here is a slighly expanded version of my paper on the feminist theolgian mary daly and mormon theology that i presented at the undergrad philsophy conference on friday. it's a bit long, but i'd love any thoughts you may have on it.
A Mormon Application of Mary Daly’s Feminist Theology
by Loyd Ericson
In the opening chapter of her book, Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly a feminist theologian provides several criticisms of the notion of God as God the Father. Daly critiques the practice of describing God using masculine (or even feminine) terms and argues that God should be understood and referenced as an active force instead of a passive thing. While these criticisms are largely applicable to the traditional western concept of God, Mormon beliefs about God diverge from this concept in several key respects. In this paper I will review Daly’s key criticisms of the notion of God as Father, briefly discuss fundamental differences between the traditional Christian and Mormon concepts of God, show how these differences manage to avoid criticisms given by Daly, and finally point out where her criticisms apply even more to the Mormon concepts of God as they are practiced today.
Mary Daly’s critique of the notion of God as the divine Father can largely be summed up with her claim that “if God is a male, then the male is God.”1 Traditionally, the Christian concept of God is that of an immaterial (or non-physical) being without body, parts, or passions. Without bodily parts, God cannot be male, nor can God be female. Thus, any description of God as being a particular sex is contradicts and betrays the very nature of God’s attributes (or lack thereof).
The use of language which supposes physicality for a God that is not physical is hardly Daly’s primary criticism though. Rather, her primary criticism is that using masculine terms to describe God legitimizes the patriarchal society currently in place today.2 This happens in many ways. First, the notion of God as masculine supports the patriarchal structure when it is used in to justify the institutional subordination of women to men. An example of this would be an appeal to God’s supposed masculinity to justify the lack of female ecclesiastical offices or give validity to a submissive role for wives, sisters, and other women to their male counterparts. Second, by claiming that God is a male, a relationship between God the Father and men is created that cannot be duplicated between God and women. Men are able to have a special relationship with God because they are also male, while women are completely placed on the outside of this relationship. Third, by using masculine symbols to reference God (i.e. calling God, ‘Father’), one associates a level of power with being male that cannot be similarly associated with being female. Being God and being a man have a level of equivocation which is absent in the comparison between being God and being a woman. Even if these terms were used as arbitrary references for God, and not describing any necessary aspect of God, the use of the masculine language to reference God assumes that masculine references are more applicable than feminine alternatives to describe God. To say that God is more appropriately described or referenced using masculine language implies that there is something about being male that is more divine that being female. This assumption implies that men have more authority or power than women which undermines and ignores the theological oppression of women.3
Another triad of criticisms which Daly offers critique what she feels are forms of idolatry. This idolatry is the holding up of a false concept of God as an object of worship. The first of these idols is what Daly calls the “God of explanation.”4 This is the notion that God is by definition a theodicy, or an answer to the problem of evil. (The most prevalent form of the problem of evil is the logical problem of evil. This states that the claims that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent are together incompatible with the existence of evil in the world.) Different theodicies, such as Alvin Plantiga’s free will defense or John Sanders’ open theism, claim that God allows (or at least refrains from eliminating) apparent evils in the world, because they are a part of God’s plan. They are allowed because God sees the larger picture and utilizes them for a greater good. Thus the evils we experience today in the world are necessary, and the oppression of women today is one of those necessary evils that are all a part of God’s greater plan.
The second idol is the “God of otherworldliness.”5 This is the common idea of a God who makes sure that all of the problems of the world today are countered by rewards and punishments in the next life. This eschatological Mr. Fix-It idea of God is largely what Karl Marx had in mind when he called religion an opiate of the masses. Like an opiate, this notion of God, as the one who makes everything right in the end, creates apathy among Christians in the world today. God will make everything right in the end, so why deal with it now? If women are oppressed today, there is no need to worry because God will make it up to them in heaven and be sure that they are amply compensated for their mortal suffering.
