In What can she know Lorraine Code argues for a feminist epistemology, in which our situation, community, position in society, matter to what we can know. Knowledge mainly available to men is implicitly regarded as gender-neutral; meanwhile knowledge traditionally associated with women is regarded as not knowledge at all. Consider the practices of some Catholic Latina women in the United States, who fend off the evil eye (especially of infants) with eggs, bury statues of saints like Mary and Joseph in their front yard when the saints refuse to grant requests, and dig them up again once the request is granted. As Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado details, this sounds rather irreverent, but the practice just illustrates how intimate the relationship is between the Latino community and the saints they revere. Home altars with pictures of Mary and the Saints are the territory of Latina Catholic women. Do these practices contribute to religious epistemology? If so, how?
The council of Trent wanted to eradicate these practices of saint reverence and fending off the evil eye, in which women prominently figured as practitioners and experts. However, it did not destroy these practices in Latina women. Neither did it destroy them entirely in European women, such as my grandmother. My grandmother was a devout Catholic woman who taught me the first things about religion such as the significance of the host, the meaning of infant baptism, how to pray. She had a wooden black statue of Mary (there is a tradition of revering Black Mary in Medieval Europe, and my grandmother’s home town had a tradition that still kept this alive), to whom she talked and prayed. When Mary refused to grant her requests, she would be unceremoniously turned facing the wall until Mary changed her mind.
By the time I was 12, I dismissed her practices as superstitious folk beliefs of an old woman who had not moved with the times, and as just plain silly. Her beliefs, I thought, were wrong also within her own epistemological framework of Christianity, given that statues aren’t actually the figures they represent (but in Latina culture, and my grandmother’s practice, they were), and Mary cannot autonomously grant requests but is assumed to intercede with God on our behalf (but for my grandmother, she clearly could do all sorts of things on her own). However, I am now wondering if it is true that my grandmothers religious beliefs (aka superstitions) were really inconsistent with the epistemology she held. After all, her epistemology was not the official teaching of the Catholic church, but something that was informed by her own practices.
Very few philosophers of religion discuss how specific religious practices can foster a religious knowledge that more cerebral thinking about God cannot. Sarah Coakley has some work liturgy as a form of doxastic practice (a tantalizing term she borrows from Alston, who did not do much with the concept, but fortunately, Sarah has and I hope to elaborate it in work further on in a talk I’ll be giving at Texas A&M). Coakley argues that the physical, multi-sensory experience of worship can mediate spiritual experience. Howard Wettstein argues along similar lines about Jewish practices like blessings. He argues these practices provide access to a religious way of life even if there is no doxastic commitment to metaphysical claims about God. Do religious practices provide us with religious knowledge? Even practices that seem contrary to claims generally accepted in philosophy of religion?
I would claim that if we assume that perfect being theology in western philosophy of religion is correct, and if the main theological claims are correct, my grandmother and the members of the Latino community Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado studied can have knowledge. It is hard to say if any theological claims are true, and of course, if naturalism is true, my grandmother’s views, and those of theologians are not knowledge; I am just here assuming the traditional theological views because practices like my grandmother’s are in this framework dismissed as superstitions without any epistemological value.
If my grandmother has knowledge of Mary, it is knowledge by acquaintance, afforded by intimate second-person interactions (manipulating the statue of Black Mary, speaking to her). This sort of knowledge isn’t available to people who do not engage in practices like this. In When God talks back, Tanya Luhrmann explains how this works for Evangelical Christians, but Gonzalez Maldonado offers another perspective (Yet another one is offered by Eleonore Stump on how reading scripture can give us second-person insight). I would like to think more about how embodied practices in religion, so often downplayed by mainstream churches as an embarrassment and relic of the past, can contribute to epistemological questions in philosophy of religion.
[this blogpost is inspired by a talk by Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado at the Annual Academy of Religion; in the talk Gonzales Maldonado discussed Latino religious practices in relationship to Luhrmann’s work on Evangelical spirituality]