Tuesday 14 January 2014

The Mormon (folk?) belief in God's wife - speculations on the topic of Mother in Heaven


One of the values of having a metaphysical stance which includes the possibility of It Just Is as an acceptable terminus to the demand for causal explanation - is that it ends the infinite regress, and the problems which that brings with it.



The Mormon belief is that we are in some literal sense the children of God. then there is the fact that on earth children are produced by two parents. Further, the Mormon doctrine is that all Men are either male or female from before mortal life - and the complete unity of Man is therefore the dyad - a couple sealed in eternal marriage.

Considered together, all these tend to imply that God the Father must also have a 'consort' specifically a Wife, and also a Father and Mother in infinite regress.

God's wife is termed Mother in Heaven.



I would classify the belief in a Mother in Heaven as (on the whole) mostly a 'folk' belief among Mormons because it is not required of Mormons, and there is virtually nothing on the topic (explicitly) in Mormon scriptures, and the belief in a Mother in Heaven has from not-much to zero impact on the major aspects of Mormon life and discourse.

On the other hand, belief in a Mother in Heaven is not ruled-out by LDS authorities (as the linked entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism makes clear) - and the reality of a Mother in Heaven has apparently been a belief held by Presidents and other General Authorities (including, probably, Joseph Smith  - if the King Follett discourse is regarded as definitive rather than speculative thinking-aloud).  


The Mormon belief in a Mother in Heaven is therefore not so much a matter of revelation or teaching, as a matter of the logical extrapolation of implicit doctrine.

If the principle of parenthood is taken to be universal, then every person must have two parents - including God the Father - ergo God must have a Wife , and must have been the Son of another God.

But the principle of parenthood need not apply to God the Father.

If God the Father Just Is - eternally; then he may also be:

1. The unique instance of a parentless personage; and also

2. The unique example of a being neither male nor female, but one who alone is able to procreate spiritual children.


Indeed, if these two things are accepted as part of primary reality (they Just Are); then this disposes of almost all the most significant arguments that Mormons are not-Christian.

Because such a God is the One God - past, present and future; He is primary, unique, eternal, unbegotten, Father of all - and so on.

In sum, God the Father is not just the one God of this universe, but the one God of all reality - and He is unique in his Nature.


To assume that God the Father Just Is also disposes of any necessity for positing a Mother in Heaven.

My impression is that the Mother in Heaven is a long way from being central to Mormon doctrine - since it is possible to go for months, or even years, of reading books, articles, theology and journalism about Mormonism and not to come across any reference to Mother in Heaven: indeed, to forget about the idea altogether...


My interpretation is that some Mormons have been led, by their metaphysical assumptions concerning the universality of sex and parenthood, to generate theological modifications including infinite-regress of parents (and universes) and  a Wife for God the Father - but these additions have made very little (if any) difference to the actual 'popular' daily beliefs and practices of most devout Mormons.


In this respect, it seems that the Mormon Mother in Heaven has developed in a manner opposite to the Roman Catholic conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary - Mother of God.

In the Catholic tradition, the veneration of Mary was first established in the popular everyday practice of liturgy, prayer, iconography, art and devotional life generally - and only later, sometimes many centuries later - were theological modifications (e.g. the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception) introduced to justify and explain these practices.

So the Catholic Mother of God was venerated in practice primarily and long before theory; while the Mormon Mother in Heaven seems to be mostly (for most people) a projection of theological theory; and not much (or at all) venerated in practice.



George said...

I like how the Catholic Church introduces individual, personal spiritual forces to guide our everyday life. I think, for me, that's one of the biggest failings of Protestants - bordering on Catharism.

In both the Mormon and Catholic traditions we have instead gorgeous productions of artwork, temples or cathedrals, and a total spiritual integration of everyday life and everyday actions (instead of denial of) into the whole.

I think that's, when younger, what to some degree appealed to me in Paganism over my protestant upbringing - the idea that the world around us and natural processes could be filled with Holiness or spirituality.

Adam G. said...

There are two admirable qualities about this:

1) to me, as a Mormon, it helps address the somewhat forced quality of the Mormon belief in a Mother in Heaven. There might be other reasons why there isn't much scriptural or theological or liturgical presence for such an entity, but such an entity not existing is certainly a very plausible explanation.

