art of Loading Brush, “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World” is a deep dive into the depictions of nature in the history of English literature, and its influence on consequent writings about conservation and farming. His study is often a tendentious one (he doesn’t like industrial agriculture, or tractors, for that matter), but it is revealing nonetheless. His aim to remind his readers that observers of the natural world have consistently recognized that there is an order to it, a miraculous rhythm that follows a mysterious logic which we can learn from, but never master.

Berry is a Christian, a man who knows the Bible very well, but who sometimes has a problem with the conventionality of Christianity in America. He is drawn to those who seem to him to respect the mystery, the glory, the stern wonder of creation, rather than those who want to explain it all in some tidy ideological or theological package. Thomas Merton, a French Catholic who settled in a monastery in Kentucky, where Berry also lives, wrote a prose poem about the “Hagia Sophia” or “divine wisdom,” an ancient Christian idea found in 1 Corinthians 2:7 ( “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory”) which Alain de Lille associated with the “mother of Creation,” and Francis of Assisi with “Sister Mother Earth”: “There is,” Merton wrote, “in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.”

In the centuries between Alain de Lille of the 12th century and Berry and Merton of the 20th, many other authors strove to capture the order, surprise, and wisdom of nature–and again and again, their intuition of such took feminine and maternal forms. Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem The Parlement of Foules presents Mother Nature as the “vicar of the almighty Lord” who “hot, cold, heavy, light, moist, and dry / Hath knit by even numbers of accord,” bringing a wise balance to the renewing, reproducing processes of of nature. Edmund Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, which were appended to The Faerie Queene, also gives us the “great dame Nature / With goodly Port and gracious Majesty / Being far greater and more tall of Stature / Than any of the Gods or Powers on high,” who, when confronted with the challenge of Mutability, imposes a larger, deeper, unseeable order upon the changeableness of creation. John Milton’s allegorical poem Comus presents us with Nature (“the Lady”) wisely resisting those that would indulge in nature’s bounty, instead insisting on “Temperance” so that “Nature’s full blessings would be well dispensed in…even proportion.”

This only scratches the surface of this one linguistic, poetic tradition (Berry goes on to consider the realization of Nature, and its wise discipline, in the works of Pope, Wordsworth, and Ezra Pound as well), but the themes, I think, are clear. For many Christian artists and thinkers, to take seriously God’s creation is to take seriously the idea that some part of God, or something suitably God-like, overseas it, blesses it, makes it meaningful and a source of bounty and wisdom to those who tend to it, and issues a reproach to those who do not. Is this Mormon doctrine, or even Christian, for that matter? Not directly. But the more that I think about it, the less I can read any of revelations of Joseph Smith dealing with the natural world, with their insistence upon bounty, respect, patience, and humble and equitable use–see Doctrine and Covenants 49:18-21, D&C 59:15-21, or D&C 104:14-18–without imaging a distinctly maternal, a loving but also wise and watchful, eye behind them. It is the same loving (but unsentimental) eye I think sometimes I can see through, when I look upon our often frustrating, but just as often rewarding, front yard flower and strawberry patch, when it is weeded and well-watered and flourishing. In it, I sometimes see something more than my work–I see labor in the soil made meaningful. Guided, one might say, to becoming a part of the abiding spiritual rhythms of the natural world.

I realize that if this is an argument for Mother in Heaven, it is a distinctly panentheistic one, with some feminine element of the divine being made manifest through (though not necessarily being identical to) God’s creation. I’m happy with that accusation, though. I think it is necessary, if one insists upon doing theology, to be willing to consider such categories, or else one is going to be stuck with a terribly reductive literalism (case in point: the plain comment by Mormon apostle Erastus Snow in March 1878 that “I must believe that deity consists of man and woman” and that we Mormons worship a “Godhead composing two parts, male and female” causing a minor hermaphroditic freak-out in the footnotes to the BYU Studies article cited above).

In the same way that we Christian believers need to be willing to think expansively about we mean when we talk about the Holy Ghost in the connection with Pentecost–remember that in the Fifth of Smith’s early Lectures on Faith the Holy Spirit, which in Biblical history begins with the idea of the ruach Elohim or the Breath of God, was identified with the mind of God the Father–we similarly need to think expansively about Heavenly Mother. Might She be that title which we could give (and maybe, through Mother Nature, always have given) to that part of God which is invested in creation, in the wise, tutelary, fecund impulse which governs nature and those of use who live off of and through its creative rewards? No scriptural account that I consider at all inspired says so, in so many words. But lately, I find I’m persuaded that it makes sense.

In the Mother’s Day service where I gave the original version of this sermon, the Primary children sang two songs: “Mother Dear” and “My Heavenly Father Loves Me.” Both wonderful, sweet songs. And yet, the association they make together–one song about the love one has for mothers, the other about an appreciation for creation–can be achieved much more directly, I thought, by just one song, one of the wisest Primary tunes of all:

I often go walking in meadows of clover,
And I gather armfuls of blossoms of blue.
I gather the blossoms the whole meadow over;
Dear mother, all flowers remind me of you.

