Sisters Speak: “Everybody Needs a God That Looks Like Them”

from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

“How come you put a black Madonna on your honey?” I asked. I’d been curious about this from day one. Usually people got in a rut putting honey bears on them.

August grew still, holding the jar in her hand and looking into the distance like she’d gone in search of the answer and that finding it had been the bonus of the day. “I wish you could have seen [my friends] the first time they laid eyes on this label. You know why? Because when they looked at her, it occurred to them for the first time in their lives that what’s divine can come in dark skin. You see, everybody needs a God that looks like them, Lily.”

Everybody needs a God that looks like them. Yes. Yes. When I read that phrase for the first time, the truth of that statement resonated in my soul.

One of the greatest joys of being Mormon for me is our belief in a feminine divine. One of the greatest sorrows of being Mormon for me is Her absence from our worship and, for the most part, our very consciousness. Because, as Sue Monk Kidd alludes, when people acknowledge and commune with a God that looks like them, they see God in themselves.

At the same time, however, I think it’s crucial to have a God that doesn’t look like them as well.  I have a three year old boy who prays  to Heavenly Father. As he goes through primary, seminary, and beyond, I know that he will hear about Heavenly Father, and pray to Heavenly Father, dozens of times a week. I am happy that he has that model – he needs a God that looks like him, and hopefully as he grows, he will consequently feel his own divinity, his own limitless potential.

But I want him to see that potential in the women around him also.  Will the lack of discussion at church about Heavenly Mother impact his ability to appreciate the divinity of the women in his life? I don’t know, but I don’t want to take any chances. So I intend to teach him as well as my daughter about Heavenly Mother. But how to do it? How to incorporate Heavenly Mother into our lives?

Here are a few ideas that have crossed my mind:

-use inclusive language when we pray at home. For me, that means using “God” rather than HF, since I define God as both Mother and Father.

– do an FHE (continual FHE’s?) on the divine potential of all humans, male and female. Initiate a discussion of HM.

– read books that acknowledge a feminine divine. Like Big Momma Makes the World by Phyllis Root.

The Sisters Speak column of a future issue of the Exponent II magazine will feature these questions, and I would love to hear your ideas on them.

a) should we explicitly teach about Heavenly Mother and incorporate Her into our lives? Why or why not? If your answer is no, what other ways can we teach our sons and daughters to see women as divine?

b) How should we go about integrating Her into our lives and teaching our kids about Her? Can you see any methods backfiring or being particularly effective?

Note to commenters: We may send some of you an email asking if we might publish a portion of your comment in the Exponent II magazine.

Caroline

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

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19 Responses

  1. Alisa says:

    Great questions. I am looking forward to reading this discussion. I believe it’s important for my son to know about his Heavenly Mother, but I’m also unsure of how to do it.

    While I don’t necessarily believe in this dichotomy, I am wondering if I might teach that Heavenly Father is the heavenly, spiritual, transcendant force, and that the Divine Mother is more about our earth and our bodies. So that when we respect the Earth, we respect Her. When we take care of our bodies, we respect Her. And when we learn to go without food and give our fast offerings to the poor, we respect Heavenly Father. I know the Mother Earth thing sounds a little pagan, but as a Mormon I believe the Earth has a soul, and that our bodies are a glorious gift that’s made through a very natural, earthy process. I sometimes wonder if downplaying earth and nature in worship in favor of only the spiritual is part of a traditional religious imbalance that may be corrected over time through revelation.

    I believe both create an important balance, but I know this isn’t very doctrinal. The problem is, I just don’t know a lot about our Heavenly Mother and what her stewardship is – is it mostly in the pre-mortal world? is it here? We just don’t know. Maybe it’s naive of me to assume there’s a gender-role division of labor between our godly parents. 🙂

  2. EmilyCC says:

    Love the Madonna and the ideas, Caroline!

    I feel like I’ve been let off the hook for a bit longer because I have sons. Like you mentioned, the divine my boys see and hear about in Church looks like them.

    At home, I’ll keep teaching them about God without pronouns at home and I’ll see when it feels right to bring up Heavenly Mother. But at this point in my young boys’ life, to bring Her up feels like I’d be dealing more with my spiritual issue than theirs’.

    That’s not to say that our FHE’s aren’t heavily female-centered. In fact, I’d say those lessons are mostly about women to counter the fact that they get so few lessons in Church about women. I feel like for now that’s a good start to raising my feminist boys.

  3. Suzette says:

    I appreciate the sentiment: “use inclusive language when we pray at home. For me, that means using “God” rather than HF, since I define God as both Mother and Father.”

    I feel the same way.

    When we combines Iron and Carbon – under the right conditions – we do not create a mixture of Iron and Carbon, but rather a completely different substance: an alloy, called STEEL. Stell is stronger and better than Iron or Carbon alone – and different from each.

