Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Thoughts on the Heavenly Mother

Many people wonder why we don't talk much about the Heavenly Mother in the Church. I gave my take on this problem in my post on gender and sexuality, but despite any intellectual answer that a person might give, I suppose this issue will still seem troublesome. However, I've recently realized that, although we don't really talk about the Mother in church, how we describe the Father relies heavily on emotions and traits that many (including the Church) describe as coming more naturally to women. For instance, it goes without saying that our Heavenly Father is nurturing, and all our images of Him rely on feelings of warmth, safety, and tenderness. It thus seems odd that a church which so heavily emphasizes the role of women as nurturers should ascribe to the male Father only nurturing traits.

To clarify, I'm not going with the party line that women are essentially better at nurturing; this belief tends to alienate more sensitive men (such as myself) and leave them feeling out of place, so I won't touch that notion of exclusivity with a ten-foot pole. However, there does seem to be a tendency for women to nurture more than men do, and though some ascribe this tendency to socialization or hormones, I have an idea that those two reasons don't explain all of it. In addition to social or biological influences, I get a very strong impression that the symbolic image of womanhood (and not womanhood itself) is fundamentally attached to images of nurturing, tenderness, etc., and that women pick up on and identify with these images. Though the image of the nurturing mother may vary in degrees from culture to culture, certain fundamental themes recur again and again in the scriptures, mythologies, images, and stories of the world. For instance, with very few exceptions, the earth is always personified as a mother in polytheistic systems. In addition to earth, water tends to be more symbolically feminine, perhaps evoking images of the womb before birth. Also attached to the symbolic image of womanhood are notions of internality, depth, emptiness and darkness (in a positive sense, as in the yin side of yin and yang; remember that the womb is both dark and empty).

If I were to sum up all of these images in one concept, it would be the notion of immanence. The word "immanence "is derived from the Latin prefix "in-" (into, in, etc.) and the Latin word "manere," which means "to dwell." Combine these two and you get the very definition of what I am aiming at: remaining in the midst and mess of things, as opposed to transcending them to go on to something higher and better. Immanence means staying within, as opposed to going outward and upward. Thus evoking a sense of internality and depth, it resonates deeply with the symbolically feminine images and archetypes mentioned above.

But the odd thing is that out of all Christian denominations, Mormonism tends to be one of the most focused on immanence. Eschewing notions of heaven as place of "separate and single" people, we insist that marriage is fundamental to the life of the Spirit, as are the institutions of family and other kinds of relationship. Instead of ignoring the dead and death (as has become popular in the West), we insist that our lives are intimately bound up with those who have died, even going as far as to say that we cannot be saved without each other. Moreover, we also avoid notions of an ethereal, airy heaven, declaring instead (as Joseph Smith said) that "all spirit is matter." Each of these uniquenesses declare our fidelity to the mess and dirt and tangles of life--we stay within our family relationships, our marriages, our origins in those who are dead, and the finitude of our life in matter. We don't transcend life--we embrace it and all of its flaws and its dirt. Methinks old Mother Earth would be proud (see Moses 7:48 for a Mormon take on this image).

But what does this have to do with the Heavenly Mother? Well, one thing I have realized is that you cannot separate your relationship with something or someone from the images you associate with that entity. For instance, my mother is always tied up with my image of her--whether that includes my personal feelings or the images of womanhood or motherhood in general. Moreover, it doesn't take more than a look at our body language (or our common metaphors) to show that human beings think fundamentally in terms of images. Knowing this, what is my relationship to my Heavenly Mother or Father (our parents in the most absolute sense) without the images that human beings so ubiquitously associate with motherhood and fatherhood? These heavenly parents and the respective images of parenthood are tied together--you can't have one without the other.

