God the Mother in the Making: The Divine Poems of Rachel Hunt Steenblik’s “Mother’s Milk”

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Mother’s Milk: Poems in search of Heavenly Mother

by Rachel Hunt Steenblik, with illustrations by Ashley Mae Hoiland

190 pages

©BCC Press, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“At certain point in my life (after my mortal death), I was with him. I wasn’t with him for the first time—or even for the second or millionth time—it was more that I became aware that he had always been a presence within an absence—sometimes a little less absent, sometimes a little more present. I could make him out in vague outline, sometimes starkly explicit, sometimes blurry and inchoate. But what I could perceive I perceived with intimate familiarity, my perception precisely proportionate with the extent that I had come to know him and recognize him in life. (Mother was there, too, I felt certain. But I could not see her. Only later—much later—did I realize that this was because I did not know her.)”

Arrayed in Silence, I Gave Him Nothing: An Apologue of an Encounter with the Almighty God

Mormons often search for a female deity in much the same way that god-haunted, lapsed theists long for the once all-encompassing presence of the divine: the “evidence” for both appears slim to none when viewed through a certain lens, yet the longing is sure and wide. 

“Evidence” is, it seems, a very male way of evoking the presence of God. The many names of God are frequently subjected to assessment, evaluation, rational analysis, and systematization, hence the ubiquity of systematic theologies throughout the course of history. And by this same process of assessment and analysis, male atheists often consign God to the abyss of nothingness (although it should be noted that some feminists have drawn strong and reasonable atheistic conclusions, though not strictly from science alone). Science is conclusive. When we do the math, when we test the hypotheses, we must decide that God does not and could not exist.

We’re painting with some rather broad brushes here, but the general picture is representative. And we see the same motions when “assessing” the existence of a heavenly mother among otherwise believing Mormon men. Where is the scriptural evidence? Where is the clear historical documentation? Where is the official, canonized proclamation, systematically laying out her attributes and roles? I would want a Mother in Heaven to exist as well, they say, and maybe she does; but, sadly, we have no good basis for such a proposition, no clear chain of evidence, and therefore we must conclude that there is really nothing we can say about her one way or another.

Rachel Hunt Steenblik is intimately familiar with the contours of the documentary, evidential path. As one of the student research assistants and co-authors for David Paulsen’s  article detailing historical teachings on Heavenly Mother, she delved into the trajectory and topography of this idea in Mormon history. The “evidence” was there, she learned, and it was there in spades, but it was mostly anecdotal and personal, pouring out of sermons, journal entries, hymns, and poems. But for all this “evidence,” little had changed theologically, at least at the level of the institution. Heavenly Mother’s presence and influence have not been systematized and liturgically incorporated in any substantial way.

A similar historical project would yield Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (co-edited with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright), in which she helped to excavate and illumine the formidable feminist undercurrent in Mormon thought and history. It’s no coincidence, of course, that both these projects are conceptually consonant with one another: to consider the theological possibility of a heavenly mother is to open oneself to the cultural possibility of feminism. And to consider the cultural possibility of feminism is to open oneself to the theological possibility of a heavenly mother. In this way, there is an important sense in which both books were the same overall project.

What Rachel (I hope the reader will indulge me the first name address, since Rachel is a personal friend) does in this collection of short poems, however, is something else entirely, though, crucially, probably not possible without the groundwork she laid in “A Mother There” and Mormon Feminism (along with other formative life experiences). Having followed all the bread crumbs to their sources, after holding all the fragments and scraps up to the light to be scrutinized and appreciated, after climbing that mountain of centuries of unrequited longing, here she creates and assembles fragments of her own, woven into a personal tapestry of aching and religion-making that echoes and stands alongside the women poets and preachers who preceded her and who, in a sense, also birthed these poems.

This book is a book that both reveals and makes religion. In that vein, I’ll strongly contend that Mother’s Milk is not just a delightful, intimate, highly accessible, and broadly appealing collection of poems (which it is); but it is also an authentic revelation of God the Mother, a sacred text that authoritatively testifies of a Divine Woman who is God, and that it follows a long line of other authoritative sacred texts that reveal a Mother God. But in order to get to that lofty and admittedly grandiose position, we need to do a little background work first.

Due to its uncompromisingly materialist metaphysics, it’s nearly impossible not to conceive of the idea of a God Mother in terms of a both a spiritual and literal search. That is, because in mainstream Mormonism God is understood to have a physical body with dimensions much like a human’s, then it is inferred that God (and the body of God) must exist in a particular location in space-time. If there is a heavenly mother, then she, too, must have a corporeal body, and therefore must be “somewhere,” capable, like a heavenly father, of influencing from a distance, a physical being we will one day touch and embrace, as with other loved ones. The idea of a heavenly mother is a search for presence, for her personal spiritual presence in a more traditional religious sense, but also, in a directly related way, for her corporeal presence out there in the universe.

