Heavenly Mother

From our service on May 9, 2021, a sermon by Pastor Eric Stetson. Watch video below.

Today is Mother’s Day, a day when people in many countries around the world honor the mothers of their family and celebrate the loving bond between a mother and her children. On this day, we should also consider the spiritual dimensions of motherhood. To be a mother is to be like God, for God not only is our Father in heaven, but also our heavenly Mother.

If this idea seems controversial, consider the fact that the creation story in the Bible says that both men and women were created in God’s image. As we read in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, God says, “Let Us make humankind in Our image, in Our likeness”; and so “male and female He created them.” [Gen. 1:26-27].

The Hebrew word for God in this passage is Elohim, which is plural. It literally means “the gods” — although Bible translators have shied away from this grammatical truth. What it reveals is that Judaism began as a polytheistic religion, like all the other religions of the world in ancient times. Christians have interpreted the plurality of Elohim as a reference to the Trinity. We’ll come back to this idea later on, but first I think we should take it a bit more at face value. Ancient Jews believed in not just one Supreme Deity, the Lord Yahweh, but also a pantheon of lesser gods, who in some cases came to be known as angels and in other cases were later rejected as demonic or nonexistent. One of the deities in the ancient Hebrew tradition was none other than God’s wife.

We all know that it takes a father and a mother to create children in their image and likeness. And we know the Bible says that God, as a plural entity, created men and women. We also know that many verses of the Bible speak of human beings as God’s children. It logically follows that our Creator, our spiritual Parents, are both Father and Mother, Husband and Wife.

Early human religions almost universally included the worship of a Goddess, who was believed to be the source of fertility, prosperity, and abundance. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that one of the names for God in the Bible is El Shaddai, which, although more commonly translated as “God Almighty,” also means the “God with Breasts,” according to its Hebrew linguistic root. Some religious scholars believe that Yahweh was understood by ancient Jews to be the masculine aspect of the Hebrew Godhead, while El Shaddai represented the feminine.

One of the names for God in the Bible is El Shaddai, which, although more commonly translated as “God Almighty,” also means the “God with Breasts.”

God’s consort in the early Hebrew tradition was also known as Asherah. She was worshipped alongside Yahweh by many Jews, who called her the “Queen of Heaven.” [e.g., see Jer. 44:17]. Even some of the Jewish kings and members of the royal family worshipped Asherah [e.g., 2 Kings 21:7, 1 Kings 15:13]. But this practice was controversial and was condemned by the prophets whose writings have been preserved in the Bible that was handed down to posterity.

It is important to understand that the worship of Asherah was condemned not because she was a female representation of God, but because of the cult rituals that had come to be associated with her. When the Hebrew people left Egypt and entered the land of Canaan, they found a thriving culture there with its own national gods. Among those gods was Moloch, who was worshipped by sacrificing children in a fire, and Astarte, a goddess who was worshipped through sexual acts with temple prostitutes. Many Hebrews began to adopt some of the Canaanite religious practices, which Judaism considered to be immoral.

Astarte and Asherah were conflated with one another, and some Jews began indulging in the practice of ritual prostitution, in a misguided attempt to venerate the wife of Yahweh. As a result, the prophets urged that Yahweh be worshipped alone, and Judaism took on a more strictly monotheistic flavor.

What was lost in the transition from polytheism to monotheism was the veneration of our Heavenly Mother. The true Goddess, the female aspect of the Godhead, is a mother, not a whore. God does not desire our worship through grotesque rituals such as burning people or animals on an altar, nor having promiscuous sex and calling it a religious act. Instead, God wants for us to come to know our Creator as a loving Father and Mother, who asks only that our worship take the form of loving one another — as a religion of the spirit, not the flesh.

Despite the suppression of the worship of Yahweh’s consort Asherah, the Divine Feminine has lived on in the Judeo-Christian tradition, including in many verses of the Bible. If you’re looking for an easily readable summary of the Biblical evidence for the female aspect of God, I recommend a book called The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female, by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. As Mollenkott shows, there are many examples of how Biblical writers preserved the notion of God as a motherly figure within the context of monotheistic worship of Yahweh, but in this sermon I will only mention a few that I find to be especially significant.

