This 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.
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