by Janice Allred
Jesus our Mother
The Quest for Feminine Identity
[p.20]When I was a young mother, a friend asked me, “Does it ever bother you that Jesus was a man instead of a woman?” The question surprised me. Not only had it never bothered me, but the idea that it might bother anyone had never occurred to me. She must have noticed my surprise because she continued, “I know that Jesus is supposed to be the supreme example for us, but he’s a man and I’m a woman, so how can he be a model for me? I’ve always looked for a strong woman to model myself after.” I replied that there are certain attributes like love, forgiveness, and servicethat both men and women should possess and that Jesus exemplified these for all of us. I don’t know if my answer satisfied her—she said it gave her a new way of looking at the question—but it satisfied me for many years. Only recently have I understood the importance of her question.
Identifying myself with Jesus wasn’t a problem for me because I began identifying myself with males at an early age. I considered myself a hero and the heroes I encountered in stories, movies, and television were usually male. I was Superman, the Lone Ranger, David who slew Goliath, a prince who rescued princesses from dragons, a cowboy who fought bad guys. My playmates were usually my two sisters, who didn’t object to my always wanting to play the male part in our games. If my parents discouraged my male identification, I don’t remember it. At least, they didn’t forbid it because that’s the way my sisters and I usually played. However, I must have realized that pretending to be male wasn’t fully acceptable to the culture outside my home, because I don’t remember playing male parts with friends to the same extent I did with my sisters.
My answer to my friend implied that there is an ideal personhood beyond sexuality or gender, that we can identify human attributes without [p.21]sexuality. Is there a personhood beyond sexuality or is self identity inextricably sexual identity? Are we sexual beings because there are two sexes or are there two sexes because we are essentially sexual beings? From a Mormon perspective we might frame the question, “Does our sexuality go back to our existence as intelligences?” or “Were we always either male or female?” If we follow the logic Joseph Smith used to show that the intelligence of a person has no beginning, we could argue that if sexuality has no end then it also has no beginning. If not a hair of our heads is to be lost in the resurrection, then we may assume we will retain our genitals, and thus from a physical point of view we will be eternally male or female. Using Joseph Smith’s logic this would mean that we have always existed as male or female. But even though our physical bodies had a beginning, the doctrine of the resurrection teaches that they will become immortal, so sexuality may have had a beginning even if it has no end. Is gender tied to the body, or is there an essential femaleness and maleness apart from the body?
If there is an essence of the feminine, what is it? Is it an attribute or a set of attributes or is it a function or role? What are the properties of the feminine?
If we take an empirical approach to the question, “What is the difference between men and women?” we will discover many differences. Gender is a basic differentiating category in all cultures, and anthropologists and other social scientists have discovered many gender-based differences in every culture. Biologists, too, point out the differing physical-biological traits of males and females. Do biological differences determine gender differences? This is a question that can never be answered conclusively because we can never separate our biological selves from our cultural selves. Although Western culture has long held that gender is equivalent to sex and that gender-based characteristics and roles are natural, psychological studies have shown that social and psychological influences are more powerful than biological characteristics in establishing gender identity. In other words, female and male children must be taught to be girls and boys. The distinction between gender and sex is a fundamental feminist principle, and feminists have argued persuasively that gender is socially and psychologically constructed within a culture; that is, the meaning of femaleness and maleness is defined by a culture and inculcated and transmitted through child-rearing practices and maintained by social customs and legal systems. If gender were not socially constructed, if it were strictly biologically determined, then there would be no differences between cultures in gender roles or characteristics, no culture could ever change the way it [p.22]views gender, and no woman could or would ever be unfeminine, no man unmasculine.
If gender differences are culturally constructed and thus theoretically changeable, what sense is there in looking for the essence of the feminine? The possibility of change moves the question of the difference between masculine and feminine from a rational-empirical consideration to an ethical and finally a political one. The basic premise of feminism is that women and men are equal. This equality is moral, not empirical, and it has political consequences. The second premise of feminism is that women have been subordinated to and oppressed by men, and this subordination must be expressed, addressed, and overcome.
Some feminists have decried anthropological, biological, and psychological studies of gender differences, fearing that they might be used to justify the continued subordination of women. This fear is not ungrounded since traditionally women’s subordination has been justified by the argument that their inherent capacities and characteristics fit them for certain roles and limit the rights they should be granted. However, studies of gender differences could also be used positively by and for women in identifying inequalities, expressing experiences, and affirming feminine values and realities. The demand for moral and political equality for women arises from a commitment to the principle of human equality and a determination to protect human rights. Any gender differences (or race differences or class differences) are irrelevant to the recognition of the fundamental equality of all human beings. Even if it could be proven that all men were more intelligent, responsible, and better able to lead than all women (which, of course, it never could), that would not justify their ruling over women.
Religions tend to support traditional gender distinctions with their prescribed and proscribed roles and characteristics for women. It is a sign of their acceptance of the subordination of women that the question of woman’s role or woman’s nature arises at all in a religious context. We never hear church talks explaining what man’s role is, and any discussion of man’s nature is considered to be a discussion of human nature. Although talks are given on the responsibilities of fathers and the duties of those who hold the priesthood, these are not presented as man’s roles, but simply as the responsibilities of fathers and priesthood bearers. It is a mark of their superior status that men are considered human beings first and males second, while women must justify their existence by fulfilling “woman’s role.” Although in their formative, charismatic, revolutionary stage, religions may experiment with expanded roles for women (this can be shown to be true for [p.23]both Christianity and Mormonism), as they become institutionalized, they increasingly support traditional roles for women and justify this position with the argument that such roles are God-given. In recent years Mormon general authorities have emphasized this idea. Elder Boyd K. Packer said, “The separate natures of man and woman were designed by the Father of us all to fulfill the purposes of the gospel plan” (“A Tribute to Women,” Ensign, July 1989, 73). The subordination of women is implicit in this statement since it ascribes the creation of both man’s nature and woman’s nature to God the Father without even acknowledging the existence of God the Mother. Packer’s statement implies either that there is no female deity and the nature of man resembles that of God more closely than does the nature of woman, or that, if there is a female deity, her nature was also designed by the male deity.
