Why I’m a Person of Faith Despite … Well … People of Faith

July 31, 2018

Periodically, someone asks me what I do for a living. When I tell them I’m the dean of a School of Theology and Ministry, more than a few take a reflex step backward as if they are standing too close to an infectious organism. A smaller number respond with the smirk of encountering a quaint novelty in an antique shop, wondering perhaps how such anachronistic things could still interest anyone. Perhaps most people, however, change the subject, pretend I didn’t answer their question or they didn’t ask it, or nod awkwardly and walk away. As a former journalist who learned to peer deeply and honestly into the dark side of life, I understand their reactions.

For several decades, foes of religion, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett (the so-called “Four Horsemen of Atheism”), or comedians like Bill Maher, have made a cottage industry out of pointing out the inconsistencies of religious believers and their organizations. They would make you think that all people of faith (or at least the vast majority) are self-righteous, narrow-minded, hard-hearted, uninformed, and science denying, with a propensity toward shunning – or even acting violently – against those who think differently than they do.

Of course, it is no great insight that people of faith have acted badly. Over the centuries, religious believers and their organizations have been complicit in some of the worst behaviors of human history: masterminding the Crusades and Inquisition, supporting slavery and oppression, creating terrorist organizations (of which ISIS is just the most recent example), or turning a blind eye to the vile behaviors of their members. It is undeniable that people of faith, and the institutions they create, can act as poorly as anyone else. Throughout history and into the present, some of the “faithful” have demonstrated self-serving, unethical and blatantly hypocritical behaviors; they have displayed obscene levels of bigotry and hatefulness; they have ignored human suffering, and supported leaders and policies that exacerbated the pain of others. People of faith have twisted the truth, manipulated facts to their benefit or the advantage of their institutions; they have engaged in convoluted reasoning to demonstrate that religious belief and spiritual principles support actions and positions that are diametrically opposed to the fundamental principles of their faith tradition.

At the same time, modern culture has made an art form out of scrambling religious ideas and images of faith with zero-sum political and cultural agendas. For instance, cultural warrior Sean Hannity, who regularly divides Americans into sheep and goats as part of his schtick, closes his show with the words, “let your heart not be troubled,” a reference to the Christian scripture passage in which Jesus promises his disciples that he will prepare mansions for them in heaven (John 14:1). Meanwhile, an equally divisive pundit, Laura Ingraham, proudly identifies herself as Catholic and wears a prominently displayed gold crucifix as a necklace, an iconographic religious subtext to her positions and remarks (although she often holds positions that are opposed to official Catholic teachings on faith and morals).

As surveys have shown larger segments of the U.S. population distancing themselves from religion, or at least religious institutions, I have found myself reflecting more seriously about the factors that allowed me to remain a person of faith, a Christian, and a Catholic, despite the things people have done and continue to do under the guise of faith.

Such reflection has made me more aware that one of the factors is the witness of the Communion of Saints, a kind of spiritual All-Star list of women and men who appropriated aspects of the religious heritage so thoroughly that they became a beacon for what faith is and why it matters. In the Catholic tradition, we “beautify” and/or “canonize” some of these All-Stars, elevating their status to “saint” with a capital, “S.” They are held up as role models of living one or more aspects of our faith tradition.

The most powerful members of the Communion of Saints, however, are usually found in the people living alongside us, who may never become big “S” saints. These ordinary people quietly model the best behaviors and attitudes of our faith traditions, challenging us to become better people, to seek to develop our “being” in the world as much as our “doing,” to recognize that life is a deadly serious affair that we should never squander. One such saint for me, and one of the reasons I am still a person of faith, a Christian and a Catholic, just passed away at the age of 96 – Raymond Hunthausen, the leader of the Archdiocese of Seattle from 1975 to 1991.

