Epistemology, or How You Know That?

Epistemology is the branch of western philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, or, more precisely, how we come to make knowledge claims. Much of my intellectual career – in and out of academe – has been preoccupied with epistemic questions. Since I was a kid (Or, so the story goes. I have no first hand recollection of many of these examples.) I questioned the truthfulness of the things adults told me. While this was a somewhat endearing and cute trait in a very young child, it began to border on annoying and downright insolence as I got older.

My “how do you know?” tick persisted well into my adolescent years and effectively pushed me out of the church my family attended for over 25 years. Many of my family members still attended Sunday services, but I couldn’t stomach the “because God said so” rationale. (Luckily my mother humored my skepticism and didn’t make me go against my will.) My faith in a Christian God grew thin in proportion to my growing secularity. In retrospect, I was a thirteen year old having a crisis of faith and erred on the side of agnosticism to settle the score. I figured I just couldn’t be sure. It certainly didn’t help to be inundated with the flatfooted positivism and hard empiricism found in the middle school version of the natural and social sciences. If I couldn’t “prove” the existence of God, or my special relationship to the “Children of Israel” (because, as far as my church was concerned, Black folks were just as chosen as Moses, Aaron and their kin), then there was no sense in walking around thinking and acting as if I was really a child of God.

Fast forward four years.

By the end of my senior  year of high school my mother and my step-father were separated. She, my brother, and I moved to a small apartment in San Leandro, and I was gearing up to head back east for college. I was pretty sure I was some kinda queer, but all I had to go on was a few high school crushes and a rich fantasy life. My suspected gayness made me even more suspicious of Christianity. I often heard the colloquial homophobic saying, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” ringing in my ears. Hmmm. None of this made any sense. Why make humans gay if they’re going to be damned?

Now, one could argue that God didn’t make humans gay at all. Gayness, the argument would go, was the effect of either being possessed by evil or electing to act out evil deeds in spite of both, my biological imperative towards heterosexuality, and my moral duty to comply with God’s plan for women. In short, my being gay didn’t have anything to do with God, thanks to the reality of human volition. It was direct evidence of my sinfulness, my alliance with the dark angels, my weakness and collusion with evil.

A logical retort to this argument was often voiced in the religion courses I’d eventually enroll in as an undergraduate. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, how on earth (or heaven for that matter), could there be evil in the world? Ah, yes! The good old theodicy question. I’d wrestle with this one for a while until I realized the answer to the problem of evil could not be sufficiently answered within a Christian framework.

The anti-gay Christians (who, by the way, have come out of the woodwork lately to uphold the righteousness of God via the ballot box in California) would maintain that my gayness was a choice, not a biological predisposition. And, if it was a biological predisposition, it was clearly a flaw or bio-error that must have an antidote scientists just hadn’t discovered yet. However, I was certain my attraction to women wasn’t a choice. How did I know this? Because to chose a difficult, unpopular and despised path simply makes no sense. Why chose to suffer? I would much rather have the love and happiness of my family greet me than their disdain. Being gay was a surefire way to be banished from the clan, or at least openly marginalized if allowed to stay within its ranks. In the face of this very real possibility, I came to terms with my love for women.

How did I know? Because I experienced it daily, and it was a desire, a love, an appreciation I couldn’t deny. It was, and is, real. My reality didn’t square with the Christian narrative, its description of who, and what, I was supposed to be. And, in my heart of hearts, I knew I wasn’t a bad person. I knew I wasn’t running around with a demon festering inside me, compelling me to fall in love with beautiful and smart women. In fact, I grew to understand that the love I experienced between women was so far removed from “evil” that the Christians clearly had it all wrong.

My life as a queer woman delivered the death knell to Christianity in my life. I reasoned thus: the holy book was written by men (yes, men – divine revelation be damned), and as such, reflected the social and cultural mores of their time. It was a biased text, riddled with the ideological and political preoccupations of those who pulled the gospel through a series of translations: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Old English, etc. (I mean really, the damn things says, “King James Version” on the side. If it’s a version, then surely there’s some human tampering involved, no?) What the bible came to represent in my world, particularly after studying the religious history of African Americans, was the textual evidence of the very human desire to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. What I began to see in all the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity), was an effort to explain the persistence of chaos, contingency and danger, as well as the reality of joy.

There was nothing otherworldly about it, as far as I was concerned. We were firmly on the terrain of culture, more specifically, literature masquerading as Religious Truth.

The tragedy here was that I implicated all religions in this brazen meaning-making enterprise and eliminated the possibility that there was something grander than we humans in the universe. Spirit was a fiction, just as much as the Easter Bunny or Santa Clause. My foray into Marxism didn’t help much in this regard either. Suffering was certainly real and could be historicized if you cared enough to contextualize this mess we call the contemporary world. Explaining suffering and injustice by way of a transcendental edict was – in my mind – just cause for a beat down. There was no God out there who said colored folks the world over should be subordinate to white folks. Clearly white folks said that. And there was no God out there who said gay folks shouldn’t be allowed to be happy and openly gay. Clearly straight folks said that. Marxism gave me tools for confronting injustice and the rampant disavowal of basic human worth.

But, eventually, its usefulness wore thin. My intractable tendency toward questioning, seeking, if you will, forced me to confront the limitations of Marxism as well. (It seemed Marxist theory contained the seed of its own revolution! Okay, bad joke.) What I found by my fourth year of graduate school was an emptiness inside me, and a yearning for meaning, purpose and community (or, perhaps, communion) with more than my “comrades” in the struggle. I wanted closeness with the natural world around me: my cat, my plants, the eucalyptus trees beyond my front door. I wanted to feel at home in the world instead of feeling the alienation I theorized. I didn’t want to feel the reification – my own “thingification” – and instrumentality within “the capitalist system.”

I felt vacuous, and ultimately useless. This budding nihilism dangerously meshed with all the pain and fear I felt as a child and I began to play recklessly with my life. Nothing felt good during these years, so I chose to self-medicate. Somewhere in my dissociation I  think I detested my discontent and my desire for a more meaningful and deeply interconnected life because I knew, without “knowing,” that such communion was the real order of the universe. I also knew that the intimacy I craved required work, serious spiritual work and commitment, but I didn’t know what that would or should look like.

However, the “what” and “how” of my journey (what should I do, and how should I do it?) are now the least of my worries. I’ve been told the universe will take care of the details. It was the knowing/not knowing dyad that plagued me for so long and threatened to undo my life. My reliance upon flawed epistemological training was also part of the problem. I didn’t trust that I could know anything intuitively; that I could know something as big as the arc of my life’s work on a hunch, a feeling, a sense.

But this seems to be true for me today: how I come to know things ranges from simple empirical observation to complex intutive recognition. An answer will always follow the questions I ask. My job is to be open to the possibility that the source of the information I seek may be highly unusual or ordinary and mundane.

How I know is no longer the issue. The fact of knowing is now the gift.

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