A shifting faith is scary. And I like scary. I’m not a slasher-flick kind of person, or into creature features. But create a genuinely creepy ghost story, or a haunting, or even an exorcism or two, and I’m there with my hands over my eyes (fingers slightly apart, of course). Why? I have no idea. Perhaps because real life has been far more horrific; perhaps some of these stories dare to ask “What if…?”; and perhaps it’s because we all enjoy a good scare in one way or another.
But faith shifting?
When all things treasured seem filthy or rusty, when people we trusted sound cruel, when teachers we revered suddenly speak in unknowable languages, when we ourselves wake up one day… look in the mirror… and we gasp.
We aren’t who we were.
And we’ve no idea where we’ve gone or who we’re meant to be anymore. And alone as we feel, there are more and more of us in North America.
Here’s real-life horror.
Kathy Escobar, a spiritual director living and working in Denver, has written a frank book entitled Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart. In it she writes:
“What happens when all we once believed begins to become less solid and secure? When we sense that what we’ve been doing is not what Jesus had in mind for his followers? When we have years of head knowledge but our hearts feel empty and dead? When our tried-and-true methods of connecting with God stop working? When we’re disillusioned with church and don’t know where to turn? When our faith is shifting and it feels like we’re in a free fall? What happens, in other words, when the certainty is gone and all that remains are questions and doubts?” (Escobar, 2014, p.5)
I’ve questioned my sanity… my devotion to God… my place in community… my schooling. I’ve been guilted and shamed by people of faith who find no validity in faith shifts… I’ve lost friends… I’ve been judged and condemned. I’ve been sneered at by people who claim to be atheists, anti-theists and secular humanists for still desiring to pursue faith… I’ve been mocked and belittled… my intelligence has been ridiculed… and the condescension I’ve experienced in what should have been a more inclusive space has simply been not.
Of course the person who’s judged me most harshly and unfairly has been myself. But that’s for another post. I’ve shared what I already have to give you a taste of what a faith shift can feel like, of what my personal experience has been; but most of all to give us — writer and reader — a common starting point.
People grow. People change. This includes our spiritual and religious selves.
The question that’s been haunting me for days now has been: How do marginalized people shift in their faith? Are they allowed? Where do they go for help?
When a woman trying to exit sexual slavery begins the process of leaving, she realizes just how many shifts will be demanded of her — physical space, new friends, new support networks, self-care, life skills, education, job training. What extra fear is added when she realizes her precious beliefs that may have sustained her through tough, exploitative nights are no longer beliefs that sustain her now? When the rest of the world is in upheaval, where is the room for a faith shift?
We might not have control over when these shifts happen, so what about those who are undergoing multiple other shifts at the same time with fewer resources and less community?
Am I making any sense?
As a white, cisgender female, I have encountered my fair share of judgment, ridicule and rejection; however I recognize that I was born with certain spheres of privilege. I’m not trying to turn anyone’s genuine faith shift into a division over race, gender or anything of the sort. But working at the food bank and meeting people of all sorts who are struggling, I’m struck by the reality that some people have less room to shift than others.
Here’s another example: a friend of mine lives on a First Nations reserve near town. She was raised Roman Catholic, but wants nothing more to do with that denomination anymore. The Catholic church has wreaked too much destruction on the indigenous peoples of North America, the residential school system propelled physical and sexual abuse into her family as well as created a wake of inter-generational trauma. Furthermore she can’t abide the hypocrisy she sees between people who claim to be godly, but live totally different lifestyles.
She wishes to reclaim her identity as a proud First Nations woman — a healer and carrier of life. To hear her speak is profound, as much as it is heartbreaking. Her fear, though, is palpable.
Family is a paramount value in First Nations community — aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters. Everyone is connected and one is seen as a part of a living whole. It’s a beautiful expression of how family can be in this world, and I’ve learned a good deal about living in family from my First Nations and Metis friends. Yet the majority of this woman’s family is Roman Catholic. To turn her back on the church would be to turn her back on her family.
Her family experiences poverty and racism; some family members struggle with addictions, abusive behaviour and criminal records. While these might seem good reasons to embrace her faith shift to me, to her they are not. She has all the more reason to remain and be the light that will create more light. I could support her choices in genuine love and respect, but this doesn’t change her reality of poverty or racial injustice. A faith shift for her would remove one of the few supports she feels she actually has on a systemic level, even though it’s creating destruction for her personally.
See where I’m going?
How can we be supports to those who are experiencing systemic injustice, but experiencing personal faith shifts at the same time?
Suggestions would be helpful!