Friday, November 21, 2008

Playing the Devil's Advocate with Kevin Barney's Article on Heavenly Mother

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 [1997], 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.


m_and_m said...

I appreciated this response. Thanks.

S.Faux said...

I am greatly impressed by the deep intelligence of your analysis. Thanks for raising a number of issues that I have not considered.

Blake said...

inV: This is not only a very thoughtful response but worthy of publication. Send it to Dialogue to be published as an article.

Barney downplays the very prominent rejection of Asherah by the prophets and by Josiah -- whom the Deuteronomist considers to be a national hero and god-inspired. The very frequent association between Ahwerah and the Canaanite fertility cults shows that at least by the time of the major prophets she had become rejected as a sign of idolatry. Barney mentions but glosses these very significant assessments.

You are also entirely correct that asserting that we at least know the name of the Mother in Heaven is way beyond what any evidence cited by Barney could possibly support.

Anonymous said...

Good post BiV and I think it does put the whole discussion in another light. Certainly I can see your arguments.

The only mention I will make to possibly poke a bit of a pinprick into your article.

The perversion of the Worship of God which Barney points to in the destruction of the brass serpent I think is a beginning point of explaining this position. When one looks at how post OT Rabbis viewed the injunction to not boil a kid in its mothers milk and fenced it with not cooking milk and meat together or eating them in the same meal.

Or another idea is the collection of patron saints in Catholic religion who suddenly are nearly deified.

Second small point, I would also argue that if we ignore the Canaanite gods names we would probably need to remove El and Jehovah from our discourse as it seems they are Canaanite names first before they were Hebrew. While it is speculation I consider it interesting that we have a possible name.

Bored in Vernal said...

El and Jehovah

That was a good little prick, there, Jon! It's definitely a point for the Asherah side.

Now, what should we do with Ba'al, Mot, Anat, and the other 70 god/children of El?

Anonymous said...

and that is why it is only a prick. There are a lot of questions when it comes to Canaanites and Hebrews and the transference of religious beliefs.

Anonymous said...

BiV: Awesome post.

I have to say, I hope Kevin reads it!

m_and_m said...

Second small point, I would also argue that if we ignore the Canaanite gods names we would probably need to remove El and Jehovah from our discourse as it seems they are Canaanite names first before they were Hebrew.

That was a good little prick, there, Jon! It's definitely a point for the Asherah side.

Personally, I don't see this as a prick at all. Since prophets are the ones who have told us the names of the Father and the Son, I'd say there is no pointage on that point to the Asherah side. :)

(Not that I can even think I'm qualified to don a referee shirt, mind you, but I still think BiV has done some pretty thorough thinking here.)

Anonymous said...

BinV said: 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.

Being on the wrong side of the Stake President's desk is certainly undesirable, however, grieving the Spirit of the Lord so that He is slow to hear our prayers should be more of a concern. D&C 101:7-8

Bored in Vernal said...

Really, I don't know what I would do if I weren't called to repentance regularly on my blog!

Anonymous said...

BiV, please repent of not banning Jared... :)

the narrator said...

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.

Actually I strongly disagree here. I believe the chapter is about the condescension of God as Jesus. The original 1830 BofM clearly portrays God condescending and being born of a woman. Joseph Smith made the "son of" additions in the 1840 edition, which I believe distort the original intent of Nephi's writing.

Instead of
Fruit=Eternal Life

it should be
Tree+Fruit=God becoming man (mother of God + God become flesh)
Fruit=Source of eternal life.

Bored in Vernal said...

An interesting view which holds lots of possibilities.

For my readers, here is the passage in question, from the 1830 edition. Words which have been modified are in brackets. Added words are in bold italics. Verse numbers added for ease of comparison. Changes in punctuation and capitalization are not noted.

1 Ne 11:13...and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was [exceeding] fair and white.

11:14 And it came to pass that I saw the Heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he [saith] unto me, Nephi, what beholdest thou?

11:15 And I [saith] unto him, a virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.

11:16 And he [saith] unto me, Knowest thou [condescention] of God?

11:17 And I said unto him, I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.

11:18 And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin [which] thou seest, is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.

11:19 And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the spirit; and after [that] she had been carried away in the spirit for the space of a time, the angel spake unto me, saying, look!

11:20 And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.

11:21 And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?

11:22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.

Does this interpretation have any support among other Mormon writers?

Jacob J said...

Nice post BiV. The biggest problem I had with the article (I got about half way through before giving up) was that in the absence of information about this "good" Asherah worship, it seems we are free to dream it up to be whatever we want it to be. Kevin seemed to be conjecturing in this space a lot.

Bored in Vernal said...

Oh, no! You didn't give up! That means you missed all the suggestions at the end on how to worship HM. Aw, Jacob.

Unknown said...

