Jana Riess: Heavenly Mother, are you really there?

I worry that apostle Dale Renlund’s advice not to speculate about her will result in some Latter-day Saints thinking that it’s not permissible to speak of her at all.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

It’s Mother’s Day again — my least favorite Sunday of the year in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I delight in the real stories people tell of their own flesh-and-blood mothers, both biological and chosen. Tell me how your mother held your head when you threw up from the stomach flu or how she raged when some injustice was done to you as a kid. Tell me how the specific actions of the women in your life have taught you something about our Savior’s love.

But, as I’ve written before, I cringe at the platitudes that come up on this Sunday: gendered claptrap about how “all women” are “always so spiritual.”

This year, I’m traveling on Sunday, so I won’t be in church to hear what comes up in sacrament meeting. (And I do feel for the bishops who have to plan that minefield of a worship service — some people are put off by the gendered fuss we make over Mother’s Day, while others would be upset if we treated it like any other Sunday.)

And this year, I have to wonder if Latter-day Saint Mother’s Day observances will become minefields in another way, as church members try to figure out what to do with the talk apostle Dale Renlund gave about Heavenly Mother in the April General Conference. I worry that his advice not to speculate about her will result in some members thinking that it’s not permissible to speak of her at all.

Many people were disappointed in that talk, given in the Saturday night women’s session of the conference, including me. But I’ve gotten some fresh perspective after taking a few weeks to read through it more carefully and reflect on what Elder Renlund actually said.

Here’s the relevant text:

“We have Heavenly Parents, a father and a mother. The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother comes by revelation and is a distinctive belief among Latter-day Saints. President Dallin H. Oaks explained the importance of this truth: ‘Our theology begins with Heavenly Parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.’”

Here Elder Renlund is reiterating and affirming what the church has previously taught: Heavenly Mother exists, and that existence is doctrine.

The fact that Elder Renlund affirmed this from the pulpit in General Conference strikes me as good news. I have heard a member of the church try to dismiss the existence of Heavenly Mother as just some fantasy that Eliza R. Snow cooked up in the 1845 poem/hymn “O My Father.” This affirmation puts the lie to that tactic.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Dale G. Renlund speaks about the church teachings on Heavenly Mother at General Conference women's session on Saturday, April 2, 2022.

Elder Renlund went on:

“Very little has been revealed about Mother in Heaven, but what we do know is summarized in a gospel topic found in our Gospel Library application. Once you have read what is there, you will know everything that I know about the subject. I wish I knew more. You too may still have questions and want to find more answers. Seeking greater understanding is an important part of our spiritual development, but please be cautious. Reason cannot replace revelation.

“Speculation will not lead to greater spiritual knowledge, but it can lead us to deception or divert our focus from what has been revealed. For example, the Savior taught his disciples, “Always pray unto the Father in my name.” We follow this pattern and direct our worship to our Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ and do not pray to Heavenly Mother.

“Ever since God appointed prophets, they have been authorized to speak on his behalf. But they do not pronounce doctrines fabricated “of (their) own mind” or teach what has not been revealed.”

This is where the talk begins to take a more restrictive turn. Elder Renlund directs people to the gospel topics essay on Heavenly Mother and then says that’s really all he knows about the subject.

Let’s sit with that for a minute.

On the one hand, I find it depressing that one of the apostles is saying that this is all anyone knows; I’m not hearing anything in this statement that suggests the leaders of the church are making this a matter of ongoing, regular prayer for more knowledge; that they want to know much more about her; or that they understand on a deep level why some people in the church, especially women, do want to know.

While he says it’s fine to seek greater understanding, he hastens to add that we can’t engage in “speculation” about her, pray to her or receive revelation from or about her.

But, on the other hand, look at what he’s not doing. He’s not engaging in speculation either. For example, he’s not insulting women by trotting out the absurd line, “We don’t speak about Heavenly Mother because Heavenly Father is trying to protect her from having her name defamed like his has been.”

Such codswallop. Heavenly Mother, according to our own doctrine, can’t be some wilting Victorian flower shrinking under the protective coverture of a strong man. If we believe in eternal progression as we proclaim, then Heavenly Mother has already been through a hell of a lot to become who she is.

If she made it that far, she’s strong. She’s holy. She can take it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess

What I’m trying to say is that the counsel not to speculate about Heavenly Mother may have a surprising benefit for feminists who want to know about her: We don’t have to sit through ridiculous speculative explanations about why we don’t yet know more about her. We have an example of humility with a church leader going on record to say, “I don’t know.”

Which is an important precedent for so many of our theological stances — if we are honest, what we don’t know about our Heavenly Parents far outweighs what we ever will know on this side of the veil.

One day, when the church is less wedded to the sexism of the world, I believe that our leaders will seek and receive counsel about her. It is frustrating to wait for that day (and it will likely come too late to help stem the tide of disaffiliation among young Latter-day Saint women in the U.S. and Europe), but I think it will come.

Until then, I will sit with the irony that the same church that keeps telling me in various ways not to think like a man or act like a man is also failing to provide me with any other heavenly example to emulate.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)