I reject the idea that woman’s traditional roles are God-given for the following reasons: (1) There is no direct revelation from God that specifies woman’s nature or what her role should be. When God said to Eve, “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee,” he was describing what would be, nor prescribing what should be. Man would lose the Edenic condition of equality with his wife and he would rule over her. The rule of man over woman, then, is a condition of a fallen world, the result of sin, not an eternal principle. (2) Statements by prophets and churchmen about the role of women can be shown to be heavily influenced by culture. Revelations from God disrupt the status quo; they do not tell us what we already know or command us to do what we are already doing. (3) The gospel of Jesus Christ makes no distinction between male and female. It is addressed equally to every human being and invites all to partake of Christ’s unconditional love. Jesus has never given women separate commandments that they must obey to fulfill their role. In his earthly ministry he treated women as equals and he commended Mary for choosing to listen to him rather than filling the woman’s role of preparing and serving food.
As feminists have struggled for equal rights and social reforms to improve the status of women, they have encountered a dilemma. The first wave of feminists emphasized the similarities between men and women. Their concern was to show that women are fully capable of entering all areas of public life and the marketplace and of competing with men in all their roles. They uncovered, decried, and attempted to overcome sexism in all aspects of our culture. The second wave of feminists, however, has criticized male culture. They have found differences between male and female values, between male and female modes of being in the world, of relating to others, [p.24]of moral reasoning, and of negotiating differences. They have argued, as the first feminists did, that women should enter the public sphere, but they have also maintained that in doing so they should bring in feminine values and modes of being. Thus they have envisioned a radical change in society. But if there are essential differences between the sexes, doesn’t that bring back the problem of gender stereotypes and rigid role assignment? If women, for example, are really more nurturing and caring than men, doesn’t it make sense to assign them the care taking roles? This, then, is the feminist dilemma: in our search for feminine identity, how can we avoid either becoming male-identified, and thus losing our feminine identity, or in affirming our feminine identity, becoming entrapped in gender stereotypes?
The solution lies in exploring this paradox: If there is an essential difference between man and woman, it must remain unnamed. But the essence of essences is the name. If, then, the essence of gender differences is named, it must be named as difference itself. The reality of human freedom means that any essence named is really a metaphor. As we speak and write the meaning of our lives as women, as men, as human beings, we create metaphors and use metaphors, but these symbols can never contain the fullness of our lives, which are an inexhaustible source for the creation and finding of meaning. We are finite beings but we are surrounded by, immersed in, and filled with infinity.
The fundamental ontological question has always been, “Is reality one or two?!! If reality is one, then we must account for the multiplicity we experience in the world. If reality is two, then we must relate the two realities. If a third reality is posited to relate the two realities, then this third reality is more fundamental than the two realities it unifies, so reality is, again, one. The prophet Lehi taught that reality is both one and two. “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things,” or, as he restated the principle, “All things must needs be a compound in one” (2 Ne. 2: 11). Lehi’s reality is neither monistic nor dualistic in the usual sense. It says that reality demands difference, but this difference is not absolute. Instead of being radically different from one another, the pairs in a dualism depend on one another for their very existence.
One way of understanding this principle is to think about drawing a circle on a blank piece of paper. When I draw the circle, I create two realities: the area enclosed by the circle and the area outside the circle. But I also create one reality because neither circle nor non-circle exists without the other. Another way to consider this principle is to think about an object like a chunk of cheese. I can lay the cheese on a cutting board and call [p.25]the part towards me the top and the part lying on the board the bottom. But if I take a knife and separate the top from the bottom, I don’t have a top of cheese and a bottom of cheese; I have two pieces of cheese, each with a new top and a new bottom. The concepts of top and bottom can be distinguished, but every real object, while it may have been either the top or bottom of another real object, must have its own top and bottom. A real object, of course, should not be thought of as existing independently of an observer, but as existing within a conceptual framework, which is not to say that it does not have a physical existence. What is top and what is bottom might be arbitrary, as it was with the chunk of cheese, but once one is designated, the other is also defined. Anything that exists must be “a compound in one.”
For matter to exist, to have extension, duration, and complexity, there must be complementary particles which are attracted to each other, forming a whole but never merging completely. This compound in one nature of reality exists on every level, from the smallest nucleus through the atomic level to the macro-molecules that make up biological systems. Magnetic polarity can serve as a symbol of the idea of a compound in one. A magnet unites opposites, but the poles retain their identity and if a magnet is broken in half, each half will have its own pair of poles. This principle that every existing thing, if it possesses one member of an oppositional pair must also possess the other, I call the principle of polarity. This principle also applies to abstractions—ideas, concepts, symbols—as well as things which have a physical existence. The idea of inside contains or implies the idea of outside. This also means that abstractions have a physical component and physical objects have a mental component.
