My next thoughts about Heavenly Mother have a lot to do with our conception of the afterlife, and how we will live there. Mormons have been described as having “the biggest heaven and the littlest hell.” One of the things I love about my faith is that it describes a God whose boundless mercy includes many people denied salvation by the tenets of some other faiths.
The Mormon idea of heaven is expansive, nuanced, and mind-bogglingly beautiful (in my opinion. Anyway, it tops my list of ideal future destinations). Among other things, it makes provision for groups sometimes relegated to heavenly disenfranchisement, such as people who have lived and died never even having heard of the Gospel, those of other faiths (non-Christians/non-Jehovah’s Witnesses/non-Muslims/etc.), and unbaptized babies.
In fact, Mormons don’t really believe in hell at all, at least not in the conventional sense, as a miserable dwelling eternally populated by multitudes of wicked people. We believe most everybody who has ever lived on earth will go to one of three “Kingdoms of Glory.” In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote:
There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead.
KJV, 1 Corinthians 15:40-42
Joseph Smith expounded on this rather tantalizing and cryptic passage in an 1832 revelation canonized as Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, expanding it into a comprehensive description of what to Mormons are known as “The Three Degrees of Glory”; in other words, Heaven. While he does mention fire and brimstone for the very few who absolutely insist upon it by denying the Holy Ghost (an esoteric and extraordinarily difficult feat, evidently not even attainable by most people), every one else will enjoy a beautiful and happy existence, and some measure of the presence of God. The three degrees of glory allow for variation in what we choose to become, but a generous God has prepared a house with “many mansions,” and one of them is just the right fit for you.
However, to achieve one’s full potential and actually grow up to be like God (as I discussed in Part 2) rather than simply living in heaven, one needs to be married. How interesting is that? The highest degree of heaven can only be reached together. Apparently, there is something transcendent about uniting oneself completely with another person. As far as I know, this idea of marriage as the ultimate vehicle to human (and divine) perfection is an exclusively Mormon idea (again, correct me if I’m wrong, since I do find this subject fascinating).
Mormon marriage “for time and all eternity” is called sealing, and must be solemnized inside a temple. It can be performed (as Tony’s and mine was) simultaneously with legal marriage. But if you’re already married through a civil ceremony (or a different religious one for that matter), you can go to a temple later and be “sealed” to your spouse. Even if you’re already dead, your practicing Mormon descendant can take your name to a temple and seal you to your spouse by proxy. In fact, this is the reason we’re always researching our ancestors and doing “baptisms for the dead,” which are then followed by sealings for the dead. We want them (and everyone who’s ever lived on earth, for that matter) to have the same opportunity to accept Christ, be married forever and become like God.
While we’re on the subject of marriage, I’ll confess that I was one of three people on the planet who didn’t watch the Royal Wedding last year. So a few weeks ago, when the Royal Anniversary came around, I thought I’d celebrate by catching up. It was an absolutely lovely wedding, and I enjoyed every minute of it, especially the beautiful John Rutter choir number. I was especially struck by something the Bishop of London said during his sermon: “In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and the groom as king and queen of creation.” From a Mormon point of view, it would be a very literal sense. Just as every baby is a god in embryo, every wedding carries the potential of a divine, eternal union.
For me, that idea has two implications. First, my most powerful image of God is as a loving Mother and Father. For most of my life, I imagined God as my Father. He was the eternal listener, who always had time for me, and always approved of me, whether I approved of myself or not. It’s my most familiar and automatic response to reach out to Him in my mind when I feel lost or overwhelmed.
When I “discovered” I had a Mother too, it was as if I’d suddenly raised a crystal to my eyes and seen the pure, white familiar light burst into rainbows. I didn’t know what to do with the sudden secret I had inside. I felt as if God had been reborn inside of me, like a delightful new friend I’d never met, who nevertheless seemed somehow familiar. I wasn’t sure what to do with Her, or even how to picture Her. What is a goddess like? I still feel like I’m newly in love with Her, and making up for lost time. But now I picture them together, standing side by side, sometimes laughing, sometimes weeping and holding each other close, as they look down on me and the rest of the world they’ve created. My conception of God has become a full and beautiful balanced unity of deep and equal love; the ultimate happily-ever-after. I feel like I belong to my Heavenly Parents in a way I never felt before, as if some missing piece of the puzzle has finally clicked into place. My relationship with God has deepened immeasurably.
And there’s a second implication to really seeing God as a married couple. The way we see our Heavenly Parents and their perfect marriage will be mirrored in our own marriages here on earth, not to mention in other relationships between men and women. From this perspective, the fact that we don’t talk about Heavenly Mother becomes troubling on a new level, and the questions I asked in my last post gain added meaning, becoming starkly relevant to our view of the relationship between the sexes. I’ll repeat them for you here:
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?
The strangeness of our silence about Heavenly Mother is brought home to me when I read The Family: A Proclamation to the World, a statement on the importance of the nuclear family, presented to the Church by President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1995. While never officially canonized (except by certain members, who glue it into their scriptures), this document has become central in the discourse and focus of the Church. It is often quoted during General Conference, as well as over the pulpit in our weekly local services and Sunday School. We’ve been encouraged to display it in our homes, and I have my copy duly framed and hanging in my living room. A few years ago, my mom even led a family challenge for us all to memorize it.
You can read it in its entirety via the link I posted above, but I’d like to talk specifically about a couple of key ideas. First, it does discuss gender roles. For example, it proclaims that “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” In that light, isn’t it strange that while we talk all the time about our loving and nurturing Heavenly Father, we never mention our loving and nurturing Heavenly Mother? And if the presence of mothers is so important to the development of children, why is our Heavenly Father constantly portrayed as a devoted but single parent, doing all the nurturing on His own? Why have we been told (also by President Hinckley) that it is “inappropriate” to speak with our Mother? These are not questions I ask lightly. They are important not only in my life now, and my relationship with God, but also for how I imagine my eternal destiny.
Here’s the male side of the Proclamation: “fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” Although surely unintended by the leaders of the Church, that little word “preside” causes problems in the families of some members, who view the husband as the “President” of the family, and the wife as just a counselor (or perhaps the subordinate Relief Society President). For example, my mother-in-law informed my husband that it means when he and I are contemplating an important decision and have a difference of opinion, he’s entitled to make the final decision himself, regardless of what I think.
It seems that this same attitude of ultimate male authority must inform some people’s idea of God. After all, the structure of our church is completely hierarchical, and dominated by males. We have the prophet, his two counselors, and the quorum of the twelve, all male. This sort of structure is repeated on a local level, with a stake president, his counselors, and twelve men of the high council presiding over several wards, which are in turn presided over by a male bishop and his two counselors.
It’s understandable that many members extrapolate this model onto the family, and equate a husband/father with a prophet, stake president, or bishop, giving the “man of the house” authority over all the members of his family, including his wife. Perhaps if we were to speak of a Heavenly Mother, equal in authority and power to Heavenly Father, and fully half of the supreme power in the universe, we might have a healthier model upon which to base a marriage of what the Proclamation also describes as “equal partners.”
In the sealing room of every Mormon temple, two huge mirrors hang opposite one another. The bride and groom can stand together and see their reflections going on and on forever in both directions. One set of reflections flows on into the future, a promise of children and future generations. The other set flows backwards, symbolizing parents, grandparents, and ancestors all the way back to the archetypical Adam and Eve, and then beyond that to our Heavenly Mother and Father. Sometimes I picture Them like that, standing and looking into the mirrors themselves on some long ago day when they first promised forever to one another. And I like to think that someday, by contemplating Them and Their eternal union, we can learn to mirror its divine perfection in our own relationships.