Finally, the third idol is the “God who is the Judge of ‘sin’.”6 This is the divine command theory that all commandments are morally good and just because God commanded them. Rather than commandments having an underlying essential morality as a basis, the morality of a commandment is solely based on the dictation of God. Something is immoral, not because it is immoral in itself, but because God said it was immoral. This last idol creates a false sense of guilt for women who are unwilling to conform to supposed divine ‘commandments’ that ultimately oppress or marginalize women, such as the unequivocal immorality of contraceptives and abortion, or the God-commanded necessity of subordination to husbands and male leadership.
Finally, Daly proposes a resolution to the problem of God as Father. She rejects the common feminist resolution of merely turning things around and referencing God using feminine terms or emphasizing God’s ‘maternal’ characteristics. There are two main reasons for abstaining from these methods. First, doing so still leaves the initial contradictory problem of referencing a sexless God with sex-specific language. If it is a contradiction to reference a material-less (and thus sex-less) God with masculine language, then it is equally contradictory to reference this same God with feminine language. Second, and most importantly, pointing out maternal or feminine characteristics of God assumes the existence of the ‘eternal feminine.’ This is the notion that there are necessary gender roles and characteristics defining a universal femininity that transcends time and location. Or in other words, the eternal feminine implies that there are specific attributes that define what it is to be feminine or a woman. Such assumptions limit women and can almost be guaranteed to be used to oppress and marginalize the female sex.7
Daly also rejects the idea that feminists should embrace atheism and completely do away with the belief in God. Doing so, according to her, goes against a predominant aspect of human existence and experience. Also, rejecting the notion of God altogether takes feminism from this major aspect of human life and makes it nearly powerless to affect those participating in religious life. Pulling feminism away from religion leaves oppressive patriarchal religious practices and beliefs in place, and abandons a vast majority of woman who will continue to be subjugated by them. Rather, Daly believes that feminism must keep itself within the theist worldview in order to have a greater bearing in the world.8
With this in mind, Daly proposes that God be understood, not as a noun, but as a verb. God should not be understood and referenced as ‘a being’, but as ‘Be-ing’.9 This serves a purpose by making it possible for God to be referenced without any lingering symbols of maleness. Instead of being understood as a passive Other that imposes ideals and judgments by mere existence, God as Be-ing can be understood only as an active force that is constantly participating with the human experience. In a recent interview, Daly expounded on this distinction.
When I was studying standard scholastic philosophy, God was called the "supreme being." And that made him a noun and something on high. Hierarchical. Yahweh. The hairy claw coming down. And that obviously is unsatisfactory. It always has images hanging around that are undesirable. Then I realized, with the help of a friend of mine. . . that "being" is a verb, and it should be hyphenated [be-ing].10
In the context of feminist theology, there are at least two major ways in which the Mormon concept of God differs from the traditional Christian concept of God. First, unlike the traditional concept of God as an immaterial being without body or parts, the Mormon concept of God is one that “has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s.”11 Joseph Smith, the founding leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught, “If the veil were rent today, and the great God… was to make himself visible…you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man.”12 Not only is God a physical being, but God is ontologically the same type of being that humans are.
The second major difference between the traditional concept of God and the Mormon concept of God as it applies to feminist theology can be found in the Mormon hymn, Oh My Father. This hymn reads, “In the heav'ns are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare! Truth is reason, truth eternal Tells me I've a mother there.”13 Originally penned by Eliza R. Snow, the Mormon belief in a Mother in Heaven was once claimed by later Church president, Wilford Woodruff, to be a revelation received by Snow herself, though most evidence points to it being taught privately to her by Joseph Smith.14 This hymn which is a favorite among Mormons even includes at its end a prayer to this female deity.
