Essay God Mother Other Theological

Long before I became familiar with the academic debates concerning calling God “Mother,” debates that I am now currently a part of as a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, I was being raised in a household where I instinctively understood that the divine presence was manifest in the loving hands and arms of mothers, and most especially in the life of my grandmother who raised me. My grandmother’s kitchen was a theological laboratory where she taught me how to love people just as naturally as she taught me to make peach cobbler and buttermilk biscuits. I watched and listened as she ministered to the sick and the lost, with a Bible in one hand and a freshly baked pound cake in the other, despite having no official ministry role.

I knew that if God was real, if God truly loved me as a parent loves a child, then God was also “Mother” and not only “Father.” Only years of dogma and doctrine force you to unlearn what you know to be true in your own heart, demanding “Father” as the only acceptable appellation and concept for God.

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Scholars who oppose the notion of God as Mother often focus on the gender of Christ and his naming of God as “Abba” or Father. Others argue that God is beyond gender, all the while privileging masculine language to understand God. There are also scholars, myself among them, who support the naming of God as Mother along with God as Father, deriving their support from biblical passages which privilege more “feminine” metaphors and analogies, including the image of God as a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:15; Numbers 11:12); God as a midwife (Psalm 22:8-10); and God as one who gives birth (Isaiah 42:14). We do not have to choose only one form of address. God is Creator and Sustainer. God is Protector and Defender. God is Mother and Father. If we are humble, we know that human words and metaphors are incomplete and can never do justice to describing the majesty of who God is.

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I am among the millions of women facing Mother’s day without a mother, and now without my precious grandmother. There is no greeting card to capture both this powerful sense of loss, but also profound wellspring of memories. I experience what is known in theological terms as the “absent presence” of my grandmother. Though gone from my life, though absent from my everyday reality, my grandmother’s presence and wisdom are still here with me, guiding and shaping me. As a Christian, it is the same “absent presence” as my relationship with God: the knowledge that I am loved by the Divine, even and perhaps most especially in those experiences of absence and loss. I understand God as Mother because of all the mothers, aunties, grandmothers, “play” mothers, godmothers, and church mothers who were made in the image of God and who embody God’s loving care. As the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich eloquently summarized, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother.”

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that all human beings, male and female, are beloved spirit children of heavenly parents, a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. This understanding is rooted in scriptural and prophetic teachings about the nature of God, our relationship to Deity, and the godly potential of men and women.1 The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is a cherished and distinctive belief among Latter-day Saints.2

While there is no record of a formal revelation to Joseph Smith on this doctrine, some early Latter-day Saint women recalled that he personally taught them about a Mother in Heaven.3 The earliest published references to the doctrine appeared shortly after Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, in documents written by his close associates.4 The most notable expression of the idea is found in a poem by Eliza R. Snow, entitled “My Father in Heaven” and now known as the hymn “O My Father.” This text declares: “In the heav’ns are parents single? / No, the thought makes reason stare; / Truth is reason—truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a mother there.”5

Subsequent Church leaders have affirmed the existence of a Mother in Heaven. In 1909, the First Presidency taught that “all men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother, and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.”6 Susa Young Gates, a prominent leader in the Church, wrote in 1920 that Joseph Smith’s visions and teachings revealed the truth that “the divine Mother, [is] side by side with the divine Father.”7 And in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” issued in 1995, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles declared, “Each [person] is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.”8

Prophets have taught that our heavenly parents work together for the salvation of the human family. “We are part of a divine plan designed by Heavenly Parents who love us,” taught Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.9 President Harold B. Lee stated, “We forget that we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who are even more concerned, probably, than our earthly father and mother, and that influences from beyond are constantly working to try to help us when we do all we can.”10

Latter-day Saints direct their worship to Heavenly Father, in the name of Christ, and do not pray to Heavenly Mother. In this, they follow the pattern set by Jesus Christ, who taught His disciples to “always pray unto the Father in my name.”11 Latter-day Saints are taught to pray to Heavenly Father, but as President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “The fact that we do not pray to our Mother in Heaven in no way belittles or denigrates her.”12 Indeed, as Elder Rudger Clawson wrote, “We honor woman when we acknowledge Godhood in her eternal Prototype.”13

As with many other truths of the gospel, our present knowledge about a Mother in Heaven is limited. Nevertheless, we have been given sufficient knowledge to appreciate the sacredness of this doctrine and to comprehend the divine pattern established for us as children of heavenly parents. Latter-day Saints believe that this pattern is reflected in Paul’s statement that “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.”14 Men and women cannot be exalted without each other. Just as we have a Father in Heaven, we have a Mother in Heaven. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.”15

Resources

  1. Genesis 1:26–27; Moses 3:4–7; Romans 8:16–17; Psalm 82:6; Doctrine and Covenants 132:19–20.
  2. See “Becoming Like God”; see also Elaine Anderson Cannon, “Mother in Heaven,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 5 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2:961. For an extensive survey of these teachings, see David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50, no. 1 (2011): 70–97.
  3. Zina Diantha Huntington Young recalled that when her mother died in 1839, Joseph Smith consoled her by telling her that in heaven she would see her own mother again and become acquainted with her eternal Mother. (Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints [Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1911], 15–16.)
  4. See W. W. Phelps, “Come to Me,” in “Poetry, for the Times and Seasons,” Times and Seasons 6 (Jan. 15, 1845): 783.
  5. “My Father in Heaven,” in “Poetry, for the Times and Seasons,” Times and Seasons 6 (Nov. 15, 1845): 1039; “O My Father,” Hymns, no. 292; see also Jill Mulvay Derr, “The Significance of ‘O My Father’ in the Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow,” BYU Studies 36, no. 1 (1996–97), 84–126.
  6. “The Origin of Man,” Improvement Era 13, no. 1 (Nov. 1909): 78.
  7. “The Vision Beautiful,” Improvement Era 23, no. 6 (Apr. 1920): 542. At this time, Gates was the recording secretary of the Relief Society general presidency.
  8. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 129.
  9. M. Russell Ballard, When Thou Art Converted: Continuing Our Search for Happiness (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2001), 62.
  10. Harold B. Lee, “The Influence and Responsibility of Women,” Relief Society Magazine 51, no. 2 (Feb. 1964): 85.
  11. 3 Nephi 18:19–21; Matthew 6:6–9; John 17:1, 5, 21, 24–25; see also Matthew 4:10; Luke 4:8; and 3 Nephi 13:9; 17:15.
  12. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Daughters of God,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 100.
  13. “Our Mother in Heaven,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 72, no. 39 (Sept. 29, 1910): 620. Rudger Clawson was the editor of the periodical and likely author of this editorial.
  14. 1 Corinthians 11:11.
  15. Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign, May 1995, 84.

The Church acknowledges the contribution of scholars to the historical content presented in this article; their work is used with permission.

Originally published October 2015.

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