I hope all of you mothers had a lovely mother’s day. Before Church, my husband made me breakfast, and my kids gave me cute cards. At Church, I substitute-taught a class of a dozen rambunctious eleven-year-olds, and reflected that mothering my own two children is actually pretty easy by comparison. After Church, I had a nice videochat with my mom, and then Tony took the children to visit a lonely lady in the ward, and I laid out my blanket on the lawn and read The Secret Life of Bees. Lovely.
And yes, I also spent some time thinking about my Heavenly Mother, and what I would say in this post. It’s funny, I didn’t realize until I became experientially aware of Her reality that there is a gigantic hole in the way I had been imagining God. All of a sudden, in the midst of a deluge of male pronouns in scripture and hymn and church discourse, all I could hear was a deafening silence about the feminine side of God.
To explain the powerful impact on me of that silence (indeed, that apparent absence), it might be helpful if I sketched for you a bit of Mormon theology. Like most of the rest of the Christian world, we believe in The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost. However, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught a version of the Trinity that was a little different from mainstream Christianity’s; namely that the three members of what Mormons like to call “The Godhead” are completely separate individuals, just as any three human beings are separate individuals. Further, he taught that the Holy Ghost is a spirit, but God the Father and Jesus Christ have glorified, perfected, and immortal physical bodies (yes, complete with parts and passions).
Joseph Smith described the spirits (souls) of human beings as the literal offspring of God. He taught that we lived with God as spirits before we were born, and that we are here on earth so that our spirits can be clothed with a physical body and we can gain experience and learn to choose between good and evil. To top it all off, Joseph taught that God the Father had at one time lived a mortal life like Jesus, and like us. Our ultimate goal is to return to our home with God and eventually be not only with Him, but also like Him. A later prophet of the Church, Lorenzo Snow, put it like this: “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.”
Radical, I know. But also transcendently inspiring, at least to me. Just like our children look forward to growing up to be like us, we look forward to growing up to be like God. And the trials, pains, and joys of human life are the best possible preparation we could have as we progress toward that eternal goal. As Nietzsche once said (although he might be startled to find his words being used to expound on Mormon theology), “The gods justified human life by living it themselves—the only satisfactory theodicy ever invented.”
To continue my Mormonized version of Nietzsche’s admirable thought, when we view our life in light of Snow’s couplet, God really does become a “transfiguring mirror”; As we look deep into what He is, we see what we can become, and are transformed. In fact, Joseph Smith went on to say, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”
Somehow, the irony of reading that last statement as a woman took thirty years to really strike me. Who is this God I’m supposed to comprehend and someday become like? If gender is an eternal characteristic (which my religion vigorously affirms is the case), how can I possibly comprehend myself without comprehending the God(dess) who is my Eternal Mother?
Over the past year or so, I have contemplated those questions over and over, mostly with myself and my husband, because like I said, we barely ever talk about Heavenly Mother at church. A few weeks ago, when the Relief Society President (leader of the women’s organization) solicited anonymous questions for the Stake President to answer at a special meeting during Stake Conference, I thought I’d give it a shot. So on my little slip of paper I wrote, “Tell us everything you can about Heavenly Mother,” and then folded it up and dropped it in the box.
At the very least, I thought it might inspire an interesting class discussion. Sure enough, a few weeks later I sat in our Relief Society meeting listening as the Stake President answered a list of truly random questions. When he got to mine, he said he wished he’d had time to research the topic, but had been very busy. Despite lack of research, he was able to repeat off the top of his head the oft-heard idea that we don’t really talk about Her because “Heavenly Father has put her on a pedestal and wishes to protect her from anyone who might profane her name.” The woman sitting next to me chimed in that perhaps we don’t talk about Heavenly Mother because if we talked about Her too much, we might start worshiping Her, “like the Catholics have with Mary.”
I find both of the above-referenced ideas fascinating. Neither is a real doctrine of the Church, but both are widely held. The first, which is colloquially known in the Church as the idea of “sacred silence,” paints a sort of traditional Victorian picture of an idealized woman. I suppose we could stretch the interpretation to mean that Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother agreed together that She should not be spoken of by Her children (although being a mother myself, I would find that an odd move for a divine mother to make). However, people putting forth this idea invariably cite the Father as the only actor, who has decided to protect Her by rendering Her invisible to Her children. No mention is ever made of how She might feel about the situation, let alone the idea that She might participate in decision making of this sort. It is odd to me that this is our picture of the essence of exalted womanhood.
The second idea disturbed me even more, though. The underlying premise seems to be that there is something unthinkably wrong about anything worthy of worship being female. I see no logical basis for this idea. If we worship our Father, what could be inappropriate about worshiping our Mother? Is there something inherent about being female that makes Her unworthy of worship? Is She a lesser being, not quite as divine as the Father, a sort of demi-goddess? Or not divine at all? Is She perhaps just some lucky woman who ended up married to God?
In conjunction with this idea, Mormons sometimes bring up the fact that pagan fertility cults (presumably involving worship of a divine female figure) are roundly condemned in the Bible. I heard someone speculate the other day that perhaps the danger we’re trying to forestall when we avoid talking about Heavenly Mother is the impulse to turn her into a fertility cult. There seems to be a sense that worshiping a divine female figure tends automatically toward corruption and perversion. This is disturbingly reminiscent of Medieval beliefs about the inherent impurity of women’s bodies and the supposed danger of their corrupting influence on men, just as Eve had, according to their theology, “ruined” Adam. In a church that honors Eve and views her decision to partake of the fruit as one of the most important and wonderful acts in the history of the world, I find it strange that we would retain these ideas about womanhood.
While none of the above ideas are officially sanctioned by the Church, the functional silence about Heavenly Mother serves to reinforce them. I know that there are a lot of women in the Church (and men too) who aren’t bothered by the current lack of information and emphasis on Heavenly Mother. I’m not seeking to invalidate their experience, or tell them they ought to be bothered when they’re not. But for me, the connection between Her identity and my identity as a woman is too powerful to ignore.
One day, while pondering again Joseph’s statement about comprehending the nature of God, the realization hit me forcefully that until I recognized the feminine as fully divine, it was impossible for me to recognize the feminine (myself!) as fully human.
Next time I’ll discuss my thoughts on how our ideas about marriage tie into Heavenly Mother. In the meantime, I’m curious about how you feel. Is the idea of a divine feminine important in your faith? Do you feel a personal connection to a female God? Or is it something for which you don’t really feel a need?