Earlier in the service, our liturgist read from the Book of Proverbs, chapter 8. In this passage, Wisdom is personified as a female being who existed from the beginning of time as God’s eternal partner. “I was there,” She says, “when He set the heavens in place, when He marked out the horizon on the face of the deep.” [Prov. 8:27]. As God created the earth, She proclaims, “I was constantly at His side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in His presence, rejoicing in His whole world and delighting in mankind.” [vs. 30-31].

And why wouldn’t She be there and delight in us? In the next verse, She calls us “my children.” “Listen to me,” She says with motherly care and concern; “blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not disregard it.” [vss. 32-33]. Here we have one of the clearest expressions in the Bible of the reality of our Heavenly Mother.

The Hebrew word for Divine Wisdom is Hokhmah, and in Greek it’s Sophia, both of which are grammatically female. In the Christian tradition, the Spirit of Wisdom is also associated with the Logos, or Word of God, that incarnated into the person of Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that when we look at Jesus, we see the Heavenly Father. As the embodiment of Wisdom, he is also the Son and perfect image of the Heavenly Mother, embodying all the attributes of God.

When God announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive a child, the angelic messenger tells her that “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” [Luke 1:35]. In Hebrew, the word translated as “overshadow” is the same word that was used by rabbis to refer to God’s glorious presence in the tabernacle. This concept was called the Shekhinah, meaning the dwelling or presence of God. It was closely associated with the concept of the Holy Spirit, or Ruach Ha-Kodesh. Both of these Hebrew terms are grammatically female, and both have often been considered in rabbinical literature as the feminine aspect of God.

Jesus said that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” [John 3:5-6]. Here we see the Holy Spirit described as a woman giving birth — our Heavenly Mother.

So, when the angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and she would conceive a holy child, that means that the Spirit of God the Mother would be revealed in her, so that she could bear a fully Divine Son. This interpretation may be somewhat unorthodox, but it makes sense when we consider the reality of the Divine Feminine. No wonder, then, that in the mainstream Christian tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary has been called the “Holy Mother” and the “Mother of God.” In fact, Catholics as well as some other Christians call Mary the “Queen of Heaven” — the exact same title that was used by ancient Jews for Asherah, the wife of God.

The near-deification of Mary in Catholicism has been an unintentional restoration of some of the original understanding that true divinity cannot only be male, but must also include aspects of the female. Catholics wouldn’t go as far as I do, but I think it’s reasonable to consider the Virgin Mary to be a human manifestation of the attributes of God the Mother, much as we consider Jesus Christ to be an earthly representation of the qualities of God the Father. It is also reasonable to understand the Christian concept of the Trinity as a triad of Father, Mother, and Child — God begetting and giving birth to divine-human offspring, beginning with Christ and potentially including all of us as our spirits mature.

The near-deification of Mary in Catholicism has been an unintentional restoration of some of the original understanding that true divinity cannot only be male, but must also include aspects of the female.

“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you,” says God in the Book of Isaiah [Isa. 66:13]. The Jewish prophet Hosea speaks of God as our nursing Mother: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. … To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.” [Hos. 11:1-2,4]. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,” lamented Jesus, “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” [Matt. 23:37].

Indeed, in many times, in many ways, the worshippers of Yahweh have gone astray. One of the most serious faults in our faith is that we have denied half of the nature of our God, and in so doing, we have denied our sisters in the human family the clear understanding of their own nature as the daughters of God, whose feminine attributes are equally divine.

There is no excuse for the refusal to recognize our Heavenly Mother. Not only is the Divine Feminine fully Biblical, as we have shown, but some of the greatest early Christian leaders were unafraid to speak of it. For example, the second-century theologian Saint Clement of Alexandria devoted nearly a whole chapter of his book, the Paedagogus, to the teaching of a maternal, suckling God. In the fourth century, Saint Ambrose the Bishop of Milan described God with the maternal imagery of a womb and breasts. In the early fifth century, Synesius the Bishop of Ptolemais wrote of God, “You are Father, You are Mother, You are male, and You are female.”