O mother, I give you my love with each flower
To give forth sweet fragrance a whole lifetime through;

[And this, right here, I think, is the key verse, the one that really brings it all home:]

For if I love blossoms and meadows and walking,
I learned how to love them, dear mother, from you.

Blossoms and meadows and walking. Which mother did that teaching, do you suppose? The child’s, presumably. But also…maybe, another One as well? Some patient mothering spirit or thought, some sehnsucht that calls to us, without us knowing why or how, helping us see something meaningful, something orderly, in every spring surprise, in every growing and good thing. In the Book of Mormon, Alma claimed that “the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it…denote there is a God.” He didn’t know the half of it, perhaps. Paying attention to, and learning to be properly grateful for the other Half, the Half that we’ve always known, and named Mother Nature, and yet not always fully seen, may be one of our tasks today. It is one that I long thought I’d dismissed–but yet, I think now that I’ve been looking for Her all along.

NOTE: It has been pointed out to me that the initial premise behind this whole post–seeing Heavenly Mother in and through the concept of Mother Nature–was originally suggested to me by one of my fellow bloggers, Cynthia Lee, and in writing it, I had completely forgotten her contribution. For that I want to apologize. Moreover, the fact that I did that, and probably have done so many times before, particularly in regards to matters involving women in the church, is not only a terrible–and likely much too frequent–mark on my character, but it is reflective of so much casual, oblivious sexism in the way both theological speculation and ordinary practice is performed in the church. I first thought to take the whole post down, but both Cynthia and other female co-bloggers here at BCC have suggested leaving it up, as an opportunity for conversation and learning. I am one of the first in need of that, and I am grateful for their understanding.

Comments

  1. Mark Bigelow says:

    Thanks, Russell. Mother in Heaven as Mother Nature–I’ll be thinking on that for a long time.

  2. I’m surprised at how often I find resonance with your writing, Russell Armen Fox. That’s a fan note, but also a recognition of a certain kind of consciousness that I see flowing and flowering.

    In addition to thanks and appreciation, I come to two modest add-ons:
    1. In the “made in the image” idea (Genesis), or “the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me” (from Hagiah Sophia), the reflexive idea that we are made in a way to appreciate the bounty, the generativity, the greens and blues and browns and yellows of the earth. A way to bridge that gap between the impersonal Gaia and the image of nature as Mother.
    2. Musings about generativity and nurturing and how they become coded “feminine” or “mother.” Because part of my resistance to the stereotypically Mormon MIH talk is that it feels so human gender specific, whereas the image I seek and resonate to speaks to something in all of us, in me, not particularly tied to gender or sex or sexuality. That’s the pantheist in me speaking (but I do think that Mormonism, especially from the 19c, invites and welcomes such expansive thought).

  3. The first time I watched the movie Moana and saw the scene where Te Fiti has her heart restored and then everything starts turning green and blossoming — well, I’m not ashamed to say that I wept. I do think that Heavenly Mother must have a great deal to do with nature, and I envy other religions and traditions that so openly acknowledge Her there.

  4. Mark, anything that can get you thinking is high praise, so thank you!

    Christian, I really like how you put it when you wrote that “stereotypically Mormon MIH talk….feels so human gender specific”; I agree, which why I found encountering this way of thinking about things–which, for the record, I’m sure many thousands of others have realized long before me–so surprising and intuitive. Generativity is, thanks to biological evolution, probably always going to be at least initially apprehended by us as feminine, but that just pushes us, I think, to recognize the “feminine,” the Mother, in all creative works, including all the works of God, and even in God Himself.

    Autumn, I very nearly put exactly that image up with the post. I am ashamed to say that there were multiple people I knew, including some on this blog, who saw the Mother in Heaven/Mother Nature connection in the imagery of that film right from the start, and I wasn’t one of them. As usual, I’m still learning.

  5. Kristine says:

    Hopefully Part II of this post will be about the damage this kind of thinking has done to actual human women through the centuries and how we can do better… (And maybe it will even cite some women!)

  6. I understand the desire to anthropomorphize Mother Earth, but have trouble equating her to Mother in Heaven. Maybe if She’s Mother of All Earths, since otherwise we join this to “God of Worlds Without Number” and end up with one Father and Mothers Without Number, which is way beyond my tolerance for acceptable polygamy (which is about 5, since that’s the most husbands I’ve found for a particular ancestor)

  7. Touche, Kristine. It is indisputably the case that the recognition of the maternal aspect of God in and through nature was historically incorporated into a misogynistic concept of creation which was taken by men as a justification for enforcing an agricultural or reproductive model on women. In that sense, my talk about Mother Nature needs to be more fully feminized–and Rachel Hunt Steenblick’s poetry, as has been noted, is a great complement to the old English dudes that Wendell Berry got me thinking about. My apologies.