I'd have to agree with Jon W. - the strength of Barney's argument is in his direct correlation of the brass serpent with Asherah worship in the pre-exilic temple and possibly among the patriarchs and their families. This avenue of thought should have been explored further.

Still not sure what to think of the article (beyond that I thought the ideas were cool), but thanks for the thoughtful and respectful exploration BiV!

m_and_m said...

I have heard that chapter interpreted as actually referring to the condescension of both Father and Son.

the narrator said...

Let me further add that I believe that one of Christ's duties was to reveal the Father. While there are bits and pieces of a pluralistic divinity in the BofM prior to Christ's visit, I think most of those should be read as Nephite prophets trying to understand this concept in light of the strict monotheism they adopted from Lehi's Jerusalem. Joseph Smith's additions (as well various commentaries) are anachronistically trying to force a different theology on the Nephites - a theology which they just didn't have.

Bored in Vernal said...

Narrator, I'm glad you added this little tidbit--it gives me more of an insight into your theology. At first I thought perhaps you were looking at the Book of Mormon from a skeptic's view--or at least that it wasn't strictly historical. But this comment changes things. Are you in fact a proponent of a historical view of the Book of Mormon?

And btw what are you doing typing comments in blogs when I thought you would be in the arms of your sweetheart by now?

the narrator said...

I like to think that I believe the BofM to be more historical than most Mormons. If we really want to claim that Lehi, Nephi, Alma, etc were real historical people, I think we need to treat them as such. That means they were flawed people with flawed theologies who were doing their best at forming a theology with the little information they had. Furthermore, they perhaps stretched the truth and redesigned their narratives to fit their theological motivations. On the other hand, I think that attempting to locate the BofM characters into a specific historical locale is a waste of time.

My sweetheart doesn't arrive until later tonight.

Anonymous said...

"Latter-day Saints might better be served by imagining ways to evict paganism from their lives rather than reconceptualize it." I really appreciated this insight. Great article. I agree that it should be published.

Anonymous said...

Even though I thought your analysis was well done and brought important insights into the discussion, it made me sad. I loved Barney's paper. Seeing discussions of Mother in Heaven of any kind are so rare and precious that the swift Orthodox broadside you provided I think discourages the discussion (despite your final softening) and pushes again to the background those few thoughtful attempts (even if flawed by mainstream standards) there are. I don't know if Mother in Heaven was Asherah, but I'm decorating my Christmas tree in her honor, and planting a tree to remember her. I've heard no other suggestions about how to honor her but silence. I find myself tired of that.

Bored in Vernal said...

It's pretty amazing that someone just described me as orthodox!! Maybe a first! I should have suspected it when M&M complimented me, though.

Seriously, though, AppleK, I understand your pain. It is good to have people exploring this issue in a scholarly way. The thing that frustrates me is that without official revelation on the subject, these types of explorations are doomed from the start. Also, I would rather save my worship for whatever true images of HM I can find, rather than those I know were condemned by OT prophets.

More apologies to Kevin. I am sure he will continue the good work and not be discouraged by this type of criticism.

m_and_m said...

I should have suspected it when M&M complimented me, though.

Uh, do you consider compliments from me a bad thing, BiV? I can certainly refrain from them in the future if that is the case....

Bored in Vernal said...

oh dear. I'm always sticking my foot in my mouth. Please keep commenting, M&M. I live for comments!

Anonymous said...

"in light of the strict monotheism they adopted from Lehi's Jerusalem."

Eh, I don't think it was strictly monotheistic. Not until much later, if ever.

For example, Peter Hayman argues that Judaism never became monotheistic in the Journal of Jewish Studies, Spring 1991.


John Gustav-Wrathall said...

I know I'm way behind the times in responding to this only now... I more or less agree with your critiques of Barney's piece.

However, have you ever read the book The Madonna of 115th Street by Robert Orsi? If not, I highly recommend it. It is an absolutely amazing history of the cult of the Virgin Mary among Italian Catholics in New York City, from the immigrants' arrival in the 1880s to the present.

There are many amazing insights to be gleaned in reading this study, but among them is the sense that among working-class, immigrant Italians there was a remarkable sense of belonging to a "Holy Family" that is -- to my Mormon sensibilities, shockingly Mormon. There was a very literal sense of familial connection to God that seems analogous to the Mormon notion of God's literal parenthood of us, and our literal ascension in the next life to a similar parental pattern. In the Italian Catholic context, the Virgin Mary had a very prominent, very tangible, powerful presence as a literal kind of Heavenly Mother.

Orsi further argues -- very persuasively, I think -- that Italian immigrant women desperately needed this divine Mother figure to whom they could turn for help, because they bore the heaviest, most grinding burdens in the mind-, body-, and soul-numbing realities of working class Italian life in the fin-de-siecle. Their ability to pray to -- and receive help from -- a "divine Mamma" made all the difference to these women and their families.

