Women’s Religious Authority

I am currently reading a fascinating book on medieval mysticism that argues that the rise of female mysticism is not the result of some innate feminine spirituality, but the result of cultural constraints on women’s authority that required extraordinary spiritual experience as legitimating a female voice. I am curious if a similar dynamic exists within Mormon culture. Is women’s authority limited in LDS culture in such a way that particular forms of spirituality are required to authorize their speech? If so, what sorts of spiritual practices are authorizing? Or, is enough authority given that there is no need for extraordinary measures?

It is not uncommon for many LDS men to speak highly of the “innate” spirituality of women, especially their wives. Indeed, this innate spirituality is often seen as a substitute for, or even a parallel to, the male-only priesthood. Women are seen as more caring, more patient, more “in tune.” For the record, I am not convinced that these are natural gender differences. But, are they more than just stereotypes and cultural constructs? Could women actually perform these stereotypes in order to have a voice? Do these prescribed female characteristics actually produce women’s authority and agency in the church?

Finally, why are some female spiritual practices accepted and not others? Why hasn’t the church produced a need for women mystics? What is the difference for women in medieval Christianity and women in modern Mormonism that enables different means for authorizing women’s voices?

9 Replies to “Women’s Religious Authority”

  1. I think you have to look no farther than Eliza R Snow and Zina Young to see that we did in fact produce our share of mystics. However, mysticism has died out as our focus has gone from receiving the gospel to implementing it.

  2. Well, It is through Eliza that we know of a Heavenly Mother, they spoke regularly in tongues, gave bleesing to Sisters by the laying on of hands, and generally seemed very plugged in to literal gifts of the spirit. I think that compares.

  3. I’m surprised by this book’s thesis and not sure I agree. Mysticism is of course not a specifically medieval phenomenon, and it is certainly not a uniquely gendered form of religious expression. What book is this? For more historical perspective I’d recommend Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition. It is looking at theology more than experience, but also theology as expressive of experience (they are undivided in the Platonic/Christian tradition). But both male and female mystical experience is well-documented in the early church, just as in the Middle Ages. And is John of the Cross less a mystic than Theresa? In all periods I suspect male mysticism is much better documented, and it certainly must be accounted for.I don’t think Mormonism has any tradition of mysticism, as classically defined. A cardinal trait of mystical experience, after all, is experiencing the extinction of the self, and the utter rejection of the apparent and the logical, and it is very often anti-ecclesiastical. Religious hierarchies have always skirmished with mystics, who derive their divine experience and consequent authority from a source outside (and above) the church. All of this is alien to Mormon sensibilities. We’re too well-heeled now in our religious expression. One might say, at best, that Joseph Smith was the first and last Mormon mystic. Today we would consider someone like Joseph a fringe lunatic.

  4. Anon,Interesting points. The book is Amy Hollywood’s Sensible Ecstasy. I think that one different perspective that the book is taking is that it doesn’t see ‘mysticism’ as a universal, transhistorical phenomenon, but as something that is always historically contingent. In this way, the author can look at how medieval mysticism is gendered. John of the Cross is certainly a mystic, but the author is looking at particular articulations of this tradition. To be more accurate, though, the book is about how French intellectuals like Bataille, Lacan, Beauvoir, and Irigaray received and interpreted these mystical traditions. As for the early church, who are you referring to as a mystic?

  5. doc,I totally agree that these women derived their authority from spiritual practices. I am just not sure that I would call it mysticism. In any case, it is a good example to discuss. The question is whether Eliza and Zena’s spiritual practices were specifically gendered in form, content, or magnitude.

  6. tt:Ah, that makes sense. Depends on definitions, of course, but among the more important “mystical” early Christian authors would be Evagrius, Gregory of Nyssa, Ps. Macarius, Ps. Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and John Climicus. Many would also say, more famously, Origen and Augustine. I tend to think more of some early monastics and ascetics described in works like the Apophthegmata Patrum, Palladius, John Cassian, Theodoret’s Historia Religiosa, Cyril of Scythopolis, and John Moschus’ Spiritual Meadow. The various Acta martyrum also contain accounts of mystical experiences and utterances.

  7. anon,I suppose that it does depend on definitions. However, I would be very reluctant to see Origen or Augustine as mystics. Ps Dionysius? sure, but he’s early medieval. The monastics? maybe. The Martyr Acts? Not really. I think that people tend to lump visionary and ecstatic experiences in with all mysticism, which is a little too loose for my tastes, but since everyone does it, oh well. anyway, back to the point of gendered religious experience…

  8. I have to be honest, the way I read the initial post has less to do with “mysticism” in Mormonism per se (although that in itself would constitute an interesting topic), and more to do with the role of female “spirituality” as a viable form of authoritative expression.I’m not sure how much I buy into these differences as well, but I’m also wondering to what extent gender difference goes beyond cultural construct. In other words, I agree that much of the current discourse about women being more spiritually sensitive than men is bent on reaffirming (and justifying) gender roles in which women do not have the priesthood. And furthermore, there may be opportunity for women to work within this discourse to use their “sensitivity” to legitimate their voice. But to push the issue to rock bottom, is there any truth to it beyond being historical situated?I’d return back to the notion of women utilizing these constraints to authorize their speech, but in thinking of a tangible example, I keep coming up short.

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