2) *Every* theology and philosophy comes does to 'it just is' eventually. But most of us feel inclined to push our explanations as far back as we possibly can go. What you're suggesting here is that we should actually be more thoughtful about our choice of where we say 'hic sunt draconis.' Once we've stopped reaching a point where we're going beyond scripture or experience or the moral and emotional faculties, why not just stop? That's a valuable idea.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam G "most of us feel inclined to push our explanations as far back as we possibly can go. What you're suggesting here is that we should actually be more thoughtful about our choice of where we say 'hic sunt draconis.' "

I hadn't properly understood this until you said it, but yes that's it: we should be more thoughtful about our choice of where we say" It Just Is.

MC said...

"Once we've stopped reaching a point where we're going beyond scripture or experience or the moral and emotional faculties, why not just stop?"

This reminds me of a thought experiment I've used from time to time:

I have met my earthly father. My experiences remove all doubt that he exists, and that he is my father and loves me. I have also met his father, my grandfather. I have not met my great grandfather, or his father, or his father before him. Obviously, the only thing that makes sense is that each of them had a father going backwards into infinity, but if you go back far enough, reach the same paradoxes of regress that you get with the existence of the universe itself.

And yet, my ignorance of the origins of everything has not affected my relationship with my father one whit. I know he exists, I've seen him, I know he's my father and loves me, what else is there to know? How would knowing the ultimate cause of my father's existence affect our relationship in any way?

Adam G. said...

"Once we've stopped reaching reached a point where we're going beyond scripture or experience or the moral and emotional faculties, why not just stop?

Wonder said...

You've written about shamans so must know they have a tendency to blur the lines of sexual identity, yet they are the spiritual powers of the tribe.

In biology hermaphroditism exists, so how is that one is necessarily male or female? This is not what a segment of the population reports in terms of self-identity, nor does it match biology with total reliability.

The Mormon view appears to be attempting to impose something on reality when reality does not have such clear cut distinctions.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - You are mis-framing the issue. The belief is metaphysical (and a product of revelation) - a matter of assumption - not empirical.

And you, too, are making the metaphysical assumption that sex a matter of empirical observation (measuring chromosomes, hormone, behaviour etc); but the Mormon assumption concerns pre-mortal life in the spirit world.

Your implicit view is that sex is constructed by physical variable, and can be changed, blended etc.

But the Mormon view is that sex is an essence behind all appearances - sex is an aspect of our self as a human.

Wonder said...

I see your point about empiricism based on my comment.

However I see it also in terms of spiritual pre-existence to this mortal plane (then reflected in biology in some cases).

Back to shamans: What do you make of the belief that shamans have two souls or spirits, one of each sex?


Arakawa said...


Wanted to weigh in on this discussion, as someone who is also interested in the male/female duality question.

What is incontrovertible is that male and female are, in some sense, incomplete halves of a whole. The question is how, and whether, this incompleteness is overcome.

The Mormon view that Bruce adheres to is fairly clear to me: the two genders are indeed incomplete in themselves, and the proper way to complete them is through the union of two people in celestial (eternal) marriage; the complete unit of humanity is the married family, not the individual human being. To that end, souls are either male or female, and to postulate that a male soul could become female or vice versa or that a soul could exist that is neither male nor female, or is both simultaneously, is a category error.

This theory has an obvious and heavy influence on Mormon practice. Thus, Mormonism has a clear emphasis on family, but lacks any solid rationale for ascetic monasticism -- because the doctrine gives the impression that an unmarried soul would remain eternally incomplete.

So, in that sense, I'd regard the Mormon insight as valid but somehow incomplete. i.e. marriage is an ordained solution to the problem of disunity of the genders -- but if we sense this to be a problem, the question is raised of why celibacy is also a valid solution, and has been throughout the history of Christianity.

At this point begins speculation, and we see a pile of people who overreach in various ways. [see my next comment]

Arakawa said...

