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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19 Responses

  1. Cruelest Month says:

    I’m tired and I hide in primary. All of the other meetings are just too painful. I occasionally attend a local Christian congregation to feel the sense of Christ centered community missing in my ward.

    • Emily U says:

      I think I’d enjoy Primary, too. I’m glad you found another community, but I wish so many of us didn’t find our wards to be falling so far short.

  2. Amelia says:

    I subscribe to this idea of experience-based truth that evolves out of community. But I don’t think the church subscribes to it, in spite of the fact that it was Mormon scripture and doctrine that led me to subscribe to it in the first place. I think the church mostly likes to give this idea lip service to suggest that the apparent unity of voice within our wards and stakes is arrived at through experience and individual testimony. But what I see actually happening is a mostly unquestioning acceptance of top down prescription of truth.

    Sadly, such a reality does not actually allow for the kind of dialogic truth-making or understanding of truth you describe in the beginning of your post. It allows only a very hierarchical, centralized, monologic truth-making and understanding, one that cannot tolerate well voices that raise objections. And this is one of the reasons why I remain Mormon to my core while finding myself very much a misfit within Mormonism–because the scriptural foundations and principles and doctrine that I would argue demands the kind of dialogic approach to making and understanding truth resonates so deeply that I have not been able to find a spiritual home elsewhere, but the lived experience is so divergent from the principles that it just pains me to be a regular part of it.

    Sorry to be a downer. I hope someday that the LDS church becomes a better manifestation of the doctrine and principles it claims. But that hope gets smaller each time I see it disavow or distance itself from its more interesting and unique teachings in the name of being more mainstream Christian or of fighting culture wars in America.

    • Emily U says:

      “But what I see actually happening is a mostly unquestioning acceptance of top down prescription of truth.”

      This is probably why I feel so frustrated at the lack of dialogue.

      “the scriptural foundations and principles and doctrine that I would argue demands the kind of dialogic approach to making and understanding truth resonates so deeply that I have not been able to find a spiritual home elsewhere, but the lived experience is so divergent from the principles that it just pains me to be a regular part of it.”

      And this is probably why I’m lonely. Incisive as usual, Amelia.

  3. Spunky says:

    I am lonely and tired, too. I feel like God blessed me by having us to move to a place where there is not church so I could re-balance and focus on my relationship with Christ because in my previous ward I was so strongly encouraged to resign church membership by the virtue of apathy and disdain of fellow ward members. So I am having a break from church now, and wish you and I were close enough to break bread and chat about all of this.

  4. Oregon Mum says:

    Sometimes it may seem that your little offering spark falls to the ground unnoticed but, as in so many other aspects of life, you never know what effect your words will have on someone else. Perhaps a sister feels the same way, but isn’t ready to make her views public. Your words might be soothing to her soul, even when she never says a word to you in return. If the Spirit moves you to say something, then it will never be in vain.

  5. Olea says:

    Emily, that’s when I open my RSS reader and check what The Exponent and Segullah and BCC have for me to think about.

    I often feel refreshed and welcome through participating in those online spaces.

    But, I do love it when the sparks catch, and others voice their sincere beliefs and personal experiences (even when they’re different from mine). There is something miraculous about that ability to connect with others of God’s children, and see them as they truly are. I love when we foster that ability.

  6. Glenn Thigpen says:

    So, what happens when there are conflicting versions of “truth” from lived experiences? Is the “truth” from a feminist perspective more correct than that from a male chauvinist, or a “cultural Mormon”, or a TBM, etc?
    The wonderful thing about the internet, and sometimes the scary thing, is that it provides opportunities for like minded people who feel like “lone reeds” in their physical location to find other like reeds with whom they can share their ideas, emotions, and aspirations.
    However, I have also found that all too many of those forums do not deal too kindly with opposing viewpoints.
    For instance, on one LDS oriented board, the mention of Kate Kelly brings on a lot of reflexive, pretty much knee jerk, comments because some feel she is denigrating the church they love.
    However, when one may go to another forum where Kate is held in high esteem, negative opinions are met with a resounding chorus of boos.
    It seems to me that just about everywhere like minded people get together to discuss their “truth”, there is a pretty good chance that those people will be pretty intolerant of an opposing “truth”.

