by Nathan R. Elliott
When I finished my Ph.D. dissertation in 2006, my partner at the time had the audacity to know me pretty well. And, knowing me as she did, she also had the intelligence and temerity to notice that even if those 200 hard-fought pages were ostensibly about the arcane topic of an emerging scientific epistemology and its effect on nineteenth-century British fiction and theatre, the real subject was something else. I had, she suggested, been fighting with my demons alongside Charlotte Brontë and H.G. Wells; I had constructed an academic exercise in literary scholarship to complete an ongoing childhood brawl with fundamentalism. Charles Darwin and George Eliot—my idols, my artistic crushes, my intellectual heroes—had ultimately come to a position of epistemic humility. These brilliant writers and thinkers knew what they knew, sure, but their ultimate conclusions often eschewed certainty and underlined the importance of perspective. Few readers of The Origin of Species understand the taxonomic context and conversation it was inserted into: species were suddenly fluid, and Darwin’s title is almost an ironic satire of the fact that he was going to blur, permanently, the definition of species. The ethical knower, Eliot suggested, kept circling like a vulture, always back, back, back to a position of epistemic humility. Knowledge didn’t just start in an acknowledgment of ignorance; it made regular visits back to the shrine of unknowing.
During the time it took to qualify for the right to propose this dissertation, then write it, I had watched the last of my religious faith circle the drain. It was even as I wrote the third chapter of that document that I finally admitted to myself I could no longer claim to believe in any God or gods in any way that I had understood the belief up until then. I stopped going through the pretense of church—and it had been a pretense for some years, when I could be bothered to drag myself to a local church. Churches, and the dogmas they came with, felt like places of epistemic certainty. And epistemic certainty, in any form, had become anathema to me.
I found losing my faith extremely liberating. After a lifetime of dogma, it felt utterly thrilling to not know things.
Some fifteen years later I find myself sitting in the pews of a Canadian metropolitan cathedral on a regular basis. Have I suddenly found my way back to belief?
No, not really, at least not in any way that remotely resembled the belief that had been given to me as a child. The church is beautiful, the music gorgeous, and the sermons surprisingly, consistently good. But as moving as these various aspects of the church were, they just as often left me unmoved. I have occasionally tried to describe to other people and in other places the curious deadness, almost a numbness, that I found around churches. Having been asked to swallow a certain amount of dogma as a child, I found in adulthood that even the furniture of the church left me in a state of almost profound indifference. When I entered a church, I entered a cold, meta head space: I could only evaluate, I could only analyze, I could only historicize. Feeling, emotion: these everyday aspects of perception that bring vivid psychological color to human existence seemed utterly absent inside the four walls of a church; it was as if the entire world, for me, became greyscale once the service started.
Yet here I was, sitting in the pews, Sunday after Sunday, and even taking communion, even taking an interest.
It wasn’t the first time I had darkened the doors of a church. Occasionally I had returned to churches for various times. I’ve always enjoyed Anglican and Catholic and Orthodox liturgies, perhaps an unconscious rebellion against my low church Baptist upbringing. But invariably these churches, and their gorgeous liturgies, would ask me to believe things. I would have to recite creeds that I found turning to ashes in my mouth. And so, just as invariably, I would stop going. I would miss the quiet contemplation of a Sunday morning mass, but it felt intellectually, perhaps even morally dishonest, to go.
And then there were other moral concerns: churches weren’t just asking us to believe silly things; they were using the silly things we were supposed to believe in to cover up real harm, physical and psychological. The spectacular scandal was in the Catholic Church, yes, and it stretched over decades and involved cover-ups that defied any sense of scale. And even as I write this, I know that I and any of my readers would have to be incredibly naïve to think that we’ve plumbed the depths of that problem. This hydra of a scandal will continue to come in waves, for decades, and recalcitrant attitudes in Catholic leadership continue to prolong the agony, not contain it. Every time the boil is seemingly lanced, we discover another cover-up, another attempt to discredit victims, another ungodly amount of resources spent to protect an institution that can’t seem to understand, irony of ironies, that its best hope lies only in full disclosure, confession and repentance.
But I also knew that the Catholic Church was not the only guilty one: they were the ones who had so spectacularly been caught in sexual abuse, sexual hypocrisy, and institutional deceit. I could see similar stains poking out of the edges of my own low-church protestant upbringing. The scandal would look different, of course: differences in church dogma might shape, perhaps, slightly different shades of scandals. But they were there, they were ugly, and they were that much harder to trace because so many evangelical churches operate with greater levels of bureaucratic autonomy. Even now growing sexual scandals coming out of evangelical megachurches have confirmed my suspicions, as prominent names have been outed as sexual harassers, serial abusers, and the supporters and perpetuators of raw misogyny.
During this time, I have also found myself questioning another kind of institutional faith.
As my religious faith collapsed, I had run to academia, perhaps, for help, for secular knowledge, even wisdom. At times universities even gave me, momentarily, the succor I was looking for: meaning came through a hard search for knowledge and relentless inquiry. Like any new convert, I threw myself at the new gods, and it’s likely little coincidence that as I came ever closer to attaining the highest level of education you can get at such a place, the last vestiges of my old faith dropped away.