Now let us examine the nature of sexual beings in light of the principle of polarity. The infant begins life in a state of oneness with its mother. He is separated at birth but retains a physical and emotional dependence on his mother. Only gradually does he differentiate himself from her. This process of differentiation begins at birth and develops through the interaction of the baby with his mother and others and his acting upon the physical environment. Gender identity is generally established between twelve and eighteen months of age, and by age three a child’s self-identity is inextricably intertwined with her gender identity. A little girl has already accepted certain meanings about herself associated with being a girl, and a little boy’s self-concept includes the attributes associated with masculinity.
Although gender is socially constructed and includes more than sex, we should not underestimate the importance of the body. Biologically I am [p.26]either male or female, woman or man. I do not mean to ignore the intersexes. However, because only males and females are socially and legally recognized, there is strong pressure for these people to call themselves and/or physically make themselves either male or female. Because of my body I will be assigned a gender and socialized as either one or the other. As a female, I will be expected to embody the feminine attributes and fill feminine roles even though my own characteristics and desires may not match those prescribed by my culture. One of the most difficult issues each of us must deal with is the conflict of our own individuality with the meanings associated with the different groups we belong to, our gender group being the most fundamental.
Western culture has associated certain qualities with the masculine and their opposites with the feminine—for example, dominant/submissive, leading/following, active/passive, spirit/matter, reason/emotion, independent/dependent, competitive/associative, objective/subjective, doing/being, and conscious/unconscious. The qualities and characteristics considered to be feminine are also generally considered to be inferior to their masculine counterparts. Although the details of the gender system vary in space and time, the reality and importance of the gender system it self remains intact. The universal meaning of the gender system is that men and women are valued differently; the masculine is considered superior, which leads to the subordination of women.
Although the subordination of women and the denigration of the feminine could be illustrated in many ways, one simple feature of our gender system symbolizes clearly the different value placed on men and women. Men can be insulted and humiliated for being or acting feminine. There is even a word, “effeminate/’ to describe feminine characteristics and behaviors exhibited by men. This word is always derogatory; there is no non-derogatory term to describe men displaying feminine traits, and there is no corresponding derogatory term for women displaying masculine traits. Although a woman may be ridiculed and criticized for being too masculine or for acting in ways that would be acceptable for men, she may also be praised for possessing masculine qualities. The feminist movement has been more successful in making it acceptable for a woman to act like a man than for a man to act like a woman. Furthermore, it is even more significant that a woman may be insulted for being too feminine, while men are never ridiculed for being too masculine. Feminine traits are considered inherently inferior. The harshest indictment of feminists is that they are “men haters” who want women to rule over men, yet those who so condemn feminists (usually un-[p.27]justly) fail to see or acknowledge the misogynist nature of patriarchy and the injustice of its subordination of women.
I said above that if the essence of gender difference is named, it must be named as difference itself. Must differences, then, be valued differently? Dualisms or oppositional pairs have usually been dichotomized in Western thought and the opposites been regarded as totally separate from each other. This has resulted in one member of the pair being considered superior. But, as I have argued, opposites depend on each other for their very existence; they cannot be separated in reality, which means that they should be equally valued. Because dichotomous, either-or thinking distorts reality, some people have advocated eliminating it, but the idea of opposition or differentiation is fundamental to language. Although language distorts reality, it is also part of reality, since, in accordance with the principle of polarity, thought and reality, though separable in thought, are inseparable in reality. The male-female opposition, so central to our sense of selfhood, is the most powerful symbol of this concept. Indeed, the concepts of language, selfhood, and sex are brought together in the myth of the Fall. Partaking of the forbidden fruit gave Adam and Eve knowledge and made them conscious of their individuality and sexuality. Knowledge requires a mind that knows and some kind of symbolization to represent reality. Symbols mediate between the abstract and the real. With symbols, which are real, we create abstractions, thought constructs, or concepts which separate what cannot be totally separated in reality in order to furnish the distinctions that make knowledge possible. The Adam and Eve myth also symbolizes the development of ego-consciousness. Breaking a commandment represents the break with maternal oneness. Father God helps to separate the child from the mother, symbolized by the ever-nurturing Garden of Eden. The Fall means separation; what was undifferentiated in Eden becomes dichotomized in mortality.
One consequence of the Fall was the initiation of male rule. As I have pointed out, the Fall ended the oneness of man and woman and brought about men’s rule over women. Our fallen world is also characterized by the dominance of the masculine principle. Since the principle of separation brought about the Fall, it characterizes mortality. Because the masculine principle dominates mortality, we may equate it with the principle of separation. This means that the feminine principle is one of bringing together or union. The qualities generally considered to be masculine may be categorized under the principle of separation and those generally considered feminine may be thought of as unifying qualities. Since mortal life is ruled by the [p.28]masculine principle of separation, we may conjecture that the unity characterizing our pre-mortal life manifests the dominance of the feminine principle in that sphere. Our Mother Eve, a female deity, sacrificed her immortality to give birth to mortal bodies and bring us into mortality. Jesus, a male deity, sacrificed his life to redeem us from mortality and bring us into the next stage of our existence, which we may suppose will be characterized by the equality of the feminine and masculine principles.
Joseph Campbell in his book Hero With a Thousand Faces argues that the heroic quest functions as an archetype for the quest for selfhood. In this quest the hero must break away from the Mother and undertake a journey in which ordeals must be endured, trials overcome, and tasks performed as he searches for the Father. The high point of the journey is the apotheosis in which the hero and the Father are united and the hero is given gifts. The pattern of the heroic quest fits into our understanding of the Fall and the purposes of mortality. Mortal life, then, can be seen as the quest for individual selfhood. This quest is obviously a masculine one; it emphasizes masculine principles. One of the ordeals often involves fleeing from a woman who attempts to divert the hero from his quest. This symbolizes the principle that masculine identity is not found in contrast to feminine identity but in the meeting with God the Father. Similarly, we might expect that feminine identity is not found in contrast to masculine identity but will be revealed in a meeting with Mother God.