  8. Kristine says:

    And Rachel’s poems are even better than Adam’s review of them!! You might, however, find them as irritatingly embodied and human as the Eliza R. Snow poem you dismiss in your first paragraph before moving to cite exclusively male theologians on the glories of the feminine…

  9. I love this! I’m excited to follow all your links.

    One of the things that really resonated with me when I read Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth” was that cultures who predominantly worshiped a female goddess viewed the earth as part of the goddess, while cultures who worshiped a male god tend to think of being separated from god. I remember really wanting both. I have a hard time picturing Heavenly Mother with a body similar to Heavenly Father and Jesus as depicted in The First Vision paintings, but I see her in the trees of the sacred grove, and in the trees of the garden of Eden and the garden of Gethsemane.

    ***

    I really like swapping the gender in “My Heavenly Father Loves Me”. I love how the second verse could be talking about heavenly or earthly mother: “She gave me my eyes that I might see…”

    ***

    My 8-year-old daughter Cora composed a lullaby for my baby. I really love how the last two lines get at our ideas about why we are on earth. “Who are you?” (What kind of person are you going to be? What choices will you make?) “And are you gentle to me?” (Are you kind to people around you? But also, from a Mother Earth perspective: do you take good care of the earth?)

    Lullaby (tune inspired by Burn Little Candles)
    Rock little baby rock, rock, rock.
    Rock little baby rock, rock to sleep.
    Who are you?
    And are you gentle to me?

  10. Regarding the added mea culpa, I’m curious (i.e., discussing) your “particularly in regards to matters involving women in the church” line. Introspectively, I’m aware of multiple failings in the citation area, especially with respect to ideas and arguments. Actual quotes I’m reasonably good about. But I am not aware of a particular bias disregarding ideas that should be attributed to a woman, or with respect to matters involving women in the church.

    I know I fail to give my wife credit where it is deserved, but I honestly think that’s a function of proximity and the large number of opportunities for failure, not a particular gender bias in that specific case. (Although that’s open to question and I suspect she thinks otherwise.) In other ways, I believe about myself that within the scope of multiple failures, I am marginally more likely to credit women than men, because it seems relatively more common that something a man says registers as “I think that too” from which it is an all-too-easy step to “it’s my own thought.” And relatively more common that something a woman says registers as “interesting–that’s a new thought, or a different way of saying it.”

    But then self-criticism is notoriously difficult and nearly blind.

    Regarding the OP, one obvious reflection is Mary Oliver’s work, where she regularly slips in religious references to observance of the natural world:

    “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
    I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
    into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
    how to be idle and blessed”
    –from The Summer Day

    “Let me keep my distance, always, from those
    who think they have the answers.
    Let me keep company always with those who say
    “Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
    and bow their heads.”
    –from Mysteries, Yes

  11. Kristine says:

    “But I am not aware of a particular bias disregarding ideas that should be attributed to a woman, or with respect to matters involving women in the church.”

    Hmmmmm–maybe you’ve never attended a Gospel Doctrine class, where any comment made by a woman has to be repeated by a man before other men even respond to it!

    Or you’ve never heard the routinely recapitulated history of the Relief Society, in which it becomes Joseph Smith’s idea.

    Or in Sacrament Meeting when the bishop makes that tired quip about how the Relief Society President is the one who really knows what’s going on in the ward, and everyone laughs as if it were a joke, rather than the unadorned, precise truth of the situation.

    I seriously could do this ALL day long. But then someone would call me humorless, or shrill.

  12. Kristine: In fact I haven’t experienced any of your examples directly, but I’ve certainly heard the stories and they do lend a negative almost adversarial tone to any meta discussion about men and women at church. (For all that, technically not responsive because my “I am not aware” was 100% about myself, introspectively. Now if you’re going to get personal–and I suspect you could–let’s take it off line.)

    For discussion purposes, I suppose the question I pose is whether Russell is apologizing for himself or for (Mormon?) men as a class or for church members as a class or for BCC permas and/or commenters as a class?

  13. I can only speak and apologize for myself, Christian. Though I do believe the fact that I had an insight pointed out to me by a woman I consider a friend, and then sometime later built a post around said insight in while completely forgetting that it had already been pointed out to me, is indicative of how easily men in church discourse fail to attend to the ideas of the women around them.

  14. Kristine says:

    I’m sorry, Christian–I didn’t mean to sound so adversarial or make it personal.

    The kind of theologizing Russell is doing here (obviously!) makes me a little nuts. It feels like a high-falutin’ version of “Men have priesthood, and women have motherhood” which is so often used to exclude women from having their thoughts heard.

