“The Family: A Proclamation to the World” clearly delineates a crucial Church of Jesus Christ (CoJC) belief about gender: gender is eternal and important. [1] Yet our community still struggles to find an alternative to the modern view of gender equality-as-gender sameness that does not backslide into baser forms of patriarchy. Clearly the world is moving quickly down the gender equality-as-gender-sameness road. Church leaders as well as CoJC thinkers have struck back against this tendency and have forewarned of this ideology’s severe implications. Yet I would assert that CoJC doctrine on gender does not, in its current and limited form, provide a viable, robust alternative.

Both the old road (oppressive patriarchy) and the modern track (gender equality-as-gender sameness) are founded upon the same monotheistic assumption: God is male. In fact, God is the archetypal male. In the old, patriarchal view, God as male supported the political, social, and religious superiority of men. The modern road takes an even more sinister view of God as male, particularly when coupled with CoJC doctrine. If God is male, then either women must take on the attributes of men in order to find a voice in the religious, political, and social sphere, or society must reject the male God. When applied to CoJC thought, the argument looks like this: humankind seeks to become like God. God is male. So as a woman, I can only become like Heavenly Father up to a certain point. If I am truly seeking to become like God – who is male – my gender is a roadblock. From this limited perspective, the collapse of gender difference feels urgent and liberating, not dangerous. As French feminist Luce Irigaray argues, “As long as woman lacks a divine made in her image she cannot establish her subjectivity or achieve … an ideal that would be her goal or path in becoming.” [2] Some feminist theologians, including some Mormon feminists, seek to undermine this God-as-male paradigm and its heteronormative implications by claiming that God is neither male nor female but beyond gender itself. Once again this leads to a collapse of gender difference in favor of equality as sameness.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides an alternative to these two extremes. CoJC doctrine strongly asserts that gender is eternal and important. We declare that there is a Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. Such a profound doctrine should fix the problem inherent in the Abrahamic dogma of the monotheistic male God. In terms of completeness and wholeness, men and women seek to become like God, regardless of gender. In gender specific areas, men seek to become like the perfect Male, and women seek to become like the perfect Female. In her influential FairMormon address “This is a Woman’s Church,” Sharon Eubank argues that this doctrine correctly applied has the power to clarify and heal gender equality concerns. [3]

Yet I argue that our doctrine on the matter of gender, in particular that of Heavenly Mother, is insufficient in its current and limited form. Elder Christofferson has stated that “a God who makes no demands is the functional equivalent of a God who does not exist.” [4] This applies equally to the doctrine of Heavenly Mother. A God whom we know nothing about and who does not speak is the functional equivalent of a God who does not exist. In theory, the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is revolutionary and paradigm-altering. In practice, the doctrine is so limited that it is the functional equivalent of non-existence. It lacks the ability to redirect our community from the trap of gender equality-as-gender sameness.

In order to defend the existence and importance of gender and family roles, we need to know more about the archetypal Female. We need a revelation about Heavenly Mother. Thankfully we live in an age with living prophets and apostles. Moreover, we live in a dispensation in which God has repeatedly given clarifying, expanding, and paradigm-altering revelation when the urgent need among his people arose and they asked for his guidance. It’s time once again to ask for further light and knowledge, for the continuation of the restoration of the fullness of the gospel. Perhaps our day will see the return of the Lady of the Temple and the parting of the veil which shields Her face from our view.

Equality as Sameness

From the perspective of the eternities, the existence of a Heavenly Father—who is male—invites the question of the destiny of His daughters as well as the eternal outlook for His homosexual sons and daughters. Taylor Petrey wrote an influential article in Dialogue that attempted to lay the groundwork for a post-heterosexual Mormon theology that allows for a multiplicity of sexualities in the eternities. [5] Petrey’s article relies upon his interpretation of the homosocial and homoerotic nature of the Godhead. For example, in the story of creation, it is two men—the Father and the Son—who together form the earth and all living things, including Adam and Eve. No woman takes part in this creation. The “creation of the earth, organization of the elements, and even the creation of the living bodies of Adam and Eve all occur without the presence of female figures.” So then why are Latter-day Saints stuck on the idea that heaven must be made of heterosexual couples for the sake of creation? Indeed, what is the necessity of women in the eternities at all?

