Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano
The Divine Mother
[p.47]The concept that God is paradoxically transcendent and immanent has important theological implications for the place of the feminine in Christianity. Some feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether have correctly observed that classical and early Christian (including neoplatonic and gnostic) dualism has leant support to traditional theological arguments for the inferiority of the feminine. Dualism presents a world divided into pairs—light and darkness, heaven and earth, reason and instinct, culture and nature, spirit and body—and connects the female with what has traditionally been viewed as the less desirable component of a pair: darkness, earth, instinct, nature, and the flesh. Ruether observes that “women are symbolized as analogous to the lower realm of matter or body, to be ruled by or shunned by transcendent mind” (79). Because women in this view are connected with the body, they also symbolize sexuality and carnality, both as objects of sexual desire and as reproducers of children. To quote Ruether again, “Women, as representatives of sexual reproduction and motherhood, are the bearers of death, from which male spirit must flee to ‘light and life'” (80). For Ruether the only way to end the subjugation of women is to eliminate the idea of duality itself.
Although we agree with much of this analysis, we disagree with the conclusion for two reasons. First, it may be impossible to rid ourselves of duality since it seems ingrained in our way of perceiving the world. Second, we do not believe it is duality itself which leads to the subjugation of the feminine but rather the failure to see each component of a paired set as equally valuable and the tendency to associate one component exclusively with women and the other exclusively with men.
A theology of a God of flesh and glory provides a model preserving binary opposites but refusing to favor one component over the other or [p.48]to link the so-called less favorable component with the female. If God is both body and spirit, then we may believe that both are equally necessary and valuable.
For us God is not only flesh and glory but also male and female. We disagree with those who assert that avoiding sexism means picturing God as a being beyond gender and sexuality. A picture of a God beyond all categories and relations encourages the very spirit/matter dichotomy which has denigrated women and sex.1 In our view the more salutary doctrine is one that sees God as spirit and body, male and female. For this reason we have come to accept both a male God and a female God, each of whom is simultaneously transcendent and immanent. Rather than seeing the male as the God of sky, spirit, day, and reason and the female as the God of the earth, body, night, and intuition, we see each of them as both.2
In our view elevating women and ending distrust of the feminine depends not on accepting a deity beyond sexuality but on accepting a powerful Goddess within the Mormon and Judeo-Christian tradition. This need was recognized a century ago by Edward W. Tullidge in his remarkable work, Women of Mormondom: “Henceforth shall the mother half of creation be worshipped with that of the God-Father; and in that worship woman, by the very association of ideas, shall be exalted in the coming civilization” (189).3 Such a Goddess concept is not, as might first be supposed, alien to the West. Though in comparison to our images of the male God, feminine images of the divine are few, still these have been surprisingly irrepressible. No matter how many times she is [p.49]rejected and even killed, the Goddess always re-emerges in one form or another.
Raphael Patai in The Hebrew Goddess notes that “the religion of the Hebrews and the Jews was never without at least a hint of the feminine in its God-concept.” And at times the feminine divine expanded in the Jewish religion into a full-fledged Goddess, who on a popular level almost over-shadowed the male deity (1978, 258). In Christianity the female deity has survived as the Virgin Mary, the Mother Church, and even as a feminine Jesus. There seems to be a human need for the mothering and nurturing aspects of divinity that finally brings God the Mother back into all religions from which she has been rejected.
This motherly aspect of deity, so appealing to some, can be offensive to others. A person who has had either an over-bearing or a neglectful mother may have no desire for another mother, even a divine one. The converse is also true. A person whose father was authoritarian, judgmental, and harsh or distant, unfeeling, and cold may project these images onto a heavenly father and reject him. This points to one problem with imaging God only in terms of father or mother. In addition such images tend to contract our view of God and how we should imitate God. Because in Mormonism the female deity has been seen almost exclusively in a mothering role, many have been inclined to restrict women to the sphere of mothering and nurturing. We have taken the model of patriarchal marriage and projected it onto our heavenly parents, thus reinforcing the prevailing view that women should be subordinate and function as homemakers and nothing else.