During his tenure in Seattle, Archbishop Hunthausen became known for his outspoken support of the church’s mission to care and empower the poor and marginalized, the importance of preparing lay women and men for ministry, treating women with equality, defending the rights of the LGBTQ community, and building bridges across various forms of difference, particularly between Christians. Hunthausen also became an international lightning rod for protesting nuclear weapons and the arms race during the Reagan Administration and became a controversial person with many at the Vatican, eventually having his leadership here challenged. Several obituaries and tributes have been already written by people who knew him well. Two of the most thorough are found in the obituary by the National Catholic Reporter, and a tribute by Father Michael Ryan, a co-worker with the archbishop during the most controversial years of his leadership of the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Archbishop Hunthausen was a man of prayer, a man of God

Archbishop Hunthausen left a long shadow on my school. Most noticeably, we are located in Hunthausen Hall, a perfect name for a school founded as “intentionally ecumenical” in 1997. Our curriculum also carries his passions for faith-motivated social justice, living faith authentically, and balancing the ideal of a religious tradition with the messy incompleteness of real life.

HunthausenSmileI met Archbishop Hunthausen once, ironically during an installation ceremony for my current position. While living in the Midwest in the 1980s, I had heard many people talk about him, some loving his outspoken prophetic edge, others thinking he had discredited and shamed Catholicism by aligning it too closely to left-wing politics. I didn’t realize how much those discussions had influenced my perception of Raymond Hunthausen, the person until I sat down next to him at a lunch. Several minutes into my discussion with him I realized I expected a fiery Che Guevara, someone burning with the compulsion to convince others of a particular political agenda. Instead, I had a pleasant conversation with a kind and gentle man with an amazing ability to connect deeply with other humans at the fundamental level of their shared humanity. I met someone who radiated goodness, patience and a non-reactive confidence and centeredness that had no need of becoming the center of attention or proving anything to anyone, but rather lived fully in the moment and completely with those in his presence. I met a person who demonstrated joyfulness, peacefulness, and love for others, in what he said, and particularly in how he said it.

During the meal, I asked him when he planned on publishing his memoir and he told me that he had no intention of telling his side of the story, although many influential Catholics in the United States urged him to do so. His reason: “The church received enough of a black eye from those years. A book would stir it up again and even make the church look worse.” This man had too much self-control to feel the need to defend himself, and he didn’t want the church he loved distracted from its obligation to focus on its real work – striving to contribute to building a more just and humane world.

The characteristics Raymond Hunthausen embodied are often called the fruits of the Spirit, as articulated in Galatians 5:22-23. This fellow did faith right. He was the kind of individual giving religion a good name; the person of faith that rises from the ashes of the religiously complicit dysfunction of every generation and models the positive and powerful impact that religious faith, properly understood and authentically engaged, can have in shaping and forming the human mind and heart. The mature sort of person who can bring life from death, hope from despair, understanding, and healing from painful wounds. The archbishop is the person of faith imagined in Psalm 84 – someone who allows his heart to become a highway to the Divine, offering a human bridge to an encounter with God. Carrying in their personhood the capacity to walk through valleys of weeping, destruction, and desolation and turn these canyons into places of springs and refreshment.

So why would anyone want to identify with a religious tradition, to remain a person of faith, given the hideous things done in the name of religion? Because the bad stuff is only part of the story and the least interesting parts. People of faith like Raymond Hunthausen reflect the best behaviors and ideals of the human soul. Over the centuries they broke ground on the first universities; pioneered the wondrous mystery of creation with the scientific method; provided protection for those with developmental and physical limitations; created helping professions like social work, nursing, education, and counseling; advocated for the mandatory education of children; and challenged societal mistreatment of immigrants and refugees. They took the lead in abolition movements, the creation of child labor laws, and anti-trust legislation. They challenged the use of violence to solve problems, and opened lines of communication between enemies in pursuit of forgiveness and reconciliation. And, they did so, like Hunthausen while also debating and arguing with other people in their faith communities, refusing to break communion because they knew that the world only solves its most intractable problems when we tackle them as one people, as a community united in our diversity.

One of the reasons I’m still a person of faith, a Christian and a Catholic is because of the remarkable saints I have known throughout my life. People like Raymond Hunthausen. People of faith who laid down their lives for others everyday, fought the good fight over short and long lives, and never wavered in their desire to draw the best from themselves and those around them. Women and men of faith who most of all never needed anyone to take notice of their sacrifices, their faithfulness or their contributions.

Thankfully, some of us did. And, that’s one of the reasons we are people of faith.