Immortality: Surprising Confluences between Feminist Theology and Mormonism

Wave Womb by Gby Caroline

On the whole, I like the Mormon concept of immortality. I like the idea of being with my family forever. I like the idea of being able to love and live with a child or spouse or parent that might have died too young. I like the idea of being eternally engaged in learning and working with others. Ok, I am put off by the idea that I as woman might be an eternal baby maker, and the status of Heavenly Mother – my immortal role model – is angst inducing if I sit down and think about it for very long. But in my positive moments, I have some hope that my husband and I would actually be equals in the next life – that the patriarchy of our church and of our world is just a natural consequence of the fall and of human fallibility.

So I initially found it a bit jarring yesterday as I read about one Christian feminist theologian’s take on immortality. Ruether, author of Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, is a founding mother in the field. She questions whether or not the idea of immortality is an outgrowth of a Western (and she would also say male) concern with self-perpetuation as well as an abstraction from the real life processes of growing, birthing and dying. She has reason for this latter concern: in traditional Christian theology, immortality is static, and according to some church fathers, the resurrected female body (not the male) will have its sexual organs neutered in some way so as to not be able to inspire lust.

Ruether proposes that we explore a feminist theology that moves away from thinking so much about the ego’s everlastingness and instead accepts our own finiteness and embraces death as part of a natural matrix of humans and non-humans, who spring from the earth and eventually return from it in a nutritive regenerative cycle. Rather than hoping for the ideal in the next life, she urges us to use this present moment to create a just and good community for our children.

I have mixed feelings about Ruether’s rather negative take on immortality. On the one hand, I very much appreciate her ideas about valuing the body, accepting change, and restoring balance between human and non human. On the other, I really like the idea of existing eternally, that there is something so important about my soul that it is co-eternal with the divine (even if that idea is a bit egotistical).

So it might appear that Mormonism and Ruether’s feminist theology might not have a lot of common ground to work with regarding the concept of immortality. But I actually see some surprising confluences. Mormonism’s concept of immortality is very different than the one Ruether is rejecting. Our immortality not only accepts change, it expects and embraces it. Rather than a heaven that is never-changing perfection, Mormonism’s concept of eternal life is all about working to make progress and evolve. There is an embracing of the body, sexuality, and natural life processes in our ideas of eternal reproduction. In a nutshell, I see Mormonism’s concept of eternal life as a merging of both traditional Christian ideas about immortality and of Ruether’s feminist emphasis on the body and change.

What are your feelings about Ruether’s negative take on immortality? Do you share any of her concerns? Is the Mormon concept of immortality wholly attractive to you? Why or why not?

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

You may also like...

10 Responses

  1. Emily U says:

    Immortality must be on the mind in Mormondom. I just made a comment on it over at Segullah.

    I think Ruether’s take on immortality sounds like death. If a human soul joins a matrix of humans and non-humans, what happens to human consciousness and will? Without those, we’re not human in any meaningful sense.

    Mormon theology rejects some of the same things that Ruether rejects, and it’s interesting how you point that out, Caroline. It’s interesting to see how an idea can be rejected in such very different ways.

    My experience with liberal protestant theology is consistent with the idea that they view the afterlife as static. But they (the liberals, at least) also believe it is genderless. I think many of them also believe God is genderless. So I think in some ways Christian theology has moved past the sexist ideas Ruether is concerned with by bypassing gender altogether.

    The idea that my soul is in fact genderless is not at all appealing. The idea of dualism throughout the universe feels very true to me, with female and male souls being part of that dualism. That said, I am not wholly comfortable with the Mormon concept of immortality, either. Or rather, I am not at all comfortable with some people’s speculations about it (mostly the polygamy, baby-factory speculations). I think we really know VERY little about it, so I choose to believe all disagreeable speculations are just that -speculations.

  2. stephencrose says:

    I think immortality is a universal idea. Everyone thinks of it. No one can say what it constitutes. They tried to stump Jesus on the question of who a much-married person would end up with. Paul made almost a condition of his faith. Today while we are welcome to our thoughts they are just that, like all theology. Thoughts we have on this side of whatever else there maybe. We do not and cannot know. I remember RR from way back which I suppose dates me.

  3. Jessawhy says:

    Fascinating post, Caroline.

    Ruther’s idea that death is the end doesn’t seem to square very well with the Christian concept of resurrection.

    I just skimmed through my husband’s copy of There is A God, by Anthony Flew, the notorious atheist turned believer.
    The book itself was very self-serving, but in appendix B, Flew has a dialogue on Jesus with N.T. Wright which is fascinating.

    Essentially, Wright (a religious academic) explains that Christianity is so compelling because of Jesus’ resurrection. According to him, gospel authors write about it in a unique way, and uncharacteristically agree about details that are pretty important. There seem to be oddities in the accounts (like using women as witnesses, who obviously wouldn’t be in a Jewish court) that seem to drive home the truth of the claims of Jesus dying and then having a new body.

    Having read that, it makes me think more about our Mormon claims to resurrection in the next life and particularly our claims to eternal progression.

    I don’t think all of issues here are mutually exclusive. I’d love to see Mormons focus on the “present moment to create a just and good community for our children.” G and I were discussing this at the last book club. When the focus is always on the eternal, it’s hard to also focus on the now.

  4. Zenaida says:

    I despise the baby-factory and polygamy speculations. I might be somewhat appeased if we can also have polyandry, but I also do not like the idea of being female forever. I think reincarnation appeals to me because it offers the chance to see life and the world from infinite perspectives, but that doesn’t mean I believe in that either.

    A genderless heaven doesn’t seem to make much sense, but then we live in a world with gender, so it’s challenging to accept any other state as ideal. Especially since producing offspring isn’t possible any other way.