[continuing my previous comment] There is a completely different thread of thought that postulates the resurrected or ideal human to be an androgyne, simultaneously male and female. Plato's Symposium gives the notion as a parable, in a particularly strange and literal fashion. In more subtle form this is also a notion that, to my surprise, was much beloved of late-Russian-Empire philosophers such as Solovyev and Berdyaev. It also pops up fleetingly in Charles Williams' "Descent into Hell", and is a possible reason for his sympathy for subintroductae (chaste marriage founded on Platonic love) as expressed in "Descent of the Dove" (see below). CS Lewis in "That Hideous Strength" gives that whole line of inquiry a nod probably without realizing it, as he has his Charles Williams character refer to God as a power next to Whom all created things are 'feminine', which makes the whole notion of gender appear conditional and relative. (Well, and that said, I'm not sure what the stuff about Seven Genders -- appearing apropos of nothing -- is supposed to be about, so it feels like CS Lewis was just mining other people's mysticism at that point to give his book an otherworldly air.) The far more Orthodox mystic Saint Maximos the Confessor also states obscurely that 'male and female' is one of the 'divisions to be overcome' as part of theosis, but this is generally read as an overcoming through chastity, i.e. gender simply ceases to be a relevant category for the celibate.

In general, such ideas perennially pop up from occult, shamanic, or mystical explorations. Which makes it unsurprising that certain shamans also express a similar tendency.

Berdyaev has probably the most clear-headed exploration of androgyny I've found so far, and the allure and limitations of the doctrine became clear from that. He is somewhat at pains to avoid agreeing with Gnostic heretics who disdain marriage -- because the logic suggests that marital union (and all earthly love) is a false and illusory form of the male/female union to be properly found in androgyny. (Berdyaev and Solovyov both suffer from the false dilemma that procreation is somehow opposed to subcreation or human creativity.) He struggles to avoid this heresy, by pointing out that the union of androgynous beings is a four-way union of (two bipartite souls?), and this can be actualized in (some kind of rarefied-idealistic) earthly marriage (which is where we get back to Williams' sympathy for subintroductae), but that is so overwrought and vague as to leave him helpless -- ultimately, the underlying problem is that there is no clear picture of what 'androgyny' is supposed to be. Which makes the whole thing a quest for 'we know not what'.

Arakawa said...

So, in the end, the whole question of the 'androgyne' strikes me as -- not dangerous, precisely, but utterly fruitless as a direction for speculation. There's a category of people for whom it produces a powerful Sehnsucht, (whereas other people see this as a strange and artificial question,) but that really does give the game away -- whatever is behind the desire, it's something not found in this life. And the next life is something that can be described only imprecisely -- attempts to add precision inevitably require speculation, which inevitably requires distortion.

Or, let me put it this way. Immortality of the soul is a spontaneous intuition for most people. The dogma of Resurrection into a perfected spiritual body, free of limitation (however you understand that), however, is profoundly counterintuitive in the sheer amount of unanswerable questions it raises. There are literally thousands of questions you can ask about it, dealing with the thousands of specific limitations of our current bodies, which have no sensible answer -- only speculations and fables. To those people who feel being of one gender to be an incompleteness and an acute limitation, postulating that this is somehow overcome in the resurrection body seems natural. But speculating how and whether indeed this may be the case, is exactly as pointless as speculating about any other aspect of the resurrection.

Sorry for such an overly wordy exploration of this topic; but at least I came back nicely to the topic of "there's a point at which theology should stop trying to answer the endless further questions" :-P

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - Thanks for that fascinating and very useful set of comments.

A lot of theological differences come, I think, from the underlying metaphysics - and this comes from the differences in focus upon the matter of 'what is the primary problem to be solved?'

It could probably be formulated better than this - but asceticism is an answer to 'how can I become pure, and worthy of Heaven?', while the Mormon focus on marriage and family is an answer to 'what is the purpose of mortal life?'.

I personally find one of the hardest problems in Christianity to be along the lines of what is the purpose of mortal life: what are we supposed to DO?

By contrast, most of historical Christian theology has not been about 'doing' but about states of being. Heaven is a state of being (not a 'job') - so ascetic monasticism is the attempt to conform mortal life to that heavenly state.

For me, I find this incoherent as a 'cosmology' - I ask what is the point of mortal life, IF its highest purpose is to be as much like heavenly life as possible?

I could only make sense of this if is supposed God had 'found' Man, and helped us make the best of the situation - but I cannot understand what would be the point of making Man, or sustaining Man in mortal life rather than translating him to Heaven ASAP.

So, I seek a distinctive role for mortal life.

And then for what comes after. Is Heaven a matter of being or doing; is there eternal stasis or eternal progression/ change?

Neither makes complete sense, but the nature of life of earth and my mind makes it impossible to conceive of a duality of progression on earth and stasis in heaven without collapsing into the sense that life in earth is utterly pointless - so I feel that there must be a continuity, and that progression/ change must be the law of life (but, obviously, with some elements of stasis of the It Just Is variety).

