Oh Say, What is Truth? Understanding Mormonism through a Black Feminist Epistemology

My husband Rebelhair and I often talk about the things that make up the culture of Mormondom – its idiosyncrasies, its cultural quirks, its bedrock beliefs and non-negotiable narratives, and especially the processes by which it navigates and establishes its biggest truth claims. We’ve spoken frequently about the concept of truth in Mormonism – not just what Mormonism’s particular truth claims are, but how one arrives at them, and how one both frames and holds onto them, given the inherently shifting nature of continuing revelation.

In other words, we like to talk about the idea of a Mormon epistemology, or the ways that Mormon culture produces and frames knowledge: How do we come to know things? What are our frameworks for establishing theological and doctrinal truths?

We often discuss how, unlike older religious systems, we don’t have an established systematic theology; there aren’t yet agreed-upon hermeneutical frameworks through which we establish what our leaders teach. Instead, it’s far more common for leaders to make a truth claim or suggest a principle, and for the Mormon faithful to find other things in our teachings that seem to make that truth claim make sense. This works well if our leaders are teaching culturally well-established truths or non-controversial ideas. If a leader teaches that we mustn’t abandon our children, for example, we can easily find scriptural accounts and a multiplicity of conference talks about loving one another. But if a leader makes a less intuitive remark, as when Elder Oaks recently stated that the Church neither “seeks for” nor “gives” apologies and that the word “apology” does not appear in the scriptures, many are left a bit bemused. Yes, it’s apparently factually correct, but there are many elements of Mormon teaching, including our most basic teachings of repentance, that advocate for humility and asking forgiveness of others. How is that not an apology, regardless of whether the word is used? Understanding what Elder Oaks was getting at in that moment, and even understanding if such a remark should be taken at face value or if it was more tongue-in-cheek, requires a great deal of familiarity with Mormon systems of knowing (and even then leaves some scratching their heads).

All of this leads up to a question that we’ve batted around throughout our courtship and now newly married life: How can one describe Mormon ways of knowing? Is there a traceable Mormon epistemology; a consistent Mormon system of knowledge production that links together its myriad truth claims in a comprehensible manner?

The other day Rebelhair turned to me and casually mentioned, “You know, I actually think that there are some models of knowledge production that come out of black feminism that are remarkably similar to and could explain Mormon epistemologies.” You can imagine my intrigue. This essay, courtesy of Rebelhair, is the result of that conversation.


 

 

Oh Say, What is Truth? Understanding Mormonism through a Black Feminist Epistemology

by Rebelhair

Mormonism holds its ideas of fundamental truths to be the core of its entire structure. First, we have Moroni’s challenge, telling us how to determine truth:

4 And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. 5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

 

Then we are told, in Doctrine and Covenants 9:8, what to expect from the Holy Ghost as we determine truth:

8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

 

Feeling is truth in Mormonism; you will “feel that it is right.” You will have a powerful experience, and by the power of the feeling of that experience you are to know truth from falsehood.

For anyone who has studied various theories of knowledge production, or epistemologies, this may seem a rather unusual way to produce knowledge. Our current most prized epistemologies usually involve an attempt at impartial verification from outside ourselves, as in the scientific method, in which control groups and experimentation serve to verify claims to truth. On the other hand, a common method to arrive at truth without outside verification is inductive reasoning, in which, like Sherlock Holmes using clues and his knowledge of the world to identify the true culprit in a crime, you arrive at a true conclusion using knowledge you already have.

Mormons tend to argue that the feeling itself is the justification, but that doesn’t seem to follow these common justification rules. Feelings are not outside impartial verification, because, well, they’re felt internally. They’re also not inductive verification, because they’re feelings and not logical conclusions you have derived from knowledge you already had. Feelings are instead themselves new knowledge, given by the Holy Ghost internally.

 

Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Epistemology

Some might try to argue the terms here, but rather than try and justify the “power of the Holy Ghost” as an external verification or something like that, I am going to argue what I think is much more interesting premise: that a close, if not the closest, defined theory of knowledge to that of Mormonism is the Black feminist epistemology expressed by Patricia Hill Collins in her 1990 book Black Feminist Thought (pages 251-271, my page numbers are from the revised 2000 edition). I highly recommend reading it for yourself, though be warned that it is very academic in tone.

This may seem ironic, especially for an organization that has such a fraught history with race and an ongoing cultural clash around the role of women (even within Mormon Feminist groups there have recently been heated debates around problems of intersectionality and what that means for Mormon Feminist women of color). But, as you will see, the parallels in the two systems of thought are quite striking.