    I also have a hard time accepting the view that the individual is finite. I agree that we should be more aware of what is now like our communities and families, but I can’t let go of the idea that life and relationships will continue.

  5. Caroline says:

    Emily U,
    Like you, I prefer to think of myself existing eternally in some sense, and because being female is so central to my identity, I also prefer to think of that as something that is also eternal – so long as females and males are treated exactly the same. I’d rather everything be genderless than have myself eternally presided over by husband or silenced and cut off from my children.

    One problem I do see with the idea of eternal gender/male-female duality is what to do about homosexuality. Just as I prefer to think of myself as a woman eternally, because that’s such a huge part of my identity, I imagine homosexuals prefer to think of themselves as homosexual for eternity. And how that fits into a Mormon conceptual framework of immortality and eternal reproduction, I don’t know. I suppose I hope that in the next life, any two people can form family units.

    stephencrose,
    Very true. These are all just speculations here. I imagine that the way most Mormons (most humans) envision the afterlife is going to be way off from reality.

    Jess, Ruether has some very interesting takes on resurrection and eternal life. She talks about how in very early Christianity, like when Christ was alive, that concept didn’t really grab hold. It was only years after his death, when his followers were faced with the idea that Christ failed (was killed) that the concept of resurrection, of Christ living on, and of all of us eventually living on, was developed. She also talks about how in early Hebrew thought, there wasn’t much attention paid at all to immortality. Rather they focused on the idea of a millenium to right the wrongs of society and give those that died too young a chance to live out a life. But eternal, perfect, life in heaven? Apparently that wasn’t a part of their thinking. Interesting, huh? I had no idea that the idea of resurrection was a later development in Christianity. (I hope I’m characterizing Ruether’s ideas somewhat fairly here.)

    Zenaida,
    I too hate the idea of plural marriage. I personally don’t believe it will exist in the next life. And I’m only ok with baby making if its on our own individual terms and if it doesn’t imply gender roles (i.e. I make babies, Mike rules worlds).

    Like you and Jess, I am compelled by the idea of dedicating our energies to making our present communities better. But I’m not ready to let go of eternity…

  6. Alisa says:

    I love this topic and the discussion. I might be drawn to a little more of Ruether’s side as far as thinking that the persistence of the body and ego are more western ideas. I’ve always been drawn to eastern philosophy, and I was intrigued when I studied early Buddhism that the whole goal, from my understanding, is to diminish yourself completely. When I was studying this in college, living in the world of ego was not serving me well, and realizing that I could (in theory) reach such an enlightened state that I would transform into an energy with the universe sounded beautiful and blissful. I suppose it completely contrasts with Mormon theology, but there you have it.

    I must have brain damage or something, as I have been more perplexed with the idea that people want to live forever as discrete beings and the limitations that come from that. My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor talks about a brain scientist’s journey with her stroke into tapping into the right brain and the energy that connects us all. She contrasts this with the loneliness of living in an individual body and the pain of separation. Eventually she learned to reconcile both existences and use each for their best purposes.

    I guess this makes me wonder where I could, as a person more drawn to these “out there” eastern ideas, reconcile my heart and energy with the LDS version of the gospel. Several things do this for me, such as God being able to be ever present in space and time and God’s omniscience. That certainly sounds more like a fluid, flowing energy to me. There is the issue of God having a physical body, but the powers of that body are way beyond my comprehension.

  7. Carol says:

    The Mormon concept of immortality is perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of our religion. We do not believe people will literally burn in hell for not accepting our religion, and we also believe that missionary work and conversion extends beyond the grave. That is a hope-filled principle.

    I don’t picture polygamy or polyandry in heaven any more than I picture women eternally pregnant. I believe there is much about eternal progression that has not been revealed, and I know heaven would be hell for me if my husband had multiple wives or if I were forever pregnant. However, I realize that I’m looking at an immortal experience through mortal eyes and don’t concern myself with the matter. (My husband has promised me Iwill be his one and only wife, and that’s good enough for me.)

    The Church’s new emphasis on grace is refreshing. In the past, the theology seemed to focus totally on works, and now that we’re including Christ’s grace as the key to salvation, I believe many of us are less driven to become perfect (right now, today, immediately) and hence, less depressed.

    I love the concept of eternal progression, peace, and happiness. And, I trust that we know very little about how that concept will play out in the eternities. I do believe that heaven is a place of peace, healing, and comfort, and that brings me great joy.

  8. AS says:

    Very interesting article and comments. Yes, we keep our gender- we came here with it and we will leave with it as well. I had never thought of the idea of wanting to see what it is like from the other perspective though… but I will say that although people have said many things about what they think on immortality, most of it probably is speculation. I think I like the Mormon idea of immortality-but I just don’t know enough to say definitively

  9. Caroline says:

    Alisa,
    I too see the attractions of Eastern religion in a lot of ways. For me, the idea of peace – with with self, peace with others – rather than constant striving is appealing to part of me. And then the other part of me likes the Mormon emphasis on striving and changing.

    Carol, I too am very happy that the concept of grace seems to be rising in prominence in LDS rhetoric. I think that’s a hugely important concept that can bring more peace into more Mormons’ lives.

    AS, yes, I’m sure none of us can even begin to envision what the next life will be like.

  10. EmilyCC says:

    Ooooh, I love it when Caroline brings in a little academic feminist theology 🙂 Personally, I like the idea of immortality because it’ll take me forver to figure everything out.

    And, this is a threadjack so feel free to ignore…When I hear other religious non-Mormon feminists doing theology, I often feel like I identify more with my “Mormon” label than my “feminist” label. And, yet, I feel quite accepted by feminists, but oftentimes, not so much by the Mormons.

Leave a Reply