New Heavenly Mother debate breaks out between LDS feminists and LGBTQ activists

Key question: How can Mormonism make teachings about Mother God more inclusive?

(File illustration by Amy Lewis | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In the past few months, the Latter-day Saint concept of Heavenly Mother has been discussed, debated and disputed in endless conversations online and in person, including in a talk at the faith’s April General Conference.

In apostle Dale Renlund’s speech, he urged members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not to speculate about the divine feminine but rather stick to what is known in the faith’s Gospel Topics essay about her.

That is still a lot, say authors McArthur Krishna and Bethany Brady Spalding, who posted on YouTube a six-minute video in which interviewees describe what the doctrine means to them.

Clearly, others want to take it beyond official pronouncements.

One somewhat surprising split among proponents, however, has pitted some feminists who celebrate Mother God against some LGBTQ advocates who fear their exclusion from the deity.

In a just-released special issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, three pieces examine the conflict from various angles.

The solution to the dilemma cannot be to eliminate the physical nature of the feminine deity, Margaret Toscano argues in her article, “In Defense of Heavenly Mother.”

She can be “an indispensable figure and source of hope, comfort, and liberation for all the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the powerless,” Toscano writes. “...But Mormon theology and practice also require Heavenly Mother to be more than a symbol since the embodiment of the divine is a central doctrinal tenet…a coequal of Heavenly Father…a real personage who acts as the Other to the male God.”

Still, it is possible to believe in “an embodied Mother and Father Gods of equal status,” she writes, “while promoting free choice and fluidity of sex, gender, and sexuality for them and their children.”

After all, Toscano notes, the “doctrine of eternal progression implies movement, not statis.”

It is acceptable “within a Mormon framework to accept sex differences as biological realities,” Toscano reasons, “while favoring fluid categories and porous boundaries, rejecting simple dichotomies, and moving to multiple gender identities.”

A ‘queer heavenly family’

Like Toscano, Charlotte Scholl Shurtz rejects the suggestion to remove Mother God’s physicality.

The creation of a “genderless god erases gendered experiences, whether [they] are those of a transgender or a cisgender individual,” Shurtz writes in “A Queer Heavenly Family: Expanding Godhood Beyond a Heterosexual, Cisgender Couple.” “Claiming that a genderless god is inclusive is parallel to claiming that ‘colorblindness’ solves racial issues.”

Shurtz accepts “the premise that gender is an essential characteristic of an individual’s eternal existence and assume[s] that sexuality is similarly essential,” but rejects the gender binary.

“If I, a queer woman, only know the story of God as a cisgender, heterosexual individual or couple,” she asks, “how can I see godliness in myself?”

The writer suggests expanding Mormonism’s “concept of godhood” to include a “queer heavenly family.”

That would offer “hope instead of exclusion,” Shurtz says, and provide a “way to see godliness in all humanity.”

Recognizing such divinity “leads to greater respect, compassion, and affirmation of ourselves and one another, and offers everyone hope for godhood and joy,” she writes. “Without a diverse heavenly family, anyone may struggle to see godliness in themselves or in their earthly family or friends.”

God is ‘they’

The third writer in the series, Blaire Ostler, also builds a case for multiple divinities on Latter-day Saint theology that all humans are gods in embryo.

God is “they” in Mormonism, Ostler writes in “I Am a Child of Gods,” but most believers presume that means the heterosexual couple of a Heavenly Mother and Father.

Yet, for many queer Latter-day Saints, God is “they” because God is “composed of diverse genders, orientations, abilities, races, bodies, and families,” she writes. “God is ‘they’ because if we are all made in the image of God, ‘they’ is the only pronoun we have in English to adequately signify the plurality and diversity that exists within the heavenly family.”

The Latter-day Saint understanding of Heavenly Mother is “carving a path to a more inclusive physicalist theology” but is too limiting as currently described, Ostler believes. “...We are all made in the image of God, which includes queer, intersex, trans, and nonbinary bodies.”

Mortals are not just “children of God,” she writes. “We are children of gods in an endlessly creative, dynamic community of diverse deities reflected in our earthly existence.”

This much is clear from these conversations: Talk of God the Mother in Latter-day Saint theology is not going away — and will likely grow as more and more voices weigh in and speak up.