 

Lived Experience as Truth

As opposed to other approaches that she calls “positivist” (i.e. more akin to the scientific method), Collins focuses on lived experience, dialogue, caring or emotional investment, and personal accountability as the building blocks of her epistemology. Other types of knowledge production seek to distance the knower from the object of knowledge and require a lack of emotionality, both in the name of objectivity. But Collins argues that people know more about that which they themselves have experienced than someone who is detached, emotionless, and distant, who may choose to study that experience.

Mormons also tend to argue that one can only truly know through personal experience. Mormonism places central importance on the need to find out for oneself. One should study and ponder, but these actions only prepare you for the final feeling of truth, and cannot provide the proof in and of themselves. This lived “wisdom” (different for Collins than abstract “knowledge”) is then expressed to others by means of personal testimony and relating those personal experiences that gave the wisdom. These narratives are interwoven with other cultural narratives, notably scripture, to create a unified sense of truth. Collins explains:

Stories, narratives, and Bible principles are selected for their applicability to the lived experiences of African-Americans [or Mormons, in this case,] and become symbolic representations of a whole wealth of experience. Bible tales are often told for the wisdom they express about everyday life, so their interpretation involves no need for scientific historical verification. (258)

This use of scriptural narrative as source of real-life wisdom rather than objective knowledge is the core of the knowledge-making endeavors of CES and Sunday lessons, and it is also the source of the deep ambivalence in the relationship of Mormon apologetics and the academy, which does not value classic Mormon truth-producing methods.

 

Collective Dialogue

Indeed, for Collins, this lived experience and narrative wisdom is best furthered and developed in collective dialogue, in the kind of discussion setting that Sunday School and other Church learning institutions encourage. For this to work, however, discussion has to be true dialogue and not a one-sided monologue, with sparse verifications from the audience.

The fundamental requirement of this interactive network is the active participation of all individuals. For ideas to be tested and validated, everyone in the group must participate. To refuse to join in, especially if one really disagrees with what has been said, is seen as ‘cheating.’ (261)

Because we all have a truth to speak, to fail to speak our truth especially when it is needed most – when it is being contradicted – is to fail the community’s efforts to build collective, experienced-based truth as a whole body.

This is an element that appears to have been key in earlier iterations of the Church and is core to ideas of “quorum” and “common consent,” but has been under fire in recent decades (arguably since correlation) when dissent of all kinds has been more and more identified as “the spirit of contention” rather than the productive truth-speaking that it should be. Anecdotes like the revelation of the Word of Wisdom, which in Church lore came only after Emma Smith challenged the brethren’s practices during meetings, should ideally teach us that it is through collective discussion and participation, especially in the case of differing opinions, that new knowledge can best be obtained.

 

Ethics of Caring and Emotion as Contributor to Knowledge Development

This knowledge is then both collective and individual, because it developed together but each individual actively works with everyone else to produce it. Its individuality is reinforced by three principles that Collins identifies as part of the “ethics of caring,” which suggest that “ideas cannot be divorced from the individuals who create and share them.” (262) These principles are:

  1. the value placed on individual uniqueness, which emphasizes that these collective truths will still be communicated differently by each person’s distinctive personal expressiveness;
  2. the appropriateness of emotion in dialogues, because “emotion indicates that a speaker believes in the validity of an argument” (263), as anyone who has been to a teary Fast and Testimony meeting can attest;
  3. and developing a capacity for empathy, because to understand the truth expressed by others you must be able and willing to imagine yourself in their position.

These knowledge claims are then accompanied by an “ethic of personal accountability.” Each person’s wisdom is tied to that person, and as such that person will be held accountable to that knowledge. This is quite similar to Mormon teachings that people will be held accountable to each principle that they understand, but that those who do not understand or did not receive certain principles will not be held accountable for them.

Indeed, it is a primary tool used to assess the truth of claims in the Church and especially in the Bloggernacle, and it is sometimes misused in reverse to rather ill effects. Collins argues that the “assessment of an individual’s knowledge claims simultaneously evaluate an individual’s character, values, and ethics.” (265) In the Mormon context, a person’s worthiness is core to their claims to the power of the Holy Ghost, and thus to their claims of knowledge.

Sadly, in the contemporary Church, too often we equate a person’s worthiness with her knowledge. We assume that if we disagree with a person’s stated truth that they must be lacking worthiness, even if we do not know this to be the case. This is a violation of the ethics of caring, because we fail to have empathy with them and value their individual uniqueness because that uniqueness lends them a different but equally valid truth to our own.

 

Conclusion

As this all hopefully makes clear, in Collins’ Black feminist epistemology, like Mormon epistemology, “Neither emotion nor ethics are subordinated to reason. Instead, emotion, ethics, and reason are used as interconnected, essential components in assessing knowledge claims.” (266) One should study out, feel, and live the truth, or it’s no kind of useful truth at all.