Yet the new faith came with its own problems, and these problems have reminded me all too often of the institutional sins of the churches: both universities and churches valued hierarchy and cults of personality above human beings, and neither proved to value any true democracy of governance. I witnessed at a number of institutions administrators and faculty members willing to turn a blind eye to sexual assault and sexual exploitation in the name of protecting their institution’s brand, or simply because they couldn’t be bothered to take a woman’s word seriously. Self-righteousness about church abuse struck me as a sick joke within the walls of the academy; too many priests and bishops were willing to look away when convenient or expedient, but so were any number of professors and deans. Aside from their dubious sexual morality, universities were, and remain, relentlessly willing to exploit economic insecurities for their own benefit, whether it comes down to busting a janitor’s union, or simply overloading graduate students and contingent faculty while underpaying them in ways that created the crisis in mental health we are seeing among university undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. And for that matter, universities have repeatedly proven more than willing to sell their intellectual soul to make up the budget deficit created by a tax-paying public that could no longer be bothered to fund education. Administrators themselves, like some many cynical whiskey-priests in a Graham Greene novel, seem to have lost faith in education: the important thing was to keep paying students in the seats, more administrators hired, the brand protected, new buildings with prominent alumni names built, even if those short-term goals meant abandoning long-term educational quality and authentic scholarly inquiry. The resemblances of the university to the medieval church satirized by Dante in the Inferno were entirely impossible to avoid inside the very university walls that might still occasionally teach the text.
And so I found myself losing my faith, yet again. The priests of the university were every bit as venal, and they didn’t even have Bach’s masses, Gerard Hopkins’s poetry, or Kierkegaard’s savage satires to their credit.
There’s a moment that came in all of these interviews, and it has nothing to do with belief in a common dogma. I can only speak for myself, but in these exchanges, there was almost always a moment of surprising intimacy. I was not prepared for that intimacy when I began writing this series, but as I look back on the very different conversations I’ve had with very different people, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was asking these subjects about their most dearly held convictions, I was asking how they arrived at these ideas, I was asking them about how those ideas had shaped their own autobiography, and the lives of those around them.
I was, in more simple terms, asking them about their sacred selves, and what things in this world they held sacred. The answers varied, of course, but there was this thing that bound all of them together: they still believed in the sacred. There were things in this world that transcended material existence. Period. Metaphysical assertions after that might be interesting, even important, or they might not; I wouldn’t want to dismiss the intricate and gorgeous particularities of any religious faith any more than I would question someone who understandably found those metaphysical assertions banal and troubling.
Sometimes the sacred demanded that you keep working with a church. Sometimes the sacred demanded that you leave a church behind. But that sense that the sacred exists, and that it should be protected, has permeated every single interview that I have conducted thus far.
This sense that something is holy, and that it should be protected, nurtured, and passed down, has, for now, helped me back into uneasy relationships with institutions that too often appear on the verge of collapse. The mission of the university may, at least to me, be a sacred mission, even if it has been so routinely profaned; the university may have lost its way, but that doesn’t mean that its mission to broaden the scope of human knowledge should be abandoned. A church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple: even with the manifold failures and their ongoing struggles, they, at their best, work to maintain a sense of the sacred itself. We return to them—however unwillingly, however disappointed in them we may be—because we still need the sacred.
Ongoing revelations about the treatment of children at concentration camps (almost the only technical definition we can give them) on the American southern border have again grabbed national headlines: some sense that the sacred still mattered was inescapable. As I thought through these subjects, it struck me that what the American government is doing in the name of border security is a violation of the sacred. It’s pathetic that our culture requires the repeatedly documented dehumanization of children to bring us to our moral senses: the dehumanization of a thirty-year old male or the abuse of an eighty-year-grandmother should shock as much as the abuse of a toddler. We should all be aware of the profound moral dangers that come to us as perpetuators of these cruelties. But if it takes the face of a toddler to shock us into the remembrance that every human life is sacred, I’ll take it.
In the middle of the moral and physical exhaustion that seems to have become a hallmark of our time, the interviews I’ve conducted for Psaltery & Lyre have given me some small energy to look for the sacred spaces, the sacred words, and the sacred acts. Sometimes they come in the more familiar, clichéd form of a church, or a book of ancient poetry. But these days, sacred moments and words may well come in the form of a modern-day speech that demands morally practical action, actions that ask us to strategically disobey the law. We might find a journalist telling us what she saw, or a lawyer demanding to represent a three-year old who has been ripped from her parents, to be priests of the sacramental, calling down the divine from heaven. For that matter, some days the sacred may come in the form of a former parishioner telling her church she refuses to put up with its dehumanizing, homophobic bullshit any longer.
But the sacred, I trust, does exist, provided we have the courage to keep creating it. And perhaps we create the sacred not by putting our trust in the institutions that are supposed to guard it, but by demanding that these institutions relentlessly revise themselves toward the sacred. Perhaps, in other words, we will find the sacred begins in our sharp criticism of institutional sins and moral failures.
This is the sixth in a series of articles about faith, progressive politics, and voices of faith from unusual perspectives. Please message Nathan on Twitter at @writeronabike if you think you know of a person, a church, a mosque, a synagogue, a faith community of any creed that might be of interest.
Nathan R. Elliott grew up in Idaho, was educated in Chicagoland, worked as a professor in Georgia and Newfoundland, and now writes and lives in Montréal. He has published peer-reviewed research on the intersections of nineteenth-century British Literature and nineteenth-century science; he has published fiction and creative nonfiction in a variety of venues. He is the recipient of the 2016 NL Arts Council’s Lawrence Jackson Writers’ Award.
Featured Image: “George Eliot” by Alexandre-Louis-François d’Albert-Durade