The God who revealed himself to Joseph Smith and whom Joseph revealed to us is not beyond sexuality. He is a fully sexual being with a fully sexual female partner. He is our father and he has revealed himself to us in his son, Jesus Christ. But God the Mother has not similarly revealed herself to us. What does this mean for women?
Feminists such as Merlin Stone and Riane Eisler have argued that whenever God is pictured or symbolized as male, women are subordinated and masculine values and qualities are considered superior to feminine ones. If there are any who think the gender of the revealed God is insignificant, let them ask themselves, “What if Jesus had been a woman? What if the scriptures talked predominantly about God the Mother? What difference would that make in my ideas about God and myself and how would that affect my experience with deity?” Do we need a male God to model male identity and a female God to model female identity?
Before we answer this question we need to understand that the search for masculine identity is not simply for men and the search for feminine identity is not simply for women. The principle of polarity tells us that men [p.29]must possess feminine as well as masculine characteristics and women must possess masculine qualities along with feminine ones. Although the heroic quest, the quest for individual selfhood, is a masculine one, it is a journey that women as well as men must take, for everyone must learn the lessons and perform the tasks of mortality.
If human beings need to possess both masculine and feminine characteristics, it should be clear that God, both male and female, is a complete and perfect being, possessing both feminine and masculine attributes in their perfection. The idea that we need a male God to model male identity and a female God to model female identity presupposes an essential difference between men and women. But we have seen that gender differences are culturally constructed and that the feminine and masculine principles are conceptual. Real human beings, living in freedom, possess all human attributes, which they develop or neglect according to their own desires, gifts, and opportunities. Having a female God for women to pattern themselves after and a male God for men to emulate encourages rigid gender distinctions and perpetuates gender stereotypes. However, picturing God exclusively as male, and using his fatherhood as the principal metaphor to describe him, justifies, symbolizes, and even causes the subordination of women and the devaluation of attributes and roles considered to be feminine. We must also picture God as female and experience her as mother if women are to attain equality and if feminine attributes and roles are to be valued equally with masculine ones.
I do not mean to imply that we can or should simply define God to meet our needs (although, of course, we often do this). However, if we examine the scriptures closely, we will find that God is often described with feminine attributes and is sometimes pictured in feminine roles. Often he/she appears as androgynous or ungendered, the text giving us no reason to suppose that God is either male or female; if we assume that he is male, it is because of our own prejudice. Joseph Smith’s teaching that God is embodied should cause us to take seriously the question of God’s gender. If God is unembodied, surely it makes more sense to think of him/her as androgynous or ungendered.
For Christians, however, Jesus Christ is the revelation of God the Father and his male body continues to privilege the masculine over the feminine despite the many feminine qualities he exemplified in his life and honored in his teachings and the equal and respectful treatment he accorded women. Without a similar, embodied revelation of God the Mother, it is difficult to see how humanity will ever understand the equal-[p.30]ity of women and men and the feminine and the masculine. I do not believe, as some Mormons seem to, that God the Mother is uninvolved in our mortal existence. I believe that she is the Holy Ghost and as such she is intimately involved in helping us in our mortal lives and in bringing about our salvation. As the Holy Ghost, she is the immanent God, the invisible God, the unrecognized God, not the God whom we worship but the God who brings us to worship, not the God we search for but the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being. I long for and pray for her revelation, but I also believe that the condescension and atonement of Jesus Christ open up the way for the equality of men and women and the feminine and the masculine.
Jesus Christ is also a revelation of God the Mother, not in the sense that Jesus embodies the spirit of the Father, but in the sense that he models the role of the Mother. He became a human being so that we could become gods, and he, as a man, took upon himself the most fundamental role of a woman so that both genders could understand their equality and know that this equality can only be realized when women seek and find their masculine identity as well as their feminine identity and when men seek and find their feminine identity as well as their masculine identity.
It was the quest for individual selfhood initiated by Eve that led us into mortality, and we may expect that the quest for feminine selfhood will lead us to the next stage of our eternal existence and that Jesus will bring us to this stage. Although the meaning of gender and the masculine-feminine opposition goes far beyond the physical, it is surely grounded in the difference between male and female bodies. The Lord told Eve her desire would be for her husband. The feminine principle is union, and feminine selfhood, then, is relational. The rest of what the Lord told Eve was about childbearing. It is the reproductive capacity of the female body, its ability to give birth, that furnishes the symbol for the feminine principle of union or relatedness and the most fundamental symbol for feminine selfhood is the mother. The model for feminine identity is a dual one, the image of mother and child. This gives us a non-antagonistic model of heterogeneity. Although the male principle of separation makes difference possible, the female principle of union makes it possible to value the differences equally. We think of many male qualities as being independent, but they actually require a relationship. A leader requires a follower, a master a slave, a winner a loser. These relationships are hierarchical. The masculine carves out its position and then declares it to be superior or, as in masculine epistemology, the norm. Paradoxically, then, although the masculine principle identifies dif-[p.31]ferences, the feminine functions as its other (that which is different from the self, the non-standard, the underprivileged) and calls for equality. In motherhood we find a symbol of heterogeneity in which the self, the mother, welcomes and cares for the other, in which the purpose of the relationship is to bring the other into equality with the self.