 

 

Dedicated to Alan Keele, who always fervently wished that Mormons would develop better, more empathetic epistemologies.

*As a side note, it should be considered that for Collins, Black feminist epistemology is a resistance to racialized dynamics of power, especially in the Western academy, which tends to privilege male voices and white voices over women’s voices and people of colors’ voices. Her epistemology seeks to better empower those who are otherwise consistently disempowered by the established systems of knowledge. It is debatable whether Mormonism can claim a similar disempowerment today. Certainly a sense of oppressedness is expressed by many members of the Church, and it is notable that this epistemology within Mormonism was first developed when the Church was a far more straightforwardly persecuted group, but it is questionable whether today the Church is oppressed at all. Certainly any opposition the Church faces cannot and should not be compared with the consistent systematic disempowerment of women of color in the United States and worldwide, and this blog post does not seek to do so. The only way that this post’s epistemology could possibly do similar work would be in its ability, if fully embraced, to stem racism and other types of marginalization within Mormonism through full and radical acceptance of the principles of empathy and individual uniqueness, tempered by understanding of systems and histories of oppression, especially oppression within the Church. The most relevant would of course be the oppression of women of color within the Church.

8 comments

  1. Very interesting–I’m glad you put that footnote in the end, because that was one thing I was thinking about throughout (the racialized and gendered critique aspect of Black feminist epistemology). In bell hooks’ work at least, part of the critique is that positivist approaches to knowledge are just as experiential and informed by feeling and experience–the problem is that that is not recognized because the feeling and experience that shape such work is “the norm” (i.e. White male feeling and experience). Which, honestly, is the basis for most Mormon epistemology, too (White male feeling and experience, that is)–the difference being that Mormon thought explicitly recognizes it while positivist/functionalist “scientific” work doesn’t.




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  2. I really enjoyed this! I too am pleased that you included the footnote because while there is a premium placed upon affect in the constitution of community knowledge in Mormonism the end goal, I think is different. At the centre of black feminism and indeed black feminist theology is the need to recover from , reform, reconstruct or revolutionize in order to survive white patriarchal colonial oppression. I think the end game of Mormonism might possible to establish and reproduce it, or am I being to harsh?




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  3. Gina, I definitely think some Mormons at least subconsciously feel that way, and so I will admit that this is a somewhat intentionally naive/hopeful reading of Mormon discourses as they should ideally work, if Mormons actually follow their own principles. Sadly it is perhaps not the way they always play out on the ground.

    Colonial mindsets run deep, and they’re deeply rooted in the ways that Mormons think about race, from the very origins of the religion. So there’s definitely a lot of work to be done to combat that. Hopefully this can be a nice step in the right direction, acknowledging that people of color sometimes might speak more cogently and concisely to Mormon epistemology (even when they’re not intending to) than white Mormons have yet done.




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  4. I agree with the idea that this probably would have to be done in smaller groups where there was already some degree of trust and tolerance. The most evidence I have ever seen on the ground for the potential for this kind of critical epistemology and community building is the way I have seen the Church operate in some places outside the U.S. I think some U.S. Relief Society meetings come close to it, depending on local leadership, but that is not something I get to see personally. I have occasionally seen priesthood quorum meetings outside the U.S. operate in this kind of local discussion and critique, based on differences between their culture and that of the U.S. For example, in Denmark, the man leading a combined priesthood meeting read an official letter against gay marriage, and commented that this seemed to be a U.S. pre-occupation and that he assumed Danes would handle the issue within their own, more inclusive traditions, which elicited several chuckles. There was some discussion of that, with the conclusion that this was church guidance that was pretty much irrelevant to them and could probably just be ignored.
    Gina, since you live at least somewhat away from direct U.S. influence, although within the global Anglosphere, I wonder how this looks there? Any sense of greater critical distance from some of the more overtly U.S. culture wars related church policies?




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  5. Let me not to the marriage of true minds
    Admit impediments. Love is not love
    Which alters when it alteration finds,
    Or bends with the remover to remove.
    O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
    That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
    It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
    Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
    Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
    Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
    Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
    But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
    ??If this be error and upon me proved,
    ??I never writ, nor no man ever loved.




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  6. Wow, I learned a lot by reading this, and will continue to chew on it. One initial reaction is to this:

    “Because we all have a truth to speak, to fail to speak our truth especially when it is needed most – when it is being contradicted – is to fail the community’s efforts to build collective, experienced-based truth as a whole body.”

    In other words it’s a moral imperative to speak our truth. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to communicate my truth with more traditional-minded Mormons, and I feel like giving up much of the time. This makes it my moral obligation not to.




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