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The Dangers of Categorizing Faith


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By Martin Elfert

Most of the time, it goes pretty well when someone finds out what my job is.

Notwithstanding living in Oregon, a state in which many of our neighbors are indifferent to faith or even allergic to faith, my experience is that folks at parties and other social contexts are pretty generous when they learn that I am a priest. I always brace myself a little after I ‘fess up to my vocation. But usually people are just curious about the work — about what it is like to preach and to wear a collar and to go into hospital rooms to listen and to pray. Somewhat less often, they feel a need to explain to me why they haven’t been to church in a while. (For the record, if you haven’t been to church in a while: no one is taking attendance. Everybody at Grace would love to see you. And we totally get that, sometimes, it doesn’t work out or feel right for you to be here.)

More rarely — but still often enough for me to remember why it is that I am bracing myself — the conversation goes in a way that I regret, that I kind of feel bad about. Sometimes it is early in our talk, sometimes it is later on, when the person with whom I am speaking will feel the need to issue a disclaimer. The disclaimer goes something like this:

I’m not very religious.

or maybe

I don’t know anything about church.

or maybe

I don’t believe in God.

I don’t know how these words are intended. I do know how I experience them, I do know what story I tell as I hear them. The story I tell is that, as my conversation partner speaks these words, they are pulling the brakes on our conversation, they are digging out the trowel and the mortar and the bricks and they are building a wall, they are announcing:

You know that thing to which you have given your life?

That has nothing to do with me.

Now, part of me understands the impulse to pull the brakes. For most of my life, I didn’t go to church. And while, back in those days, I was curious about faith, my curiosity took much the same form as my curiosity about BASE jumping or joining the mafia. Faith was fascinating. But I was clear – and I needed other people to be clear – that faith wasn’t and that it never would be part of who I was. To put that thought another way, while I was willing to study faith from a dispassionate distance, observing it under a microscope while wearing a theological lab coat, I was adamant that my experiment would never touch me or change me.

(You may have noticed that I was unsuccessful in meeting that goal. At a moment that I can’t quite locate or name, Jesus showed up. And he ruined everything. Or, possibly, he fixed everything. I’m not always sure which.)

All of that is to say is that I suspect that the folks whom I meet at the parties are issuing these disclaimers as a way of distancing themselves from faith because, well, that is exactly what I was doing when I issued the same disclaimers myself.

Part of me – or let me risk being presumptuous here and say: part of us – wants to distance ourselves from faith because so many screwed-up and hateful things have been done in the name of God. And still another part wants to distance ourselves because we live in a culture that prizes rationality, and what goes on in church and synagogue and mosque and temple is so clearly irrational or, if you prefer, so clearly transrational. There is just no proof that the lepers were healed, that the crowd was fed, that the tomb was empty, that God’s fingerprints are all over creation.

And so we make faith into a category that contains and constrains people who aren’t us.

I have become convinced that this categorization is a mistake. It is a mistake because it impedes our curiosity. It impedes our curiosity about ourselves, about the thoroughly irrational, thoroughly faith-driven moments in our own lives. These are the moments when we name beauty or wonder, when we heed a call into justice and compassion and healing, when we encounter a work of art and we are changed by its ineffable truth, when we utter those boot-shaking, life-changing words, I love you.

What are these moments if they are not declarations of faith? What are they if they are not encounters with something immeasurable and bigger than ourselves? Something that, if we dare, we might call God?

This habit of categorization impedes as well our curiosity about our neighbor. When we drop our neighbor into a category and declare that said category is (a) something that we understand and (b) that it is not us, we stop listening to our neighbor’s complexity. Our neighbor becomes a caricature, devoid of the ambiguity and contradiction and searching and anxiety and grief and joy that make up our own lives. This categorization saves our brains a bunch of energy. But the savings comes at the cost of blunting our capacity for wonder.

I guess that’s why I feel regret when I remember those times when I have tried to build a wall between faith and myself. I guess that’s why I feel regret when I hear the person at the party try to do the same today. I don’t want a wall. I want to learn. I want to connect. I want to look at the one who stands before me – a person who, whether the language of God makes sense to them or not, carries the very image of the divine soaked into their skin. I want to look at them and to be duly amazed.

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Martin Elfert
Martin Elfert
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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