When I leave this frail existence, when I lay this mortal by, Father, Mother, may I meet you in your royal courts on high? Then, at length, when I've completed all you sent me forth to do, with your mutual approbation let me come and dwell with you.15
The doctrine of a God the Mother was again officially confirmed in 1995 when President Gordon B. Hinckley announced in the Church’s annual General Relief Society meeting that every person was a “spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents.”16 In Mormon theology, humanity’s relationship with the divine, does not only consist of a male God the Father, but also includes a female God the Mother.
These two fundamental Mormon beliefs have some major implications in the context of Daly’s feminist theology. First of all, Daly’s critique of the contradiction of using gender-specific language to reference God is not valid with Mormon theology. Unlike the traditional concept of God where sexual references to God contradict God’s immateriality, there is no contradiction in Mormonism in using male (and/or female) specific language in reference to God. God can be described and referenced as a male or female without any necessarily contradicting God’s ontological nature.
In Mormon theology gender specific references of God also do not necessarily place anyone on the outside. The existence of the divine male and female eliminate the necessary ‘other-ness’ or ‘outside-ness’ that exists when God is only participating as one of the sexes. There is no necessary relationship that a man could have with God that a female cannot.
Also, with the Mormon belief in both God the Father and God the Mother, there is no necessary connection between the masculine terms for God and the assumptions of power. Using male symbols to reference God does not imply any special authority for men either. Any male reference to God the Father can be equally countered or matched with a female reference to God the Mother. Furthermore, if male language for God the Father grants any power or divinity to men, then in the same manner, female language for God the Mother grants equal power and divinity to women. To reword Daly’s earlier claim, “if God is a male and God is a female, then male and female are Gods.”
Furthermore, because God in Mormonism is embodied, God is in at least some ways finite – meaning that God, as embodied, is limited in certain respects;17 though to what extent God is finite differs among Mormon leaders and theologians. This finitude exempts the Mormon concept of God from the idols that Daly condemns. God is not guilty of being the “God of Explanation.” Because God is finite, there is no necessity to have God as a theodicy, because the very propositions of the problem of evil are no longer valid. The logical problem of evil demands an infinite being, but if God is not infinite, then there is no necessary problem.18
Though it has never been made official, implicit in the Mormon concept of God is idea that God once participated in mortality as we are participating today. Just before his death, Joseph Smith proclaimed, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens.” Implicit in this is notion that morality in some way exists outside of God. Whether or not something is moral is not dependant on God, but instead, is dependent on the moral choice itself. Because of this the Mormon concept of God is also not necessarily guilty of being the idol “God who is the Judge of ‘sin’.”
While the Mormon concept of God is able to avoid certain necessary criticisms of Daly, there still remain other criticisms which Mormonism is just as or even more susceptible to than the rest of Christianity. Just as masculine references for the traditional concept of God can be used to support the subordination of women, this problem is just as likely to occur in Mormonism. While both the male and female deities are affirmed in Mormon doctrine, like most of the Christian world, Mormon practice almost exclusively uses masculine terms for the reference of God. God the Mother is seldom if ever discussed in public religious discourse. In 1991, during the fall semi-annual general Mormon conference, Gordon B. Hinckley (at that time, a counselor to the then LDS Church President, Ezra T. Benson) told area leaders, and then later told the general membership, that public discussion of the Divine Feminine was not to be had, and that prayers to Her should not be performed in public or in private.19
Just like in traditional Christianity, Mormon scriptures, ritual, and practice also support a patriarchal family where the wife is to submit to the husband. However, in Mormon theology, the silencing of Mother in Heaven makes this criticism even more applicable. By keeping Her identity hidden, Mormons have a seemingly divine exemplar of feminine subordination to the masculine. In Joseph Smith’s final discourse he says, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” If understanding the attributes of God helps a person understand himself, how do the silent, subordinate, submissive, suppressed, and shut-away attributes of the Divine Female in Mormonism help a daughter of God understand herself?
