Unlike the amorphous God of other Judeo-Christian faith traditions, Mormonism’s Heavenly Father is literally, anatomically male. He is the god Mormons pray to, worship, and reference. However, within the Mormon tradition are teachings about Heavenly Mother, an embodied, perfect goddess, the wife of Heavenly Father and mother to all the spirits who are eventually born into bodies here on earth.
Mormon feminists such as myself embrace the existence of Heavenly Mother. We do our best to keep her alive and present in Mormon discourse and memory, despite the fact that our Church leaders and fellow members rarely mention her and despite the fact that some Mormon feminists in the 1990’s and 2000’s were excommunicated at least in part because of their refusal to stop writing and talking about Heavenly Mother. Mormon feminists like me recognize that equality for women within the Mormon tradition can never be achieved until our Mother receives recognition on par with the Father. Mary Daly once famously said, “If God is male, then male is God.” Amen to that. Raising up Heavenly Mother in the consciousness of Mormons is a significant way to dismantle that association between maleness and godhood.
There are plenty of ideas within Mormonism to which feminists might object: male only priesthood, male ecclesiastical hierarchy, male headship within marriage, heteronormativity, etc. However, for me, the Heavenly Mother concept is not one of them. I believe this as a liberating idea which has been nearly buried in Mormon consciousness, and I see it as important feminist work to help bring her into the light.
Imagine my befuddlement, then, the day we discussed the Mormon Heavenly Mother in one of my classes at CGU. Many of the feminist non-Mormon students were turned off by the idea of her. They found the idea of a Heavenly Mother constraining and limited because of the emphasis on her as Mother, rather than Goddess. For them, it seemed, tying this deity’s identity so closely with motherhood was just another example of the way patriarchal culture boxes women into stereotypical and limited roles. It seemed as if some of them were saying that Mormonism, from a feminist perspective, would be better off without ideas of Heavenly Mother.
It was hard for me to wrap my head around this desire to dismiss Heavenly Mother, who for me symbolizes the potential for equality between men and women in my tradition. My fellow Mormons in the class were likewise baffled by this distaste for the Heavenly Mother idea. It seemed as if a chasm had opened up between the two groups of students in the class, until our professor put his finger on the reason for this disconnect. The Mormon God is primarily a father, he said. Not an omnipotent creator. Mormonism’s family based theology, which in some ways stands opposed to Western liberal ideals about the autonomous self, is the category within which Mormon feminist theologians work. Thus if God the Father is embodied, gendered and, above all, a dad, then it makes perfect sense for Mormon feminists to lift up and glorify God the Mother as an equal female counterpart.
I won’t deny that there are not major problems with the way Mormon Church leaders talk about (or don’t talk about) Heavenly Mother, with the way she is absent and silenced. However, as one feminist Mormon blogger states, “To believe in a Heavenly Mother that is truly equal to Heavenly Father, I think, is an act of radical hope.” For me, Heavenly Mother is the theological lynchpin on which everything hinges for Mormon women. Any hope we Mormon women have that we are not eternally destined to be secondary beings rests on her status as Goddess equal to God. And for that, I raise her up into the light.
A Mormon feminist, Caroline is completing her coursework for her Ph.D. in religion with a focus on women’s studies in religion. Her areas of interest revolve around the intersections of Mormon and feminist theology and the study of contemporary Mormon feminist communities. She is the co-founder of the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent.
15 thoughts on “Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother: Why I Stand By Her by Caroline Kline”
When I taught a course on Goddess with a contemporary focus at Claremont Graduate School a few years ago, many of the students objected to any idea of a Mother Goddess and almost blocked out any attempt in the readings or from me to assert that the Goddess who is emerging today is not only a mother. For me it is very important that the Goddess not be only a Mother. But not to honor the mothers who give us birth also seems wrong.
I find the vehemence of reactions against the Mother Goddess surprising, as it has always been clear to me that I can decide not to be a mother, while honoring my own mother and grandmothers and other women who have children. I think often about what this intense “matriphobia” is about.
Do young women still feel they “have” to be mothers so strongly that they have to reject any image that associates being a woman with being a mother just to find their way? Do they resent their own mothers and grandmothers because they seemed weak or controlling or too dependent on men? Do they fear becoming like their mothers so much that any idea of honoring mothers or mothering qualities seems like a bad idea? I could also ask why so many younger feminists cut themselves off even from feminist foremothers.
Is there nothing good about being a woman and nothing that women have done in the past with which to identify? Are we dealing with matriphobia, fear of mothers/fear of becoming a mother, or perhaps also with fear of being or becoming a woman?
I am a woman who did not have physical children. However, i think my mother’s and grandmothers’ love is the best thing that ever happened to me. Next in line come my female friends. I am proud to have “mothering” qualities as well as a fully functional rational brain.
