The Heavenly Mommy Wars

Mormonism’s notions of the divine realm are distinctive from traditional Christian views in primarily two ways.  The first is that God has a material body.  The second is that in addition to the traditional depiction of the divine realm consisting of the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, there exists also a Mother, a divine female figure.

This teaching of the Heavenly Mother remains among the most controversial in Mormonism both in and out of the faith.  The teaching is affirmed by the highest levels of Church authorities, including in the semi-canonical 1995 document, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” which refers to “heavenly parents.”  At the same time, the controversy about Heavenly Mother persists in that there remain profound taboos about teaching about and most certainly worshiping Heavenly Mother.  In a great paradox, the idea that a Heavenly Mother exists is affirmed by nearly all Mormons, and talked about by hardly any.

Part of the reason for the current taboo about talking about Heavenly Mother stems from the prominent excommunications of some Mormon feminists in the 1990s.  Some of these women advocated prayer to Heavenly Mother, which was explicitly forbidden by high ranking church leader Gordon B. Hinckley in 1991.  In the wake of these events, hardly anything has been said about her beyond the affirmation of her existence. Indeed, the aforementioned Proclamation explains that God the Father is worshipped, that we are to follow the teachings of Jesus, but gives no explanation of what is to be done with respect to Heavenly Mother.

This gap in information and discussion about Heavenly Mother has generated various responses from Mormon thinkers. There are some Mormons who challenge the teaching of Heavenly Mother and insist on a male-only Deity.  Blake Ostler is the most prominent voice on this perspective, whose three volumes on Mormon theology about God only mention Heavenly Mother in a single footnote to dismiss the idea of her.

Many others have offered significant reflection on the necessity and value of Heavenly Mother as a theological point in Mormonism. The popular notion of “spirit birth,” the view that divine male-female couples sexually reproduce in the heavenly realm, has played a critical role in imagining Heavenly Mother, and in some ways is the primary way in which she is imagined. Conservative Mormon women have happily accepted this portrayal of Heavenly Mother’s role as a pregnant, non-public mother.  Such a depiction of Heavenly Mother validates and empowers such women as mothers and represents their practice of motherhood not as a subordinate or inferior choice, but as a reflection of a divine life.  Mormon women have depicted traditional mother’s work as the sacred, not the mundane. As feminist arguments, this view sees in Mormonism not the suppression of, but valorization of women’s bodies, experiences, and roles.  In this interpretation, Mormon women’s equality derives not from access to power exercised by men, but through the representation of women’s power in divine models.

Other Mormon feminists have not seen in Heavenly Mother an empowered mother figure.  They understand the silence about her and the delimiting of her role to motherhood, defined almost exclusively by pregnancy and birth rather than the kind of enduring nurturing of children as an active participant as a misrepresentation.  Rather than see motherhood as empowering, this strain of Mormon feminism has noted the ways in which the rhetoric of “motherhood” as the primary identity of womanhood has historically been used to limit women’s power in ecclesiastical, political, economic, and even household spheres, and how such rhetoric about Heavenly Mother contributes to silence about her.

Margaret Toscano has recently reflected on the tension between thee two depictions of Heavenly Mother:

On the one hand, to accept motherhood, even heavenly motherhood, as an idea is to acquiesce to a reduced sense of self, as though all we women are made for is motherhood, forever and ever….On the other hand, to reject motherhood as a role for women, or to see it as insignificant, is to turn against the cycles of our own bodies and against what is a life-altering experience for the majority of women who have lived. [“Heavenly Motherhood: Silences, Disturbances, and Consolations,” Sunstone 161 (March 2012): 71.]

Toscano’s comment underscores the ways that Heavenly Mother has entered into Mormon discourse in the late 20th and early 21st century on the cultural terrain of the Mommy Wars.  Such a tension between feminist women who expected validation for their choices to be full-time mothers and women who sought to define their identity beyond motherhood has been a distinctive feature of feminist debates over the past few decades.

