Faith of Our Fathers

My mother has always said that had my father chosen to join another church, he would have leaned toward the fundamentalist and that were she to chose another church, she would probably go to the Catholics. I may have pointed out that though different in style, there is, from a secular viewpoint, a great deal of similarity in substance between the two, but I’m not sure I ever did. Instead I said that were I to stop being an Episcopalian, I would probably become a Quaker.

As it happens, only my father ever left the Episcopal Church, but he never joined another one. He opposed the ordination of women, and so we stopped going to church in 1979. By 1981, he was dead. (That sounds, of course, as though it was leaving the church that killed him, which isn’t true, though it makes an intriguing theory.) Some years after that my mother asked if I would like to go to church again. “Your friend Heather goes there,” she said, which seemed like a good enough reason to me. We started attending Trinity Episcopal Church, which, at the time, had a female associate rector.

It took years to escape from my father. A few years after he died my mother asked at dinner one night if anyone would object if sometimes we had regular green beans instead of French cut. The live-in sitter and I both said we would not mind. My father would only eat French cut green beans, which were one of about three vegetables he tolerated (and all had to be just so–carrots had to be cut into sticks and then placed in a small bowl of ice water in the refridgerator for half an hour or so; green beans had to be French cut. I can no longer remember what the third vegetable was.)

I often wonder what our lives–my life in particular–would have been like had my father lived. The other day over at Hermits Rock, one writer related a story he had been told about the conversion of a former women’s studies professor:

a girl in her women’s study class convinced her that there is such a thing as evil, thus such a thing as absolutes, thus that the bible was right and that her women’s study class was teaching error because women’s studies doesn’t jive with the bible.

As I commented, the logic of the story was chilling in a variety of ways, but alarming most particularly to me because it could so easily have been a story someone told me about my father. A former student and later friend of his told me once of one of his early encounters with my father. “He asked me if there was anything that was absolutely true, and, being a good little relativist, I said no. He said, ‘Do you exist?’ I knew he had me, but I was young, and stubborn, and so I said I wasn’t sure. Your father then turned in his chair and went back to the papers he was reading on his desk. ‘Aren’t you even going to talk to me?’ I said, shocked. ‘I don’t talk to non-beings,’ your father said. ‘When you have decided you are sure of your existence, come back and we can talk.'”

I always thought the story charming and funny until a friend pointed out to me that it could just as easily be quite obnoxious. And intellectually speaking, it is obnoxious: by refusing to engage with anyone until they agreed in the existence of absolute truth, my father set the stage for the eventual triumph of his point of view, which followed inexorably from that first premise, just as the student’s argument did. Absolutes exist, therefore women’s studies is wrong. The Bible is right, therefore ordaining women is wrong.

I sometimes wonder why I am a Christian. I wonder not because I suffer from any crisis of faith but because there are so many ways in which it seems like a poor fit for me. I am no theologian, and I couldn’t really explain the historic episcopate to you if I tried. I know there are important theological distinctions between different branches of Christianity, but I could not explain them to you, and I doubt that most could. I go to the Episcopal church, I am sure, because it is comforting to me: I like the cadences of the service and the music. I am familiar with them, and familiarity breeds comfort and makes a foreign place seem a little like home.

It helps, I am sure, that the Episcopal Church has been, during my life time at least, progressive in many of its views and practices. We ordain women and now gays. Episcopal Relief and Development earns generally good scores as a charity. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, but we also work in this world. Back in Iowa City, Trinity has been active in providing overflow housing for Shelter House in the winter since the program began a few years ago, and we have helped out with the Free Lunch Program for decades. The Episcopal Chaplaincy at the University of Iowa runs the Agape Cafe, which serves breakfast to those who are homeless and in need once a week. While its true that there is still plenty of class privilege at work in the church (and in some places a degree of sexism: when we attended a church in Indianapolis when I was in junior high, they did not allow women to be ushers. When I asked why not, I was told that because they had three ushers at each service, it simply wouldn’t look right to have one couple and a single man. I still can’t fathom the logic that led to such a position–could they not use three women, if a mixed group was so offensive to them?–but that seemed not to be an option).

Had I grown up in that particular church, or in any Christian community in which women were undervalued and gays not tolerated–had I grown up, say, in the church as my father would have wished it–I can imagine quite easily that I would be agnostic today. Had my father lived, I know I would have argued with him, but I don’t know whether I would have found myself able to stay with a religion that, however far its practices had drifted from his beliefs, was something he still believed in.

I would like to think that I still would have found my way, but I do no know.

16 thoughts on “Faith of Our Fathers”

  1. Good musings, as ever, with a good sense of how personal history give rise to later directions. I’m glad the church has been sufficiently broad and tolerant at the right times for you. Let’s keep opening the windows. Good luck in your new venue.

  2. HJ:Â The cat and I always welcome distraction.

    Mel: Yes, I’m glad the church has always been broad and tolerant enough for me, too. I can understand why some people, raised in other churches, denominations, or faiths that were less so have low opinions of religion. I would have pretty serious problems with an institution that wanted me to belong but told me there were things I couldn’t do, simply by virtue of being female–or that a friend wasn’t welcome by virtue of being gay. For some people it’s not possible to work from within.

  3. I particularly like their logic for not having women serve. The tradition that I grew up in makes a big deal over whether or not women can even teach Sunday School should a seven year-old male child in her class be baptized.

    But, in a way, all that is much less interesting than the sexual/gender arithmetic at play in the couple plus an odd person. (I fully realize that what I am writing is utterly banal.)
    I like that they automatically paired up one of the men with the woman: a couple. Presumably if there were four ushers there could be two couples and the spiritual arithmetic is still intact. However, one couple and a dangler is dangerous.

  4. What you’re writing is not at all utterly banal. I was mystified by the arithmetic of it too. I sometimes wondered if they weren’t worried about the women presumably left sitting by themselves (God forbid!) while their husbands were up ushering. And of course it reeks of a fear of or distaste for the female body (well, it reeks to me, though that might just be the byproduct of too much graduate school). Or perhaps they felt having two men and one woman was in some way metaphorically adulterous. . . .

    It was a weird place. They also had an armed guard stationed in the parking lot every Sunday, because the church was downtown and thus clearly in a high crime neighborhood full of people waiting to steal BMWs and Mercedes on a Sunday morning. I always found it sort of amusing when we parked our little ’84 Chevy Cavalier in that lot.

  5. well, for one, they are one.

    for two, one’s a dove and animals don’t count, so they are just two

    for three, water can be a liquid, a solid and gas

    don’t try and pick apart the bible with your women’s studies rhetoric.

  6. Indeed, what J said. The trinity may either be understood as a melange a trois, or a menagerie a trois, but never a menage a trois nor a montage a trois. Is that clear?

  7. And not, I presume, to be confused with The Glass Menage a Trois. Oh yeah, clear as mud. And I’ve never even taken a Women’s Studies course!

  8. i have looked into your soul and i know in my heart of hearts you are using women’s studies rhetoric, regardless of what you might say. after all, you did postgraduate work in a bastion of secular humanism.

    and i say that it is powerless.

    and, frenchiness cannot overcome truthiness!

  9. in terms of a more substantive intervention, i find family stories, of resemblence, of enmeshedness, of disentanglement, of disfigurament to all be very fascinating. but fascinating isn’t really the word.

    they evoke in me something visceral.

    the greenbean story was great.

  10. Mmm. . . disfigured green beans. I’m glad you liked the story, though. It was a very weird moment, but decidedly a telling one.

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