For these reasons we think it essential to find alternative images for the female divinity as well as the male. This is not to demean the mothering function of the Goddess but to expand our concept of her divine attributes, to see her as a Supreme Being independent from though united with her male counterpart. This is why we refer to the Heavenly Mother by the word “Goddess,” a term of power emphasizing her godhood and implying a scope which includes but exceeds mothering.4
[p.50]In the following paragraphs we will be drawing upon God images from other religious traditions, not to prove or reinforce Mormon concepts of deity but rather to explore and expand the possibilities for imaging God, and especially to provide a picture of the female divinity to which we can relate.
Certain images in the Judeo-Christian tradition depict a powerful and multi-faceted female deity, a being not merely associated with mothering but also with wisdom and sovereignty. In ancient Judaism the divine attribute of Wisdom (Hokhma in Hebrew) became almost a separate feminine divinity. This same process occurred in early Christianity, especially in the Gnostic sects, where Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) also came to be seen as a goddess. Many feel that these figures were more than personifications; they functioned as divinities in their own right.5 In Proverbs, which forms part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, Wisdom speaks in her own person and says she was with God before the foundations of the world: “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was … when he appointed the foundations of the earth …. Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him” (8:22-23, 29-30). Though connected with God the Male, Wisdom has a life of her own apart from him. She herself addresses humanity in the authoritative manner of a divine being and gives commandments to Israel just as the male God does. And like him she addresses Israel as her children: “Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways” (v. 32).
The writer of Proverbs pictures Wisdom as having great power and dominion: “By me Kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth. I love them [p.51]that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me. … For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favor of the Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death” (vv. 15-17, 35, 36). Wisdom is also described in the same terms used for the male God. She has eternal life, honor, peace, riches, and power. She is a tree of life, an image connecting her with other ancient Near Eastern deities as well: “Length of days is in her right hand and in her left hand riches and honour. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is everyone that retaineth her” (3:16-18).
Moreover, Wisdom is not presented as an ancient stereotype of acceptable female behavior. Virginia Mollenkott makes the following observation: “Proverbs 1:20-33 depicts Wisdom (Hokhma) as crying aloud at street corners, raising her voice in the public squares, offering her saving counsel to anybody who will listen to her. Wisdom’s behavior runs directly counter to the socialization of a proper lady, who is taught to be rarely seen and even more rarely heard in the sphere of public activity. Assertive, insistent, and noisy: according to modern definition, Wisdom is a woman, but no lady!” (98).6
The medieval Christians were drawn into the embrace of a female divinity in the person of the Virgin Mary. Her attributes and characteristics were many, including wisdom, which was symbolized at times as milk or honey. As one scholar writes, “The complex of symbolism that associated the Virgin with Wisdom and with the Church transformed her into the nursing mother of many penitents, visionaries, and saints” (Warner, 198). In the east Mary’s “identification with Wisdom [was] very close: Sophia appears, for instance, in an Armenian gospel miniature of 1323 suckling the apostles Peter and Paul” (ibid.). This image suggests that the wisdom of God is communicated to the saints through the intercession of the Virgin. Thus, the image of motherhood is extended beyond the physical to the spiritual realm, where life and enlightenment are imparted through the nurturing process. At this time the sovereignty of Mary was also emphasized in her title as [p.52]”Queen of Heaven,” which she acquired upon her assumption. This aspect of her divinity is represented pictorially by her crown and throne. “Seated in majesty on a throne, the Virgin Queen contains a multi-layered message: she belongs to a classical tradition of personifying cities and institutions as goddesses, and as such, in the heart of Rome, she embodies the new Rome, which is the Church” (ibid., 104).7
Anciently Wisdom was also connected with God’s spirit. The feminine deity was intercessor and comforter. In late Talmudic literature Wisdom’s function was taken over by the Shekhina or Holy Spirit. The Hebrew word shekhina means “dwelling” or “presence” of God. Eventually the Shekhina came to be thought of as an “independent feminine divine entity prompted by her compassionate nature to argue with God in the defense of man” (Patai 1978, 99). In certain passages of Jewish sacred literature, the Shekhina takes the role of mediator, persuading humans to obey God and God to be merciful to humanity: “The Holy Spirit comes to the defense [of sinful Israel by] saying first to Israel: ‘Be not a witness against thy neighbor without a cause,’ and thereafter saying to God: ‘Say not: I will do to him as he hath done to me'” (ibid., 112). In Catholic theology Mary, the mother of Jesus, plays a similar intercessory role. As a female deity she is “‘the mother of mercy,’ the ‘life, sweetness, and hope’ of the fallen, the advocate who pleads humanity’s cause before the judgement seat of God” (Warner, 316). Like Jewish thinkers, Christian Gnostics also saw the Holy Spirit as a feminine deity. In the secret Gospel of the Hebrews, Jesus speaks of “my Mother, the Spirit,” and in another Gnostic text, The Gospel of Philip, the writer refers to the Holy Spirit as the “mother of many.” In the Secret Book of John, the Spirit is referred to as mother and included in the [p.53]trinity in the place of the Holy Ghost: Father, Mother, and Son (Pagels, 110).
