Doctrine and Fidelity by Elise M. Edwards


elise-edwardsThis past week, I was listening to Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being as she spoke with Pádraig Ó Tuama.  He is a poet, theologian, and leader in the Corrymeela community of Northern Ireland. As he spoke about several things related to the challenges of belonging, reconciliation, and fractured communities, he said, ”The measure of Christian fidelity is more than the positions we take.”

I agree.  I interpreted his statement as a condemnation of the ways Christian doctrines and moral positions too often take priority over other matters of faith.

I’m an ethicist and theologian who spends a lot of time teaching and reflecting on moral issues and Christian responses to them in the past and present.  I wholeheartedly believe that doctrine does matter and our moral and theological positions should be well considered and defended.  My love of theology began when I realized it is an attempt to say what really matters and why it matters in particular religious communities.  Yet, I am also convinced that the way we use our theological assertions reveals as much about our faith and its values as our stated positions and doctrines do.

Doctrine is the justification for preventing women from ordained ministry in the church.  Doctrine is what makes us uncomfortable with some kinds of language for God.  Just war doctrine is what legitimizes the use of violence on a mass scale. So doctrine is not something to consider lightly.

But even these examples about its gravity provide insight into why our positions cannot be the primary test of religious fidelity.  Doctrines, both those considered true and false, are historically-formulated human attempts to describe the nature of the divine.  We develop doctrines as we try to clarify what is important or even essential to our faiths.  This should remind us to hold them with humility, because our human knowledge is always partial, even when formed in community. While what distinguishes true from false doctrines is often perceived in terms of coherence and rationality of thought, we have to remember that rational knowledge is itself only one way of knowing and connecting to the world around us.

Rational knowledge is not the same thing as a transformed life.  I think a transformed life is a more credible sign of Christian fidelity.  Transformation is about a change in the way one is and operates in the world.   In our contemporary Western context, I think spiritual and religious transformation is about becoming more attuned to the needs of souls – one’s own and the souls who share the world with us. When we value soul, we resist objectifying, monetizing, and otherwise devaluing ourselves and others.

Doctrines often emerge from times of conflict over disagreements about important matters of faith. The irony is that in attempting to get religion right, we sacrifice unity and care for the people around us.  We prioritize the intellectual formulations of belief over belief in the realness, the validity of our opponents’ souls.

This is why Ó Tuama’s quote stood out to me amidst many other insights he offered.  I am more profoundly aware than ever of how many people I disagree with in matters of religion and politics.  I am angry and I am afraid of the harm that is being done for purposes I feel to be fundamentally wrong.  But my faith is not to be judged primarily by the positions I take.

My work as a feminist woman of faith exceeds the vital, powerful tasks of activist action.  My work is to tend to our bodies, spirits, minds, and souls.  I affirm the full humanity of all people, and see reconciliation as a vital path to establishing it.  Reconciliation is not agreement and does not require it. It requires a commitment to reconnect when harmful divisions connect. I know there are people I will continue to fight in political and religious battles.  But I must not lose sight of their humanity (or mine) in these struggles.

I sense this historical moment is precarious for my soul and the souls of folk around me. The test of my fidelity to the Divine that holds all of us is not whether I am completely right in my words or actions but whether I am committed to the wellbeing of all.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

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Categories: Academics, Activism, Belief, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Community, Ethics, Faith, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Ethics, Feminist Theology, God, Healing, Justice, Politics, Resistance, Social Justice

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18 replies

  1. Dear Elise
    Thank you so much for your post – I’m in conversation with people at my church about whether I am a Christian because of what I say – and can’t say – and am working with the recognition of the divine in them and trying to express my faith in ways that they can hear – your post is timely and helpful. I will keep in sight the commitment to the wellbeing of all. Thank you
    Margaret

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    • Thank you Margaret! I was thinking of churches like yours where so many are struggling with who really belongs. This has been part of my church experience, too. Sending prayers of love, light, and divine discernment your way!

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  2. This is a very thoughtful post, especially your penultimate paragraph. It’s good to see an affirmation of the full humanity of all people so early in the morning. (I get up, feed my cats, and open FAR, so yes it’s early in my day.) Let’s all make that affirmation.

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  3. I too am so grateful Elise and I shared this with faith-friends. It’s a time now where Catholics especially differ. I know some of that is because it’s easy to claim ONE or even a FEW issues and stay adamant. I so appreciated the way you framed a love of doctrine with your disagreement in unchanging doctrines that seem so opposite Christian values. I’m going to reread it. I too am looking for transformation on many levels. I do find that if we can go to the place of STORYing our experience – that’s my work – we can move each other, stay connected, and not let rules and attitudes divide us. Thanks.