    I believe that when we combine Man and Woman – under the right conditions, we create a new and different being, called God.

  4. jenna says:

    I have honestly never even thought about NOT teaching my girls about heavenly mother. I know we don’t know anything about her, but she has always been very real to me. I don’t feel like I need to teach my kids more than that she exists. I have three girls and my two oldest have totally incorporated her into their lives without me really having to do anything and that makes me even more sure of her presence. It is so natural to them and children still seem so close to that part of ourselves that we can’t really reach anymore.

    For me, Heavenly Father is almost as mysterious as Heavenly Mother. The more I learn, the more I realize that almost everything we have in the scriptures and from modern revelation has to do with Christ and that Heavenly Father is in the background. I’m excited to be able to meet both of my parents someday. 🙂

  5. kmillecam says:

    I must be feeling tender this morning because when I read the excerpt from The Secret Life of Bees, especially the last line, I burst into tears. On a visceral level I responded to how alone I have felt trying to relate to a distant father figure, and even to a distant mother figure. How do we find ourselves in the divine if we cannot picture a piece of us there?

    As for my children, I try to mention equality wherever I can, using male and female pronouns if needed. But since I take a nature approach to the divine, we mostly end up talking about human connections, connections to the earth and animals, the wonder of nature, and things like that.

  6. Sterling Fluharty says:

    Nobody is going to stop me from talking to my boys about Heavenly Mother. I would love to find a great FHE lesson about her that I could use to get the conversation going.

  7. Maverick says:

    This is a timely topic for our family. We’re expecting our first daughter and I have been fearful about raising her in a church that I felt taught me to not value my own voice as much as I should value any male voice.

    I have questions right now instead of answers about how to raise our daughter to be in the LDS church but not to think that the male voice is more important than her own.

    I am afraid that thoughts of Heavenly Mother will get confabulated with the 1950’s gender roles that seem to have gotten stuck in our cultural consciousness. I am afraid that talking about this Female Deity who is supposed to be Omniscient and Omnipotent and yet is so bewilderingly silent and absent from meaningful action and discourse will just be a giant confusing paradox for my daughter. Because that is what it is for me.

    My own thinking is if I were to co-create a plan of salvation you better believe I would not leave my sons and daughters down there wandering around wondering why men are more spiritually important and powerful then they are. I would have Something To Say. I wonder if our not hearing from Her has way more to do with *us* (blacks and the priesthood style… meaning our cultural and social constructions are blocking Truth) than it has to do with Her. And especially has way more to do with the people who are in charge right now. Why else would an Omnipotent Female Deity be as absent from meaningful action and discourse as the general authority wives seem to be? Is it because she is uncomplainingly just supporting HF’s long hours at work? *Snort* don’t make me laugh. What if all of the Fire and Power and Destruction and Life and Renewal and Creation and Wonder in the scriptures were appropriately attributed to Her as well. Wouldn’t you think of yourself differently? Less passively? Less domesticatedly obedient (but more devoted and powerfully submissive to Her will?)

    An Ominpotent Omniscient Female Deity who is silent and absent from meaningful action and discourse — I think it is a conundrum that the church ignores. (maybe we want to be mainstream christian which is Monotheistic Male). Bad for PR to have a female god too.

    Anyway, biggest concern (because *I* love to walk around in this “heresy” and explore and find my spirituality here) is when and how to talk to my daughter about this kind of thing. She will go to Primary and drink the Kool-Aid and be very confused. I didn’t grow up hearing stuff like this so I don’t know what that will be like for her. More than anything I want her to value her own voice. For me, a female divine has been an important part of that. I have a friend who values her own voice but can handle an exclusively male godhead. I guess I just teach her to find her own way and listen to herself (not me and not the gentlemen. her own inner voice.)

  8. Ann says:

    I too had some tears to shed after reading that excerpt…I had completely forgotten about it. Love it.

    I don’t have children yet, but have ponered these same questions. I pray to “God”, both Father and Mother. I usually speak of our Heavenly Parents (making sure to include both) when I speak/comment in church. I have friends whose children ask if they can pray to Heavenly Mother too because they don’t want her to feel left out…I love this sincerity.

    I hope to be very open with my children about Heavenly Mother…which means I have also tried to study/find her as mush as I can. I like the idea of her being connected to the earth, as someone commented eariler. But I am also aware that both Father and Mother are bigger than I could possibly imagine…encompassing things I will never dream of.

    I need a god that looks like me. I need a god that feels like me. I need a god that speaks like me. I need to know what my true role is as a woman, as a someday-in-the-future god.

    thanks for this post. so relieved to hear others’ responses.

  9. suzann says:

    I am enjoying reading this line of thought on Heavenly Mother. When I think about HM, I feel her, and peace sweeps over me.

    The following is a piece I wrote in 1992. It is published in WOMEN AND AUTHORITY.

