A question which has been on my mind recently, as I have been contemplating some of the theological questions involved in LDS feminism, is that of methodology. In particular, what are the sources of authority which might be used in feminist approaches to the tradition? Too often, I think, LDS feminists—including myself—have a tendency to simply import norms and values from the varieties of feminism which are prominent in contemporary secular discourse, and then measure the Church against them. This inevitably leads to the criticism that feminists are advocating “worldly” values, and these are irrelevant in the realm of revealed religion. For example, popular terms like “rights” and “equality” may have deep resonance when invoked in the context of Western liberal democracy, but some question the usefulness of these terms in a Christian context.
I certainly do not want to argue that those grappling with religious questions have nothing to learn from anything outside the tradition. From an LDS perspective, I think one can in fact make a strong case for seriously engaging the insights not only of other religious traditions, but of secular scholarship as well, based on things like scriptural statements about God revealing truth to all people, the notion of some kind of universal revelation implicit in the “light of Christ” teaching, and the optimism about human ability seen in both rejections of certain versions of original sin, and an LDS theological anthropology which closely links humans to divinity. Nonetheless, I think it is important for LDS feminists to find ways to explicitly ground our work in LDS teachings.
What might this look like? One popular—and very Mormon—avenue of appeal is that of personal revelation. This obviously plays a crucial and irreplaceable role in the faith life of individuals, in the ways in which people personally negotiate doctrines or practices which they find challenging. I do not wish to downplay its importance—for me (as for many of the LDS feminists I know), it is ultimately the basis of my hope that God is not, in the end, misogynist. However, in the context of theological conversation, such appeals are problematic. These experiences may have overwhelming significance to the individual, but they have no claim on anyone else. And the sheer variety of such experiences raises difficult questions. One person reports a personal revelation about the divine feminine which has inspired her to pray to Heavenly Mother; another reports a revelation which confirms the Church position that we are not to pray to her. One person has a revelation that seemingly problematic temple language has in fact a deeper egalitarian meaning; another has a revelation that such temple language is merely cultural baggage; another has a revelation that the temple language does in fact reflect gender relations as they exist in the eternities. And so on. Personal revelation may be unmatched as a source for dealing with personal challenges, but it has limited value in theological work.
A more promising approach for LDS feminist theology, I think, is to consider the potential implications of particular LDS doctrines for feminist issues. For example, I would like to look more closely at the meaning of “personhood” in LDS teachings. What are the characteristics of persons? Does personhood have to do with conscience, with the ability to distinguish right and wrong? Is it about relationality—in particular, perhaps, existing in a certain relationship with God? What about agency, which is clearly a crucial aspect of the LDS view of human beings? One might also take a teleological view, and argue that persons should most fundamentally be understood in the context of what they have the ability to become. There are a variety of directions which theology might go with this. My point here is that such work in theological anthropology can also function as a source of ethical critique. That which diminishes the personhood of individuals—perhaps by curtailing their agency and regarding them as objects rather than agents; or by propagating distorted relationships; or by limiting their ability to realize their divine potential—can be questioned. And this can be done not on the basis of secular values, but on the basis of LDS teachings themselves.
In doing this, I realize that I am privileging particular doctrines. Developing my argument above, I might, for example, argue that the doctrine of the imago dei, that all humans are in the image of God, conflicts with teachings about female subordination, and critique the latter on the basis of the former. But why should I assume that the former is more normative? The debate about which teachings should be seen as more central, and which as more peripheral, is an ongoing one—especially, I think, in Mormonism, where official doctrine is so hard to pin down in the first place. However, this is hardly a problem exclusive to feminists. Inevitably, everyone privileges certain aspects of the tradition and uses them to make sense of others. This is not to advocate a kind of nihilism in which we throw up our hands and say that everyone has their personal interpretation and there is no way to judge among them; on the contrary, I think we have an obligation to evaluate competing interpretations and make critical judgments about them. But as we do this, I think the conversation will be more productive if we do our best to articulate our assumptions regarding which aspects of the tradition we take as most normative.
I realize that such theological work will not solve debates about feminism. In just the few ideas I have floated above, there is plenty of room for theological disagreement. But I do think that arguments which frame questions in this way spark more productive conversations than the tired exchange of “I don’t like patriarchy; therefore, it must be wrong” vs. “the prophet/God advocate patriarchy, so who are you to question it?” As Latter-day Saints, we have a rich, complex, multi-vocal tradition. As a feminist, I am all too aware of the aspects of that tradition which I see as potentially harmful to women. But I want to think more (in dialogue with the insights of other religious traditions and of secular disciplines) about ways in which it can also serve as a resource for feminist thinking.