We Walk by Faith… Sort Of

We walk by faith, and not by sight;
No gracious words we hear
From him who spoke as none e’er spoke;
But we believe him near.

From “We Walk by Faith”
Text: Henry Alford, 1810-1871
Tune: SHANTI, Marty Haugen, b. 1950

I worked as a singer for the Catholic Church for eleven years, but it only took about a year and a half for me to master the art of tuning out the priests’ homilies while still appearing as though I was paying attention. That may seem like an exercise in willful ignorance to some, but trust me, it doesn’t take long before you’ve got that particular playbook memorized. Every now and then, however, I would hear something that would pull me in. One such time occurred on All Saints’ Day where the topic at hand was, naturally, the Catholic saints. I never really gave much thought to these mystical figures and was surprised to discover during the course of this homily that there is an actual process involved in declaring someone a saint. And here I thought a pope could just go around canonizing folks to his heart’s content. Silly me! Here’s how it typically works, as was explained to us in the homily. Someone claims to have been cured of an illness, not by medicine, but by praying to the spirit of some deceased holy person such as a former pope or other righteous figure. Word of the story begins to spread until finally it lands on the desk of the local bishop. At that point, the bishop will initiate an investigation into the veracity of the claim. This is called “opening a cause.” If it is determined that the miracle is genuine, the results get kicked up to the Vatican where a crack team of experts passes its own judgment on the story. This is the first step toward beatification, a sort of preamble to being canonized and ultimately declared a saint by the pontiff. In the course of his sermon, our pastor told the congregation that the Archbishop of our diocese recently had chosen him to help investigate one of these claims and that his team had determined that the healing was indeed a miracle. This did not mean instant beatification, mind you. Typically, as we were informed, you had to have three verified miracles to become a saint (that number has since been reduced to two), and many who are beatified never make it to canonization, much less sainthood. But what a thrill if this one could go the distance, right? In a way, the whole congregation would be able to say that “WE WERE THERE” as another member of god’s faithful got inducted into the celestial Hall of Fame. When the saints went marching in, “our” saint would be among their ranks! Hallelujah! I sat there riveted throughout the entire sermon, my mouth halfway to the floor. What the hell was this guy talking about? While my talents skew more toward the arts, I am a huge proponent of the scientific method and believe that it can be applied to anything, even religion. How much real science was being applied to this “medical investigation,” I wondered? Were the investigators accounting for confirmation bias? How were they gathering their data? What sorts of peer review processes were in place? What exactly is the burden of proof for miracles? How low must that bar be? Turns out it’s pretty low. Since it’s a committee chosen by the local bishop that carries out the initial investigation, it’s safe to say you don’t have much in the way of a control group. If the miracle is deemed genuine, it eventually finds its way to the Consulta Medica, a group of—wait for it—Catholic physicians chosen by the Vatican who carry out their own investigation. Again, not really allowing for much in the way of a (pardon the expression) devil’s advocate. I wanted so badly to find out more from the pastor about his particular experience in all this, but I knew it was one of those times that it was better for me to keep my mouth shut. Even if I were to feign an appearance of simple curiosity, I wasn’t sure the facade would hold. I may have gone to drama school, but some acting challenges are just too great. I also knew the conversation would be pointless, as it would no doubt circle back to the tired arguments I’d heard too many times, in particular the argument in defense of faith. This argument, to me, is the ultimate cop-out. When the case in support of god becomes too incongruous to defend, the religious people I know always fall back on the trope that we are not supposed to have all the answers. God needs to stay hidden from us because faith—the act of believing something without proof—is an important aspect of religious devotion. But if believing in spite of a lack of evidence is so central to the cause, then why go to such lengths to prove that god is with us? Why set up committees to look for proof that a miracle occurred? Do they not see that they are trying to have it both ways? It’s enough to make any thinking person’s head spin. The answer, of course, is that they’re not actually looking for proof. They’re attempting to give the appearance of validity so that their followers will continue to stick money in the collection basket while they play out their two-thousand-years-and-counting production of Waiting for Godot. Faith is not a virtue. It’s a vice. Believing something without proof is dangerous. That same lack of critical thinking and discernment that allows us to elevate ordinary human beings to sainthood also gives rise to charlatans and demagogues—and yes, here I am specifically speaking of America’s current situation with Donald Trump and his legion of undereducated, ignorant, and racist acolytes. Make no mistake, the mindset that allows these people to look past all the contradictions, incongruities, and lack of substance associated with this political sideshow stems from the same cognitive dissonance that leads people to actually believe that angels are real, god has a plan for them, and dead people who once shared their faith can perform miracles on their behalf. Proof? Pfft. Who needs proof when you can feel it? Who needs proof when you just know? All this fussin’ around with facts. Easier instead to walk by faith.