    Making Heavenly Mother the silent nurturing force and Heavenly Father the one who directs and controls feels like it’s at the root of a lifetime of experiences with not being taken seriously at church. And I know and trust that you didn’t mean to do this, but “I haven’t experienced that” can feel so dismissive*, because *of course* you didn’t experience it, and if you did (which I strongly suspect, since some of the people who do it to me are people you’ve been in Sunday School with :)), you might not notice it. When men say “I haven’t experienced that,” there can be an implication that it didn’t happen, or that the woman who’s reporting it is maybe a little too sensitive, or it just isn’t a serious problem.

    All of which is related to the theme of this post. Mother Earth has been weeping, groaning, screaming for humans to pay attention to her, to stop abusing her, for generations. Equating that voicelessness with the Mormon Heavenly Mother, who is not allowed to speak or be spoken to, or even seriously spoken about is just devastating in a way that I think it is difficult for people who are not structurally silenced and excluded to understand. And those of us who are structurally silenced and excluded sometimes have a hard time getting past the inchoate pain and anger to articulate the problem, even to the good guys.

    *Several years ago, the women of BCC broke Russell of his habit of responding this way, and I’m very proud of our work :)

  15. It’s a habit I still fall back into too often, Kristine, but it was a lesson I appreciated being taught, and I think realizing the need to break away from that habit made me a better person. I hope it did, anyway.

    As for the substance of my thoughts in the original post, obviously neither “priesthood” nor “control” were ever mentioned, but you’re right that I can’t and shouldn’t ignore how they have nonetheless haunted and warped the ideas which I found opening up to me in my reading of these old poets (ideas which many others, including some friends, had already shared before, and which I’d forgotten about, to my embarrassment). If anything, I’d like to think that what I was seeing in the “Mother in Heaven/Mother Nature” concept situated fecundity and creativity and wisdom in ways that were larger than and distinct from those formulations of the feminine which have long been subject to male domination.But I obviously failed at that. Kaylee’s observation above is probably both simpler and truer, I suspect, than anything I wrote: “I have a hard time picturing Heavenly Mother with a body similar to Heavenly Father and Jesus as depicted in The First Vision paintings, but I see her in the trees of the sacred grove, and in the trees of the garden of Eden and the garden of Gethsemane.” Yes, Kaylee–the gospel of the trees!

  16. My daughter Megan also sent me a long comment about the post, which pushes it further in directions which I think I was clumsily (and unfortunately somewhat sexistly) gesturing towards. I’m not sure how far I follow her reasoning, but I think she’s got a strong argument which builds our from my speculations nonetheless:

    “I agree with you that the ‘Truth is reason; truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a mother there’ idea is unsatisfactory….I like the idea of reading a Divine Mother through Mother Nature more, and I find the panentheistic part of the argument particularly persuasive. I want to take it a step further though, and argue that God/ the trinity as we consider them already encompass — surpass — the feminine and masculine.

    First of all, I think that separating and distinguishing ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ is fundamentally motivated by patriarchy, and how we as a society conceive and perform gender now is reductive and annoying. I find the gender binary particularly frustrating when applied to the Divine, however, because one of the beliefs that I carry with me is the Divine is Whole in a way that humans are not: complete in understanding, complete in being, etc. Humans are flawed, and through the Divine we will be whole.

    This wholeness means to me that the Divine is not gendered in a way that we are socialized to think about it — God is in everything, and that includes the experiences of marginalized groups. I think the Atonement speaks to this in particular: if Christ truly experienced the pain and sin of every human without history, then the experience encompassed gender in all its iterations. He felt the pain of childbirth, he felt period cramps, he felt all these supposed overarching “womanly” experiences — and he felt the dysphoria of a trans man experiencing them too. That physical, affective empathy comes with it a queerness that looking for a separate Divine Feminine entity dismisses.

    For Mormons who find spiritual strength and empathy in a Heavenly Mother – good for them! I am so glad they are. I want them to have that support, that guide, and the fulfillment of having a Divine being who loves and understands all aspects of your being, including your womanhood. But I also find such ideas really problematic as it assumes that there’s an overarching ‘female experience,’ which any exploration into intersectionality will tell you is untrue. I have the same problem with looking to an explicitly feminine Mother Nature creator — looking to feminine and maternal forms to speak to the order, surprise, and wisdom of nature is all well and good, and there’s a lot of power in finding a tradition and legacy to engage with. But because we conceptualize gender along a binary where femininity is always held inferior to masculinity, such a tradition reduces the Creator aspects of nature to something that is not quite the same or equal to as the Wholeness that I see in the Divine.

    The answer for me is then not to look to a separate legacy, but to expand what we think the Christian God is….I don’t think that God as the Divine creator is feminine. But I don’t think that God is masculine, either. I think the Divine is both, and neither. God encompasses all humanity, so God encompasses gender in all its iterations throughout culture and history.”

