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The first time Barlow carried one of his children in a Snugli, a pouchlike carrier for babies, he had a spiritual appreciation for the "physicalness of that little life of which I was the father as much as for the sexual consummation that made the creature in the first place."
"In Mormonism, fatherhood is particularly sacred," he says, "part of the relational nature of salvation and exaltation."
So what happens when human fathers prove difficult or unloving?
"If people have a poor image of a father in terms of their own human experience, this can handicap, in a psychological way, their relationship with God spiritually," says Bircumshaw, the vicar general. "They can take that into their relationship, which can be very damaging."
Tresa Edmunds, a Mormon writer and feminist in Modesto, Calif., says she has talked with women through the years whose concept of a Heavenly Father is tainted by a neglectful or abusive father.
"It colors their whole experience with the divine," Edmunds says. "If your father sexually abuses you and twists the divine role of creation and sexuality, that’s how you approach Heavenly Father. It can damage your relationship with the church."
Some LDS women in this situation can no longer pray to Heavenly Father, she says. They turn, instead, toward Mother God.
A divine feminine » If you study the ancient Jewish Kabbalistic scriptures, Zippel says, it is apparent that God has masculine and feminine traits.
The term "Father in Heaven" may be a practical simplification, he says, but God is more like a "Parent in Heaven."
One of the fundamental teachings in Jewish mysticism, Zippel says, is the essential nature of creation, which requires male and female participants.
Mormons, in their literalism, see Heavenly Mother as an essential partner with God the Father, but speak about her rarely and only in vague, reverential tones.
Still, Barlow says, it stands as a compelling doctrine.
"We are made in the image of God, meaning both male and female, and sexual union," he says. "It is not just metaphorical, but an important, literal truth."
Catholics also see God as father and mother.
"The essence of God is love," Bircumshaw says. "You could easily speak of God as mother because we are speaking of the source of life and love. We cannot speak of father in human terms without thinking of the opposite, mother."
It is not about gender, he reiterates, it’s about relationship.
Even earthly fathers — and mothers — can grasp that.
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