Can Mormon feminist thought think past this tension, both affirming and validating childbirth, motherhood, and women’s bodies, while not reducing women’s value to these realms alone?  In my view, the problem is yet unresolved.  Some of the problem may have to do with the terms of the debate, in which “motherhood,” especially childbirth in the heavenly realm, has emerged as the crux.  While a few like Ostler have denied it, and thus denied the need for women in the divine realm, conservative feminists have affirmed child birth as the necessary condition for women in the divine realm.  Neither imagines that women’s necessity might derive from something other than the womb.

At stake in the issue of Heavenly Mother is nothing less than what it means to be a woman. The truism that theology is always anthropology is never more applicable than in Mormonism. The problem of a singular representation of Heavenly Mother may arise from the illusory nature of the question of what is the universal feature of ‘woman’ or the attempt to locate her essence.  Of course, there is also the corollary problem of ‘man.’ What must occur next is further critical theological reflection on the issue of sexual difference. Perhaps we may overcome the problem by moving away from the essentialist and universalist theories that have produced it.

  • http://www.withoutend.org Ms. Jack

    This is a very thoughtful and provocative post, Taylor. I am working on a chapter on Mormon women and deification for my thesis and these are some of the same issues I am exploring. It is also a topic I have given a lot of thought to as my husband and I have been talking about having another child: wanting to have an empowering birth experience without being defined by it. The problem is not unique to Mormonism, but rather, Mormonism’s teachings on divine embodiment have introduced new variables to an old problem.

    One thing: Blake Ostler made the following comment to me on an evangelical blog a few years ago when I asked him about his beliefs in Heavenly Mother:

    “Bridget: Let me clarify a bit. I don’t reject the belief in a heavenly mother. I just don’t affirm it. We don’t have any revelation to ground such a belief . . . and a poem by Eliza R. Snow just isn’t enough for me to see as a valid basis of doctrine or belief. So I remain firmly agnostic but open about such a belief.”

    http://heartissuesforlds.wordpress.com/2009/03/17/big-love-big-sex-and-big-pornography-at-nct/#comment-6534

  • http://inmedias.blogspot.com Russell Arben Fox

    “There are some Mormons who challenge the teaching of Heavenly Mother and insist on a male-only Deity. Blake Ostler is the most prominent voice on this perspective . . . .While a few like Ostler have denied [childbirth in heaven], and thus denied the need for women in the divine realm”

    Taylor, like Ms. Jack above, I think you’re not being terribly fair to Ostler in your above comments. I’m neither deeply familiar with, nor deeply committed to what I understand to be, Ostler’s work, but from what I know, to take his position and turn it into the claim that there is “no need for women in the divine realm” seems reductive, to say the least. He is denying the idea that God’s creative work is a necessarily procreative one, such that a necessarily female God alone can enable God’s whole creative work to go forward. As such, I think Ostler is probably closer to your concluding line about “moving away from essentialist and universalist theories” of gender than you give him credit for.

  • Rachel O

    Very interesting, Taylor. I had the impression that although you approach it from different, even oppositional, angles, you basically agreed with Ostler that LDS theology does not support the need for “childbirth in the heavenly realm” and thus you too have “denied the need for women in the divine realm.” And not only that, but that you cheekily use that as a theological argument for the allowability of homosexual union in the LDS tradition. E.g. p. 111 of your Dialogue article, where you write that our creation story “has the effect of not only making women superfluous to creation and salvation, but also of putting a male-male relationship as the source of creativity, productivity, and the giving of life itself.” (As you can imagine, the “conservative feminist” in me really balked when I first read that! Which I’m sure was the intended effect. ;) )

    Of course, it seems that where you diverge from Ostler is that you believe the implications of LDS theology on this front are problematic. And thus you argue that rather than double down on the masculinity of God, as has Ostler, we need to rethink the way we conceive (NPI) of gender in heaven.