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    • You are so welcome! I hope this helps you and your friends navigate this path. I’d like to hear more about this story element. I think story has the potential to be more compelling and more useful for transformation than doctrinal formulations.

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      • Twenty some years back a retiring Catholic teacher who had learned the power of teaching MORALITY to teens who no interest in doctrines, rules, concepts of morality were willing to TALK and open minds and hearts in the land of STORY – from fables to life moments. So she thought – hmmm maybe we diverse religious traditions could do the same. It took a while to get rolling – and meeting in churches didn’t work. We had to contact the mosques, synagogues, Baha’i reading room, etc to offer OURSELVES as listeners and casual storytellers, and might they have someone who would kick off the evening sharing a tale from their tradition? We laugh still about the night no Muslim wanted to kick it off, but a whole bunch came and when a Catholic told tales of Hodja Nasrudin and more, their faces lit up. “My father used to tell those tales!” That was a big turning point. Then we started a youth spin off and that’s been going 10+ years. The kids came from story-telling Hindu, Muslim, Jewish families, but we haven’t had lots of Christian kids jump in. They’re off playing sports on Sundays. But we’re all continuing to learn and connect through both life tales and teaching tales – some scriptural, but mostly folktales.

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      • Thank you for continuing to do this!

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  4. but whether I am committed to the wellbeing of all. yesssssssssssssssss

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  5. “I must not lose sight of their humanity (or mine) in these struggles.”
    Oh YES! Thank you for saying this so well Elise. I seem to be having trouble finding words lately. My heart feels like it’s breaking in the storm of various kinds of violence surrounding us on all sides. Yesterday at a local IWD gathering the message was: “Be kind”.

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    • Thank you. It is so much easier to classify people based on their positions (or other characteristics) than to really see them and try to understand them. But that’s what we should do.

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  6. “Rational knowledge is not the same thing as a transformed life. I think a transformed life is a more credible sign of Christian fidelity.”

    What an incredibly refreshing thing to hear, amidst the cacophony of litmus tests being hurled around Western Christendom! I think it interesting that the ability to be a “Christian” without being Christ-like is mostly localized to English. In German, “Christian” and “Christ” are the same word—to be a Christian is, literally, “to be a Christ” (“ein Christ zu sein”). Similarly, I had an interesting conversation with a French translator the other day about the ambiguities of rendering certain Evangelical statements, since in French the phrases “I follow Jesus,” and “I am Jesus” are identical (“je suis Jésus”). We had a good laugh about this as translators, but I think it is true on a very deep level, like Meister Eckhart talking about giving birth to the Christ within. Being a Christian is, fundamentally, about dying to yourself and the world so that Christ can live in you (Galatians 2:20)—about a transformed life, rather than a rational doctrine. Perhaps it is more honest that the French and the Germans cannot claim to follow Him without also claiming to have become Him.

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    • Thank you so much for sharing this! It really speaks to the power of language. I am going to have to ponder what these words mean for me: “ein Christ zu sein” and “je suis Jésus”

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  7. Thanks for your post, Elise, it’s such a good word. This week in my women and religion class we’ve talking about epistemology and womanist/eco/feminist/mujerista affirmation that epistemology is ethics (and ethics is epistemology). Your post is a perfect reflection of that and so well stated. I’m going to assign it to my class to read :) Oh – and I love Pádraig’s work – song, art, and poetry. I got to meet him and host him at my house in Boston years ago when he was part of a tour in the U.S. His work is beautifully haunting.

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    • Truly an honor! What other readings did you include on this? I’ve been thinking about more directly engaging the topic of epistemology in my classes.

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      • First I introduce them to epistemology in my lectures when I’m teaching them feminist/womanist/and mujerista approaches to religion (and to the study of religion); then we read some of Ivonne Gebara’s selections on epistemology (from the first chapter of “Longing for Running Water”); we also do close readings of quotes I pull from the text and put in my powerpoint and discuss them as a class. The next week we read “Sources and Processes of the Production of Wisdom” by Geraldina Céspedes (from the Maria Pilar Aquino’s edited book, “Feminist Intercultural Theology: Latina Explorations for a Just World”) as a way to unpack the significance of epistemology in the context of women and religion. From there we move onto colonialism, enlightenment, and decolonial feminism and make all those connections (a class all its own, but we do this in just one week!). And then I close the unit by discussing and reflecting on all this with a case study; I use Chung Hyun Kyung’s opening ritual at the Canberra World Council of Churches in 1991 (“Come Holy Spirit: Break Down the Walls with Wisdom and Compassion”) and all the controversy and backlash that followed it. It’s some of my favorite stuff to teach – I love it so much and it really opens up students thinking and understanding of religion.

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