    Glenn

    • Emily U says:

      I hear what you are saying. Missing from my post is the importance of charity in discussions, and tolerance. We have to really listen to one another and assume good intent until proved wrong. I think we could re-imagine Alma 4:8 like this, and be wary of letting ourselves fit this description:

      “…the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon their understanding of certain points of theology, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to condemn those that did not believe according to their own views.”

      • Glenn Thigpen says:

        Emily,
        I like that bit about Alma. I think that may be what Nephi was talking about when He said ‘I did liken all scriptures unto us” in 1 Nephi 19:23. we need to take the scriptures and apply them to us and our circumstances.

        Glenn

  7. Patty says:

    I have been in my ward for many, many years. There’s stuff I can’t just sit quietly through. The lesson where the teacher (female!) said it is wonderful to be an appendage. The discussion about gay marriage that didn’t acknowledge the bullying and prejudice experienced by gay people. The horrible Tea Party testimony that parroted the worst of Beck/Limbaugh. I try to find a tactful angle, but I cannot just sit through things that are so offensive. And I am the only person in my ward who feels this way. I do choose my battles. Sometimes I am surprised by unexpected support, sometimes not. Sometimes the silence is deafening!

  8. Emily U says:

    I admire your courage and resilience, Patty.

  9. Claire says:

    I love your thoughts on feelings and truth. I agree that that is how we come to know truth. When I have struggled with my testimony in certain areas, I look for those feelings to guide me. I have to admit, that more often than not, when I truly search for truth, I find the opinions that I was trying to justify or hang on to are wrong. It is a humbling experience. Like everyone else, I don’t like to be wrong. But it feels even better to be led to the truth. If I am sincere, humble and contrite, the Sprit never lets me down.

  10. Jenny says:

    I really love your insights on this. You’ve given me words to help me understand what went wrong and why I can’t attend church right now. I felt like I was doing really well at speaking my truth in a loving and respectful way at church. Sometimes I could even get the Sunday school discussion to turn in a more positive direction. But over the course of a year I lost more and more of my ability to participate and speak in church. Then I was basically told both in church and in a ward book group I was in that I needed to stop talking unless I could affirm what everyone else was saying. As hard as it was for me to let go of my formal worship with a faith community, I found no reason for me to go anymore if I couldn’t speak my truth. I understand your fatigue well.

    • Emily U says:

      Jenny, I’m shocked and disgusted that anyone would tell you to stop talking unless it was in agreement. It’s not kind, or loving, and it takes away from everyone’s opportunity to learn from each other. I’m so sorry.

  11. IdPnSD says:

    Should we not define truth, before we talk about it? You know what happened to Galileo when he talked about truth. We know what happens to truth tellers even now. They are all in jails or in exile. Ayn Rand said – “Truth is not for all men, but only for those who seek it.” Thus you have to be alone to find the truth.

    Here is a definition of truth, and I assume it should be acceptable to all of you: (1) Truth comes only from the laws of nature (2) Nature always demonstrates its laws (3) Therefore truth must be unique and universal.

    Since nature always demonstrates its laws, truth must be found out from such demonstrations, just like Galileo did. This also means I cannot find truth by doing some mathematics sitting in my office or home. Similarly truth cannot be determined by doing some experiments in an isolated and controlled environment inside a physics lab. Truth must be observed inside nature. Thus truth cannot be found by discussions also.

    Since truth is unique and universal, what is true in USA must also be true in China. Similarly what is true on earth must also be true in mars. Also, what was true million years before, must be true now, and will remain true million years from now. Thus math science and technology cannot change truth. For more details take a look at https://theoryofsouls.wordpress.com/

  12. Loran Blood says:

    Wow. I mean, just wow…

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