And to tell you the truth, I don’t always understand why other women don’t feel the same. I am as puzzled as you are. Given the choice, I would choose to be a woman every time. I sometimes wonder if what we are dealing with in the rejection of a Mother Goddess is intenalized self-hatred.
“Is there nothing good about being a woman and nothing that women have done in the past with which to identify? Are we dealing with matriphobia, fear of mothers/fear of becoming a mother, or perhaps also with fear of being or becoming a woman?”
Those are great questions. Where does this matriphobia come from? I imagine it must be because they believe that “mother” represents weakness and limitation rather than power and creativity.
I’m reading the new book The Gift of Giving Life right now which is a book about pregnancy and birth written by LDS women. I’m loving its recognition of and discussion of Heavenly Mother. I’m a graduate student in thealogy right now and I encounter people as well who reject sometimes ALL Goddess ideas, because of her overall association with the mother (usually stating something like all women are not mothers and not ll women find a mother-figure affirming due to complicated relationships with their own mothers). Since I do have children and being a mother is a large part of my identity (and sometimes oppression!!), I used to think maybe I just didn’t “get” those critiques. As time has passed, I think it is more related to an internalized rejection of that which is female AND a simplified conception of what Goddess is/means (or what women are. If Goddess can only be seen as Mother, does that mean that is all women are?). To me, Goddess in her Mother form is much more about the *motheredness of the world* than about human gender roles or a prescription about women’s lives.
“I think it is more related to an internalized rejection of that which is female AND a simplified conception of what Goddess is/means (or what women are).”
That’s a great point. The Mormon Heavenly Mother is a mother, but she is so many other things as well.
I would consider a Mother Goddess, just that, a mother of her human children. Seems logical to me. However, I can understood the hesitation to make women of the past “mothers.” Mary Daly said the word “foremothers” was problematic, and preferred the term “foresisters” for people like Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example.
Mormonism deifies heterosexuality to an absurd extreme, this obsession with hetero-marriage destroys lesbian and gay marriage rights.
However, I do understand that 19th century Mormon women were strong pioneers, that women had the vote in Utah before the 19th amendment was passed, and also women Mormon pioneers had access to divine revelation just as much as the males. Mother God is a divine revelation of women, and a brilliant theological move historically speaking!
The women’s relief society is the largest and oldest women’s organization in America, and there is much to find of value in women’s past. The bonds of women within Mormonism are strong, and in this woman’s world, there is temporary relief from husbands sticking their patriarchal necks into everything women do. That is the safety valve that is necessary but also what lulls the house slaves to sleep too. It’s a mixed bag.
I don’t object to motherhood of peoples, but I do object to the boring yammering of women who go on and on about their children, deifying hetero privilege and constantly irritating lesbian nation with this stuff. I think it is the arrogance of heteronormative gloating bores that might be a bone of contention.
Women throughout herstory have created coded ways to undermine male supremacy and support one another. No doubt many lesbians would find refuge in plural marriage (19th c), because they would not have to have sex with a patriarch very often if he had say 15 other wives. And no doubt plural wives developed highly sophisticated lesbian relationships with one another too. No doubt lesbian subversion existed in the Mormon women who set across the land with Brother Brigham to Zion.
And Mary Daly started out as a reformer of Catholicism, but the main difference is when lesbians fully awaken, we have no use for reform anymore, it is a beginning but not the end. Since Mary Daly was only a field hand and not a house slave the way hetero women are, she could walk out of patriarchy. The house slaves who do have husbands to monitor their every move, and do have children are more closely tied to patriarchl support systems. So a Mother Goddess is a good thing to recover and promote.
As long as I don’t have to deal with the children or have to listen to heteronormative boasting, I think Mormon Mother God is fantastic! As long as those men stay in their place and out of my house, I’m fine with hetero women, and Heavenly Mother, just as the Virgin Mary is appealing as a woman who never had sex with the enemy, yet produced the Son of God :-)
I really liked this:
To me, Goddess in her Mother form is much more about the *motheredness of the world* than about human gender roles or a prescription about women’s lives.
In other words it is a lifting up of power as care, compassion, love, nuture.
This is very interesting! I’ve known a number of Mormon women, also pagan women who had left the Mormon church, and none of them ever mentioned the Heavenly Mother. When I think of Mormons, I always think of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s almost Shakespearean play, and the Pitts. Poor closeted Joe Pitt, who goes down into defeat. His wife Harper, who goes away and gets away. And Hannah, Joe’s mother, who is touched and transformed by the angel.
I need to watch Angels in America again. I saw the HBO version 5 or 6 years ago, but I think it would have new resonance and power for me now.
