Part III: The Postmodern Experience
While there are religions that are traditionally monist or henotheist, these two views of godhood can be expanded to describe what have become common approaches to nominally “monotheistic” religion in the West. This isn’t the strict monism and henotheism which is referenced by Tylor (see previous post), but rather a more open view of what is meant by these terms.
Traditional theology and personal theology of a religious adherent are not always the same. If an adherent of Christianity were to ascribe to the saying “there are many paths up the mountain, but we all see the same moon from the summit,” then there is something fundamentally monist and therefore not purely monotheistic about the belief.
Field of Meaning
These four ideas, monotheism, henotheism, monism, and polytheism, do not exist on a linear continuum, but rather on a plane, a field of meaning (see Figure 1). Both henotheism and monism have certain attributes in common with monotheism or polytheism. Both monotheism and henotheism predicate that there is one correct was for the believer to worship, but disagrees about the nature (and number) of deity. Monotheism and monism agree that there is only one deity, but disagree about whether there is a singularly correct way to worship. These relationships are, of course, inverted with polytheism.
As a population, the daily experiences of people who live in modern Western culture are different from those who have lived at any other time in history. For the most part, we all have what has historically been an “urban” experience: Every day we interact with people who believe differently from the way we do. Not only do we see them on the streets, but they are our co-workers, our spouses and partners, and they are, in a very real sense, participants in the same culture.
This experience of meeting, and working, with others who have fundamentally different beliefs, has always been part of the life of those who lived in major cities. However, until the Industrial Revolution and the migration of populations away from subsistence farming, it was not the general rule. This heterogeneity of large populations leads to “urbanity,” a true lack of naïveté, in our interactions with the world.
As a though-exercise, compare our lives to the population a century-and-a-half ago, just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning in the United States. Travel, while not unheard of, was much rarer. The industrial base was just beginning its shift away from agricultural production. Most importantly, people commonly made effort to reduce the diversity in their lives. Mixed-religion marriages were rare, and mixed-”race”1 marriages rarer still.2
The world was not less diverse two centuries ago. Arguably, it was more diverse, with a greater number of languages and distinct ethnicities. However, while diversity in the world (and even in America) was great, the expected diversity in people’s everyday experiences was quite low.3 Class, ethnic and racial separation were expressed both geographically and culturally. Much of the population lived in smaller communities, which often had a limited cultural and social makeup.
Looking to the Past
A yearning to recapture the “simplicity” of the past, along with a desire to maintain the power-relationships of those times, is a current subtext, if not theme, that shapes modern political debate. Among some social groups, there is a desire for less diversity, with such expressions as a desire for all Americans to learn English, or be of the same religion. This might be an attempt to regain the advantages of the pre-modern experience (less cognitive dissonance created by diversity) without the associated loss of other advantages of the modern and postmodern world (e.g., access to education, healthcare, and such).
We humans, as social creatures, have the desire to be surrounded by others who believe as we do; this might well be part of human nature.4 But this longing can easily, and sometimes dangerously, translate into a need to suppress or remove difference as a whole.5 When this need lines up with other goals, the synergy can create social momentums that grow beyond both the expectations and aims of the original ideas. For example, a desire to honor the sacred somehow managed to become the many Christian crusades and Muslim Jihads in the Middle East.
It would be incorrect, however, to attribute these “holy wars” to wholly religious motivations. Pure religious motivation is as much a myth as the purely “rational” man: it removes the humanity of the actors and reduces an actual human experience to a fable or morality play. Life is not a fiction, and is seemingly infinitely more complex. Looking closely, we can find how the confluence of religion, political aspirations, and economic trends led to these conflicts.
Perhaps not so strangely, there is a contrast here between strict monotheism and urbanity. Urbanity necessitates the ability to deal with difference within our daily lives, and to live with the cognitive dissonance that comes from being consistently exposed to systems so complex that our minds have no hope of grasping the variables in any but the most intuitive way.
