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Are Women Persons in Heaven?

October 16, 2008

Persons Day is coming up; that day when Canadians remember the court case that won women (well, white women) the status of independent legal entities, or “persons.”  Yes, until October 18th, 1929, women in Canada were not considered persons.  The women involved in the case, all from Alberta, are still referred to as The Famous Five.  Traditionally, this day is celebrated with lectures on women in politics, women’s rights, the history of the suffrage movement, and discussions about the gaps between men and women still existing in Canada and elsewhere in the world.  This year, the Women’s Studies Department at my university chose to mark the day with a multi-faith dialogue called “Are Women Persons in Heaven?

I am presuming that the reason they have chosen to look at the legal definition of half the population in the world’s various representations of heaven (which, to an atheist, is somewhat akin to asking if the Gingerbread People in Candyland have proportional representation) is that every other sex-related problem on earth has been solved.  We have solved the problems of women being disproportionately poor, victims of domestic violence, paid less than men for equal work, sexually assaulted (and then blamed for it), sexually objectified, prone to eating disorders, victims of honour killings, and the fact that women with disabilities, women of visible minorities, immigrant women, and non-heterosexual women face compounded problems based on their double handicap.  All that’s left is to let representatives of religious groups talk to each other about how fabulously egalitarian they are.

I understand that the event was planned by a professor who specifically teaches courses about women and religion, so keeping to that theme was important, but I do not understand why heaven is the location where we ought to be concerned about women’s status, rather than earth.  There are so many women-and-religion related topics that would be appropriate discussion topics for Persons Day, I am left thinking that the reason they chose this one is simply the fact that it makes for a good title.

Well, the talk was yesterday and, while it wasn’t awful, it could have been better.  For one, the question was one which did not even make sense in reference to most of the religions represented.  The Christian speaker told us that while Christians believe in heaven, heaven isn’t really the point.  The resurrection is.  The Jewish speaker and the Baha’i speaker both explained that in order to apply the term “Heaven” in their religions, you had to really torture the definition.  The Mormon speaker had to spend half her time explaining what the Celestial Kingdom is, since it’s not quite the same as heaven.

Similar gymnastics had to occur to make sense of the word “person.”  In reference to Person’s Day, person is a legal term.  They obviously were not expected to talk about the legal status (within Canadian law, no less!) of women in the afterlife, so they all had to define person.  And they all defined it differently.

In some ways the talk went how I had expected it to: some of the speakers answered with a self-congratulatory “Of course,” and really, what more could they say?  None of them have ever been to heaven, many of the traditions they were representing were really collections of hundreds of sects who disagree on most everything, and usually the answers were something like “the spirit has no gender, so women are ‘persons’ as far as anyone is a ‘person,’ which is to say – not really at all.”  What else can be said about that?  Nothing particularly useful.

The discussion got interesting, though, when people started to talk about practices.  Why can’t women hold the priesthood?  What is the standing of unmarried women?  What are the religious obligations of women and men?  How have the religious roles of women changed over time?  This is the fascinating stuff.  This is what the talk should have been about in the first place.  A few people had some really fabulous questions and most the speakers represented their religious traditions very honestly.  I was impressed with the representatives, even though I was disappointed with the professor and the students who hosted them.

Overall, I think the panel was a worthwhile discussion, but I think that the important stuff happened despite the plan and organization of the event, not because of it.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. jeffmilner permalink
    October 18, 2008 9:17 am

    As an extension of the thought, one can also ask, are transgendered people people in heaven?

    I’m interested to know, in a religious setting (such as the LDS Temple ceremony) where men and women are expected to divide along gender lines, where does “god” expect the genderless person to sit?

  2. October 18, 2008 10:23 am

    Someone actually asked the person who represented Mormonism (who was an ex-Mormon actually, and did what I thought was a great job but which apparently pissed off some LDS members in the audience) what happened to transgendered and intersex folk. Specifically, he asked “If God’s spirit-children are sexed/gendered, and as mortals we have the same sex/gender as we did pre-mortality, then what is the explanation for people who are transgendered or born with ambiguous genitalia?” The representative thought about this for a moment and replied something like “In all my years in the church, that has never ever come up.” The general message was that since this happens, and since she’s never encountered, it, there’s probably something to be learned there about silence, suppression, and intolerance to deviance.

  3. maffersalmon permalink
    October 24, 2008 2:30 pm

    Just throwing in my two cents. The LDS church came out with a official statement roughly 13 years ago dealing with the doctrinal views, including views regarding transgendered people. It can be found here. http://www.lds.org/library/display/0,4945,161-1-11-1,00.html
    While the doctrine seems fairly well articulated, the interpretation and implication of these principles has been malleable, and will most likely continue to be revised as they are challenged. Just wanted to make sure that was clear.
    Now, on to more important considerations. I was curious to see if you agree with this point, as a social scientist, or if I am way off base. Perhaps the importance for hosting a seminar on the role of women in Heaven was to articulate the religious Orthodox views on the status of women, and thus expose how certain maintained predjudices have managed to remain within our societies, based on the undercurrent of religious memes. If this was the case, then I would suppose the event was a success, as, from your description, it showed individuals attempting to reconcile their worldview with their grasp of their professed faith, thus, (maybe?) articulating the stem of their values, remembering that values are not formed in doctrine, but rather in interpritations of religious ideology.
    One more comment. Can academics get into heaven? What is our place? Are we persons? That is the real question🙂

  4. October 24, 2008 6:21 pm

    That statement does explain the church view on transgender, but what about intersex? I think the point of the student who asked the question was “why would some people be born with both sets of genitalia (or the wrong set – but that’s been addressed) if their sex and gender are pre-mortally determined?”

    As to the goal of the discussion, it would be nice if you are right, and you are certainly better at giving people the benefit of the doubt than I am. I think that if what you suggest had been the goal, it would have been a worthy discussion. For that to be the goal, though, there would have had to be some critical analysis. As I said, the only real criticism came from the speaker who actually wasn’t a member of the religion she was representing (which, admittedly, wasn’t fair. I wouldn’t have wanted an ex-atheist representing me). For the most part, the rest were able to just get away with paying lip service. The stuff that I wrote my blog post about was specifically the interesting stuff – the 20 minutes out of nearly three hours when anything was actually discussed. I don’t really think this was the fault of the speakers, rather, I think the question should have been better framed and the moderators more knowledgeable.

    I think that there was some good stuff in there, and that the organizers would probably call it a success. If it was a success, it was despite the plans of the organizers.

  5. maffersalmon permalink
    October 26, 2008 12:57 pm

    Ha ha🙂 Well, all good ideas do seem to come from poorly thought out plans, I do notice. I recognized that the statement did not quite address the issue raised as soon as i submitted the comment. Such is my selective reading.
    But still, do we academics qualify as people? Sometimes I think not.

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