    I am resistant to that. I think there is rich material within our tradition for reconceptualizing femininity and masculinity, and that there is no need to abandon or radically modify the whole notion of gender—and indeed that in doing so we would lose something fundamental to our tradition. I.e. I would much rather we develop a more multidimensional notion of Heavenly Mother and her performance of priesthood leadership, than that we deny notions of gender complementarity entirely. (And frankly, I think that the former is much more theologically feasible than the latter.)

  • Taylor Petrey

    Thank you all for the comments so far! I normally don’t respond to comments, but I will make an exception for these!
    Ms. Jack and Russell, I appreciate your observation. I included Ostler because he is a serious theological voice in Mormonism and because I wanted to represent the range of options. I thought about not naming him, but I was sure someone would challenge me by saying that all Mormons accept the teaching of a Heavenly Mother as official doctrine. I felt the need to point out at least one outlier to the mainstream tradition. Personally, I detect an unreconstructed patriarchal system in Ostler. I have seen him admit that women may be a part of the divine council, but otherwise his view of the highest God is as exclusively and entirely male.

    Rachel,
    Thanks for your thoughts! I disagree with Ostler that there is no reason to account for a HM if divine procreation does not exist. In my Dialogue article, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” (https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Dialogue_V44N04_110.pdf) I do agree with Ostler that there is no necessary reason that LDS must hold to a biologically-literal view of procreation as the only account of the creation of human spirits, and the various examples that I point to in my article are attempting to show the diversity of narratives that we have that do not appeal to biologically-literal procreation, including our many creation accounts. The sentence you quote describes ONE of the multiple options that I point to, including some which exclude males entirely from creation of human spirits. In fact, I do not rule “spirit birth” out entirely, but seek to show the ways that such accounts are not governed by a heterosexual gender-complimentarity. In my article, I also point to Adam’s “birthing” of Eve and the Virgin birth as LDS models of creation that are not based on heterosexuality. My point is not to put male-male relations as the only model of divine creation, but rather to point to the possibility of male-male, male-female, and female-female models within our tradition. That some of those models do not include women, and others do not include men, is not a statement about the relative value of women as women or men as men, nor is it about making one model the universal norm, but about the variety of relationships we might imagine that are not constrained by gender complimentarity.

  • http://www.ldsreligionandscience.wordpress.com Gary Carlson

    I was surprised to read that Ostler might question the idea of a Heavenly Mother. Doctrine and Covenants 132: 19-20 makes it really clear that men and women are exulted as couples.

  • pagansister

    Reading the above comments, I wonder what LDS members think of an LDS male married to a Methodist? My sister is a born Methodist and has never left the church. She and my brother-in-law (LDS) have 2 grown female children. One has chosen to be an LDS and the other a Methodist. My sister has worked since she was 16, and after marriage, out of the home throughout their 32 year marriage. The daughter who has chosen to be a Mormon is 25, college degree, no boyfriend at all so far, is career minded—not motherhood minded. Most of her Mormon female friends have done what is (IMO) expected—married. The other daughter is 22, and entering a career, has had a serious boyfriend for several years—but marriage not in the picture. Having not heard of the Heavenly Mother in the Mormon faith—-I find the fact that the “leaders” (all male I presume) cannot decide if she can be “worshiped” or not very interesting. Why can’t a woman be worshiped also?

  • BryanJensen

    An interesting thought experiment: How long does to take to birth a “spirit” and how many Heavenly Mothers might it take? If our universe is about 13.8 billion years old, and the earth has been around appr. 4.5 billion years that leaves Elohim and his wife(s) about 9 billion years to procreate the 107+ billion humans who have ever lived plus the additional 53+ billion rebellious spirits who followed Lucifer. This means either eternal-intelligence-to-spiritual procreation is practically rodent-like, and not like the human procreative cycle as Mormons envision human marriage is a type, or our earth’s Heavenly Mothers number perhaps in the dozens.

    Of course the math is compounded many levels of magnitude in complexity by the logically and observationally incoherent aristotelian LDS view of an eternal universe in which there have been innumerable cycles of human exaltations to innumerable Heavenly Fathers and Mothers. Unless, of course, they all exist in the Multiverse. ;-)


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