The feminine principle that ruled our pre-mortal life was the child aspect of the mother-child model. The feminine identity that we must seek t to enter the new life is that of the mother. Jesus gives us a model for mother selfhood, a model for both men and women. Although biological motherhood provides the symbol for mother selfhood, it is not necessary, of course, to literally give birth in order to seek mother selfhood.
As our redeemer and savior, Jesus is both father and mother. It was to redeem us from the Fall, to bring to pass our resurrection from the dead, to bring us new life that Jesus offered his life on the cross, which symbolizes the bringing together of opposites and which is accomplished by the feminine principle of union. Just before his crucifixion Jesus lamented, “0 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, … how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” After his crucifixion Jesus spoke to the people of Nephi out of the darkness, saying:
O ye people of these great cites which have fallen … how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and have nourished you.
And again, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, … and ye would not.
O ye … whom … I have spared, how oft will I gather you as a hen gathered1 her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart (3 Ne. 10:4-6).
In his lament Jesus compares himself to a mother hen. He is sorrowful because his children have rejected his mothering. He tells the people of Nephi that he has mothered them, that he would have mothered them more often if they had let him and that he will again be their mother whenever they return unto him. Jesus repeats this image three times in the Doctrine and Covenants, one time linking it with another mother image, the waters of life (D&C 10:65; 29:2; 43:24).
In the Book of Mormon King Benjamin told his people that they were the children of Christ because he had spiritually begotten them. This spiritual rebirth consisted of a change in heart, the disposition to do evil being [p.32]changed into the love of God, and came through faith on the name of Jesus Christ, faith that through his atonement their sins would be forgiven and their hearts would be purified. King Benjamin uses the term begotten, which signifies fatherhood, but he also says “ye are born of him,” and this is the usual expression in the scriptures when they speak of rebirth. But, of course, we are born of a woman, our mother. It may be objected that the expression is symbolic. But symbols themselves are physical and, as metaphors, often relate physical realities to abstractions. If they were not grounded in the physical, symbols could not embody abstractions and make them perceptible to the mind. So if giving birth is a metaphor for what Jesus does for us, then Jesus must actually do something for us which is mother-like, which is like giving birth, or the symbol makes no sense and has no power.
The symbol of fathering is also present in the rebirth image. The father through his seed transmits some of his characteristics; he gives the child his name and acknowledges it as his son or daughter. Jesus does all this in the rebirth he offers us through his atonement. The primary symbol of the Atonement, however, is of giving birth. It is through the Atonement that we are resurrected and given immortal bodies and eternal life.
Book of Mormon prophets as well as the apostle Paul and the Book of Moses teach that the animal sacrifices performed under the Mosaic law were in similitude of the Atonement to be made by Jesus Christ. In the Atonement ritual the sacrificial blood was the most important element of the rite. Making a covenant with God was also a sacrificial ceremony involving blood. Feminists have argued that the rite of circumcision is a male imitation of the life-giving powers expressed in menstruation. A strong sacrificial or atoning significance was attached to the rite of circumcision through the close association of Passover blood and the blood of circumcision. Paul considered the Passover to be symbolic of the Atonement, and John took pains in his gospel to show Jesus’ death as the Passover sacrifice. The blood of the lamb in the Passover sacrifice was considered to be atoning and salvific. It was necessary that Jesus actually shed his blood. “There is no other way nor means whereby man can be saved, only through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ” (Hel. 5:9). “Apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins” (Mosiah 4:2). “By the virtue of the blood which I have spilt, have I pleaded before the Father for them” (D&C 38:4). The mother, not the father, gives her blood to give life to her baby. The importance of the shedding of Christ’s blood, then, argues in favor of seeing the Atonement as a birthing. If we see it simply as his being punished [p.33]for our sins, dying in our place, then why is blood so important? We can die without shedding blood.
During the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples that soon they would be sorrowful, but that this sorrow would turn into joy. He compared this sorrow turning into joy to a woman in labor. “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world” (John 16:21). Jesus may also have been trying to comfort himself because his first words in the prayer he offered before entering the Garden of Gethsemane were, “Father, the hour is come,” thus connecting his pain and the pain of a woman in labor. Like a woman in labor he wished that he might escape the agony of bringing forth new life, but he submitted himself to the process which had been ordained, recognizing, as laboring women do, that the only way out of the pain was through it. “If this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done” (Matt. 26:42). In the Doctrine and Covenants the sorrows of the day of calamity when the wicked are punished are compared to a woman in travail (136:35). This again links the suffering of Jesus in the Atonement to labor pains because Jesus declared, “But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit-and would that I might not drink the bitter cup” (D&C 19: 17-18).
In making his atoning sacrifice Jesus shed blood at several different points. In the Garden of Gethsemane he bled from every pore, so great was his agony. The soldiers made a crown of thorns and thrust it on his head, which no doubt made him bleed. He was also scourged by Pilate, and he bled from the wounds caused by the nails being driven into his hands and feet. Finally, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear after he had died.
The blood flowing from the wounds made by the thorns can be compared to the blood flowing from the circle of the birth canal. And since Jesus was both sacrificer and sacrifice, mother and child, the dying God and the first fruits of the resurrection, the circle of blood on his head also parallels the blood sometimes spilt on the baby’s head as he emerges from the womb.