In Jewish Kabbalistic literature, mystical writings dating from the thirteenth century A.D., God is pictured as a divine tetrad: Father, Mother, Son, and Daughter. Some of the names or titles ascribed to the daughter in the Kabbalah suggest other important images or attributes of the female God. These titles include: kingship, Matronit or lady (the equivalent of Lord), pearl or precious stone, discarded cornerstone, the community of Israel, the female, moon, heart, earth, night, garden, well, sea, supernal woman, and light woman (Patai 1978, 143). Mary also has many names. Some of these are taken from scriptural ideas: mother of divine grace, mother of good counsel, virgin most powerful, mirror of justice, seat of wisdom, vessel of honor, mystical rose, tower of David, house of gold, ark of the covenant, gate of heaven, morning star, health of the sick, refuge of sinners, queen of angels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, and all saints (Marian Missal, 1407-1408).
The Matronit or Shekhina became associated with Queen Sabbath, the feminine divine presence dwelling in the households of faithful Jews on the Sabbath day. She was also called the bride of God, a title emphasizing her sexual nature and her role as lover of both God and men. In this respect the Matronit, like the love goddesses of the Near East, was both sexual and virginal at the same time. The Shekhina not only coupled with “the divine King who was her lawfully wedded husband” but also with “gods, heroes of Biblical history, and many other men” (Patai 1978, 160-61).
In medieval Christianity Mary too was depicted as both lover and virgin. She is associated with the “bride” in the Song of Songs as well as in Revelation (Warner, 124, 128). Sometimes she is depicted as the virgin mother of Christ, at other times as his spouse. In one twelfth century mosaic in Rome, Mary, enthroned at the side of Jesus and embraced by him, is obviously being depicted not as his mother alone but as his bride and queen (ibid., 121). Eventually Mary became the object of passionate devotion and sexual attraction to men like St. Bernard, the founder of the Cistercians, whose “marked love of the Virgin, with its character of personal intensity, was … carried all over Europe” (ibid., 131). There adoration of Mary flowered as part of the courtly love tradition.
Of course both the Matronit and Mary arc also represented as mother goddesses, but the mother image in the Jewish and Christian [p.54]traditions differs markedly from the popular Mormon notion of a mother in heaven, who appears to have no other function than producing offspring. The Matronit and Mary as mother goddesses are not pictured as distant, hard-to-reach deities somewhere in the heavens above. Rather each is cast in the image of the Mater Dolorosa, the mourning mother who imposes upon herself a voluntary exile in order to wander with and comfort her children, mourning and grieving in this veil of tears. She is like Rachel weeping for her children. She is Demeter looking for her lost daughter. As the Holy Spirit she is very near and acts as a continual divine presence sustaining us in the lone and dreary world. This is perhaps the most moving image of the Goddess, a divine being who like Jesus suffers with us and understands our pain.