This is, ironically, the opposite of how urbanity and monotheism interacted during the Late Roman Empire, when pagan6 polytheists were associated with the periphery of the empire and Christian monotheists were associated with the urban elite. Now, I would argue, a more monist or henotheist approach is associated with the “liberal” urban elite. Unlike Rome, with an economy based on imported slave labor and a government budget paid with the tribute of conquered nations, Western cultural elites in general are not bent on genocide or military domination.
In this postmodern world of multiculturalism and accepted difference, people find themselves exposed to incredibly high levels of cognitive dissonance for extended periods of time. This exposure chips away at clung-to beliefs that are grounded in any but the most fundamental experiences. Beliefs that are tied to our identities are, and indeed must be, defended most vigorously.
As denizens of the Information Age, we constantly defend religious aspects of identity from being worn away. Every day brings exposure to a world more potent than we can comprehend, let alone withstand. To this end, people can choose either to mentally shift themselves away from the exposure, or to change the way they comprehend these religious differences so that the “inherent conflicts” between their beliefs and others are no longer quite as inherent. In other words, we either run away from difference, or learn to accept it.
With the knowledge that others, around the world, find deep and meaningful experiences through other religions, we have little choice but to either be atheist/agnostics, refusing to see anything deeper connecting religious experiences, or monists, believing that there is something that ties these experiences together. The alternative is to fall into the “I am right, you are wrong…and probably evil” approach that characterized the early Christian Church (and was to some extent responsible for its amazing success).
Neopaganism, having a gestation that began no earlier than the 1850s, reflects these modern and postmodern experiences. Neopaganism does not simply skirt the edges of monism and polytheism, but embraces them. At the same time, it generally neither proselytizes nor ties itself too tightly to any particular dogma.
Whether Neopagan religions are monist or polytheist, they spiritually reflect the makeup of the modern experience just as much as the monotheism of Christianity reflected the Age of Empires, from the Romans to the British. We live in a world of complexity and competing voices, in many ways wealthier than anything past, but certainly lacking a sense of stability.
Beyond E. B. Tylor’s “ultimate” evolutionary step is a worldview where we can see all of his “stages” as descriptions of the same world, and know that all of them are happening at once. The world in which we live is beyond our individual efforts to categorize; the world is the world itself; it is beyond complete comprehension, and more complex than any model we make.
As communication increases, and the vastness of the world has become clearer, “pagans” are not some culturally isolated throwbacks who live in the wilderness. They are instead people who live out on the forefront of this wider world. The modern Neopagan movement—especially Wicca, which often embraces monism—attempts to reconcile the larger, postmodern world with a spiritual vision of unity.
- While “race” is the traditional term, I mark it here to point out that it is cultural. “Races” are cultural constructs which have often been replaced with “ethnicity” in modern academic writing. This represents work toward removing the a priori assumptions of what a “race” is.
- Mixed-”race” marriages were, in some places in the US, illegal until 1967.
- Ironically, and perhaps importantly, the current nostalgia for a more homogeneous “America” evinced by some political groups in the United States is based around a desire for a world that never existed. This longing is for an experience of the world in which we are able to shield ourselves from the cognitive dissonance caused by exposure to true diversity.
- I am not suggesting that the desire to be exclusively surrounded by people whom we identify as similar is part of human nature, or that this desire cannot be moderated and mediated by other influences.
- This need does not only come with religion, but with atheism, political beliefs, race and ethnicity to name just a few arenas where it displays itself.
- For reference see almost any of the myriad online discussions of the origin of the word pagan, from paganus — Latin for “country dweller.” In English, this word is perhaps most viscerally translated with the cultural baggage of urban views of “rednecks.”
- This discussion is intended to be neither an attack on Christianity nor on Western culture.
- At its most abstract, the form of higher education in use today came from the monasteries of Europe. The evidence of this is shown in the use of ecclesiastical robes as formal dress for ceremonial occasions, such as graduation. The links, however, are much deeper.
