ISSUES OF FAITH: Losing faith? It happens

REALLY, IT’S HARD to believe, but sometimes, it happens. We all lose faith, from time to time.

We can lose faith in lots of things. Families and friends can absolutely fail us.

Institutions like school and church can fail us.

Big ideas like “democracy” or “justice” can fail us.

And they always will. Always.

Because they’re human institutions, run by humans, people like you and me and other fallible folks, who have ideas, even like the big ones I mentioned above, that fail us.

Thus, we will also inevitably fail those who depend and love us.

When I was young, I knew two things about me: I was gay, very, very gay — then I presented myself as super fem, though in old age, I’m realizing that maybe it wasn’t that I was all that feminine much as that to be out as gay, was to be read as fem in the 1970s.

My dad’s accommodations to my sexuality, which proved to be oddly prescient and compassionate, included referring to me as “she,” rather than “he.” Now, that seems a bit off the mark but somehow fitting.

I identify as non-binary, and enjoy a flexible gender which can range a lot, depending on the situation, which means Dad was half right. And I think for him, it was a way of working his way round to a place where he could love me. (For the record, it worked. We still love one another, though he tells me I don’t call enough. That’s half true, too. I don’t, but he also forgets that I do call, as he is in his 90s.)

And I certainly had a very naïve view of the world when it came to democracy. I used to love the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States had judges with lifelong terms. After all, I figured, once they had arrived at the top position in their fields, they could stop thinking about the next election, the next contribution and move to the middle of a centrist America where the law and justice would prevail.

Ah well, turns out that wasn’t such a good idea at all. How could we let women lose control over their own bodies? And that, to adjust a court that had swung too far one way or the other, the U.S. had added justices to offset the off balance. Who knew? I certainly didn’t, until just a few years ago. Now some folks have starting talking about another slot or two. Clearly, that can’t be a long-term solution but then, what can be? The 144,000? I don’t know right now. I suspect no one does.

And the church has begun its ownership of a colonial and shameful past.

Where I lived in the Deep South, we were recovering from a history of slavery that was past — and a racism that was not, that was still very active towards Black people.

As Southern author William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Here, where we are, we live with a history of land acquisition that amounted to stealing, and a long history of tribal schools which consistently attempted to erase indigenous culture — and an all-too-active racism towards indigenous people that is still very strong and needs resistance.

But the way in which we must continue to struggle with a dominant culture that is too white, too male, too arrogant affects all our institutions, including our churches. Women clergy have a very different account of life than do their male counterparts; clergy of color can be even worse off.

My life as both Christian and clergy has been very deeply impacted by my open expressions of both gender and sexuality, though my current worship community is a loving one that accepts both me and my husband with open arms.

As we say at every service, “God loves us, no matter what” even though we add in honesty “and we try too as well.”

Of course, in these human interactions, fault is always on both sides, though sometimes it is harder for less dominant voices to be heard.

My students, for instance, did not have the same access to institutional power than I did as faculty.

My bosses had more power than I did, less than upper administration, when I taught at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Some wielded their power fairly. Others did not, using leadership positions not to better the area under their control at all, but to increase their own power and sway over things.

As Lord Action noted, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And he added “Absolute power demoralizes.”

The more power we hold as humans, the more likely we are, finally, to misuse it.

Which is why the Supreme Court has, in my non-expert opinion, necessarily failed as an institution: we cannot expect that nine human beings, all faulty, all sinful, will do the right thing for decade after decade. And while people now saw the late Dianne Feinstein in old age and failing cognitive abilities, I remember her when I was in my teens and early 20s.

She was a firebrand, especially for the rights of women and of queer people, and she held Congress to a centrist position as the whole country moved to the right. I rejoice with women and with Black people at Gov. Gavin Newsome (California)’s appointment of Laphonza Butler, another political firebrand, sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris, who administered the oath of office at the ceremony in the U.S. Capitol.

Our Congress itself is held in seeming hostage to a few radical rightists, who toppled their own Speaker for the first time in our history, because Kevin McCarthy managed successfully to broker a short-term deal that would prevent those living in poverty from losing their health care and benefits, from those receiving Social Security from not getting their checks on a timely basis, for government employees not to be paid on time for their work. For that, he got overturned.

No matter where we are politically, we all should worry about the increasing gaps in our society: the gaps between the haves and the have-nots; the gaps between people caused by race; the gaps and divisions between us because of gender and sexuality; and the worst of these is the gap between low income and high income and the resultant disappearance of the middle class.

I don’t know what the answer is.

As I read other people writing on this subject, I fear we all have lost our way. As you know if you’ve read my last few columns, I put my hope in the young, who have the most to lose, but as a person who is, in many ways, not part of dominant culture in this country (I’m white, very much part of a dominant culture, thanks to a pernicious racism), I can understand their loss of hope and their mistrust of older folks, including myself.

I know in my diocese, we have made great strides in increasing diversity of clergy, and resourses for the people of the diocese, but there is still far to go.

Somedays, loss of faith both personally and institutionally seems inevitable as failure itself.

At times like this, hard and horrible times, we have two jobs to do as religious and spiritual people. We must know that God, however we see the Divine, will prevail.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Indeed, but it needs us all to pull towards justice, to take risks, to build up. We need to exercise forgiveness and love, but also draw away from those institutions and practices that attempt to slow down that arc.

It is our job, as religious folks and as citizens, to learn to live together in peace.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Dr. Keith Dorwick is a deacon resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.

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