Some Mormon feminists have criticized Petrey for his reliance on old patriarchal models. Margaret Toscano argues that “without Heavenly Mother we can eliminate heterosexuality from heaven and all will be well again. But how far does this move us toward an expansive Mormon theology that includes many sexualities and subject positions? It seems to me that it takes us back to Plato, the patristic fathers, and medieval monasticism where male love is praised and women are allowed only on the sidelines until they can become more fully male.” [6] That is, Petrey relies upon removing Heavenly Mother from the picture and focusing solely on the androcentric nature of the Godhead as the foundation of eternity. Petrey’s vision reduces Godhood into general maleness encompassing both feminine and masculine qualities.

Other Mormon feminists have followed Petrey’s lead. However, instead of focusing on the implications of a gendered God, they reimagine God as genderless and hence detached from the patriarchal assumptions that weigh Petrey down. God has traditionally been referred to as male due to old patriarchal assumptions about power and authority. According to their understanding of reality, God is neither male nor female, for these are merely constructs of this world. Such a view opens up Christian theology, particularly in the Latter-day Saint tradition, to attractive solutions for the LGBTQ+ community. The centrality of the sealing covenant between a man and a woman is no longer a barrier to same-sex marriage in temples. The belief in a Heavenly Father and a largely silent Heavenly Mother no longer sets the stage for an eternity of gendered familial relations. Two men or two women can be married in the eternities just as easily. [7] Of course, this formulation, like Petrey’s, of a genderless God requires the erasure of Heavenly Mother. An eternity of gender distinction is assumed to be an eternity of inequality. If gender is merely a construct of mortality, then equality is found in sameness. Differences in ecclesiastical functions between men and women are thus arbitrary barriers to equality. For example, a man has the opportunity to hold a priesthood office. A woman cannot. From the perspective of a genderless eternity, this exclusion is based solely upon mortal biological differences. Since such differences are the accident of conception, they are arbitrary. If the world seeks to move beyond the gender constructs of a fallen world, a major first step is to equalize ecclesiastical authority between men and women. The priesthood is based then on worthiness and not on biology. A genderless God is a God that moves us past a heteronormative theology and beyond gender inequality.

The idea of a genderless God solves the difficulties of the gender binary and the LGBTQ+ question. Yet Toscano’s concern about the erasure of women as a distinct class stands. A post-heteronormative eternity is an eternity without the necessity of women. As V.H. Cassler has argued, a genderless God is not the promised solution it pretends to be. More likely, Cassler argues, such a doctrine simply erases the existence of female-ness in favor of general male-ness. In her response to Petrey’s article, Cassler argues that:

“No doubt Petrey would argue that what he is advocating is the construction of or, alternatively, the realization of, a plethora of genders, not one gender. No doubt he would also argue that his vision is meant to be emancipatory for women, constrained as they truly are by unjustifiably narrow cultural gender roles across the world. However, as a woman, I believe Petrey deceives himself and his readers. When I read Petrey’s essay, I see a different bottom line: Women are no longer necessary for the Plan of Happiness to obtain. Women are no longer necessary for temple sealings to take place. Women are no longer necessary for the work of the gods in the eternities, or for there to be brought forth spirit children: indeed, there need not be a Heavenly Mother, or, for that matter, earthly mothers. Women are dispensable in Petrey’s rethinking of LDS doctrine.
Of course, Petrey would retort that the same could be said of men in his worldview. But, alas, the fact of the matter is that Petrey is a man. We women are rightfully suspicious of men’s ‘nostalgia for the one,’ a paternity unsullied by maternity, a love unsullied by the need to interact with female anatomy or psychology.” [8]

A genderless God erases the female body. The very idea of mortal embodiment and then resurrection testifies to the fact that the body matters. Bodies were not constructed along a male-female dichotomy solely to meet the requirement of procreation in mortality. Surely a genderless God could have thought up a better way to do procreation than by creating a constraining dichotomy of male and female. Bodies must matter beyond the requirements of mortality. The body is based on eternal prototypes—the Heavenly Father and the Heavenly Mother. Gender matters because the body matters.

The Old Patriarchy?

So if God is, in fact, gendered, then what of gender relations on Earth? Are women doomed to second class status on account of a garden and a snake? Is the only conceivable alternative to modern gender equality-as-gender sameness the old patriarchy? No! The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints possesses a wonderful, revolutionary (and some argue ancient) doctrine of a Mother in Heaven. The Family Proclamation declares that “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” The existence of Heavenly Parents and the essential and eternal nature of gender leads to a belief in the existence of a Heavenly Mother. This is great news! Women are not eternally defective prototypes of deity. Women have a path to follow, just as men do. We just don’t know very much about that path.