Considering both the Church's focus on immanence and its attribution of nurturing and tenderness to the Father, an idea surfaces. What if, instead of ignoring and passing over the Mother, our church is actually one of the closest to Her? What if the embrace we offer to the messiness of the world were actually part of the embrace the Mother offers to us? We favor attachment above all, and I wonder if this focus on connection is actually evidence of our Heavenly Mother declaring Her presence after centuries of our culture's symbolically masculine focus on transcendence, detachment, and going-beyond. That's an idea, at any rate--I won't go as far as to declare its absolute truth, partly because I consider the matter too sacred to profane with such rigidity of thought. But it's worth pondering, at least.

In fact, I feel that it's appropriate to discuss some of the imagery in the LDS scriptural canon that supports this idea. For instance, in both the Doctrine and Covenants and in the Book of Mormon, there is a lot of imagery related to symbolism of womanhood. Take for example the ubiquitous term "bosom," as in "a burning in the bosom," and especially when referring to God. For instance,

"I am the same which have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom" -D&C 38:4

"...his Only Begotten Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, even from the beginning" -D&C 76:13

"The power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things." -D&C 88:13

"And now we ask thee, Holy Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of thy bosom..." -D&C 109:4

"And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; and thy curtains are stretched out still; and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there..." -Moses 7:30

Et cetera, et cetera...

Also significant are the references to "bowels," evoking connections to the womb:

"Now my brethren, we see that God is mindful of every people, whatsoever land they may be in; yea, he numbereth his people, and his bowels of mercy are over all the earth..." -Alma 26:37

"And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy..." -Alma 34:15

"Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy." -3 Nephi 17:7

Also note that the aforementioned scripture with the "mother" earth describes a voice speaking out of the bowels of the earth. Moreover, why not also include the motherly image the pre-descent Jesus Christ uses to describe how he would have gathered Israel?:

"And again, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, who have fallen; yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, ye that dwell at Jerusalem, as ye that have fallen; yea, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not." -3 Nephi 10:5

To make a more daring connection, one could associate the Book of Mormon's frequent references to its being "hid up [in the earth] unto the Lord" with the images of pregnancy and childbearing. Though this may sound odd, it is not without precedent, as the old and deeply powerful Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris demonstrates. To state it very briefly, the god Osiris was destroyed by the god Seth and was severed into fourteen pieces; the goddess Isis then returned to his severed body and used one of the pieces to inseminate herself, after which she gives birth to Osiris anew. Despite the seeming explicitness of this story, it gives a very basic image of the resurrection--namely, that after we are buried in our mother earth, she delivers us anew in a resurrected body. And more importantly, you can associate the symbolic mother's capacity to re-birth a destroyed body with the Book of Mormon's origin story--a record that contains the essence of a people that, though destroyed, lives on again in the book we now hold dear. However, the most relevant takeaway from this principle is the maternal imagery inherent in delivering a book to be reborn out of the ground, making the maternal focus of the Book of Mormon starkly evident.

To wrap up, I think it's very important to realize that, even though we don't really talk about the Mother, that doesn't mean She isn't present in the Church. Even when The Father's and Her images intermingle, we can perhaps discern the immediate presence of a maternal focus in our religion, an emphasis on nurturing, tender love, and growth. To the question of why we don't talk about Her, I can perhaps offer a quote from a famous piece of literature as a response. At the very end of the second part of Goethe's Faust, we encounter a vision of "the Realm of the Mothers," a culmination of the titular character's quest to reconcile himself to the feminine principle. It speaks deeply about the problem, and I exhort those with ears to hear to, well, hear:

"All that must disappear
Is but a parable;
What lay beyond us, here
All is made visible;
Here deeds have understood
Words they were darkened by;
Eternal Womanhood
Draws us on high."

1 comment:

  1. I have yet to find an acceptable answer for "why" we don't talk about the heavenly mother. It's incredibly easy to forget she even exists, and she certainly doesn't have a presence in the church in my opinion and experience. Regardless of my disagreements, this was an interesting and well-written read as always. Thanks for sharing!