Heavenly Mother and Theological Jealousy by Brooke Nelson
Putting aside her biggest claim to fame, I sincerely doubted that I was born immaculately, had never sinned (even in thought) or would be happy married to a much, much older man whom I didn’t get to pick. Growing up in a Roman Catholic household, however, the Virgin Mary was really the only model available for girls like me. When I realized I could never be her, I found myself wondering about who I could be. Was there even a place for people like me in a theological system that held up unobtainable goals as my only option?
That is when I started envying the Mormons.
One of the less talked about doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that there is a female god, the wife of the Heavenly Father called the Heavenly Mother. This idea continues to be controversial, but it has historical roots in Church hymns like “O My Father” by Eliza Snow ( “In the heavens are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare!..Truth is reason, truth eternal/Tells me I’ve a Mother there.”) and in the 1995 Proclamation on the Family (“All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents”). There continues to be debate surrounding Heavenly Mother as Mormon feminists try to figure out what it means to be a Mormon woman. Some argue that the image of a Divine Mother actually harms the feminist cause by essentializing femininity into its most biological aspects. Other feminists argue that the Heavenly Mother is an empowering figure since she stands as an embodied female divinity and partner to God the Father. My goal is not to engage this debate directly. I am far more entranced by the idea that there is such a debate in the first place.
Some Mormon feminists have used the idea of the Heavenly Mother as a way of creating a theological model that speaks specifically to them. This idea offers a welcome break to someone like me who was told to always look to the Virgin Mary as a model of submissive piety. After all, sometimes you need a theological model who is represented as active, not passive, to inspire you to take action. I want a female model who is famous for more than just saying yes when asked. With the possibility of a female deity like the Heavenly Mother on the table, girls have a model of strong, powerful womanhood to look to.
I was very, very jealous.
As I explored this new idea, I was struck particularly by the sense of agency and authority that Heavenly Mother has in some Mormon conceptions. In one scholarly treatment by Janice Allred, she argues that “God the Mother must be equal to God the Father; she must play an equally active role in bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man and woman.” What a sense of empowerment for girls to be able to have models that are equally as powerful as God the Father! I envy any system that has female models which contribute to my salvation.
In the strong tradition of “cafeteria Christianity” then, I would like to try to reconcile the theological model of the Heavenly Mother with my (rather loosely applied) Roman Catholic training. I feel that there is some way to do this- or at least to bring in stronger models of womanhood- but I am unsure how to proceed. Do I have to spend my life envious of a system where a female divinity can be an equal partner to God? Do I always have to be jealous of the Mormons, and the fact that Mormon women can look to life models that I do not have?
Does the concept of the Heavenly Mother always have to give me a case of theological jealousy?
 Janice Allred, God the Mother and Other Theological Essays, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 44.
Brooke Nelson is a current Ph.D student in Religion at Claremont Graduate University. She is interested in themes of feminine agency, authority, and textual representation in early Church texts, including hagiography and apocryphal acts. Her current research project is focusing on the ways that women were represented as taking control of their lives, their deaths, and their salvation through feminine martyr narratives.