In the Mormon tradition, although the concept of the Goddess or Mother in Heaven emerged during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, little theology has ever been developed about her. Though there have been infrequent references made to the Heavenly Mother in church conferences, the most familiar reference is found in the Mormon hymn, originally entitled “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother” (Tullidge, 187) but now called ironically O My Father:
In the heavens are parents single?
No; the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason, truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
In the last century the Mormon Heavenly Mother generally has been described as an ideal woman in a mothering role (Wilcox, 69-70). Usually this description has been advanced to promote a role for women as childbearers and homemakers.
However, a few Mormon prophetic and scriptural statements suggest that Heavenly Mother is a being equal with God in power and glory and a member of the godhead. For example, Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants states that those who receive the fullness of the priesthood, which is promised to men and women in the LDS temple ritual, shall become “gods, because they have no end” and because “all things are subject unto them” and “they have all power” (vv. 19-20). A similar point was made by Mormon apostle Erastus Snow in a [p.55]sermon given on 3 March 1878: “[T]here can be no God except he is composed of the man and woman united, and there is not in all the eternities that exist, nor ever will be a God in any other way. I have another description: There never was a God, and there never will be in all eternities, except they are made of these two component parts; a man and a woman; the male and the female” (JD 19:270). Not only is the female God equal with the male, but neither would be God without the other.
We may well ask why Mormonism has not developed more theology around God the Mother since we Mormons were early to sound the theme. One cause of our failure has been perhaps our certainty about the nature of the godhead. We mistakenly assume we have a complete picture and understand all about their character and their comings and goings. We tend to use Joseph Smith’s 1838 account of his first vision as a final statement about the nature of God rather than as a starting point. By refusing to expand our views, we refuse to mature beyond the religious ideas we held as children. Joseph Smith said: “When things that are great are passed over with[ou]t even a tho[ugh]t I want to see [truth] in all its bearings & hug it to my bosom—I bel[ieve] all that God ever rev[eale]d & I never hear[d] of a man being d[amne]d for bel[ievin]g too much but they are d[amne]d for unbel[ief]” (WJS, 381).
This statement suggests another reason why we fail to see the need for the worship of the Goddess or to recognize her influence: fear. We are afraid to deviate from accepted God-concepts. Joseph Smith encouraged us not to be afraid. By knowing the true nature of the Gods, we can come to understand our own nature, our place in the universe, our potential: “If men [and women] do not comprehend the character of God they do not comprehend themselves. what kind of being is God?—Eternal life [is] to know God.—if [a] man [or a woman] does not know God, [then he or she] has not Eternal life.—… Soon as we begin to understand the character of the Gods [they] begin to unfold the heavens to us.—” (ibid., 340-41). In our view none of us need be afraid or ashamed of our desires to comprehend the gods and specifically to know more about the attributes of God the Mother. We should not feel we are treading on forbidden ground. Yearnings for God the Mother and Daughter are as holy as yearnings for God the Father and Son.
Of course these statements are not meant as invitations to believe anything and everything or to be unconcerned about distinguishing truth from falsehood. But they are calls to open our minds to new [p.56]ideas. Many Mormons are afraid to do this because they do not wish to be wrong. But we are all wrong. Entertaining wrong views is an inevitable part of the process of spiritual and intellectual growth. We are admonished by the apostle Paul to try new ideas, to discard what we find inadequate or bad, and to hold to the good (1 Thess. 5:21). Our pictures of God, male and female, are bound to fall short of the divine reality. Even our actual spiritual experiences, our contacts with deity, should not be used dogmatically to declare the final word about what the godhead is like.
We should remember that many rejected Jesus when he revealed himself on earth in the flesh. He did not fulfill the prevailing expectations of what a divine being would be like. If this is true of God the Male, it is undoubtedly true of God the Female. If we focus on our own narrow picture of her and close off other possibilities, we may not recognize her when she reveals herself to us. A paraphrase of scripture is to the point: “Beloved, now are we the daughters of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when she shall appear, we shall be like her; for we shall see her as she is” (cf. 1 John 3:2).