The spear wound and the blood flowing from it provide the most powerful symbol of the Atonement as a birthing. The Jews had asked Pilate to break the legs of those being crucified to hasten their deaths so their bodies could be removed before the Sabbath. John is careful to point out that the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead so they did not break his legs. John sees this as significant because of the requirement that no bone of the Pass-[p.34]over lamb should be broken. The sexual symbolism of the spear and wound is significant. Comparing the spear in the wound to the union of the male and female genitals associates death with life, bringing opposites into union. Jesus died that we might live again. Dying in one world or leaving one stage of our cosmic journey means being born into another and beginning the next stage of our journey. From the spear wound flowed blood and water as in a birth blood and water flow from the birth canal. The symbolism of the spear wound is important in showing that the Atonement is a birthing. If the Atonement were only a substitute punishment, Jesus dying for our sins, even giving his life by the shedding of his blood, the spear wound would be unnecessary. Jesus had already shed his blood before the spear was thrust into his side. The purpose of the thrust was not to make sure he was dead because John tells us the soldiers did not break his legs because they saw that he was already dead. The spear wound, along with the nail prints in his hands and feet, became the signs of the crucifixion and resurrection which Jesus showed to his disciples, both Jewish and Nephite.
The symbolism of the nail prints can be found in Isaiah 49: 15. Here the Lord compares himself to a nursing mother. He asks, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yes, they may forget yet will I nor forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.” The nail prints in the palms of Jesus’ hands with blood flowing from them are like the milk flowing from the breasts of a mother, reminding her that it is time to suckle her child. This verse also leads us to the symbolism of the sacrament which Jesus told his disciples to partake of in remembrance of him. A mother nurtures her child in the womb with her blood, and after he is born the baby takes her flesh, the nipples, into its mouth and receives the milk made from her blood. Jesus told the Nephites that the bread and wine of the sacrament represent his flesh and blood and that partaking of the sacrament of his flesh and blood will nourish the soul. “And he said unto them: he that eateth this bread eateth of my body to his soul; and he that drinketh of this wine drinketh of my blood to his soul; and his soul shall never hunger or thirst, but shall be filled. Now, when the multitude had all eaten and drunk, behold, they were filled with the Spirit” (3 Ne. 20:8-9). After the rebirth of baptism we partake of the sacrament. The symbolism of the sacrament is that of a mother nursing her child—Jesus nourishes us with the milk of the spirit.
In the birth symbolism of baptism the water represents the water of the womb from which we emerge into life. Nephi calls baptism a gate and says that in baptism we enter a strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life [p.35](2 Ne. 31:17-20). This path can be likened to the birth canal. Nephi also tells us that the keeper of the gate is Jesus, so he is the mother in the birth symbolized by baptism (2 Ne. 9:41).
As Jesus hung on the cross, his mother and John stood by him. Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” Then he said to John, “Behold thy mother!” John thought Jesus was asking him to take care of his mother. I do not dispute this interpretation, but I think Jesus was also making a universal statement about his mission and its fulfillment at that moment. When he said, “Woman, behold thy son,” he was asking us to behold him as a mortal born into this world through the love of a woman and the sacrifice of her body. When he said, “Behold thy mother,” he was asking us to behold him as our mother, through love sacrificing his life to bring us into the eternal world.
Seeing the Atonement as a birthing links sacrifice with motherhood. Of course, these ideas are already strongly linked. In the past this linkage has exalted motherhood, but in our contemporary culture there is a strong dislike of sacrifice and this dislike has contaminated our valuation of motherhood. Because the mother is seen as self-sacrificing, some women who value highly the heroic quest and a strong development of selfhood feel contempt for the mother and have rejected motherhood. And those who do choose motherhood often play down its sacrificial element, stressing the fact that they freely chose to become mothers and that they find being mothers self-fulfilling.
Several factors have contributed to our culture’s current dislike of sacrifice. Since it involves giving up something, suffering, pain, and deprivation are associated with it. Contemporary secular culture has reacted strongly against the otherworldliness of a Christianity that often extols suffering for the sake of suffering. With its emphasis on the here and now, the pursuit of pleasure, materialism, and individualism, contemporary culture sees little value in sacrifice. Ironically, those who have most strongly chosen the heroic quest for individual selfhood sometimes fail to see their own extensive sacrifices. To sacrifice means, as can be discovered by consulting any dictionary, to give up something valuable, prized, or desirable for something of greater value. Every choice, then, involves some kind of sacrifice because some alternatives must be given up to choose one alternative. It is also evil, dent that sacrifice is self-centered insofar as I truly decide what I value most and choose accordingly. Achievement-oriented people must sacrifice pleasures, relationships, and the development of other aspects of themselves as they focus on one goal or objective. Sacrifice is also prudent as it would be [p.36]foolish to give up something of greater value for something of lesser value. The reason sacrifice is not recognized as being self-interested and prudent (in the most elevated senses of these terms) is that many people do not understand the sacrificial models presented to them for admiration and emulation. Since our culture has neglected spiritual and feminine values, sacrifice of material and masculine values in favor of them may seem perverse and unreasonably self-denying. The point often forgotten is that sacrifice is for something.
Another reason sacrifice has been devalued is that its voluntary nature has been overlooked. Because motherhood and other caretaking, self-sacrificing, and subservient roles have been assigned to women, feminists have tended to react strongly against sacrifice. But a forced sacrifice isn’t really a sacrifice. It’s a victimization of some kind. If I accept a sacrificing role that I haven’t freely chosen, it will be difficult for me to realize the values that may truly be present in that role.