    One evening while I was praying to know Heavenly Mother, my mind was filled with this thought, “you already know her, for you know yourself.”

    At that moment I understood that I know her because I know and feel and see intuitively what my own full potential would be. I sensed that our Heavenly Mother is the perfect embodiment of female virtues. She is wise, understanding, loving. peaceful, patient, delightful, fun, intelligent, confident, courageous, a leader, a follower, assertive, a decision-maker, a female comfort, mighty, and powerful as she stands in her full equal glory next to our Heavenly Father.

    I also sensed that she eagerly awaits her place in our spiritual lives. She is there but only those who ask will know i.

  10. Corktree says:

    For the longest time growing up, I felt more comfortable referring to God as just that, “God”. I never considered the reasons why, but some sort of subconscious inclusion of Heavenly Mother was probably at the root of it. However, it felt a little blasphemous to say out loud. Almost too informal. I can see that’s just a cultural thing now, but I have felt such relief to be able to say “God” in my own home and know that to me it means so much more. Instead of simply teaching the ways NOT to take it in vain, I am teaching my daughters that it can be used with respect and with meaning.

    As they get older, I wonder if I will have to explain the reasons why I do things, or if they will just understand on their own as they see the differences between our home and church. To think of it, I don’t remember even specifically being taught about Heavenly Mother, somehow I just knew she existed. I’m sure I learned doctrine later that supported our belief in her existence, but it didn’t feel like new information. I hope that’s how it is for my own children.

    But if not, then I suppose I will start using more specific language. “Heavenly Parents” is certainly a term they won’t hear often (enough) in church, and it’s probably more likely to get them thinking – especially if they only hear “Heavenly Father” at church. My hope is that they will wonder naturally about the other half if I include the plural term at home. I think it’s better for them to come to the questions on their own without me cramming it anyway.

    You know, when I first started to recognize the importance of teaching my daughters to identify with their own divine feminine and the obvious source of their Godly “image”, I worried that if I taught ideas that sounded too different from the language they hear at church, that I would be inviting trouble for them and myself. But now I feel in my heart that it’s okay to challenge language and culture, and that I want my children to feel comfortable doing so themselves – not with subversion as a goal, but with a desire to express truth. It’s not against doctrine, and I’m prepared to help them play a role in increasing awareness of the divine feminine in all of us, and perhaps our unrecognized relationship with our Mother in Heaven.

    Because I’m finally beginning to understand that it’s not just our daughters that need to learn to connect with our Mother. As I prepare to add a son to the mix, I’ve been thinking about all the differences on the spectrum that I see between “male” and “female”. And I truly believe that we all have varying degrees of the feminine in us, and vice versa. I think if we teach our sons to understand that and embrace whatever feminine they possess, it won’t be a threat, but it will be a natural part of them that they can relate to in others, and they won’t feel it strange to seek out their Mother as well as their Father. I hope so anyway.

    One last thought: I wonder if teaching it too directly, to the exclusion of Heavenly Father (because we figure we get enough of that at church) will lead to one-sided worship the other way? Would there be any danger of creating “women’s religion” and “men’s religion” as separate?

    (Oh, and I just recently picked up a copy of “The secret life of bees” from a used book store – so excited to read it now!)

  11. Caroline says:

    Love all these responses!

    Alisa, such interesting ideas. I love the idea of bringing HM into our daily lives more, and associating Her with the earth and with the body is one nice daily way to do this. A part of me does hesitate a bit with this dichotomy though. Are you at all worried that associating Her with the earth and body reinforces the traditional Christian idea that female=body and male=soul, a dichotomy that has often left female/body clearly subordinate to male/soul? As you can tell from my question, I haven’t yet entirely embraced difference feminism, though I sure do admire and respect a lot of women who have.

    Emily, maybe you can do a post sometime about your woman-centered FHE’s. I would love to get some ideas. Do you have any thoughts as to when you’ll start introducing your boys to HM?

    Suzette,
    I love that metaphor about iron, carbon, and steel. That resonates with me.

    Jenna, it’s exciting to read that your girls have incorporated HM into their lives. How have they done this? Do they refer to her a lot?

    kmillecam (and Ann),
    I teared up when I read that part of the book for the first time as well. 🙂

    kmillecam, you said, “How do we find ourselves in the divine if we cannot picture a piece of us there?” That’s a poignant question. I wish I knew the answer.

    And I love that you are so dedicated to talking about equality and the importance of our relationship to earth and animals.

  12. Caroline says:

    Sterling, we’ll have to work on that FHE lesson on HM. Stay tuned!

    Maverick,
    “I wonder if our not hearing from Her has way more to do with *us* (blacks and the priesthood style… meaning our cultural and social constructions are blocking Truth) than it has to do with Her. And especially has way more to do with the people who are in charge right now.”