In the beginning woman was made in the image of her heavenly parent—the divine Mother. And in the spiritual re-creation, women are spiritually transformed in her image. We may not yet know what that image is, but we know that women can become like her. For this reason we believe that more revelation about her is sorely needed. Belief in God the Mother can give women a sense of self-worth and an elevated sense of destiny.
However, the goddess concept is not without its dangers. There is a negative side to the worship by females of the female divinity just as there is a negative side to the worship by males of the male divinity. In either case complete identification with the deity can lead to idolatry, to the mistake of confusing God’s voice speaking in us with the voice of our own ego. This occurs in some modern Goddess worship as well as in the traditional worship of the Father and the Son whenever we see in God, male or female, merely the projection and personification of our own values and views. The result of this mistake is self-worship, the inverse of which is self-hatred. Self-worship and self-hatred seem to go hand in hand and are perhaps the two greatest temptations of the twentieth century. Of course self-esteem, rooted in respect for God’s love and respect for both human potential and limitation, is healthy. But self-worship is unhealthy. It looks not to God but to the human [p.57]heart for the power of salvation. And when human salvation fails, very often self-worship turns to self-hatred.
One of the most important benefits of a belief in God or in the supernatural is its power to draw our attention away from the self toward acceptance of an other, of something different from the self. If we can love only what is like us, we will be narcissistic and closed. For this reason the theology of God the Mother is as important for men as the theology of God the Father is for women. We need to worship something different as well as something similar to ourselves.
In Mormonism the doctrine that women and men can become like their heavenly parents can also lead to self-worship if it is not put in a Christian context. Emphasis on our potential to become like our Mother and Father in Heaven can suggest that our own salvation depends merely upon our growth. Because we are the children of God the Mother and God the Father, some believe that we tend naturally to grow to be like them. It is only a matter of time. But this idea runs contrary to Christ’s teachings that salvation is not merely a matter of growth but of change. If we are to be like the gods, we must experience a change of heart and nature, a spiritual rebirth. We must be born of the spirit. We must see that though the seed of godhood is in us, it can only develop by receiving the power of God through the atonement.
We feel very strongly that any theology of God the Mother must be established in a Christian context. This does not mean we should not look to other religions or religious traditions for knowledge about the female divinity. We believe that the pagans, for example, had great truths about the Goddess under various names—truths that can open us to further revelations about the nature of God the Mother. But we are Christians and believe that Jesus is savior, the name through which we receive salvation. For us then a theology of God the Female must be compatible with the revelation of God the Male in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
A story about a friend makes this point. At a difficult time in her life, our friend was full of despair and felt that something was very wrong with her—that her femaleness was in some way insufficient. She had an overwhelming desire to have some contact with Heavenly Mother. Since her usual way of praying seemed to fail her at this time, she decided to use a visualization technique she had recently learned. She pictured herself in a beautiful pastoral setting waiting for an animal to appear to serve as her guide. She had expected a magnificent or elegant animal such as a lion or a gazelle. Instead a badger crawled out of [p.58]the ground and instructed her to follow him. From this point the vision was out of her control. The badger led her to a divine being she knew to be God, that is Jesus Christ. He was glorious, whole, complete, serene, and totally unperturbed at her disappointment.
“I didn’t come to see you,” said our friend.
“I know,” said Jesus. And then he pointed and said, “There she is.” Our friend then saw another glorious being, who was in some way identical to the first in the quality of her godhood. Both were self-existent beings, complete, containing all that was necessary for perfection. And yet this second being was as distinctly female as the first had been distinctly male.
As our friend gazed on this female deity, the Goddess communicated to her two ideas.
“Can you see that what you are is enough?” she said first. And then she added, “You are me.”
When our friend told us this story, she explained she understood this latter statement did not mean that our friend was the same as or equal to the divine being but rather that she was somehow part of the Goddess and could someday be like her.
The unexpected in this vision strikes us as particularly true: the badger as the guide, Jesus Christ as the god who acknowledges the divine equality of the Goddess, and the familiarity and at the same time the unexpectedness of what the Goddess is like.
