I have not been able to stop thinking about an essay I read a few months ago: “Oh Say What is Truth? Understanding Mormonism Through a Black Feminist Epistemology” The author argues that in Mormonism truth is acquired through feeling, citing D&C 9:8, as well as through lived experience; these are the ways we “find out for ourselves.” These methods of determining truth are part of a black feminist epistemology set forth by Patricia Hill Collins, and the essay argues that her ideas are very close to Mormon methods of determining truth.
Taking feelings and lived experience a step further, Collins argues that a collective dialogue is essential to furthering and developing the truth that each person has acquired, and that each person has a moral obligation to share her truth. Collins wrote, “The fundamental requirement of [a collective dialogue] 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.’” The essayist concludes, “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.”
I try to live as though participating in collective dialogue is a moral obligation. For years I’ve felt that speaking my truth regarding gender equality in Mormonism is one of the important purposes of my life. For example, Mormonism is patriarchal, but I believe patriarchy is a Judeo-Christian heritage not inspired by God, passed down through many years of unchecked sexism, and now entangled so that it touches nearly every aspect of Church culture and much of Church doctrine. How do I live as part of a religious community with strongly held traditional beliefs and while hoping for radical change?
I do it by talking. I use inclusive language, I comment often in Sunday School and Relief Society, I get up in fast and testimony meeting a few times every year, I give carefully crafted talks that are both diplomatic and radical, and I write for a Mormon feminist blog and paper. I speak my truth wherever I can. This can be scary because it opens me up for criticism and judgement, but it can also create unexpected connections with people who resonate with what I’ve said. In the context of contemporary American life it may seem tame to speak truth in one’s own small community – others have spoken up at much greater cost than I have, and to greater effect. But to do this consistently, to remain attached to a community that has expanded my spirit but also makes me weep, this takes courage and staying power.
So, my ideas matter, even if, or especially when, they are contrary to the status quo. And if a collective dialogue is needed to develop and advance knowledge, then I need to keep showing up for that dialogue. I also believe that organizations need insiders working for change for that change to become possible.
But here’s the problem. What if I’m a lone reed? In my experience there needs to be a critical mass of people in a Sunday School discussion to get an idea afloat. It’s great when that happens, and the discussion becomes enlightening and enlivening. But what if comments or questions fall flat and the teacher marches on with the lesson as planned? What if people hold your truth in contempt, or possibly worse, just ignore it? A dialogue in which everyone participates sounds great, but in does that ever happen in real life? What if, as happened to me earlier this month, a First Presidency letter, the bishopric’s selection of the theme for sacrament meeting, and the material in the talks and discussions form a unified block of content that I don’t resonate with? Are comments against such a backdrop useful, or contentious even if contention is not my intent?
I’m lonely and tired, friends. So please, give me your stories. When you speak up, how does it go? What do you learn? Does it create a spark for generating sincere discussion? Or does your spark fall to the ground, extingushed? If it’s the latter, what does that mean?