By now, those in the know have clicked on the link at the Dialogue journal website to read the free preview of Kevin Barney's article, "How to Worship our Heavenly Mother (Without Getting Excommunicated)." For quite a while I have been hearing about and greatly anticipating the appearance of this scholarly comparison of the Mormon Mother in Heaven with the female deity Asherah. And my readers will know of the great admiration I have for Kevin Barney's research, writing, and opinions. So it is with some regret that I feel compelled to point out some dangers and flaws in this piece.
I do agree with Barney's assessment (and the starting point for our examination of this topic) that Daniel C. Peterson's article "Nephi and His Asherah" is "surely one of the most remarkable articles ever published in Mormon studies." In fact, I suggest that before you read the rest of my review that you pause immediately to peruse this article. Here Peterson introduces the Mormon reader to Asherah, chief goddess of the early Canaanites and worshipped by at least some of the ancient Hebrews. Though the Old Testament is rife with condemnation of this idolatrous practice, Peterson for the first time in Mormon writings gives credence to the position that worship of the asherah may have been legitimate.
In his article, Barney takes up the baton that Peterson proposed in linking Asherah the tree goddess with Nephi's vision of the mother of the Son of God and the Tree of Life. As much as I admire such an exegesis, I must point out that a more conservative reading of 1 Nephi 11 suggests that Nephi is shown the Virgin Birth in order to connect Christ Jesus and the tree, not his mother. This reading is proposed by several Mormon scriptorians, including Jeffrey R. Holland:
"The images of Christ and the tree [are] inextricably linked. At the very outset of the Book of Mormon, Christ is portrayed as the source of eternal life and joy, the living evidence of divine love, and the means whereby God will fulfill his covenant with the house of Israel and indeed the entire family of man, returning them all to their eternal promises" (Christ and the New Covenant , 160, 162).
This view fits better with the chapter as a whole, the condescension of God being the demonstration by the Father of his love for the world by sending his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. (John 3:16)
Those who have some experience in women's studies of the Old Testament will readily recognize Barney's recapitulation of the "Sophia as Heavenly Mother" theme. I agree with his assessment that Sophia (the Latin word for Wisdom)"was present at the creation and assisted in its work" as a Divine Female force. It is quite possible that the Wisdom figure can tell us a great deal about the Goddess Asherah and even our Heavenly Mother herself. To see my speculations along with my angst on this, see here.
But when it comes to pegging Asherah as our Heavenly Mother, there are many problems which must be overcome, and Kevin Barney falls short of mastering them in his article. Barney's proposition is that the early form of worship practice, veneration of Asherah, is more valid than the later, more evolved form of monotheism. If this is accepted, then we are forced to acknowledge the entire pantheon of gods worshipped by the early Canaanites and Hebrews, as well as reject the prophetic authority of the reform period. I am willing to consider that worship of a Holy Mother figure may have been a part of the primordial religion. But by the time we come to know the Asherah figure in the Old Testament, she has been perverted into a licentious, dissipated corruption which is denounced by God and the prophets. She may bear little or no resemblance at all to the Mormon Heavenly Mother. How do we know, I wonder, which of her attributes are divine and which are not? Can we accept her association with trees, groves, or poles while rejecting, for example, the cult of prostitution accompanying her worship?
Now let us take a look at some of the suggestions Kevin Barney makes for how this conception of Heavenly Mother might be worshipped while maintaining an orthodox Latter-day Saint position. The best of these, and one which quite captured my imagination, was that we "reconceptualize" our Christmas tree traditions as symbols of the Christ child's mother. Says Barney,
"Since the practice of putting up Christmas trees originated from a pagan fertility symbol that had to be reconceptualized in the first place to give it a Christian meaning, giving the tree our own reconceptualization would not be treading on inviolable ground. And, of course, putting a Christmas tree up each December is entirely unobjectionable in our culture, a practice at which no one would bat an eye. But seeing the tree as a symbol of our Mother may be a source of satisfaction to those who long to acknowledge Her in some way."
This description in Barney's article had my head spinning as I immediately began to create many different ways of decorating this year's Christmas tree in my mind! But, I warn you, Latter-day Saints might better be served by imagining ways to evict paganism from their lives rather than reconceptualize it. After all, the Bible warns us not to follow pagan customs:
Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not...
Every man is brutish in his knowledge: every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them.
They are vanity, and the work of errors: in the time of their visitation they shall perish. (Jeremiah 10:2-4, 14-15)
After spending many words advising the reader of his article that the current policy of the Church is not to pray publicly to Heavenly Mother, Barney "suggest[s] a partial, small exception." Apparently it is acceptable in Barney's eyes that infertile women may pray to Asherah. I believe Barney is treading on thin ice with this suggestion. Although, truth be told, I will admit to praying to a Heavenly Mother in private under certain circumstances, it is nonetheless a practice which might lead you to the wrong side of the Stake President's desk. The instructions that were given by Gordon B. Hinckley as President of the Church did not limit the restriction on prayer to a Mother in Heaven to the public sphere. Here are his exact words from a General Women's Meeting:
"Logic and reason would certainly suggest that if we have a Father in Heaven, we have a Mother in Heaven. That doctrine rests well with me. However, in light of the instruction we have received from the Lord Himself, I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to our Mother in Heaven." (“Daughters of God,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 97)
Barney's paragraph on prayer to the Mother is a dance of fancy footwork where he trips in and out of recommending these types of supplications and absolving himself of responsibility.
The last area where I strongly feel that Kevin Barney has stepped out of bounds is in his presumption that he knows the personal name of our Heavenly Mother. Says he:
"I personally regard it as very significant that we actually know the name of our Mother in Heaven: Asherah."The name may be a possibility, but Brother Barney would certainly have to give more evidence to convince me of this than that a few ancient Hebrews once adopted the appellation of a Canaanite Goddess as the object of their devotion. I feel no more comfortable using the title he identifies as an ancient word for "Goddess:" Elat. (I do love the word studies, though. Kevin Barney excells at these, and they are in evidence throughout his article.)
Other suggestions lose their potency as we realize that the Asherah of the Old Testament just may not be She whom we seek. Naming children Asher or Sophia, planting saplings to honor a tree Goddess, seeing consecrated olive oil as a symbol of a feminine presence in the ordinance, and even temple service in the way described by Barney seem weak proposals compared with the active, vital worship of a feminine Deity in Goddess-based religions.
In writing this response, I do not wish to discourage those who are searching for greater light and revealed knowledge upon the important subject of the Divine Feminine. I commend Kevin Barney for his efforts on this matter and I hope students of Mormonism will continue to probe in this direction.