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.