Evangelical Questions: Heavenly Mother
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about Heavenly Mother. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Before we get started though I want to let you know about a very cool event coming up. Every year FAIR hosts the most fantastic 3-day party. When I say “party” what I mean is getting to listen to and interact with some of the smartest people in our church. They give a talk on what they’ve been working on – and frequently the FAIR conference is the first place their ideas are presented in public. That’s my kind of party. And maybe it’s yours too. This year the FAIR conference is on August 2-4 (Wed – Friday) at the Experience Event Center in Provo, Utah. You can buy tickets to attend in person, or online by going to https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/conference/august-2023. I will be there all 3 days and would so happy to meet you. I am presenting a talk on one of those days, I don’t know which on yet, but will let you know once the schedule is finalized. 2 of the talks I am very much looking forward to are…1) Michaelbrent Collings is an American horror novelist and he’ll be talking about, “Horror: the Genre of Goodness, Godliness, and Hope.” Horror is not my genre at all, but I am completely intrigued by what he will say. 2) Dr. Janiece Johnson – her specialty is religious history – will be speaking on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I’ll try to highlight the talks every couple of weeks here – if you enjoy sitting around listening to me, you probably will enjoy sitting around listening to my friends too. Okay, back to our scriptures…
Our scripture this week comes from Luke 13:34:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!
So here we have God compared to a mother hen. The traditional Evangelical conversation around this verse goes something like this….Yes, God is compared to a female chicken, a hen, but this verse does not require us to believe God is female any more than it requires us to believe God is a Cosmic Chicken. Fair enough. No one is asserting that God is a giant chicken.
And for a long time, this was the boundary on thinking about God and gender. God is male, and images in the scripture that refer to God as female such as a hen, a woman looking for her lost coin, a woman in labor, a nursing mother, a mother bear, and a mother eagle….these were just poetic images and not to be taken too seriously. But the boundary has certainly changed in even the last 10 years. It used to be that if you wanted to talk about any kind of feminine identity for God you were being scandalous. Only the most liberal of the Evangelicals would be talking about this. But last year Eerdmans published 2 books on the topic. If you are not familiar with the Evangelical publishing world Eerdman’s is willing to push the boundaries, and that’s been true for a long time. They’re not Zondervan or Lifeway which are going to take a very traditional Evangelical line, and to my knowledge have not, and would not, publish something about a feminine identity for God. But Eerdman’s isn’t ignored by Evangelicals either. So it’s a big step forward that this is being talked about.
The traditional Evangelical view is not all that interesting to talk about. God is male. End of story. So I’m not going to spend much time there, but what I do want to talk to you about is the direction the Evangelical world is headed on this topic – even if all of them aren’t there yet. And that direction takes 2 flavors. In order to get at what those flavors are I’m going to summarize 2 different books – and the reception they’ve received. By the end of this section, you should have a good idea of where the line on this topic has moved to. After that, we’ll compare the Latter-day Saint view.
The first one is, “Women and the Gender of God” by Dr. Amy Peeler. She is a professor at Wheaton College, which they like to say is the, “Harvard of the Evangelical world.” It’s probably closer to the, “BYU of the Evangelical world.” That probably gives you the right feel for it. Peeler’s PhD is from Princeton and she’s very well-liked in the Evangelical world. The biggest point her book is trying to make is that while Jesus Christ was male, he was born of a woman. His flesh does not exist without her flesh. She’s modernizing an argument first made by Augustine when he said, “(Jesus) was born of a woman; don’t despair, men; Christ was happy to be a man. Don’t despair, women; Christ was happy to be born of a woman.” And her book has been very well received by Evangelicals. But as Latter-day Saints you might sort of tilt your head at that and think it’s awful long path to just connect 2 points. Why not just say we have a Heavenly Mother? Evangelicals can’t get there. You can see their longing to – Peeler is brilliant and she works hard in this book to help people make connections to the idea that God is not solely male. But it’s an incredible amount of effort to get to a far less radical point than Latter-day Saints make about Heavenly Mother. But Peeler’s book demonstrates the idea that the boundary on this topic has in fact moved, even if it hasn’t moved all that much.
In contrast, there is another book that shows pushing the line too far will still get you a slap on the hand in the Evangelical world. The book, “God Is” by Mallory Wyckoff is fascinating, but ultimately most Evangelicals appear to reject where she goes. To be fair, Wyckoff does not have the same kind of educational background as Peeler does. So the work is automatically going to be quite different, and that’s okay. I dont think that’s what gets her rejected. Here’s what she does in the book…She takes the idea that God is not merely male and expands on it using a kind of panentheism that says: because God resides in us, we are God. So if God resides in a woman, then God is a woman. And that line is just too far for Evangelicals. When you read some of the Evangelical criticisms of her book you see the logic of G.K. Chesterson (one of the patron saints of the Evangelical world) – he once said, while talking about this idea, that if a man leans too heavily on the idea that God is part of him – and not also something quite separate from him – then he ends up worshiping not God, but self.