  17. Russell: I really like Megan’s approach and I’m glad you added it. (Of course I’m one who has said more than once that (in my opinion) gender binaries and gender essentialism is the most fundamentally disturbing Mormon heresy.)

    Kristine: I’m going to stick by my “haven’t experienced that” as a literal, but it’s as much a function of the extremely small number of Sunday School classes I have attended in the last 30 years, as it is good fortune. (Including classes with the people you’re thinking of.) Of course it wasn’t *meant* dismissively–because it was in fact as I remember, not at all hyperbolic, and because I have no doubt that those experiences happen and that women are effectively silenced. But having been shown how it sounds, and challenged that my memory is not what I’d like to think, I apologize and will do better.

    I am interested (means listening) that Russell’s piece reads as equating Mother Earth with a Mormon MIH who is not allowed to speak or be spoken to or about. I take that seriously and as an awakening. But for my part (again, not intended in any dismissive way) I read Russell’s original as criticizing the Mormon MIH model as unpersuasive and uninspiring (and I read into it my own dismissal of the image of a silent unknown Mother). And I read Russell’s Mother Earth not as equal but as a better model. (With a bit of confusing apologetics I interpret as an attempt to make this palatable to Mormon readers, which is why I enjoy Megan’s less apologetic more forceful approach.)

    A not so side note: My own meanderings in this area follow more of a Sophia line than a Gaia line, paying attention to knowledge and wisdom as feminine aspects of God. Which may be why I’m slow to attach to any idea of a silent not spoken to or about Mother.

  18. It’s okay sadly Adam Miller totally did the same thing but much worse because he was calling other people out about it.

    Thanks for owning it.

    By the way you are grossly taking Erastus Snow’s quote out of context. He says that God the title can only be composed of two separate individuals, female and male, not God the individual person is a male and female.

  19. Kristine, “… when the bishop makes that tired quip about how the Relief Society President is the one who really knows what’s going on in the ward” some of the laughter [mine anyway] is merely uncomfortable nervous laughter because the quip is “the unadorned, precise truth of the situation” and shouldn’t be — both because the bishop should “know what’s going on” and because those who do know what’s going on should be in decision making roles.

    When I taught the Gospel Doctrine class, no “comment made by a woman [had] to be repeated by a man before other men even [responded] to it.” The women’s comments were usually more insightful and delivered without the authoritarian tone of some of the men. (But maybe my perception of insightfulness is skewed by my native predilection for discounting the content of statements delivered with authoritarian tone or from a position of authority.)

    If I’ve ever heard a “recapitulated history of the Relief Society, in which it becomes Joseph Smith’s idea” I’ve forgotten it.

    “When men say ‘I haven’t experienced that,’ there can be an implication that it didn’t happen, or that the woman who’s reporting it is maybe a little too sensitive, or it just isn’t a serious problem.” “Can be” is critical to the truth here. “Sometimes, not often enough”*, there is no such implication, but instead an erroneous inference.

    You are neither humorless nor shrill. Your comments here are valuable to me in a number of ways — one being assistance with the difficulty I was having identifying what made me uncomfortable with the OP. There are, however, at least some LDS women who do not feel “structurally silenced [or] excluded” [my wife anyway] and some LDS men who are frustrated both with being silenced by authoritarians or authorities, and with being lumped together with the boors and MCPs.

    I guess I just dislike generalizations, especially gender-based generalizations. Am I being one of those boors or merely one of the bores? Thanks to you and BCC for expanding my understanding and prompting both introspection and awareness.

    *Henry & Felice Mancini — the Carpenters https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-0v4Pn5WKU

  20. Christian,

    I read Russell’s original as criticizing the Mormon MIH model as unpersuasive and uninspiring (and I read into it my own dismissal of the image of a silent unknown Mother). And I read Russell’s Mother Earth not as equal but as a better model.

    I appreciate you saying so. My post probably would have been fine–in fact, probably would have been better–without that initial mention of my being unmoved by the Eliza R. Snow hymn, and if I’d just moved directly into the “I’m grateful for Mother Nature” line; the tone of criticism which comes out in this post wasn’t in my original Mother’s Day talk at all. It also would have been better if I spent some time looking at the many Mormon women writers and scholars who have explored the traditional discourse on Mother in Heaven, to see how they have taken interpreted and reflected upon those ideas. But I didn’t; within my own limitations, I read something that got me thinking (thinking thoughts, as it turns out, that had been introduced to me probably multiple times before), and that’s what I talked about, and that’s what I wrote. I no doubt have a flawed understanding of just what the “Mormon MIH model” actually is, but within that understanding, I long saw something both literal and quotidian, and that left me unpersuaded, probably mostly because I increasing doubt that divine embodiment or eternal gender or God Himself (and yes, I see the problem with using that pronoun, but I can’t get myself to capitalize Itself) as at all literal or quotidian, in the human sense. Thus Berry’s essay grabbed my attention in part, I suppose, because it got me to conceive of Mother in Heaven, through the model of Mother Nature, in a way which incorporated the same criticisms I have of many of the ways us Mormons are taught to think about God.