The main purpose of all this is not to make a neat and compelling metaphysical scheme, but to stop me getting stuck on that problem of 'what is the purpose or point of mortal life?'

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - the nature of salvation needs to be factored into the asceticism/ celestial marriage discussion.

For monastic ascetics, salvation is extremely difficult and uncertain; and theosis is orthogonal to salvation - such that a highly trained and spiritually advanced monk is not regarded as being any more sure of salvation than anyone else - or, at least, twenty years of theosis could be overcome in a trice by spiritual pride.

For Mormons, salvation is not much of a problem - indeed it is not a problem at all if you want it. The problem is one of people rejecting salvation from Pride (essentially, Pride at the fact that they can choose to reject salvation - they can 'thumb their nose' at God Himself); and the further problem of people being 'tricked' into not wanting salvation, or regarding salvation as evil and damnation as Good.

(I have just been reading Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by Hand Rookmaaker, and the conclusion seems inescapable that Modern Art has - over many generations - been a successful attempt to by highly intelligent and able and evil men restructuring culture to make salvation appear absurd and wicked - and to induce people to choose damnation and regard that choice as inescapable).

But if salvation is a default state, and has been accepted; then from that point theosis takes centre stage.

And the question is them, what should we do for theosis?

If the universe is regarded as progressing/ changing, then theosis is not a conformity to the ideal stasis of Heaven, but some kind of 'job' or task - and (by revelation, not inference) Mormons regard that task as building celestial families.

There is a genuine divergence of opinion, or incoherence, about what happens next - about whether marriage and families must be done during mortal life, or whether they can be done after death - because if they can be done after death then this seems to devalue mortal life (and render the church superfluous) while if they cannot be done after death then the contingencies of life become too great (the death of a child, or a single person, or a childless couple become irreversible tragedies).

Somehow, in practice, Mormonism has overcome this and Mormons behave BOTH as if this life has an unique function, and ALSO as if every problem can be set right in the next world, in the fullness of time.

Theosis in mortal life is thus more rapid and sure than delaying it until after death; but in eternity striving can make up for any failures and deficiencies in mortal life.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - I suspect that an element in the astonishing vitriol of Mormon hatred - which comes from secular Leftists and mainstream Christians - is the challenge to the autonomy of the individual; the idea that we might NOT be self-sufficient, that we might depend on others for our fulfilment - and depend in a profound sense, such that we cannot even in principle control this.

Of course this is actually a matter of fact, either true or not; but the aspect of hatred which comes into things perhaps comes from the wounded Pride of a spirit who sees himself as either alone in the universe and making his own reality on his own terms (the secular Leftist), or as a hero of faith who has an unique and autonomous role in God's kingdom - needing nobody else.

Arakawa said...


Just one remark for now -- still digesting your comments.

What you say produces a strange view of soteriology -- but I suppose one that is at least consistent with the remark that only 'blasphemy against the Holy Spirit' cannot be forgiven, and that we are now in the End Times, because only now -- that the Gospel has been preached -- widespread doctrines have arisen who put their adherents in danger of doing just that. Before, philosophies were usually a search for Truth (albeit in darkness); during the era of Christendom, Truth was available through Christianity, so that it was possible not only to discover it and attain to Heaven in the afterlife, but to obtain a genuine foretaste of the Heavenly life in the current day; now all sorts of philosophies have arisen whose goal is to justify and make-attractive the rejection of Truth.

I think you mentioned in a comment elsewhere that many ancient hunter gatherers, in your opinion, would discover after death and accept the news with joy and humility. Likewise (out of philosophies I've studied) I imagine that a sincere Confucian -- one who really tried to practice the doctrines, not as empty formal rites, but as the best way he knew to observe the principle of universal benevolence and harmony -- would have been delighted to find that the Heaven whose precepts he was following is not some infinitely far away thing, but that all people have a Father there, who gave His Son for their sake. And a philosophical Daoist would welcome the news that the Tao became flesh, that all might be reconciled within the Tao. (The religious Daoists are something I know very little about, on the other hand.)

Nowadays, there are attitudes which I don't know how they would react if the Gospel is presented to them incontrovertibly in the next life rather than as a suggestion as it is now. Would they rail at Jesus for the sheer effrontery of turning out to exist after all, in the manner of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor?