Apr 22

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.

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Sep 09

Tuesday’s Twice-Baked ZD: Called of God

In this trip to the ZD archives, Lynnette discusses those of different faiths who see their church participation, whether through ordination or otherwise, as a vocation.

An acquaintance of mine was ordained in the Episcopal church last month. She’s a warm, lively person, probably around the age of my mother, who despite not knowing me well stopped to give me a hug the night before my comps defense. The path to ordination is a long one, with a lot of requirements along the way, and even for me as an outside observer it was kind of exciting to see someone finally make it to the end of it. Continue reading

Jul 23

Is the Church Becoming like FIFA?

I am a huge soccer enthusiast. I grew up playing in my neighborhood parks, at the nearby indoor soccer facility, and on my high school team. My dad would take me to Camp Randall stadium to watch the Wisconsin men’s team play on the hard Astroturf. Later, I served a mission in Brazil and played soccer on many P-days and for a few minutes most other days with the “moleques” in the street, trying to scoot their scuffed up balls into the homemade goals that would be hastily dragged to safety whenever a car came down the street. So of course, I loved the recent World Cup—that one time every four years when the world gathers to celebrate our global religion, and time almost stands still. Continue reading

Nov 05

Does Learning More About Mormonism Make You Dislike It More?

In a discussion of Romney’s “Mormon Problem” on a recent Bloggingheads video, Amy Sullivan makes the following observation:

What really interests me about Mormonism is it’s very different from the situation Kennedy faced in that with anti-Catholicism, a lot of it was based on misinformation about Catholics and misunderstandings, and there, learning more about it, hearing Kennedy talk about his relationship to his faith and the lines that he drew actually did put some voters at ease. Whereas with anti-Mormonism, it’s practically the only bias where learning more about it actually makes people who were opposed more opposed—because they have kind of a vague sense that Mormonism might be a little weird to them, and that they might not agree with things—but they don’t really know the specifics of it. Continue reading

Oct 23

The Western University and the Secular Compromise: Some Implications for Literature

This afternoon one of my students met with me about his next paper, which he wants to write refuting The Da Vinci Code and defending the divinity of Jesus Christ. I found myself struggling to explain to him why he can’t write such a paper to fulfill a university assignment. I tried to help him think about possible lines of argument he could pursue that would allow him to discuss his beliefs in intellectual and secular terms. It is my pleasant responsibility to help him master the norms of the university, and that means learning to speak, think, and write about religion in terms accessible to public consideration, in the terms of rational argument and empirical analysis. On the one hand, I deeply respect those terms; I’ve chosen with great joy to spend my six-day-a-week life examining the world in them. And learning to think about one’s beliefs in intellectual terms can be a vital and invigorating experience, although there are far too few spaces in the borderlands between the university and the church where believing students can bring the disparate pieces of their lives together; as a believing scholar, I long for more such spaces. But on the other hand, perhaps we secular educators (among whom I must count myself, insofar as I teach a secular subject in a secular context) sometimes rush too quickly over the losses incurred in the secular environment. The most essential expressions of religious belief are generally precluded by secular norms; in an important sense we allow every possible discussion of religion except what it most essentially is. Continue reading

Apr 06

Making Sense of Leftist Political Discourse as a Religious Believer

Yesterday, I read a really interesting post by one of my favorite undergrad profs, Michael Berube. In this post, he questions why people in the Democratic party (the DLC is a prominent example) and on the left keep insisting that we need to show a greater respect for religion in the political system. His basic point is that religion gets plenty of respect (he cites statistics that while 95 percent of people would vote for a Catholic for president, only 45 percent would vote for an atheist), that statements of religious conviction are most often used as a conversation stopper, and so he’s wondering what is really motivating these claims: Continue reading

Feb 03

The Positives of Religion

Before I got sucked into the world of Mormon blogging, I spent a lot of my online time participating in a community which dealt with mental health issues. I met a lot of great people there, and I learned a lot. While I appreciated the thought-provoking and informative discussion on topics like surviving depression, I was also particularly interested in the lively conversations which took place about issues related to faith and spirituality. Many expressed extremely negative views of organized religion; I heard repeatedly that it was to blame for all the problems of the world, that it was something for the immature who didn’t want to think for themselves, etc. At one point I attempted to explain why, despite some of my reservations, I’d stuck with it. This is what I came up with. Continue reading

Oct 15

Religious Differences

I have two friends in particular, one Catholic and one Protestant, with whom I find it remarkably easy to have religious conversations. In terms of explicit doctrinal teachings, we’re often coming from quite different places. Yet somehow we seem to be on the same wavelength religiously. I’ve also met numerous Mormons whom I don’t seem to connect with at all, and in talking to such people I’m not always sure what exactly it means that we’re in the same religion, because we seem to be worlds apart in our religious views. Continue reading