When we think of things that are “radical” about religious life, things like helping the poor, shared life in community, and celibacy all come to mind as being counter-cultural witnesses to Christian life. How often, however, do we associate obedience with being radical? By their very definitions, one would think, “radical” and “obedience” are closer to opposites than synonyms: one requires submission, the other fundamental change. Obedience is something for children and the oppressed, not for radicals that want to change the world. And yet, I stand by the title of this post. Even more boldly, I stand by the statement that obedience is the most radical thing we as Franciscans can share with the Church and the world.
Before you click to a new link, hear me out! I’m not trying to start a cult or militia, and I’m not asking anyone to stop being a free thinker. Quite the opposite actually.
The way I see it, we live in a society focused entirely on the individual. We have become such an inwardly looking people that we have given up on absolute, universal Truth. Truth in today’s world is determined by the individual based on what is considered meaningful, and it varies from person to person. “That may be true for you, but it’s not for me,” one may say. Inevitably, it devolves into a system of belief that can only say, “Who are you to tell me what to do? I believe whatever I want.” In this world of thinking, the world in which the only obedience is obedience to self, we have made ourselves into gods. This is not truth at all. This is delusion.
Christianity professes a very different idea of Truth: Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and he is obedient to the Father. St. Paul writes in the letter to the Philippians that Jesus humbled himself by renouncing his place in heaven to take on flesh, that he was “obedient to death, even death on a cross.” As fully divine and fully human, this act of obedience was a full and conscious choice and the part of Jesus, a choice that could have gone otherwise: just as He was free in the desert to be tempted by the devil, Jesus was free to let fear of pain and death deter him from doing what He was asked to do. Had it been up to his own will, things might have been different:
Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” (Mt 26:38-39)
Jesus provides us with a perfect example of obedience: even though He did not want to do it, and wasn’t completely sure if what He was being asked to do was entirely necessary, He did it anyway. Was it because He was brainwashed and couldn’t think for himself? Hardly. His example of obedience is rooted in humility, trust, and faithfulness to what he knew was the will of God. Jesus’ kenosis included giving up the need to know, the need to be in control, and the need to be consulted before God made the decision. All Jesus needed was to pray and to live in the tension of the situation.
When I look at obedience through this lens, I see it as an openness to be moved, to be taken outside of one’s comfort zone, and to be brought outside the realm of control. It is radical trust in people we love, in people who have gone before us and claim to know the way, and in God, knowing that our feeble attempts at controlling our world pale in comparison to the active work of God in salvation history.
As I study more philosophy and theology, and as I begin to take on a more active ministerial role in the Church, I am increasingly faced with teachings and actions of the Church that leave me unsettled. In some cases, I find myself truly struggling to accept them. And so I return to the title of this post: what does it mean to live with radical obedience when faced with situations that seemingly challenge my conscience? It means living in the tension between humbly challenging and faithfully trusting. The church does not need brainwashed robots that will blindly follow its every command, especially when they may be contrary to the Gospel. At the same time, the Church needs people to recognize that it is founded on nearly two thousands years of tradition and tremendous amounts of prayer, study, and action. After 24 years of life, am I really willing to say that I know more than the collection of theological thinkers over two millennia? I hope not.
When I look to history for other examples of faithful Christians faced with the same issues, a Saint and Pope bearing the same name come to mind: Francis. The profound counter-cultural nature of their lives reveals a disconnect between the Church they imagine and the Church they see; there is no doubt that these men saw a Church in need of reform. And yet, I daresay you will not find a single line of either of their’s calling for revolution, denouncing a Church teaching, or encouraging dissent from the outside. The humility and reverence for the Church is simply too great in each of them. Rather, the profound reform of these two men emanates from inside, within the limits of a less-than-perfect church, through their living of the Gospel as authentically as possible and by challenging the Church to do the same.
This is the type of radical obedience I hope to live. The type of obedience that says, “I may not agree, but I’m willing to try.” The type of obedience that trusts before it dissents, investigates before it acts. The type of obedience that holds the revelation and dogma of the Church in one hand, my own will and the will of the people I serve in the other, and refuses to ever let go of either. I assure you that I will never find the answer to all of our questions and I severely doubt that I will ever be able to profess without reservation everything the Church teaches, but my charism as a Franciscan will always guide me live life in the tension of these realities. For Franciscans, we do not seek easy answers to difficult questions. The world is not so black and white. For us, God is in the grey area, the murkiness, the tension. It is in faithfully trusting what we do not know, imitating our Lord that did the same, that we are able find God.