You can see from these 2 examples that Evangelicals are very much grappling with ideas about God and gender….but you can also see that they’re in a muddle it’s hard to find a way out of.
I’ll point out one other Evangelical take on this issue. If you watched the “Certain Women” episode a couple weeks ago you heard me talk about what women in leadership or ordained ministry is like for Evangelicals. And an interesting little piece of theology pops up here for the Evangleicals who ordain women. In the past, the Evangelical positon on ordained women could be summed up in something CS Lewis said, which is something like: a woman can not be ordained because it would confuse people into thinking that she represents God, and God is not female. And one of the modern-day reasons why some Evangelicals ordain women is so that their members in their congregation can experience what it is like to see the feminine side of divinity. They can’t make the jump to, “there must be a Heavenly Mother,” but they can say something like: All humans are created in God’s image, therefore God must contian within himself both feminine and masculine. So when a woman is ordained so that the congregation can experience a feminine divine through her, they’re trying to get to the idea of a Heavenly Mother, without ever having to get there. Interestingly enough, in oru Latter-day Saint church we do not ordain women, and looking through this lens, it makes sense why we do not need to.
The take-away here is that your Evangelical friends and family might be more interested in this topic than you think.
If you want to know my first take on hearing about Heavenly Mother, I’ve told you my first experience a few weeks ago back in that “Certain Women” episode. And you might find that interesting.
Latter-day Saint view
So, this is tricky territory. Let’s just acknowledge that. My sense is that 30 years ago that very few people were talking openly about this doctrine, and for understandable reasons. And things have shifted for us too over the years.
There is a resource that if you don’t know about, you should. The BYU Scripture Index – it’s an online site scriptures.byu.edu where you can search general conference talks all the way back to 1830, you can also search “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” as well as the “Journal of Discourses” (which can be a tricky reference to wade through – you have to know what you’re looking at in order to not take things wildly out of context) but it’s there and you can search it as well. And you can search for how often certain words or phrases have been used. Pro tip: you might have to do a little research on the historic phrasing of certain words. For example, if you search for “Heavenly Mother” you will only find references going back to the 1970’s, but that’s because before that she was much more likely to be referred to as, “Mother in Heaven.” This doesn’t signal some big theological change as much as it demonstrates how the English language changes over time.
So, anyway, if you use the BYU Index to research Heavenly Mother you find several talks from the last 20 years, a couple in the 1980s and 90s, a couple in the 1970’s, 1 in the 1940’s, and 1 in 1885.
But there have been more things said outside of Conference and the best round-up of those to my knowledge was presented at the BYU Studies symposium in 2011 called, “A Mother There” by David Paulsen and Martin Pulido. It’s a long paper, 28 pages, but it does a great job of tracing the teachings throughout history. We also see Heavenly Mother referenced in the Family Proclamation. And, most notably, Elder Renlund’s talk a couple years ago titled, “Your Divine Nature and Eternal Destiny.”
And, we have our own tension of what can – and can not – be said about her. In the Evangelical world that tension is mostly around, “what is true?” and ours certainly has that element to it but also adds in a layer of, “Even if it is true can it be said?” That layer of carefulness is hard for Evnagleicals to understand as they don’t really have an equivalent dynamic. They don’t have a category called, “sacred things that should be kept private.” Latter-day Saints clearly have that category and the only quibble comes in trying to decide everything that should be in that category.
I do want to take minute to talk about the Catholic perspective here. It’s not my area of research or specialty – for that I would refer you to frequent FAIR speaker Robert Boylan. But there is an interesting thing happening in Catholic theology that Latter-day Saints will find interesting.
You are probably at least vaguely familiar with the idea that Mary the Mother of Jesus has a special place in their theology. Exactly what her position is has changed over the centuries, but her importance has never gone away. Non-Catholics sometimes day that Catholics, “pray to Mary” and while that is sometimes true, it’s probably more accurate to say that they are speaking to Mary and asking her to pray on their behalf. Mary is also sometimes called The Queen of Heaven, or The Mother of God in their theology. The reason I point this out to you is that it revelas the same issue the Evangelicals are trying to grapple with: They long for a feminine divine, but can’t quite work it out theologically how to get there.
Well, we are out of time. We’ll probably pick this topic up another time or two before the year is out. I hope you enjoyed this. Come back next time and we’ll take up another topic.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.