    My own meanderings in this area follow more of a Sophia line than a Gaia line, paying attention to knowledge and wisdom as feminine aspects of God.

    Berry actually has some interesting, and rather negative, things to say about the Gaia concept, in part because he sees it as lacking the schooling, enlightening function that he thinks–quite reasonably, as a reactionary, technology-eschewing farmer–any serious engagement with God’s creation necessarily involves. You shouldn’t separate wisdom from nature in his mind, if you do, you’re just an industrial exploiter.

  21. JPV,

    you are grossly taking Erastus Snow’s quote out of context

    The authors of the BYU Studies article from which I got that quote would agree with you; they wrote a long footnote pushing back against Linda Wilcox and others who saw that line of Snow’s as being more open to the question of the gendered embodiment of God, and cited many other writings by Snow to make that case that he was clearly talking solely about the Godhead as including the eternal pairing of a divine, married, heterosexual couple: Father and Mother in Heaven. Given the times and the context in which Snow sermonized, I’ve no doubt that reading is correct. And yet, as I implied in my original post, I can’t help but feel that they were protesting a little too much.

  22. Rexicorn says:

    I’m curious why your preferred conception of Mother Nature eschews wildness for order. The creative impulse is inherently chaotic; look at any process of creation, from birth to art, and you’ll find that it’s usually a very messy thing. Often it’s refined over time, but birth is a mess. Nature only becomes “ordered” through human intervention. In its original state, it’s *balanced,* but also dangerous and sometimes unpredictable. Under human rule, it often becomes unbalanced as it becomes comforting and predictable.

    Dovetailing with Kristine’s thought — and I should mention here that I’m female as well — I read your conception of Mother Nature (and therefore Mother God) as such a domesticized version of what she could be. You speak of nurture, and cultivation, and planting, and to me it resonates with the Mormon conception of Ideal Womanhood — a controlled, meek, predictable mother who stays in the home, is always where you need her to be, always attends to your needs.

    I just find this interesting, because what I really respond to in early earth-goddess imagery is that they are typically wild, unpredictable figures. There’s a part of me that longs to be allowed to embrace that within myself, to see my own impulses and instincts as assets instead of things that need to be suppressed.

    I also agree that the feminine as a creative power that’s actively harnessed by the masculine has never been particularly comforting to me…it’s similar to when people try to port the traditional Hindu concept of Shakti over to a Mormon/western spirituality. It just gets translated into “You’re important because men need you” rather than “You are powerful.”

  23. Rexicorn says:

    To put it another way, a failing I see in Mormon Heavenly Mother is that she’s never allowed any of Heavenly Father’s “negative” attributes. She’s never vengeful or angry, never forces hard choices or, in fact, actively causes any outcome at all. She’s all patience and humility and gentleness, along with a healthy dose of silence. Flowers may remind you of Mother Nature, but wolves are natural too. I don’t see any concept of the divine feminine as complete as long as she is essentially passive, and she’s not a complement to the Father God if she only holds and smiles, never pushes.

    Perhaps it’s because culturally, we have a concept of motherhood that seems to end at infancy. Motherhood extends farther than holding, soothing, comforting, feeding, but those seem to be the terms we like to couch it in.

  24. Rexicorn, thank you for your perspectives on the more powerful and chaotic aspects of a Mother Nature figure. I appreciated RAF’s conception of her as ordered in part because I’ve been consuming an excess of journalism on Jordan Peterson, who references chaos as being symbolically feminine and order as symbolically masculine. The underlying suggestion (and indeed the subtitle of his most recent book) is that the symbolic masculine must put limits on the symbolic feminine for the good of all.

    I like that your analysis reminded me that the conception of chaos as feminine is not inherently a requirement that chaotic feminine must be restricted by ordered masculine, that to do so results in a domesticated and ultimately limited portrayal of the feminine and indeed the divine as a whole. The active nature of a female deity and its inherent power as “assets instead of things that need to be suppressed” is an excellent addition to this conversation.

  25. Rexicorn says:

    KLN, isn’t it interesting how whether you conceive of femininity as chaotic and sexual or as stable and nurturing, you somehow need the masculine to lead/guide/preside over it? Peculiar, that.

    I think part of the problem is that we tend to have a strict complementarian view of gender (male is what female isn’t), and when you combine that with a very robust conception of the male God, you don’t have much left over to build a female God out of. It’d help if instead of constructing masculine and feminine as discrete categories we saw them as overlapping. A Venn diagram instead of a puzzle piece. If you want to stay duotheist instead of pantheist, that’s the only way to really represent how male and female partnerships typically work in practice.

