It was a sad day for me when I realized that I could never, no matter how hard I tried, be the Virgin Mary.
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.
10 thoughts on “Heavenly Mother and Theological Jealousy by Brooke Nelson”
I don’t understand why your concept of the Feminine Divine has to be linked to a male counterpart. God the Father and God the Mother. Why not just Mother ? The advantage of worshipping a single all powerful Goddess is that she doesn’t have to be reduced to anything at all – in fact she can’t be reduced as she encompasses all things.
I have no objection to people who want to see god as male, and, as I have said elsewhere in these pages, I see absolutely no reason why we should all worship at the same altar.
Let the boys keep their Jehovah: we have other and less jealous deities to honour.
This is a very interesting topic. I myself have experienced a sense of theological jealousy, but not in the way you have experienced it. You identify with one faith and are jealous of another, whereas I was raised without religion, and sometimes find myself jealous of those who were.
I am very glad for the way I was raised in respects to religion, but my jealousy stems from not having a sense of knowledge about my faith. Is it safe for me to assume you feel you know what you believe, in respects to your religion? You could outline your beliefs for me if I asked, so I could better understand what your religion believes and teaches. Since I was raised without a religious curriculum, I often feel that I am drowning in a sea of faiths. What do I believe?
Since I was free to and encouraged to research whatever religions I wanted, I have read about many and found meaning or sense in almost all of them. And therein lies my problem: I feel like it is somehow not okay to believe in a melting pot. Can I really identify as a Jewish Catholic Buddhist Pagan (etc)? I think that it might have ended up easier for me if I was taught one way or another. But then again, how I am to know that I would not have rebelled against such instillation?
I really liked your term “theological jealousy.” I feel that I connect with that feeling, though I have not have those words to describe it before.
Brooke, I enjoyed your thoughts on this. Personally, I think there’s a lot of potential in Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother, however, that potential is largely unrealized. Because Mormons are taught to not pray to her or worship her, and in practice they seldom even talk or think about her, she exists as this shadowy quiet deity that is hugely overshadowed by God the Father. I’m hoping that as time goes on, more and more Mormons will feel her absence and make Heavenly Mother a greater part of their lives. Many feminist Mormons have begun that project.
Funnily, while you envy Mormonism’s HM teachings, I envy Catholicism’s Mary. i love that she is so very present in their lives, that people venerate her, surround themselves with pictures of her, talk about her, pray to her. They truly commune with Mary, this figure they often see as some sort of divine feminine, and the institutional church doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. How i would love it if space opened up for Mormons to do the same with Heavenly Mother.
By the way, your post is so interesting when read right after Cynthie’s, who just posted yesterday. While you find Mary a limiting model for women, she finds space to regard Mary as goddess.
Thought provoking article – “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?” – No Brooke, just read Luke 8:1-3, Mark 15:40-41 for truly courageous, unique, independent women, who are not afraid to risk their life for their principles and beliefs.
“I feel like it is somehow not okay to believe in a melting pot. Can I really identify as a Jewish Catholic Buddhist Pagan (etc).”
I do not see any problem in “a melting pot”. Christians all over the world, worship an exceptional Jewish revolutionary thinker – Jesus and His mother Mary, a remarkable Jewish woman. Among his followers some extraordinary, strong, independent-minded Jewish women (Luke 8:1-3),
supporting Jesus to fight Roman oppression and a corrupt religious leadership and priesthood.
You’re probably aware that Buddhism acknowledges Jesus as a bodhisattva – an enlightened master, and from a Buddhist perspective all bodhisattvas are the manifestation of the truth, each appearing in response to the diverse needs and capacities of sentient beings, in different times and places.
It is also clear that Jesus did not teach “Christianity” just as Buddha did not teach “Buddhism”. They taught only, how human beings can live as human beings, as they understood it.
Thanks for the post, Brooke. I understand the deep longing for an actual feminine god. But please don’t be fooled. The century old gag order on discussion of Heavenly Mother and the fact that anyone daring to pray to Her is in danger of excommunication for heresy should be enough to dispel your jealousy. The hymn mentioned is the only reference to such a being in the present canon. She does not figure anywhere in the LDS scriptures, plays no role whatsoever in the epic “Plan of Salvation,” apparently exercises no power on behalf of her supposed offspring, cannot communicate with us or we with her, is entirely devoid of function, history, and theological identity. Mary may be a figurehead, but Heavenly Mother is a figment. The clinging of LDS feminists to a figment is truly sad. Desperation is not to be envied. Strength of hope and imagination, maybe.