Finally, our dislike of sacrifice stems from a rejection of a kind of sacrifice, really a pseudo-sacrifice, typified by the self-sacrificing but really manipulative mother. This mother makes many sacrifices for her children; she may sacrifice a career, personal pleasures, her time, and the development of her own talents and skills in order to serve her children. She may give her children nice clothes, many pleasures, music and dance lessons, and time for sports and clubs, while she seldom buys anything for herself or goes out of the home, except to work in a menial job to provide money for the children’s needs. The pretense behind this kind of sacrifice is that the mother wants nothing for herself. But, of course, she does. She wants to control her children and she wants to live through them. The logic behind manipulative sacrifice is that there is a kind of bargain involved; I did that for you, now you must do this for me. Of course, this is a lie because no bargain, contract, or covenant was made. The mother must pretend she wants nothing for herself because she has a mistaken notion about sacrifice; she doesn’t know that sacrifice means living up something valued for something of higher value. She has chosen or accepted a role in which she thought she could be good by sacrificing her selfhood. But the principle of polarity says that no existing thing can contain only one half of a dualism. She thought she could become good by not choosing anything for herself, but she did choose something for herself-the goodness she hoped to achieve by sacrificing her selfhood. The manipulative lie, the covert bargain, arises because the mother conflates two different types of relationships: the bargain or contractual re-[p.37]lationship, in which two equal selves agree to exchange something for their mutual benefit, with the giving-receiving relationship.
Mother selfhood offers a model for giving. This is not to say that the covenant or bargain model is of no value, only that it is incomplete. The hero self, when properly informed, has no difficulty in seeing the value of what might be termed achievement sacrifice—sacrifice for personal development, for example, giving up hanging around with friends in order to practice gymnastics and win tournaments. The idea of a bargain poses no difficulty for him; he helps his teammate improve his technique on one aspect of his performance and his teammate helps him improve a different skill. But what about helping a beginning gymnast, one who is so much worse than he is that he has nothing he can teach him about gymnastics?
Comparing the concept of ritual sacrifice with the secular concept of sacrifice—giving up something of value for something of greater value—is illuminating in revealing the nature of mother selfhood. Ritual sacrifice, in most religions where it is practiced, is a means of bringing the human and the divine into contact. In contrast to secular sacrifice where there is a can, notation of sadness or deprivation because of an emphasis on what is given up, the ritual sacrifice is associated with joy, festivity, and thanksgiving. Sacrifices are to be performed gladly as expressions of love or of the gratitude of the human for the divine. Instead of counting carefully the cost of the sacrifice and making sure it is as small as possible, the ritual sacrificer makes his sacrifice as large as possible. The secular sacrifice is not typically given to anyone; it is destroyed or not actualized; but the ritual sacrifice is offered to God. The emphasis is not on giving up but on giving to. Hence the root meaning of the word sacrifice is to make sacred. What is given up is made sacred by being given to God. Finally, the two types of sacrifice are similar in that both are for something, to realize a greater good. Ritual sacrifices are offered to obtain gifts from God and to express gratitude for gifts already given.
In the way of the mother the idea of the gift replaces the idea of the bargain in the model for relationships. In his atoning sacrifice Jesus modeled giving. (1) A gift is freely given: Jesus’ sacrifice was totally voluntary. “The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). It was not easy; “which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit, and would that I might not drink the bitter cup” (D&C 19:18), but Jesus saw that it was necessary to fulfill his greater “work and glory-to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
[p.38](2) A gift is given through and by and because of love. “[Jesus Christ] so loved the world that he gave his own life” (D&C 34:3).
(3) A gift is given primarily for the good of the one upon whom it is bestowed. Although the giver will receive intrinsic benefits from giving, her attention is focused primarily on the needs of the other.
(4) A gift is unconditional. This characteristic requires some explanation. Many “gifts” are covert bargains. A gift is offered but there is a hidden condition; something is expected in return. Perhaps the giver expects the receiver to give him a gift also. Christmas and birthday gifts are sometimes like this. Try giving a gift for no reason and see how perplexed the recipient is. When gifts are given to the poor or children, those we regard as incapable of giving in return, we often expect, at least, gratitude. But to demand gratitude is to make the gift a kind of bargain and to make real gratitude impossible. Gratitude must also be freely given. But is the Atonement unconditional? And doesn’t God expect us to express our gratitude for our blessings? “For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift” (D&C 88:33). If I give my daughter a computer and she doesn’t learn how to use it, the gift is of no use to her; that is, the gift itself may impose conditions for its full use. God’s love and immortality are given to us unconditionally. The gift of eternal life is offered to us, but we must receive God’s love and follow his spirit and abide certain laws in order to receive the gift of eternal life. If we do not receive the gift, we do not rejoice in him who is the giver of the gift. This points out that a gift invites gratitude. God does not demand gratitude; it is not a condition of his giving. He makes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. But he asks us to express our thanks because gratitude is another gift he wishes to bestow upon us. This brings us to the next characteristic of giving.
(5) Giving invites reciprocity. We are all familiar with the maxim, “It is better to give than to receive.” If it truly is better to give than to receive, then the giver is taking the better role and the receiver, in giving the giver the opportunity to give, is the better giver. So it is better to receive than to give. This paradox points again to the principle of polarity. We cannot give without receiving and we cannot receive without giving. How, then, is a gift more than a bargain? Because it is always more than is bargained for. It is like two mirrors placed opposite each other: infinitely reflecting.
(6) The sacrificial gift also requires faith. In a bargain or a contract the terms are made as specific as possible. Each party knows what he will give [p.39]and what he will receive. Since each person involved tries to make sure that he will get something of equal or greater value than what he will give, a bargain ideally represents a fair exchange of goods or services. A gift, however, is unnegotiated. The sacrifice is offered with the faith that something of greater value than what is given will be received.
