I remember watching in awe. The elder mothers of the church would squeeze their eyes tight and call down fire from a heaven I’d only thought of as a place with puffy clouds and haloed angels bouncing about. Some of them would rock back and forth with tears escaping down the sides of their faces. Some would shout fiery declarations into the ceiling. Some would simply hum; that rumble that sounded like it started somewhere deep. This, I learned, was “getting a prayer through.” This, I learned, was how they held on.
I’ve spent the last five years deconstructing and rebuilding the faith traditions of my childhood. I’ve also spent the last 60 days self-quarantined in my home. There is no question that the depth of the work required for the former has supported my ability to do the latter.
Some people argue that religion in general is the opiate of masses. Even as a believer, I know this to be true, though maybe not for the reasons some might think. It’s entirely possible that the notions of unconditional love and eternal rest are wonderfully addictive concepts when faced with the lack of the former and the certainty of the latter in a crisis.
Lots of things were lost in my deconstruction. Specifically demolished were the places where patriarchal and white supremacist ideologies masked as theoloy. Yet, my biggest loss — certainty — has actually been my greatest stabilizer during this season. I used to think in absolutes. If one lived this way, say as a kind and generous person, then the outcome should be that they should never experience any trials. If one thought positively, then the reactions they received should always be positive. While karma, the Golden Rule, and even Newton’s third law of motion all validate this kind of thinking to some degree, I also know that none of these principles mean that bad things won’t happen; that good people won’t die.
The COVID-19 crisis illuminates in very real ways the nature of faith as the belief in something one cannot see. The hope for something one cannot fathom. In this case, losing my attachment to certainty gives me perspective. I can hope for a miracle in the face of death. I can believe that there is something on the other side of isolation, even when I don’t know when that other side is coming. In this way, there is great significance in having a faith tradition to grasp when everything else is shifting.
For many, faith is a literal safe place in the midst of a devastating and uncertain crisis.
To be clear, I’m not talking about religious systems, mostly fundamentalist, and in the case of my faith in particular, usually evangelical, that use political and faulty theological scaffolding to remake the face of Jesus, the Prophets, Muhammed, Buddha and the like. There’s actually very little authentic faith present there. I’m referencing the spiritual relationships and encounters, the principles and tenets that inform our morality and can drive our desire to love and serve humanity the best we know how. The belief that one can be a vessel for the demonstration of God’s love in the face of either human destruction or nature’s disruption is one of the many ways faith can be valuable during this and any other crises.
The faith concept that’s hard for many to wrap their minds around during the “good times” is the very thing that people cling to in a crisis. Most people — even believers — resist the accountability that faith and faith traditions require and maybe, more specifically, how our frail humanity has chosen to enact that accountability. We hate what we perceive as rules. It’s less about the existence of God or the inability to reconcile the theology of any particular sacred text and more about feelings of inadequacy in meeting what we believe are the hard and fast criterion found in those texts. At the same time, we are hard pressed to embrace grace — until, of course, we are faced with scenarios that require it in order for us to survive; those situations where nothing makes sense. For some, the current constriction in our physical and even mental movement has forced a look toward spiritual guides because our natural ones have failed us.
Whether a person believes in God is besides the point. For those of us who do, faith functions as a place of grounding in the face of crisis and trauma. If it doesn’t serve any other purpose, I would guess that this is a worthy one.
If for no other reason, faith matters in times of crisis because the inexplicable joy that comes with the hope of a better, even eternal, tomorrow, releases the hormones necessary to strengthen the immune system and reduce the stress hormones (cortisol and the like) that can send our bodies into arrest.
Sure, some would argue that’s a stretch. Yet, I submit that If we can believe that there is a mind/body connection — science shows us that the way we think impacts how our body responds — then the leap to there being a mind/body/spirit connection only requires that we release our alleged control over our lives and embrace a spiritual reality that lives simultaneously outside of us and within. Arguably, we need that kind of healing now more than ever.
When we believe in a divine power greater than ourselves, the possibility of miracles makes us willing to see another day when we otherwise would give up. It presses us to create rituals that help sustain us in a near-meditation on hope. We, in necessity, transfer our hope from failed governments and political leaders to something we hope is greater, and whether that hope is warranted or not, it is the thing that helps us “keep on living,” as my grandmother used to say.
Faith has taught me that it is impossible to dismantle broken systems without broken hearts being healed. Broken little boys become broken men and a broken man placed in a system that prioritizes money, white supremacy, patriarchy and economic solvency over human lives and dignity means that you have leadership such as what we are experiencing now. Because authentic faith across all religious traditions prioritizes the marginalized and poor, it is the great leveler. It tears down the monuments we’ve made of men and focuses on what’s important — community. That said, Faith is also fearless. It causes us to be unafraid to confront that kind of leadership because it affirms the belief that we don’t answer to any man. For me that’s fascinating. Faith both humbles and strengthens us under a divine sovereignty. Simultaneously, it infuses us with hope — a kind of supernatural alchemy — that ultimately transforms our grief and sorrow into the strength necessary to do all the things we are tasked to do in this climate. Things like moms and dads balancing work from home with online learning for their children. Things like delivery drivers and post office workers and doctors and nurses confronting the possibility of their own sickness daily in order to make sure many of us do not. Whether one is religious or not, these are acts of faith. The belief that our actions matter even when the certainty we so desperately desire escapes us.
Inevitably, the question of what I’d tell people who have lost a family member to COVID-19 about the alleged sovereignty of God and the significance of faith, comes up. I suppose I’d say what I tell my 8 year old when she asks the hard questions, what every person of faith has to be willing to say if we want to maintain any credibility: I don’t know. The truth is, the very nature of a higher power necessitates a belief in the mystery of that higher power. A God I understand is not a God worthy of my worship. What I do know is that believing that the earthly realm is only one stop on a longer journey of the soul is a salve for my broken heart. I don’t get mad at God when a family member moves to the other side of the earth so I refuse to get mad at God because a family member moves on to another dimension. I can be sad. My sorrow might even overwhelm me as the tsunami of grief often does. But my faith is the thing that steadies me — and in a time when death and sickness lurks around every corner, a faith that steadies is a faith with value.