While the fundamental doctrine of a Mother in Heaven eliminates a necessary difference in relationship between the gendered person and the gendered Divine in Mormon theology, once again the silencing of discussion of the Divine Mother eliminates or at least minimizes the possibility of a woman to have the same relationship with deity that a man is able to have. While a man can have a shared relationship of gender with God, a woman’s ability to do the same is nearly impossible except in the abstract. She can try to relate to the Divine Mother, but because any discussion of Her is quenched, there is very little for a daughter of the Divine Mother to work with. Once again, the silencing of God the Mother negates Her positive possibilities.
Concerning Daly’s third criticism of the notion of God as Father, the current Mormon practice of silencing discussion of God as Mother once again, not only negates the positive effects of a divine feminine, but further enforces the theological power structure that feminist theology is attempting to do away with. By closing off discussion and prayer to a Mother in Heaven, current Mormon practice is affirming the notion that God the Father, as a male, has more power than His partner who is female. It is He who interacts with humanity. It is He who is really God. Mother in Heaven, like the Commander’s wife in The Handmaids Tale, is merely for show20. She performs no real function, but exists only as a false symbol of equality.
Finally, because the divine is embodied and exists both as God the Father and God the Mother, God cannot be referenced as just a verb. God is both a duplicity of beings and a duplicity of Be-ings. Furthermore, unlike the traditional concept of God that has no actual gender, the Mormon concept of God must be conceived of as gendered. Though discussion of Her has been largely silenced, it is not possible for Her to be referenced without gender. The subconscious reminder of Her gender will always be present in a Mormon context. Where Daly rejects the idea of referencing God using feminine terms because of its affirmation of the eternal feminine, this is not possible with the Mormon concept of God. Reference to God in Mormonism affirms the existence of God the Mother, which then necessarily affirms the eternal feminine. While this in no way demands any necessary characteristics of the eternal feminine, the current silencing of God the Mother implies some problematic characteristics of what the eternal feminine consists of.
In conclusion, the Mormon concept of the divine as being embodied and consisting of both male and female deities is able to simultaneously maintain concepts of gender for God and avoid any necessary criticisms of Daly. The existence of both God the Mother and God the Father can eliminate criticisms sexual bias and power that accompanies gender-specific references to the traditional concept of God. While the existence of God the Mother implies an eternal feminine, it says nothing of any necessary characteristics of that eternal feminine. Thus this concept is still void of criticisms of gender bias.
However, the current practice of silencing discussions of and prayers to God the Mother overturn much of the positive effects of Her existence. Instead, the combination of Her existence and Her silence imply an even stronger gender-bias and support of a theological patriarchal power structure than the use of gender reference with the traditional concept of God. In order for Mormonism to avoid these implications, the current practice of silencing God the Mother needs to be corrected.
1 Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) p. 19
2 Ibid. p. 13
3 Ibid. pp. 19-20
4 Ibid. p 30
6 Ibid. p. 31
7 Ibid. p. 19
8 Ibid. p. 28-9
9 Ibid. p. 33-4
10 Susan Bridle, “No Man’s Land: an interview with Mary Daly,” What is Enlightenment? (Fall, 1999).
11 The Doctrines and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sec 130 vs.20
12 Times and Seasons (Aug. 15, 1844)
13 Eliza Snow, “O My Father,” Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1985), 292. This hymn was originally titled, “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother.”
14 Linda Wilcox, “The Mormon Concept of Mother in Heaven,” in Maxine Hanks ed., Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1992) p 5
15 Snow, “O My Father”.
16 The Family: A Proclamation to the World. Full text at http://www.lds.org/library/display/0,4945,161-1-11-1,FF.html
17 Sterling McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2000) pp 29-35. See also, R. Dennis Potter, "Finitism and the Problem of Evil" Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 33 No. 4 (Winter 2000) pp.83-96.
18 McMurrin, The Theological Foundations. pp. 96-109. See also Potter, “Finitism and the Problem of Evil”
19 See Wilcox, “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven” p. 16
20 Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (New York: Anchor Books, 1998)