  26. Dog Spirit says:

    I appreciate this piece a lot. I’m no theologian, but I connect to God best through nature, and lately through feminine language and imagery. Christians as a whole and Mormons, too, have been so afraid of paganism for so long that we’ve suppressed what I think is a rather natural urge to commune with the Divine as manifest in creation, and we’ve made a bunch of male gods the ones solely responsible for creation. Reintroducing feminine imagery and language can add new and enriching dimensions to our metaphors for God, whatever it is God may be in the end.

  27. One ought not speak of this topic and not reference Enoch’s interactions with the Earth. They shed a good deal of light on this “mystery of heaven” as well. But well done nonetheless.

  28. zillahsgin says:

    A lot of great comments here. I want to add a bit more to your discussion of Alan of Lille, whose concept of Natura reinforces the problematic issues already raised w/r/t gender essentialism, binaries, and hierarchies when the divine feminine = creation.
    Alan of Lille’s concept of Nature in the De planctu is deeply Neo-Platonic: without getting too into the weeds, Nature’s activity is circumscribed to the created universe, which is governed by eternal and unchanging laws. She is deeply connected to the seven liberal arts, and her power has been overturned by the sexual ‘deviance’ (according to Alan) of mankind. She can bring order to the chaos of matter, and is tasked with controlling conduct, but her plaint is precisely that she can no longer do so. She does all of this under the direction of the one true God — there is a hierarchy in place, and her power is divided from the eternal and unchanging sphere.
    Alan is drawing upon Bernard Silvestris’ earlier 12th century Cosmographia, which is a more explicitly Neo-Platonic poetic exploration of the cosmos. Here again, Nature is tasked with creation and cosmic order — along with other allegorical figures representing celestial and material principles — but once again, under the direction of Noys (Divine Providence), according to what we would call God. Nature here is obviously powerful and eternal, but also, as in Alan, charged with the created cosmos, which is hierarchically below the eternal. (They’re both drawing on Boethius, and then the Nature tradition moves forward with the Roman de la Rose and Gower etc etc etc.)
    I say all this because I also am profoundly drawn to the natural world and to these complex philosophical and theological discussions of Natura. But they share the same flaw: if we associate nature with the divine feminine, it remains hierarchically inferior — even if you’re a medieval Catholic and God is technically not embodied and thus not gendered. God, or the supreme divinity, is still conceived as masculine in contrast to a feminine that, while divine and powerful, is constrained due to her connection to materiality. The path from this to cultivation / meekness / procreation / control is pretty easy to follow.
    (I think that ended up pretty firmly in the weeds.)
    (As for Christian’s question about examples in which Mormon men don’t credit Mormon women, see Taylor Petrey’s article in the Harvard Theological Review and subsequent discussions on this blog.)

  29. Am I to understand you gave this talk in a Mormon sacrament meeting on Mother’s Day? While a nice thought piece to be read and discussed in a forum like this, I find this to be an especially poor sacrament talk. I like that you have written this, I would have been appalled to hear it over the pulpit.

  30. Coming back to this with a few additional thoughts:

    Rexcorn, KLN, and Zillahsgin: great comments all; thank your for them. Kristine, in her earlier comment, touched on the fact that an “ordered” perspective on nature–its creativity and productivity being associated with the feminine or the maternal primarily through forms or images of sustenance, wisdom, and disciplined engagement–doesn’t seem to have done much historically for the validation of women’s lives or perspectives, and I can’t deny that’s true. But as KLN pointed out, the language of wildness and chaos can just as easily–and, in fact, I would argue more easily–be enlisted into a hierarchical scheme, such as the kind Jordan Peterson has recently become famous for. As a way out of that historical and conceptual dilemma, and to find a way to continue to make use of nature (as I find myself thinking we must) if we are to recognize in and through our lives a greater sense of the divine, I like Rexcorn’s suggestion that we make use of a Venn diagram instead of a presumed binary: there are elements of God’s being and work which, by way of our cultural constructs and evolution-derived perspectives, could be coded as “feminine,” and others which could be coded as “masculine,” but bother, in any case, overlap and interpenetrate the other, blurring the distinctions. And of course, it’s not as thought there aren’t hundreds of analogs to exactly that in the natural world around us.

    Flowers may remind you of Mother Nature, but wolves are natural too. I don’t see any concept of the divine feminine as complete as long as she is essentially passive, and she’s not a complement to the Father God if she only holds and smiles, never pushes.

