Disclaimer: I understand that we ignore odd passages in The Bible because of potential translational issues, but still here I will quote some of them. Every Biblical quote I write, unless I explicitly state otherwise, is in the form found in the King James Bible used by the LDS Church.
I love Heavenly Mother.
There is something significant in being able to see a goddess as an example for exaltation rather than a god. I find it confusing that Mormonism includes Her in our doctrine but rarely, if ever, are women and men encouraged to think about Her.
A few weeks ago, I saw this article on buzzfeed being discussed on facebook: http://www.buzzfeed.com/sigalsamuel/feminism-in-faith. I was touched by each of these women’s stories, the passion and sureness each felt in their cause. I sat at my computer and marveled that Mormon feminists are not alone—there are other women and men in other religions fighting for women’s rights. But I also noticed something else. I noticed Elizabeth Johnson has written books on feminist theology, so as any bibliophile would, I went to my university library and checked a couple of them out.
In her 2007 book Quest for the Living God, Elizabeth Johnson discusses an interesting and thought provoking idea. She first quotes words from the beautiful hymn “O come, O come, Emmanual” as follows:
“O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go”
Then she makes a point I had not considered, “Hidden in plain sight in this hymn is a female image of God that runs like a golden thread through the whole Christian tradition.”
As a Mormon, I have taken for granted Heavenly Mother’s presence. I figured if She appeared in the scriptures, I would have recognized Her. I certainly would not have expected Her to appear in my well-studied Bible. But here Johnson is identifying Wisdom as a female deity who appears in the Old Testament.[i]
Elizabeth Johnson describes the introduction of a “female figure of gracious power and might who approaches the world with creating, redeeming, and sanctifying activity” into the latter half of the Old Testament. In the English version of the scriptures, this female figure is called Wisdom and in the Greek translation, Sophia. Johnson cites several women theologians who have analyzed and written about the acts of Sophia as being Godlike.[ii]
Referencing Proverbs 8, Johnson explains, “The book of Proverbs opens with Wisdom shouting out in the marketplace and at the city gates. [iii] She excoriates those who will not listen to her words of instruction but promises life to whoever listens and follows her way: “…whoso findeth me findeth life…” (Proverbs 8:35). She further describes Sophia’s acts in Proverbs as “the mother and fashioner of all things ” and “that she walks the paths of justice, and kings who rule righteously do so by her light”[iv] as described in Proverbs 8:15 “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice.”[v]
In the Roman Catholic Bible, there is a Book of Wisdom attributed to Solomon. In this book, which Mormons and Protestants don’t include in their scripture, Wisdom is personified as being Godlike and is vaguely associated with the Trinity. One scripture says “against Wisdom, evil does not prevail.”[vi]
From these and many other scriptures, Johnson concludes that “[f]ar from pointing to a mere feminine dimension of the divine, language about Sophia bespeaks the unfathomable mystery of the living God in female imagery. While maternal love figures to a degree, Holy Wisdom expands beyond this to encompass governing, playing, teaching, walking with, justice making, and life-giving in the public arena throughout the entire universe.”[vii]
A key point in the analysis is that women need to have a role model that not only has stereotypical female attributes, but has ‘strong’ male-associated attributes as well. Johnson describes Sophia as taking the role of the spirit, then Jesus, then God.[viii] It is different but still subtlety similar to the Mormon belief that all people were spirit children of Heavenly Parents, are now human, and can someday become gods. Johnson describes Sophia as a female aspect of the Trinity, giving a female side to the metaphysical God, Jesus, and spirit.
But, as a Mormon, I am not restricted to belief in an all-encompassing Trinity. Instead, I believe in Heavenly Parents, Jesus, and the Spirit as four separate, physical beings. As I read through some of the verses Johnson quotes, I honestly thought I would have just assumed the Godlike figure who speaks through most of the Old Testament is the personage speaking. I am not entirely certain how these women theologians were able to sift out these passages and attribute them to a female deity. But I like the idea. I’ve never pictured Heavenly Mother as present in the Biblical stories, but the more I think about it, the more I think She must have been. Women are so often thrust the responsibility of creation and nurturing; shouldn’t Heavenly Mother have had a role in the creation and nurturing of the early world? Shouldn’t She have played a critical role in raising Her children (us) into maturity? Shouldn’t She be in the temple video standing next to Heavenly Father?
What if She helped liberate the Israelites from Egypt as the Book of Wisdom describes her doing? What was She thinking and feeling during the crucifixion?
In Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich comments that “History is not just what happened in the past. It is what later generations choose to remember”.[ix] Perhaps Heavenly Mother was once more present in the stories, but as oral history became written history she fell between the cracks. Or was it perhaps because Judaism and Christianity felt an immense pressure to have one god and acknowledging a female would bring that count up to at least two. No matter the cause, there is reason to believe these subtle hints of Heavenly Mother indicate Her presence is hidden throughout the scriptures. I picture Her standing with Heavenly Father and working with Him to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life” of all humankind (Moses 1:39). Subtle or hidden, I want to believe she is there, watching over me and nurturing me alongside my Heavenly Father.
Elizabeth Johnson is an excellent writer with an open mind. In Quest for the Living God, Johnson depicts God through the various experiences of different people. Chapter 5, pgs. 90-112, is on feminist theology. I chose a small portion of the whole chapter to discuss, but there is a great discussion on other aspects of feminist theology. The whole book is worth reading and different chapters spoke to different aspects of my personality. In addition to chapter 5, I especially enjoyed chapters 8 and 9 which are on how views of God change with respect to religious pluralism and science respectively.
[i] Johnson, Elizabeth A. Quest for the Living God: Mapping frontiers in the theology of God. (New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007). Pg. 103.
[iv] Johnson references this idea to Proverbs 7:12,22 but I could not find it in the Mormon scripture set
[v] Johnson Quest for the Living God, pg. 104.
[vi] Wisdom 7:30 (not in Mormon scripture)
[vii] Johnson Quest for the Living God, pg. 105.
[viii] More detailed analysis of this progression can be found in Johnson’s more comprehensive book on feminist theology She Who Is pgs 124-187. This concept of progressing is often associated with discussion of the trinity but in a different way than Mormonism interprets it.
[ix] Ulrich, Laurel T. Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. (New York: Random House Inc., 2007). Pg. xxii.