Frankly our attention in the past has not been focused on the female deity. Our own most intense spiritual experiences have been with Jesus Christ and the power of his redeeming love. Perhaps because we have seen ourselves as sinners and our most dire need has been for a savior, our attention has been drawn to the person of Jesus. And yet something unexpected has happened to us as we have studied Goddess images in both the pagan and the Judeo-Christian traditions. We have begun to experience feelings of love and gratitude for God our Heavenly Mother as we have come to understand more about her nature and her presence among us.
We have concluded that knowing about God the Mother is vital and that she is not far away. Perhaps her presence is always with us, and our Lady and our Lord together sustain us with their love. Perhaps this prayer, adapted by some Jewish women from traditional liturgy (Janowitze, 176), may express something of this feeling:
[p.59]Blessed is She who spoke and the world became.
Blessed is She.
Blessed is She who in the beginning gave birth.
Blessed is She who says and performs.
Blessed is She who declares and fulfills.
Blessed is She whose womb covers the earth.
Blessed is She whose womb protects all creatures.
Blessed is She who nourished those who are in awe of Her.
Blessed is She who lives forever, and exists eternally.
Blessed is She who redeems and saves.
Blessed is Her Name.
1. As Christians we believe that the present world is corrupt and fallen and in need of redemption; however, it is not materiality and sexuality as such that constitute this corruption but the entropic powers of corruption and alienation from the love, truth, and spirit of God.
2. Here we agree with Reuther that it is a mistake to connect the Goddess only with immanence, nature, and nurture as is done in some modern Goddess worship. Reuther says that the result of this is “the creation of a Goddess religion that is the reverse of a patriarchal religion” (52). In chapter 7 we argue that it is necessary to move beyond the battle over which of these powers (i.e., male or female—transcendence or immanence) is superior and to see the question from a different perspective.
3. In 1910 Mormon apostle Rudger Clawson recognized that women and men have a need to worship and “yearn to adore” a mother in heaven. He felt that the worship of the “Eternal Mother” did not detract from our worship of the “Eternal Father” (Wilcox, 72).
4. It is, of course, equally important to see the nurturing aspects of the male deity as well. For this reason the notion of Jesus, our mother, is for some very moving. For example, St. Anselm, using the scriptural image of a hen gathering her chicks, said: “Christ, my mother,/you gather your chickens under your wings;/this dead chicken of yours puts himself under those wings.” Bernard of Clairveaux in an even more passionate statement said: “Suck not the wounds, but rather the breasts of the crucified. He shall be as a mother to you, and you as a son to him” (Warner, 196-97). Julian of Norwich also referred to Jesus as mother and used the image of Christ’s breasts.
5. Raphael Patai deals at length with the problem in Judaism, a monotheistic religion, of a female deity, which he sees as a departure from the idea of the one God. On the one hand, Patai argues, those in Judaism who made use of female divine images did so as a form of mystical and theosophic speculation about the nature of the one God. On the other hand, the nature and effect of the female images was very similar to that of pagan goddesses.
6. Philo, a Hellensitic Jewish philosopher of the first century A.D., also saw Wisdom as a feminine aspect of the divine nature and connected her with sovereignty. Moreover, while Philo believed like Jews in general that God was really “one,” he felt that the two chief powers of God, “goodness and sovereignty,” took a male and female form (Patai, 72). Philo’s concept of the male and female aspects of deity were not literal in the way Mormons see them.
7. The image of God, male or female, as imperial majesty no longer has the appeal it once did. Likewise the image of the warrior god or goddess, which role both Mary and the Jewish Matronit have taken (Patai, 169-79), is no longer popular. The acceptance and the rejection of the warrior king/queen images illustrates our tendency to picture God in a way that reinforces or illuminates our own world views. However, these unpopular images are important because they put our own favored images in proper perspective and may present us with truths we are reluctant to accept readily. For example, the warlike goddess is often the same as the fertility goddess. This is true not only in many Near Eastern religions but with Mary and the Matronit. The paradox involves the connecting of love with war and life with death. This tells us something about the interconnectedness of these forces: Every death is a birth of sorts, every birth a death, and the old earth goddess not only gives life to all out of her womb but also receives all back into the tomb.