That is, of course, a ludicrous headline, worthy of “The Onion.” That said, and given some of my past experience with Roman Catholic women religious, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they made the attempt.
Moreover, given the latest absurdities from the Vatican concerning apparently “rogue nuns,” I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the Church objected to world peace if it didn’t conform to orthodox doctrinal standards. I wish I were making that up. Alas, the Vatican recently voiced its objection to the compelling and effective social justice ministries of The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, even though those ministries are perfectly aligned with more than a century of Catholic social teaching. (Don’t try to make sense of institutional Christianity; it will make you crazy and drive you to drink. I’m here to testify.)
So let’s pause here. Take a deep breath. Perhaps we can frame these absurdities with the peculiarities of Christian faith. Sure, radical nuns taking over the United Nations is ludicrous. But consider the following story. Is it any less ludicrous?
Two friends are walking down a dusty, deserted road. They are sad and grieving over the death of a friend. As they talk about their lives and the state of the world and their grief, a stranger joins them on the road. This stranger has truly mind-blowing things to say about the meaning of life and those two friends are spellbound.
They invite the stranger to join them for supper. As they sit down to table, they finally recognize this stranger as their dear friend who had died. In that very moment, the stranger disappears.
That’s a rough paraphrase of a classic Easter season story from Luke’s gospel (24:13-35), often referred to as the “Emmaus Road story.” It’s one of my favorites. I like to pair it with the story about “doubting Thomas” that so many Christians heard this past Sunday. I like to pair those stories because both of them diffuse our obsession with certainty. Both of them dethrone human hubris. Both of them elevate doubt and humility to spiritual virtues.
I take both stories as cautionary tales for theologians (like me) and institutional Christianity more generally. Any attempt to make absolute statements about God, Christian faith, or spiritual practice will always fail. Always. Like the risen Christ in the story from Luke, God will always slip through our fingers in that very moment when we think we have it all figured out – or more pointedly, all nailed down, understood, captured, and controlled.
The truth of any religious tradition or spiritual practice does not reside in how well we talk about it or parse its doctrines or ensure its systematic coherence. No, the truth of any religion resides in how we live it, and how our living promotes liberation from oppression, social justice, human flourishing, and planetary thriving. If that kind of effective spiritual living runs counter to doctrinal articulation, it’s high time to adjust the doctrine. The entire history of Christianity bears painful witness to this.
To be clear, I’m not promoting intellectual laxity, moral libertinism, or “laissez-faire spirituality.” I believe Christians ought to make bold claims, strike outrageous social postures, and preach like our lives depend on it (because they actually do). But I also believe that we should infuse all of it with a healthy dose of humility. After all, we could be wrong; we have been wrong in the past; we will be wrong again.
Alas, institutional Christianity’s besetting sin is not boldness but safety; not risk for the sake of life but the status quo for the sake of survival; not reckless creativity but staid conformity, and mostly for the sake of power and privilege. And by “institutional Christianity,” I do not mean only Roman Catholicism.
So here’s a modest proposal for this Easter season. If even the most wonderful news of all time – the resurrection of Jesus – can slip through our fingers in the blink of an eye, then we might want to handle our doctrinal positions a bit more lightly.
Here’s the more pointed version: If the Church can’t control the risen Christ, then maybe it shouldn’t try to control radical nuns who are actually living the Resurrection in their work of social justice and human flourishing.
Is doctrinal adjustment too high a price to pay for new life? Really?