To say what is truth?

27I 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?

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A Spiritual Hiatus

“Will you be moving your records into the branch?”


The YSA Branch Relief Society President was happy and cheerful enough–– not yet jaded by New York City (for now). With a pleasant grin on her face and sincerity in her voice, she asked if I would be joining their motley YSA crew here in New York. I told her an honest “maybe”. I attended my local Young Single Adult branch this past Sunday, made new friends, and felt pretty much at home. It didn’t hurt that the Relief Society lesson was not from the Ezra Taft Benson manual, but instead, on supporting and encouraging ourselves and other women. I also took comfort in the fact that the aforementioned Relief Society President said things like, “Welcome to Brooklyn! Where you can wear pants to church and no one will blog about it!” and then cursed in her lesson–– without the sister missionaries, senior sister missionary, or branch president’s wife blinking an eye. It was the most subversive and uplifting church experience I’ve ever had in recent memory. It felt so good being in church that day.


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Sacred Music: Simple Song

I had the opportunity to sing in the chorus for a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS when I was a senior in high school. As a young person I had no idea what a big deal this was–Bernstein’s MASS is hugely controversial and rarely performed because of its enormity. And while this was all lost on me, I found that the music spoke to a part of me that I could not articulate. This piece of music and theater is joyful in its celebration of life and God. But MASS does not shy away from the cognitive dissonance of an ostensibly loving God and the reality human anguish. Indeed, one of the more controversial aspects of MASS is its unapologetic confrontation of God.

As a good Mormon girl, both the music and text were mind blowing to me, I had no idea that you could approach God with such dissonance. But MASS also spoke truth to my soul. Somehow I knew that any god worth worshipping was also vital enough to withstand my questions and sometimes anger.

The piece which I have highlighted here, Simple Song, is at the very beginning of the MASS. It is sung by the celebrant who begins the piece with a simple and pure faith but struggles to maintain his faith as he becomes more aware of the suffering, corruption and evil around him. I feel like my own testimony has taken a similar journey. When I performed the MASS as a young woman my faith was also simple but since that time I have gone through a long dark night of the soul. It has been difficult to reconcile my early faith and spiritual experiences with the perceived absence of God from my life. I have spent years being angry that despite my efforts, God was silent.

I have found recently, however, that my simple faith is returning. I am not blind to the hardships of mortality but I also feel as though my decade long  struggle with God has softened, not scarred, my heart. In that place of rawness a feeling of gratitude has sprouted. I may never have the powerful faith that we as Mormons are expected to have but I am finding joy in lifting up my eyes to the God.

For the Lord is my shade.

All of my days.

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An (Out)Burst

Three Sundays ago in Relief Society we had lesson 1 in the Joseph Fielding Smith manual. It was the lesson on Heavenly Father. I had  ended up on the front row with my knitting and my baby. The first discussion in the class included listing the traits of God on the board. I sat there wondering if I had something to add while everyone else put up all the phrases  I was already thinking about: all the omni-stuff, loving, merciful, etc. And then,


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Relief Society Lesson 1: Our Father in Heaven

Relief Society Lesson 1: Our Father in Heaven
credit: NASA/JPL

credit: NASA/JPL

In the Book of Mormon, Alma debated Korihor about the existence of God:

Alma 30:43-44

43 And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me aasign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.

44 But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of aall these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the bearth, and call things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its dmotion, yea, and also all theeplanets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

What strengthens your testimony of God?

From the Life of Joseph Fielding Smith

While Alma’s knowledge of science added to his testimony of God, Joseph Fielding Smith observed that the increased scientific knowledge we enjoy today does not always have the same effect:

Great progress has been made in mechanics, chemistry, physics, surgery, and other things. Men have built great telescopes that have brought the hidden galaxies to view. They have, by the aid of the microscope, discovered vast worlds of microorganisms. … They have discovered means to control disease. … They have invented machines more sensitive than the human touch, more far-seeing than the human eye. They have controlled elements and made machinery that can move mountains, and many other things have they done too numerous to mention… All of these discoveries and inventions have not drawn men nearer to God! 1

Joseph Fielding Smith taught that science is inadequate to learn about God:

We know that God is known only by revelation, that he stands revealed or remains forever unknown. We must go to the scriptures—not to the scientists or philosophers—if we are to learn the truth about Deity.

For some, believing in God comes naturally.  For others, it is a struggle.  As we discuss faith in God, it is important not to let the discussion turn to vilifying atheists and agnostics.  The scriptures teach that a testimony is a spiritual gift and not all people receive the same spiritual gifts.

D&C 46:11-14

11 For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man [and woman] is given a gift by the Spirit of God.

12 To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.

13 To some it is given by the aHoly Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.

14 To others it is given to abelieve on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.

While we may not all be blessed with the spiritual gift of a testimony of God, this revelation encourages us to “seek ye earnestly the best gifts” (D&C 46: 8).

Hoyt W. Brewster Jr., Joseph Fielding Smith’s grandson, reported that Smith’s “…prayers were always very personal—as if talking to a friend.”2

What do you think leads a person to be able to pray to God “as if talking to a friend”? How might we “seek earnestly” to strengthen our relationships with God?

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