    I agree that it’s quite possible for one to read passivity into the models of Mother Nature that I make reference to in this post; certainly, if nothing else, such invocations of Mother Nature didn’t present her as acting independent of an overarching, hierarchical God. It’s also possible that such didn’t strike me as a major problem for creating a connection to Mother in Heaven because I am, theologically speaking, a pretty hierarchical guy: I’ve found it harder and harder, over the years, to imagine God as some super-evolved, highly-progressed human, and I really don’t think we share the same ontological space with God at all. Consequently the notion that God’s manifestations or aspects or incarnations–including “Natura”–would be, in some sense, below and submissive to a higher power makes sense to me, in the same way that the New Testament accounts which present Jesus, God the Son, submitting Himself to God the Father, also make sense.

    But I’m going to need some convincing to get me to see that submission to “the created cosmos,” as Zillahsgin put it, is the same as passivity. Chaucer’s Mother Nature is orchestrating the whole reproductive cycles of the natural world; Spenser’s is acting as judge, jury, and executioner, dispatching the case made by “Mutability” by affirming the “balance” which is realized through and in spite of the “dangerous and sometimes unpredictable” character of the natural world which Rexcorn mentioned. If nothing else, consider the question from an agrarian standpoint: the idea that nature, sender of rainstorms and floods and droughts, creator of soil that humans needs to tend and return compost to if we want it to remain fertile, etc. is a “passive” force in the context of a broader created universe, simply doesn’t jibe with that kind of engagement with creativity and fecundity.

    At the same time, Zillahsgin, your point that any attempt to ground our understanding of a female divinity in materiality will easily lead to “cultivation / meekness / procreation / control” is an important challenge. Is the alternative, then, to abandon materiality (at least of the natural sort) in our thinking about Mother in Heaven? Is Heavenly Mother more properly imagined through and in the context of poetry, technology, philosophy? I wonder. Thanks for making me ask hard questions.

  31. Dog Spirit, I think there is a lot of distance between panentheism (where God is known through creation), on the one hand, and pantheism or paganism or the other, but I don’t disagree with the longing of our post. As much as my own personal theology tracks these days in a Protestant direction, I blame Protestantism for most of that suppression; Catholic and Orthodox Christianities have, I think, through their icons and saints, a much wider and more diverse appreciation and appropriation of the “pagan” sensibility that those traditions whose theological roots are mostly Puritan.

    Ryan, that’s a great catch; Moses 7:48-49, with the earth, the “mother of men,” actually crying out vocally and mourning, should have a place in these speculations as well.

    Joe S., you’d have to check with members of the Rolling Hills ward to see what they thought, but I promise you, as I mentioned in an earlier comment above, the actually spoken sermon two weeks ago was different from this post in some pretty significant ways.

  32. Rexicorn says:

    Russell, I appreciate your thoughts and engagement on this. It’s interesting, to be sure. I’m a little confused at to how your “hierarchical” framework interacts with your construction of Mother God as agrarian nature, though maybe I’m reading some conclusions you didn’t (or haven’t) reached. Are you positing that Nature is just one manifestation of a divine feminine, and thus a subordinate element to a higher God figure? Or is Nature meant to be the embodiment of a Mother God, so that she is essentially subordinate to the Father God?

    Discussions like this are interesting to me, because we’re essentially trying to build the idea of God anew. I imagine humans went through a similar process when we found god the first time: looking at the world around us, mixing in (often fragmented or opaque) spiritual experiences, then testing theories in an attempt to work out what the divine really is. There’s so much personal inference involved that one’s conclusions inevitably contain a lot of pre-existing ideas about gender, society, creation, etc.

  33. I agree Rexicorn, it is interesting. (And sorry for having got your handle wrong above.) Of course, many theologians and writers, particularly female ones, have long been trying to work out what we can derive from the scriptural record and world around us that would lead us to better understanding God, in all His or Her aspects. So I’m really just a dilettante here.

    As for your question, I suppose I’m talking more about the former. The one thing about my Christian faith I’m fairly committed to is that there is loving God who is really, conceptually, entirely beyond us; I just don’t like at all the prospect of taking the tidy phrase “as man now is, God once was” literally. So I see the Incarnation was a radical move of love and condescension on God’s part; coming down to earth as a human being, to suffer and die for us as He calls us to repentance. Maybe the natural creation (of which, of course, human beings are evolutionarily connected to) was a similar act of condescension, with God the Mother being found in and through a fertile, productive material world which calls us to humility, wisdom, and creative work. Does that lock me into saying that I think there is a “higher God figure” out from which both feminine and masculine manifestations play a role? Maybe. I’m not willing to entirely disregard the Mormon teaching that God and Jesus exist as distinct, embodied, divine persons (which, therefore, would require advocates of Mother in Heaven to assume that She also is a distinct, embodied, divine person, which poses all sorts of challenges to how we think about prayers, worship, etc.), but I am willing to say that I find the quotidian reading of embodiment (God has flesh and bones!) as probably a pretty limited idea, philosophically speaking.