(7) In the Atonement Jesus became the sacrifice; he was both giver and gift. The greatest gift is the gift of self. And, indeed, this is the gift that everyone desires to give and the gift that everyone desires to receive. To experience myself in my uniqueness, to be self-aware, is to experience self-love. And self-love desires to be recognized and loved by the other. In giving myself to the other, I receive the gift of myself.
The mother-child relationship is the basic model for relational identity or connectedness because it symbolizes the self that is actualized by the sacrificial giving of itself to give life to another. It symbolizes the self that cannot be without the other. Sexual union should symbolize the bringing together of opposites, recognized to be different and separate but of equal value. The opposites that are joined are individuality and connectedness, the masculine principle and the feminine principle. If the masculine and feminine are not recognized as equal, sexual acts become a symbol of the dominance of man over woman, rape being the most extreme expression of this view. If connectedness were symbolized by sexual union, there would be no recognition of the masculine principle, the principle of separation, and the concept of union as the bringing together of separated but equal opposites would collapse. Relational identity must be symbolized by the connectedness of two selves, unequal in some way which makes one dependent upon the other, as in the mother-child relationship. The hidden principle here is that the mother as mother also could not survive without the life of her child.
Mother selfhood is brought about by giving birth, but the primary symbol of mother selfhood is the pregnant woman, she who contains and sustains within her body another body created entirely by the materials which her body gives it but by a process outside her control. The conception of a child involves a reconception of myself. As I watch my body changing, I know that I am changing. I become intimately aware of a force outside myself, the force of life, which is performing a miracle inside me. In becoming a mother I am receiving a gift—the gift of being able to love unconditionally, of being able to love another the same way I love myself. When I became pregnant with my seventh child I quickly lost lost of the vision in my left eye, and as the pregnancy developed 1was losing vision in my right eye. [p.40]I was told that if I didn’t terminate the pregnancy I might lose all my vision and my life might even be in danger. I found, somewhat to my surprise, that for me there was no agonizing decision to be made. I simply loved my baby as much as I loved myself. That love was a gift and it was beyond rational considerations.
In giving birth the mother expels her child from the womb and he begins a separate existence. Birthing, then, symbolizes the separate identities of mother and child. Birth is the reality symbolized by initiation rites and the hero’s quest for selfhood begins in battling a monster, which symbolizes separation from the mother or community. When my little girl wanted to know how the baby got out, I explained contractions to her. Her response was, “That must hurt the baby.” The mother’s perspective of birth is different from the hero’s. In the LaMaze classes I took before the birth of my first baby, I learned to use the term contractions instead of “pains,” as my mother had, but in giving birth nine times I have learned that instead of hoping that the pain won’t be too bad, it is better to accept and welcome the pain as a necessary part of the joy of bringing forth a baby.
When she nurses her baby, a mother is again united with her child. The suckling baby-nursing mother symbolizes the continued connectedness of the mother-child image, as well as the nurturing-giving-sacrificial aspects of motherhood. But it is important to remember that giving invites reciprocity and that sacrifice is for something greater. As a new mother, one who had been a hero defining myself by my achievements, I marveled that I was able to find peace simply by gazing at the baby tugging at my breast.
The images of the mother that I have presented, pregnant woman, woman-giving-birth, and mother-nursing-baby, are meant to affirm the values which have been considered feminine-submission, passivity, being, the body, emotion, dependency, associativity, subjectivity, and others. In defining hero selfhood as masculine and mother selfhood as feminine I have not meant to suggest that heroism is for males and motherhood is for females. On the contrary, I have attempted to show that both modes of being are essential for both men and women. Finding hero selfhood, or individual identity, is the primary work of every person. If we attempt to become mothers without making a good start on developing our individual identities, it will be difficult for us to distinguish our child or the other from ourselves, and we may become involved in pseudo-sacrifice, trying to control, manipulate, and live through others rather than letting them seek their own selfhood. If we reject mother selfhood, it will be impossible for us to develop our [p.41]feminine qualities and discover the love that comes from sacrifice for others and the community.
I meant my title, “Jesus, Our Mother” to be provocative. In arguing that Jesus models and affirms feminine values, attributes, and modes of being, I have risked offending some men (and women), for some men have had as much of a problem in seeing Jesus as a masculine model as women have had in seeing him as a feminine model. When Jesus’ feminine qualities are emphasized, men who have failed to include the feminine principle in their identity find him effeminate and reject him as a model, and, of course, some women also find an “effeminate” Jesus unattractive. I have also risked offending feminists who may see Jesus’ assumption of the role of the mother as a symbol of man’s usurpation of feminine prerogatives.
In showing that Jesus modeled the role of the mother for us, I do not mean to suggest that Jesus is the Mother nor do I mean to suggest that the revelation of the Mother God is not important. What I have tried to show is that the revelation of Jesus Christ is enough to affirm the equal status of the feminine principle with the masculine principle and to show that a fulfilled human being needs to integrate both principles and assume many roles.
Our culture has been dominated by the hero image of selfhood and by the marketplace ideal of the public sphere-the ideal of free, autonomous individuals making mutually advantageous interchanges, an arena of heroes. The image of the mother and her child needs to be recognized as equally important and moved into the public sphere. There needs to be a recognition that sacrifice is important, that the needy are as valuable as the autonomous, and that all individuals need to play, and do play at different times, all the roles—receiver, giver, exchanger—and that finally we all play them simultaneously.