Wearing Faith

Living Amid the Ambiguity of Faith and Facts, Safety and Fear

Duo Dickinson / 5.27.21

It is a tough 2021 Reality: Mask or No mask?

Hijabs, yarmulkes, and any number of cultural traditions about what humans choose to wear are the outcomes of deep motivation to be with God in the world. The sacred reality of faith in some may be justified by religion, but now faith in “The Science”  has sartorial consequences, too.

Being a Limbo-Low Episcopalian, the idea of a crucifix is just a bit spooky to me. I am vaccinated, but my default setting is to wear a mask. And even though our state (soon the country) says that science shows that outdoor masks are not necessary in non-mass gatherings for the vaccinated, many still wear them, everywhere. Often two of them. Even indoors, vaccinated people are factually safe in each other’s presence.

But a funny thing happened in the 21st century: many have jumped away from faith in anything that they do not understand. Religion as a chosen focus is ebbing for some, and now even the realities offered by science are not enough. Basic scientific realities that once made the polio vaccine or vitamin C unquestioned are now seen by some as part of massive conspiracy theories. In the surety of the Internet, we are suspect of truths that cannot override our skepticism.

Whether in God or “The Science,” we are all living in a faith-based mindset. For me, that is why God is unavoidable, even for those of us who “follow The Science.” The revealed, unfathomable complexity of our own bodies, of every living thing, has made faith necessary even in the most atheistic.

Mask-less or masked, we tend to believe the science when it suits us. Even within those who prize scientific surety, our personal sense of safety has been rubbed raw by the pandemic. The Atlantic politicized the fear many feel. Some are simply denying the science we were all waiting on this year and are clinging to masks as a safety blanket. Along the same lines, according to a recent New York Times survey, doctors are less likely to engage in behavior that that they deem safe for their patients to follow. By their own admission, the science has changed, but their personal practice remains personal.

I think that the ambiguity between fact and faith, between safety and fear, is why masks are so comforting to so many, and so infuriating to so many others.

Every one of us wants control. We want truths in our lives that are now revealed to be faith-based. We want to know that we are safe, either because the virus is a hoax, or because we have been inoculated, or because we are wearing a mask and are sequestered. We want to have faith in our safety, whether we have it or not.

Western medicine is based on the Hippocratic Oath: “First Do No Harm.” That’s how I view masks. I believe that I share risk with no one who is also inoculated. I left all of my 700 masks at my home this morning, and because Starbucks (and my state) allows mask-less clientele, I went in: to a sea of angry eyes staring at me above their masks. I will not make that mistake again.

Those with Science as their Higher Power are coming to believe that we will forever be threatened by exposure to a hostile world of unknowable threats. They make masks a visible totem of their faith — not simply a faith in science, but a symbol of both fear and safety.

People still drive a car, go swimming, ride motorcycles without helmets, and play contact sports. The risks we take (or don’t) reflect the values we hold. I still eat ice cream even though it is a bad idea, and at some point I will stop wearing a mask even though wearing one for the rest of my life will prevent illness. Doing what we should do has limited death this year. But soon, we will have done enough.

The condemnation of those who do, or do not, wear masks betrays the fear of living in a time of revealed ignorance. Our culture once had a preemptive belief in God’s control, but science revealed that such faith extends to God’s gifts in all our efforts — allowing us to sustain those gifts that were given to us.

No matter how much anyone trusts “The Science” there are a growing number of imponderable unknowables. We do not know what 95% of our universe is, let alone why. That is why “Dark Matter” is a placeholder for unknown fact. Some have faith that the universe is knowable, but that we just do not know it yet. But human faith is as real as the 5% we do know. Now our revealed ignorance forces all of us to wear masks of faith to compensate for what we do not know.

Some of us wear yarmulkes, or hijabs, or crucifixes, and now masks. These totems of faith mean something. Deeply important. Often sacred. We cannot escape faith. For me that means that, despite all efforts, I cannot escape God. Or, for now, wearing a mask.


image via the New York Times