How strange that the former Mormon women didn’t mention Heavenly Mother. I think that’s one of the most interesting aspects of the Mormon tradition for feminists.
“However, as one feminist Mormon blogger states, “To believe in a Heavenly Mother that is truly equal to Heavenly Father, I think, is an act of radical hope.” For me, Heavenly Mother is the theological lynchpin on which everything hinges for Mormon women. Any hope we Mormon women have that we are not eternally destined to be secondary beings rests on her status as Goddess equal to God. And for that, I raise her up into the light.”
I find these last statements you wrote to be particularly poignant as this is how I once felt. I truly believed that there was hope for me and other Mormon women within such a patriarchal religion since Heavenly Mother was a Goddess in her own right. You see, I was raised Mormon and yet have always been a feminist. I spent years trying to make being Mormon and a feminist work and in the end I just had to throw up my hands and admit defeat. I could no longer stay in a religion that (in my opinion) just really doesn’t value the full contributions that a woman can make in this world. Being a mother and a wife is great, but I am so much more than that. In the end, the last straw for me was when I was developing a personal relationship with a Goddess, or Heavenly Mother, and I would tell people about it and the only comment the men (and some women) could make to me was that even though Heavenly Mother is a Goddess she is still subservient to God – as someone, even in Heaven, has to be in charge. I just couldn’t fathom staying in a religion that cannot even give a Goddess full rights and powers without having to be ruled by someone else – so even in the eternities I would still be seen as unequal to my husband.
However, while I can no longer be Mormon and still call myself a feminist, I support those who can find a way to be happy being both. I hope that for your and other Mormon feminist’s sake that Heavenly Mother can one day be openly worshiped, loved, and valued as being an equal to God.
Thank you for sharing your experience with Mormonism and Heavenly Mother. I understand why many Mormon women who have developed a relationship with Heavenly Mother ultimately can’t stand the dissonance between what they know in their soul to be true — that HM should be openly worshiped and loved — and what current Mormon leaders teach. I think I must be enormously optimistic to hope that things can change. One reason I often feel that sense of optimism is because of the internet, where I see Mormon women connecting and supporting each other in their desires for a more equitable church structure and doctrine. There are thousands of us out there. Maybe with enough feminist solidarity and attention brought to these issues, things might shift over time. I hope so.
I did an interview with one of the co-author’s of the book I mentioned in my comment and I specifically asked her about Heavenly Mother: http://talkbirth.me/2012/06/08/the-gift-of-giving-life-interview-with-sheridan-ripley/
I am a month late to this blog post, but I just wanted to say that I learned so much from your description of Heavenly Mother within Mormonism. I never knew She existed within Mormanism but am glad the notion exists for you to reclaim and try to rebalance the patriarchalism within your faith tradition. I am myself caught in that lininal space all of you described between redeeming/reforming or jumping ship. I grew up and still remain within the evangelical Christian wing of the Church. I have in small ways done my part to create change (and there has been change in the right direction, that i have a female co-pastor speaks to this) but like all of you right now in this bend of my life journey i can no longer stomach how we have masculized God.
Even though the Christian concept of God is more amorphous than the Morman view, we so overuse God the Father imagery (not to mention the fraternity of 3 He’s) that we have reduced the mystery of God the Creator to a Father who creates without the Feminine principle. Throughout the whole cosmos, creativity happens though the union of Masculine and Feminine. I have reached a point in my life/work where I see very clearly the link between patriarchal theology and ontology and cannot see how women will ever achieve full equality if the God we worship is exclusively masculine. I have recently taken a “church sabbatical” (I walked out in mother’s day after seeing the theme of the day “God the King”) all over the bulletin) and am amazed in my conversations with people about my reasons to hear people who on one hand say that they do not believe God is male yet react so viscerally, and often with disgust, at the notion of using female anthropomorphic language in worship and in our prayer lives to rebalance the patriarchal imagery of god which saturates our tradition. Even “egalitarians” I know don’t seem to see this and react negatively to the idea of proudly and intentionally at least TRYING to resurrect from centuries of patriarchy the Divine Feminine into our collective consciousness. I concur this is the “theological lynchpin upon which everything hinges” for women of all faiths. It boggles me that more people who care about women’s equality do not see this. All the more it shows me that on a subconscious level, they have so internalized patriarchy that in their heart of hearts they do not see femaleness as Godlike.
Can we continue to nudge and expand and rebalance people’s vision of God to see the beautiful balance/union of the Masculine/Feminine as creative impulses within the Godhead? I hope so, but I don’t like the feeling of having an “agenda” and do feel like maybe patriarchy is so at the core of our faith traditions that remaining within the fold is to continue to keep the burka over the feminine face of God.