In later centuries, although such ideas were less frequently expressed as the church became more conservative in its doctrine, Christian mystics continued the tradition of recognizing and revering the feminine aspect of God. For example, in the 14th and 15th centuries, Dame Julian of Norwich, an anchorite nun, wrote in her book Revelations of Divine Love that “God almighty is our loving Father, and God all wisdom is our loving Mother… one God, one Lord.” In the 16th century, Saint Teresa of Avila wrote in her own book, The Interior Castle, that “from those divine breasts where it seems God is always sustaining the soul there flow streams of milk bringing comfort to all the people.”

In the modern era, few churches speak openly of God using female imagery and titles. No denomination of any significant size actually teaches, in its official creed, that God is not only our Father in Heaven but also our Heavenly Mother, except for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest denomination of Mormons — which nevertheless forbids its members to pray to Her.

The Catholic Church venerates Mary to such a degree as to elevate her almost to equality with her son Jesus Christ — but not quite. Although Catholics believe she escaped death and ascended directly into heaven, where she reigns as Holy Mother and Queen and chief Mediatrix of human salvation alongside the Mediator Jesus, she nevertheless remains outside of the Godhead, rather than as a personification of God’s true wife.

Ironically, despite the fact that the LDS Church and the Catholic Church are the two major denominations that are the closest, officially, to accepting the female side of Divinity, they both deny the priesthood to women, a conspicuous hypocrisy. Meanwhile, many liberal Christian denominations allow women to be ministers or priests, but do not have any doctrinal acknowledgement of the Divine Feminine in their creeds or official traditions.

In all advanced nations today, women can be corporate CEOs and can hold the highest political offices in the land. More often than not, they do these things while retaining their feminine qualities as wives and mothers or nurturing caregivers — giving women equality and power doesn’t make them androgynous and remove femaleness from the world. Isn’t it time that some Christian denomination would start openly teaching that God is both male and female, put it in their creed, call God “She” more than occasionally and include Her veneration in worship, and if they haven’t already, bestow upon women full equality in ministerial and leadership offices of the church?

Yes, in some progressive churches there is an occasional mention of the Divine Feminine, but from what I’ve seen, it’s usually done without the theological substantiveness it deserves, and it doesn’t make its way into the regular customs of worship. Mentioning the feminine side of God once in a while seems to be more of an exercise in virtue signaling to the progressives in the pews, rather than a full restoration of the ancient truth of God’s dual-gendered nature.

In some progressive churches there is an occasional mention of the Divine Feminine, but from what I’ve seen, it’s usually done without the theological substantiveness it deserves.

Until Christianity fully embraces this truth, it will continue to lose believers to the rise of secular humanism, Neo-Paganism, and the New Age movement. But there is no reason to shy away from it! The teaching of God as not only our Heavenly Father but also our Mother is fully Biblical and logical, and indeed it is vitally necessary.

As Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote in her book, The Divine Feminine, there are serious negative “effects of naming God as exclusively masculine: because God is husbandlike, husbands are godlike. Because God is fatherlike, fathers are godlike. The stage is set for the exploitation of girls and women. But the chances for exploitation are severely curtailed if we go further and recognize the biblical images that say God is womanlike and motherlike, so that women and mothers are in turn godlike. The type of relationship that suggests itself when only one partner is godlike is a dominance-submission relationship. The type of relationship that suggests itself when both partners are godlike is mutuality.”

Furthermore, as Mollenkott points out, throughout Christian history, it has actually been men who have tended to be more attracted to feminine imagery and concepts of God. Recognizing our Heavenly Mother is not something that only radical feminist women are interested in. Mollenkott suggests, correctly in my opinion, that “the widespread use of inclusive God-language in Christian worship might well benefit contemporary men even more than women. It is quite possible that one reason so few men attend church regularly is that they are unconsciously repelled by being called toward intimacy with an exclusively masculine God.”

Perhaps if the church would start openly embracing the Goddess, it might find more men interested to participate in religion again. Indeed, in my own spiritual life, some of the most meaningful mystical experiences I’ve had have been when I felt God presenting Herself to me as female — including much of the inspiration for starting this church.

Although I’m not a Mormon or a Catholic, I believe in our Heavenly Mother and I venerate the Holy Mother Mary. I wish that more Christians would do the same. Perhaps, if enough Christian leaders with influence start talking about these things, eventually they will.

Watch on video (starting at 8:32):