At one time, it was common for all students attending universities to be legally considered members of the clergy and therefore under church law. Because of the way legal questions were administered, without these protections, students from outside a city would have lacked citizenship and therefore had no legal protections at all.
Even today, the relationship of a graduate student to his or her primary academic advisor has much in common with the older mentoring and apprenticeship models of instruction. Such relationships are far deeper than simply teacher/student, and the lineages of ideas are often traced back through the generations of students.
- As far as I have been able to find an origin for this, it is a traditional Japanese saying, likely associated with Zen Buddhism. Typical Asian models of religion have a tendency not to be exclusive; one might participate in two or more religions without social critique or personal internal conflict.
- Notably, in this vision of the “other,” there is also a distinct lack of cell phones, modern medicine, and hygiene.
- Way of the Shaman (2nd Ed.), Michael Harner, 1990
- Modern Magick: Eleven Lessons in High Magick, Donald Michael Kraig, 1988
- Chosen by the Spirits: Following Your Shamanic Calling, Sarangerel, 2001
© 2013 Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Author’s note: This is part one in a three-part series on some of the challenges of a modern pagan theology.
Part I: Monotheism and Polytheism, Monism and Henotheism
Neopagan religions are often described as fundamentally “polytheistic” — worshiping many gods. This lay classification usually assumes that there are only two options, with the other being “monotheistic.”
In Western culture, when something is labeled “polytheistic,” what is really meant is “more polytheistic than the monotheism of an ‘ideal’ Christianity.” A more accurate description of the way these two terms are commonly used would be “like Christianity” and “other.” Any religion that does not match an “ideal” Christianity1 is, perforce, considered “more” polytheistic.
By examining a little of the complexity of the ideas behind these two terms, and by looking at a pair of alternatives, we can hope to expand our understanding of these basic ideas of theology, and thereby improve our ability to think about and discuss them. Additionally, by looking at the connotations associated with the terms “monotheism” and “polytheism,” I hope to illuminate some underlying cultural assumptions and provide context to understand what prompts these words’ misuse.
As I have written elsewhere in my column, Western culture, to a large extent, describes religion based on the influence of Western Christianity, that religion’s history, and the schools of thought that have come from its own scholarship and its influence on wider scholarship.2 In much of the discussion of Christianity through the past millennium-and-a-half, a theological decision has been repeatedly made to promote a strict monotheism: a belief that there is only one God, and only one correct way to follow the dictates of that deity. At various times in history, those who have disagreed even slightly have been subject to a range of religious and non-religious sanctions ranging from social disapproval to excommunication, forced conversion, and execution.
In the past century-and-a-half, there has been a massive global and cultural upheaval, of which globalization is only the most recent phase. The Industrial Revolution’s shift of population to cities created widespread access to secular education. Late colonialism and post-colonialism has modified the relationships between ethnic groups and social polities. The modern era has increased access to travel, and the postmodern era has given us widespread, near-instant communication.
Throughout this period of change, there has been a growing, though hardly overwhelming, trend toward a more “open” spiritual worldview. It has led to a belief that is common enough to be worth discussing: “There are many paths up the mountain, but we all see the same moon from the summit3.” This saying, in addition to being catchy and sounding quite wise, promotes two theologies that are neither monotheism nor polytheism: henotheism and monism.
The first task is to determine working definitions of monotheism, henotheism, monism, and polytheism, which describe four different views of the nature of deity or deities. While truly defining these terms is beyond the scope of this series, for the purpose of discussion, I would like to quickly gloss them.
Monotheism is the belief in one deity as the only deity. Lesser spiritual beings, such as angels, may be part of the belief system, but are subordinate to the one true “God.” Monotheism is held up as a cultural value in the West, which is traditionally Christian, as well as in areas strong in Islam. As part of Christian and Islamic evangelism, this belief has been spread to other parts of the world. Monotheism has cultural associations with modernity, and it has been argued that the unified structures of authority found in kingdoms and states are commonly reflected in the theology of adopted monotheistic religions.