    Yes! That’s exactly how I think of it. I figure our own socialization in thinking of God as male (or at least as the most important God as male) is the reason we haven’t yet integrated her more into our thoughts and speech and lives. Our Mormon religion sprang from a time period in which every Christian religion associated God with maleness and prayed to a male God. I think it’s really hard to turn that huge ship around.

    ” Bad for PR to have a female god too.” I think that’s a part of it as well.

    Ann, I am heartened by all these people that pray to God (mother and father)! I had no idea there were others out there doing the same. And bringing up Heavenly Parents as often in possible in church is great. I do the same, particularly when I give talks in SM.

    Suzann,
    ” “you already know her, for you know yourself.””

    I love, love, love that. Beautiful.

    Corktree,
    “I felt more comfortable referring to God as just that, “God””

    That’s how it was for me. In my informal conversations with God my whole life, God has been God. It just felt natural. Now that I’ve articulated to myself the importance of not excluding HM, “God” has taken on an additional layer of meaning, one that I treasure.

    “But now I feel in my heart that it’s okay to challenge language and culture, and that I want my children to feel comfortable doing so themselves – not with subversion as a goal, but with a desire to express truth.”

    Amen!

    And as to your last question, I am personally not that afraid of over-emphasizing HM. If our children are raised in the church, they will be getting so much HF, over and over again, that it seems to me that it would be very unlikely for our children to end up choosing (if that’ s the right word) HM over HF. That said, I probably will favor mentioning both HM and HF at home. Both elements need to be valued, and I’d like to model that.

  13. EmilyCC says:

    Caroline, to asnwer your question, I suspect HM will become a topic when my oldest is 6-8. I’m counting on inspiration to guide me as to when the time is right 🙂

    As for FHE, well, I’m pretty lazy about FHE, but when I’m on top of it, I go to lds.org, pick a picture of a woman (Miriam, Mary and Martha, Ruth, Emma Smith and Mary Fielding Smith all worked well for us) and paraphrase the written up description. Here’s another FHE that I was particularly proud of, though:
    http://clydecurtisfam.blogspot.com/2010/02/black-history-month-easy-family-home.html

    But, a HM FHE…that would be so handy!

  14. Alisa says:

    Are you at all worried that associating Her with the earth and body reinforces the traditional Christian idea that female=body and male=soul, a dichotomy that has often left female/body clearly subordinate to male/soul? As you can tell from my question, I haven’t yet entirely embraced difference feminism, though I sure do admire and respect a lot of women who have.

    Yes, I am thinking about the positive aspect of this approach, and hesitating b/c of the negative implications involved. I guess I would clarify and say female=body and male=spirit, and together body and spirit make a soul, something greater than the sum of its parts (outright rejecting that the spirit is greater than the body). But these are just my thought process, not my beliefs.

  15. Lacy says:

    I’ve been having such a Heavenly Mother awakening lately. So when I noticed the blatant HM omissions in my daughter’s nursery handouts, I edited them. The picture of God on a throne with Jesus standing next to him and all the children standing around: I drew in Heavenly Mother and hung it up on the fridge. The paper necklace that said “Heavenly Father and Jesus Love Me”: I told my daughter in an FHE (we tend to repeat her nursery lessons in FHE) that it said “Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother and Jesus Love me.”

    When she gets scared at night, I tell her that Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother will protect her. I never really thought about HM much before recently and I don’t claim to be an expert, but my basic goal for my daughter is to get HM into her conscious–you know, put her on the same footing I feel I’m just now finding–and she and I can go from there.

    Great post! Thanks!

  16. Lutfor says:

    I think that everyone should love the Madonna like you . Because your notion is perfect .

  17. krm says:

    I love this post!!! Also, Sue Monk Kidd’s “Dance of the Dissident Daughter” is another fantastic work that I recommend to anyone and everyone who is wondering about Heavenly Mother;it’s SMK’s spiritual autobiography of how she integrated HM into her life. Context is a little different, of course, but it is awesome. I went through a horribly dark place post-mission about the lack of HM in my life and culture, etc. It took me two years before I was in a good place again, and a lot of it was because I chose to integrate HM into my spiritual practice and to heck with what others thought about it. I’m so glad there are others going through the same thing (hopefully not the dark-place part, just the HM part) because it is when we as a people and culture are willing and able to change that change overall happens. I like to read Rev. 12 in this context; hopefully no one finds that too blasphemous. Thanks again for an amazing post and heartfelt comments!

    • Caroline says:

      Glad it resonated with you, KRM! Feel free to submit a guest post if you have things you’d like to discuss about HM.

  1. August 13, 2013

    […] the important Heavenly Mother Art and Poetry Contest, as well as her earlier reminder that “Everybody needs a God that looks like them.” And then there is Mrayne’s posts, “It Matters,” and “A God Like […]

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