This materialist corporeality makes the lived theology of Mormonism both extremely personal but also profoundly limited for a theology founded on the principle of revelation, at least in its modern iterations. When Mormons say that God is a father, they mean so literally, or at least without a hint of metaphor. Our relationship with God is not merely like a relationship with a (human) father, it very much is a relationship with an (infinitely spiritually and morally advanced) human father. But the established invocation of this theology also locks Mormons into a revelatory system (which itself borders on the paradoxical) that is utterly top-down data-driven: knowledge of God’s attributes is essential for personal salvation, but God has chosen to divulge this knowledge only to authorized priests, whose “hands are tied” until God decides to reveal more about himself. So even though heavenly mother has been speculated about, affirmed, and presented in poem and song and discourse for nearly as long as the church has existed, she is nevertheless absent or invisible at the level of officialdom.

What this means for Mormons who find the idea of a heavenly mother to be compelling–and for some, absolutely essential, not to mention all over the historical record and still present with us in everyday discourse in some important ways–is that they are left to yearn without full consummation. That is, like other orthodox (small ‘o’) churches, where official sanction is a fundamental tenet of belief, the lack of authoritative theological recognition can very easily pull those who are otherwise unflinchingly faithful outside the tent of orthodoxy, where they might find themselves writing about, praying to, and discussing Heavenly Mother in ways that find no parallel and therefore would not be condoned within that tent, thereby creating a heterodoxy of believers (and not only where a heavenly mother is concerned).

What has occurred with this idea of a Mother God, then, is that members of the church (principally women) without traditional ecclesiastical authority became religion-makers of their own, and indeed, that they had no recognized authority was crucial for this to happen. In a sense, this is a primary method by which religion has always changed and evolved. Certainly, decisions made by religious leaders throughout history have only ever been one aspect of this evolution; those without canonical authority have always been key players in religious shifts and transformations. Indeed, this is precisely what has occurred with the idea of heavenly mother in Mormon thought, an idea which has been stubbornly kept alive, almost entirely due to torch-carrying women over eight consecutive generations.

But my argument here is not that these women have merely documented an idea with rather sophisticated and poetic wishful thinking, but that they have made religion, that they have brought revelation down from the proverbial mountain, and that now it irrevocably stands alongside more orthodox teachings and practices as real and authentic, whatever ecclesiastical authority may say or think about it. Mother’s Milk follows in this religion-making tradition. The poems here are nothing like wishful thinking, or pining for a world where God the Mother could actually be “real.” As with more traditional beliefs, her existence is taken as a given, while her presence and absence are questioned, affirmed, and described.

In fact, we might confidently suggest that a certain conception of God–one that strongly resonates with Mormon theology–illustrates how this religion-making works. Building on the philosophical theology of Alfred North Whitehead, Process theologian Roland Faber describes God as mutually self-creative. That is, in Whitehead’s theology, both the world and God are not discrete entities, but mutually create one another. God is a self-revealing being, and God’s revelations–which are God’s experiences–are multiple and diverse. When humans receive these self-revelations, they interpret and subjectively rationalize them in innumerable ways. But God receives this plurality of interpretations as moments of God’s own nature, and thus our interpretations of what we receive from God, across the human spectrum, not only are understood by God, but actually become part of God’s own identity: “Because the religious experiences of God are God’s self-revelations, and because their human rationalizations must become divine experiences again, God, then, is in the making. God becomes God by God’s revelations and God’s experiences of their rationalizations.” [1]

In other words, God doesn’t simply take note of theologies inspired by God’s revelations and manifestations, God integrates them into God’s own being in a play of mutual edification and construction. Our human “rationalizations” of divine revelation are our revelations we reveal to God. It is in this sense that both God and the world make one another, that God could not exist without us, nor we without God (nor we without one another). Thus, we could say that it is not strictly that God the Mother is “out there” and if she doesn’t reveal herself then we know nothing about her. Nor is it strictly that we are making her up out of whole cloth simply because we long for her presence. It is both that there is a heavenly mother who is out there, a person to be revealed, and that our poetry, hymn-making, praying, and sermonizing makes of her what she is through a mutual longing that constitutes much of who we are and what we become through her name.

But even further, one particular thread that is bright and clear in all the literature in Mormon thought devoted to Heavenly Mother (and perhaps most especially in this singular collection of poems) is a deep and certain sense that the Mother is searching for us as well, that she longs for us in much the same way we long for her, that we, too, are hidden and invisible, and particularly her female children, obscured behind walls of doubt, self-deception, false appearance, and fear, and that she cannot know us, either, until we reveal ourselves to her in all our naked authenticity, confident in our shared divinity.

Rachel’s poems evoke this sense of both our Mother-finding and Mother-making and of the Mother’s search for and making of her children, and the poems’ simplicity and succinctness brilliantly brings these movements right to the surface. Her final poem, “Benediction,” is a sealing capstone to just this sort of this mutual religious creativity that runs through the entirety of the work:

Dear God,
May the Mother
long for me
as I long for Her,
may She run to me,
as I run to Her,
may She soothe me,
as I soothe
my son
and daughter.
In Jesus’ name,
Amen.

With these heart poems Rachel very clearly and tenderly teaches us that we cannot see God the Mother if we do not know her. But we do not have to wait for her to be revealed. In the Mormon tradition of other inspired and inspiring theological pioneer women who have gone before her, she shows how we are the ones who give God the Mother (and God the Father) the life and the lives that make of her who she really is.

[1] Roland Faber, “God in the Making: Religious Experience and Cosmology in Whitehead’s Religion in the Making,” in L’experience de Dieu: Lectures de Religion in the Making d’Alfred North Whitehead: Aletheia. 

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