Here, I think, I will bump into critics arguing that we don’t need to know about Heavenly Mother because we have the perfect example of Jesus Christ to follow. Yes, Jesus Christ is the perfect example. We seek to become like God—perfect in the way that President Nelson has recently taught—regardless of gender. Yet gender matters as well. If gender matters in the eternities, then becoming a perfect man or perfect woman requires some archetype. It’s not enough for women to look to Jesus Christ to know what it is to be a woman in the eternities. It is enough for women to look to Jesus Christ to gain eternal life and become perfected. I do not think, however, that Jesus Christ is the perfect replica of Heavenly Mother. In fact, the scriptures never make such a claim. To know Christ is to know God the Father. While some may argue that we don’t know much about the archetypal eternal Man either, we do know a great deal about Jesus Christ, who is in the express image of His Father. Moreover, the very language we use to describe God—Heavenly Father—is gendered. He is a father. He is male. Why put such an emphasis on this gendered role if it is not important? Either gender matters or it does not.

Moreover, The Family Proclamation takes special care to highlight the importance of gender. If gender matters in the eternities, why isn’t it important to know more about Heavenly Mother? Unless, of course, the female half of God’s children are bound for an eternity of silence and second-class status, knowledge about our Mother in Heaven seems vitally important to progression.

Instead of being eternally defective on account of their two X chromosomes, women have an eternal prototype to look towards, but more knowledge is needed. Joseph Smith often highlighted the importance of knowledge in obtaining eternal life. Surely knowledge about our Mother in Heaven qualifies. At the very least, knowledge about our Mother in Heaven matters for theologically defensive reasons. CoJC doctrine supports the existence of a Heavenly Mother, but without any substantial information beyond the logical reasons for her existence (based solely on the necessity of the male-female dichotomy in creation), She becomes the functional equivalent of a nonexistent God. How can the church push back against the tide of gender equality-as-gender-sameness, which comes both from within the Church and without, if it lacks any ability to speak coherently or even minimally about Heavenly Mother? The only theological defense the church has for its position on the importance of gender and marriage in the eternities is Her existence. I’m not convinced we know enough about Her to sustain our position.

She is hidden throughout the scriptures, pointed towards by the logical direction of doctrine, and whispered about by her longing sons and daughters. Maybe now in the dispensation of the fullness of times knowledge about the Mother of Heaven can be restored to the earth. We belong to a Church of continuing revelation. We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does reveal, and all that He will yet reveal. Surely a revelation on the Queen of Heaven would be among the most glorious moments of the Restoration.

What would such a revelation look like? I’m not sure! I’m not a prophet; I’m a believer who hopes that she isn’t fooling herself about the status of God’s daughters. Nor am I under any delusion that such an increase of knowledge would fix all our gender-related problems in society in one fell swoop. No, I think such a revelation would cause a re-entrenchment. It may even shake the foundations of some orthodox members of the church. Perhaps all of our ideas of Her are wrong! Or perhaps the Family Proclamation overstates the importance of gender because it was written by old men who relied on even older cultural assumptions about gender and the family? I think not, but without more light and knowledge about the essential belief undergirding our doctrine on gender, how long and how well can we expect to defend it successfully?


[1] In this essay, I will rely upon the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ definition of gender as biological sex at birth. [Back to manuscript].

[2] Luce Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies, translated by Gillian C. Gill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 63. [Back to manuscript].

[3] Eubank, Sharon. 2014. FairMormon Address. “This is a Woman’s Church.” https://www.fairmormon.org/conference/august-2014/womans-church --- [Back to manuscript].

[4] Christofferson, D. Todd. “Free Forever, to Act for Themselves.” October 2014 General Conference. [Back to manuscript].

[5] Petrey, Taylor G. 2011. “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology.” Dialogue Journal. Winter edition.[Back to manuscript].

[6] Toscano, Margaret. 2016. How Bodies Matter: A Response to ‘Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother.” By Common Consent. [Back to manuscript].

[7] An important question here is whether marriage as a concept would even matter in temples if Heavenly Mother does not exist and God is non-gendered. [Back to manuscript].

[8] Cassler, V.H.. 2012. Plato’s Son, Augustine’s Heir: A Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology?” SquareTwo 5, no. 2. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Johnston, Javannah Eccles (2020) "Heavenly Mother, Are You Really There?," SquareTwo, Vol. 13 No. 2 (Summer 2020), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleJohnstonHeavenlyMother.html, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 0 Comments