Henotheism is the exclusive worship of one deity, though it admits that other deities exist. It is similar to monotheism in that the members of a group, usually what we would now call an ethnic group, worship only one deity. Yet it is different because it admits other deities, although their worship is forbidden within the group. One famous example of this is early Judaism, where members are exhorted not to worship other deities. Such worship was considered not appropriate for members of the community.
Monism, like henotheism, trends between monotheism and polytheism. Monist theology recognizes only one deity, though it allows that different groups, or even individual worshipers, may worship that same deity in a variety of ways. It often sees a variety of names for such a deity, as well as ways of worship. The variation in both name and ritual obligation may make these religions, to monotheists, appear to be separate. To a monist, this variation does not change the underlying truths that each of the religions strives to express. Unitarian Universalists generally fall into this group, as do some Wiccans.
Polytheism recognizes multiple deities as distinct. Some traditionally polytheistic religions show aspects of monism: There can be recognition within the theology of some polytheistic traditions that multiple deities are actually “faces” of the same deity. This is true of Vedic traditions (modern Hinduism is one descendant) as well as many, but not all, varieties of Wicca. Other traditions, however, notably many modern Heathenism, adhere to a strict, “hard” polytheism, recognizing multiple deities as completely distinct entities.
The Western Cultural Value of Monotheism
Many modern monotheists in Western culture are probably, in the strictest sense, actually henotheists or monists. Any Christian who believes that other religions are fine for other groups would be closer to henotheism. Any Christian who believes that other religions are trying to say the same thing in a different way is actually a monist.
This label would not mean much were it not for the cultural and social-political weight associated with being monotheistic. Polytheism, for many Westerners in general and Christians in specific, is a slur-word invoking primitive man, bloody sacrifices, and painted bodies.
These divisions are not merely something of the past. Some Protestant Christian sects claim that Catholics are not Christian because they are not monotheist. The veneration of Catholic saints is seen from that outside perspective as something akin to polytheism. By the same token, the Protestant Christian worship of God as a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is sometimes claimed to be proof that they are not monotheists (usually by Muslims, as it turns out).
I will leave it to the varying Christian denominations, and monotheists in general, to work out their own internal political struggles. I mention all this to set the scene for Neopaganism as it comes into its own. Neopaganism is arising in a cultural landscape where there have historically been wars and persecutions over what seem to be comparatively minor points of doctrine regarding how our culture counts deities. At the same time, this shift illuminates why modern monism is an important development, and why some members of monotheistic religions react so badly to it.
So Why Do We Care?
Understanding these terms is important, and not just for informing our own pagan thoughts about the nature of deity, our theologies. Neopaganism, by its very existence, challenges historically important connections between monotheism, social legitimacy, modernization, and power.
In the next installment, I will examine and address some of the links between these ideas, and talk about how the West is trapped in the myth of social evolution.
©2013 by Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
It might seem strange to discuss something as nebulous as “spirit” with such a formal word as “anatomy.” But rest assured that the word is appropriate and necessary. I use the word spirit here to refer to spirits as parts of living beings, in both therapeutic and everyday contexts.
Usually, on a daily basis, people tend to act as if the mind and body are separate and mostly unrelated, and the spirit is non-existent. And on a daily basis and in the daily world we function effectively and if not happily, complacently, as if the mind/ body/ spirit split is perfectly natural. But it does not have to be “natural.” In fact, I suspect that the expression of the “naturalness” of this arbitrary distance between the spiritual and the everyday is predicated not so much on the nature of the spirit, as on the feeling of distance and longing of the myth-tellers of our culture.
When I was young and just beginning to study and read, I found a passage in Michael Harner’s Way of the Shaman1 that I took to heart. Harner wrote that it was expected that someone who was competent in the world of the spirits would be competent in the everyday world as well. Admittedly, the two worlds are not so separate, but there would have been no point in explaining that to my nineteen-year-old self. The lesson, however, remains the same.