One of the excuses given for the gag order: Heavenly Mother needs to be protected from would-be slanderers — i.e., she is weak and dependent, therefore apparently not a god. Another excuse: if the (male) prophets felt it was necessary for us to know about her, they’d reveal more information. They reveal all things true and expedient, therefore knowing about Heavenly Mother is either spiritually unimportant or dangerous. To seek more information than is revealed by the prophets is to tempt damnation. Considering the Family Proclamation statement that gender is an eternal design difference, and Brigham Young’s statement that a man can’t know himself unless he knows God, it is apparently either unimportant or dangerous for me as an LDS woman qua woman to know myself, and it is tempting damnation to try. The irony is especially biting in light of the fact that everything LDS say and do is geared to keep them in remembrance of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Heavenly Mother is utterly forgotten, ignored, silenced, never once depicted in any form, shunned in polite circles, kept forever from receiving the prayers and devotion of her children – it would be better not to exist at all than to be stuffed in such a painful closet. Mary is drawn and quartered by the virgin-whore split, so no doubt the closet looks good. Is a schizophrenic pseudo-embodied female deity better than a ghost? We can do better, sisters :)
— Best in your search, Cetti
And then too Roman Catholic and other Christian women can continue to experiment with female language for God. I don’t mean just finding the few metaphors that exist, but rather I am referring to the experiemental and transformative work of the Re-imagining Conferences. However, the response to the most radical of those conferences shows that the ‘powers that be’ do not necessarily support transformative work, even while they continue to argue that “God” really is not “male.” Note too that the Holy Father (the Pope) recently declared baptisms that are not in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” are illegitimate. Personally, I sometimes pray to the Mother, the Father, and the Spirits of All Living Things.
Carol’s above post points out just how powerful feminism is when goddess is fully named, and women worship woman in her own image. Not just the bland liberal “our god is neither male nor female”–yeah right… the Mother— still problematic for me, because I’d worship the blessedly lesbian huntress Diana, and all the Dianic mysteries… mysteries even to most women enthrauled by the glamour of patriarchal indoctrination (glamour in the old useage of the word).
I don’t feel jealousy for the patriarchal cults of mormonism, catholicism or any other god the father male as dictator boring bore. Geez, I can’t imagine any lesbian out there who would be envious of that level of institutionalized erasure of women’s full powers. So this was an odd little piece indeed.
When you have a re-imagining conference all hell breaks loose in fatherlands. So if fatherland isn’t in an uproar, you know you’ve become co-opted handmaids of the patriarchy fur shurrr as they say in the Valley.
Brooke, I really enjoyed reading your post. As a Catholic woman, I appreciate your critique of Mary. She meant to be the role model that all women look up; however it is impossible to be like Mary – a virgin and a mother. It is so blatant an attempt to control women’s sexuality.
However I also think that Mary can be a resource; I think she can be reclaimed by Catholic women and embraced – for me, Mary has been a major source of strength in my struggles to be a mother.
I appreciate your thoughts on Heavenly Mother. I know very little about her – but am intrigued as you are. What an amazing resource for Mormon women.
Mormonism is deeply, deeply patriachal, especially with that horrible background of polygamy. How is it possible to be jealous of that? I would help any Mormon woman all I could to get out – and fast.
I don’t see the Goddess – whether as Mary, or Isis, or Diana or Kali or by whatever name we know and love Her – as a resourse for lesbians alone. The Goddess is there for all women – and any men – who care to worship Her.
Mary is the form in which the ancient Goddess, known and worshiped throughout Europe and the Near East for perhaps 50,000 years, was absorbed into the Catholic Church. In Egypt she was called Isis, who was honoured in many places right into the Christian era. In fact, the veneration of Isis might have surpassed that of Christ if not for the acccidents of history. Once the Christian Church was powerful enough, it began closing down all the temples, especially those of Isis because the iseums were seen as one of the most direct threats to the emergent religion. However, the Beloved Mother was so popular that the Chruch had little option but to co-opt something of her presence into the new religion.
Of course, Christian bishops stripped Mary of much of the power (especially magical power) which had belonged to Isis, but something of the older Goddess remained and women have sought comfort and strength from their Holy Mother ever since.
There is nothing especially new or startling in the idea that Mary in many ways replaced Isis. What is new, and extremely important for women’s spirituality, is the way that women have begun to see Mary, as a goddess in her own right. The Goddess has returned, and Mary is one of the many forms in which we behold and worship her.
For those of us who worship Mary as Goddess, she is neither passive nor pious, but, like Isis, the powerful Queen of Three worlds; Defender of women and children; Goddess who rules the waves and the winds and sets the stars spinning on their courses; She who watches over wild creatures; Mother of magic and enchantment, who will help and empower women in their need; Beloved Goddess from whom all life comes and to whom we will, at last, return.
Holy Mother, Queen of Heaven, bless and grace your children who pray to you.