I couldn't help but think as I read this of a cartoon I saw in Sunstone, showing a desperate Mormon woman on her knees, her house falling apart around her, and asking plaintively, "Excuse me, but could I please talk to Mom?"

The cartoon made me laugh... But this is a real, serious thing isn't it? Even if we can't pray to her, doesn't it make a difference to know that she exists? And how much of the current silence around Heavenly Mother is really necessary for the sake of propriety, and how much is just due to the cultural crust of sexism, or the cultural fear that if Mormons talked more or sang more or sought greater light of revelation on Heavenly Mother, it would merely underline an uncomfortable, embarrassing kind of difference between us and the Evangelical Protestant culture that once tried so hard to stamp us out, and that we've made an uneasy, Devil's pact kind of peace with?

Bored in Vernal said...

J G-W, thanks for a very insightful comment. I will have to check out Orsi's book. I have been interested in the parallels between the Mormon Heavenly Mother and the Catholic Mary veneration.

Anonymous said...

BiV, I'm terribly sorry that I didn't see this critique until just now. I appreciate your careful reading of my paper, and taking it seriously enough to make such thoughtful comments. Needless to say, I disagree with your point of view, but I do appreciate it. You ought to submit this as a letter, or even a little article to Dialogue. They do call it "Dialogue" for a reason!

Kristine said...

Yeah, BiV, me too--sorry I didn't see this. Send it to me at editor at dialoguejournal dot com. If you hurry, I may be able to get it into the Summer issue.

rameumptom said...

Kevin just pointed me to your article. While I agree with you on the issue of praying to Heavenly Mother, there are other issues I do agree with Kevin on.

Blake's comment mentions the Deuteronomist's rejection of Asherah, but neglects to note Margaret Barker's view that the Northern Kingdom would have accepted her as goddess. In her Library of Congress/Joseph Smith Seminar speech, she discussed how the Deuteronomists actually removed Asherah worship from the temple (it used to have a Tree of Life), and compares the First Temple worship to Nephi's Vision of the Tree of Life. She directly tied Asherah/Mary to the Tree of Life, and Jesus as the fruit of the tree.
While Josiah and D rejected Asherah, there are some who would say it was Josiah who was apostate. Remember, he also destroyed the brazen snake of Moses, which Nephi's people often referenced as representative of Christ! There is no feeling of agreement between D and Nephi's people that the brazen serpent should be destroyed as an apostate idol. Why should there be an agreement on Asherah?

xJane said...

Not having read Barney's article, I found this a wonderful discussion (which makes me want to read it, though I don't know that I have sufficient background in Mormon scripture to do so) of attempts to recognize the Divine Feminine in modern religions by looking to ancient religions. And I think you identified the exact reasons why this often fails (at least at the high doctrinal level). It's unfortunate that Mormons are blanket-banned from addressing their Divine Mother in the same manner which they are allowed to address their Divine Father (and Brother?). Because of these doctrinal bans, I think works like Barney's are even more important—maybe this may change in the future.

Martin Jacobs said...

If the resurrection of Asherah is what Mormonism has come to, then it really has worked itself into an unholy mess (and one that is wholly unnecessary from a plain reading of the Bible). As far as the adoption of the names of God are concerned, the Bible-skeptics seem to willfully ignore contextualization (Psalm 95 is one example, you can see my thoughts here...

However, a bigger problem is the tendency to work from the symbol to the truth behind the symbol, which reverses a common Biblical meme (that the unseen Word of God can be seen as it bears fruit in real life, e,g, Genesis 1, John 1, Colossians 1:16). Thus, for example, some people seem able to work from a Christmas Tree backwards to some speculative outcome about a tree of life, and in so doing attempt to re-imagine monotheistic Judeao-Christian tradition as a corrupted form of paganism. Or, they imagine that God the Father must have a wife (because that's what earthly fathers have). At this point, you get into Dan Brown territory, and the ludicrous claim that True Christianity is actually full-blown Paganism.

If that's where you find yourself, however you got there, you will find yourself in contention with the corpus of Biblical literature, and the contributions of John and (the alleged) Deutero-Isaiah in particular. For them, the truth (the Divine Logos) is not invested in a symbol, but it exists before all things, including the symbols (or words borrowed from surrounding cultures, even) that we use to comprehend that truth. The remarkable thing, though, is not that this Logos is there; it is that He became flesh and lived amongst us (John 1:14). Jesus Christ is not just some dude who bailed us out when we were in strife; He is the living embodiment of the Divine Truth/Word that brought the whole cosmos into being. (A cosmos that may, or may not, include an ontological Asherah.) That's why the first Christians worshipped Jesus as God, and not Asherah. Why worship the creature, when you should be worshipping the Creator? If Mormonism is, as it's prophets claim, the restoration of True Christianity, then you would expect it to look something like the Christianity of the first Christians. But it doesn't. It looks more like the paganism that the Judeao-Christian tradition has persistently set itself against.