The actual interrelationship between the mind, body, and spirit can be best understood by recognizing that the boundaries between them are imposed. Imposed by what, or whom? Imposed by the weight of culture and humanity’s aggregate experience, these boundaries seem as real as anything. They are artifacts of culture, as real as language, or education, or money, or status. Such boundaries are not something to be cast aside lightly. They are not something without meaning, power, and purpose. At the same time, they can be mutable and permeable, although we often treat them as if they are not.
One of the buzzwords of a liberal arts education is the word “hegemony.” This is an individual’s participation in his or her own subjugation under a system that works against his or her best interests. I bring it up here only because a similar relationship exists between a person’s mind and self. It is through our own constant efforts that both the body and spirit are subjugated, silenced, and held hostage.
For many people, especially as they age, the spirit — long ignored and fed only in dribs and drabs — atrophies and hardens, drawing its power not from the realm of the spirit, but from the body and the mind. Insofar as they have “spiritual” relationships, these tend to be based on group membership, relationships, and friendships. Family, church, workplace, home, a favorite sports team or television show, become sources of spiritual connection. Through these groups, our own neglected spirit comes together with the neglected spirits of others.
We participate in groups that share our spiritual power; we feed the egregores that define them and are also defined by them. But it is rare that there is any true source beyond the dim flames of spirit huddled together for comfort and warmth.
One of the greatest sources of spiritual connection available to us in our culture is relationships. Think about the rush of a budding romance; the first flush that lifts us up is the assuaging of our spiritual hunger. That is the spiritual side that draws us to a new partner. Within our culture there are few options to slake that thirst. Is it no wonder that so many of our stories focus on these moments? Truly, that is the meaning of soul-mate, and why, despite our best efforts and intentions, we burn out these relationships so quickly.
Most of the options that we can find in Western culture to counteract this effect are based on an opposing assumption: that the spirit is greater than either the mind or the body. People who find sources of spiritual sustenance outside of themselves and other people are often considered on the “fringe”: Charismatic Christians, New Age healers of varied stripes, as well as people who study magic can all fall into this category.
Charismatic Christians certainly gain from being able to offer a person access to the realm of the spirit, and hold that the spirit is greater than the world. They might, indeed, be the classic example of this method, though they are not the only one. New Age healers, as a group, often match this exact same approach. People who study magic — whether members of Western Mystery Traditions, Wiccans, or out-and-out neo-shamans — certainly can fall into this category.
Whatever the source of spiritual reawakening, a spiritually starved person will latch onto any source of spirit like a hungry baby to a swollen teat, or a drowning man to a raft . . . or another drowning person. Selfishness, fear, panic, and the struggle to draw a breath long denied come together in the newly “awakened” person. This can become the monomania of a new convert, the foolishness of a fresh love, the addiction of coming closer to the divine.
The interrelationship between the mind, body, and spirit is, in fact, predicated on the lack of actual boundaries between these parts of ourselves. Recognizing that mind, body, and spirit are not just interconnected, but of one whole, is not only more accurate, but also allows us to not be beholden to the tripartite model. Instead, we can use such models to interact with these parts of self. “Of one whole” here means interrelated, not undifferentiated. This is an important distinction. Just as we would not walk on our noses, we should not treat our spirits as our bodies, nor our bodies as our spirits. Each “part” of ourselves should be honored for what it is, and respected as such.
In our culture, when mind, body, and spirit do interact, it is usually the mind connecting directly with either the spirit or the body. The culturally common division of the physical from the spiritual prevents us from even examining the possibilities of a more complicated interrelationship.
When the spirit interacts directly with the body, it is an experience we label to instinct. That instinct is not biological, not inborn, but rather is a trainable and useful faculty. I imagine that referring to the spirit as “trainable” might offend some people, but I strongly believe, based on experience, that it is through the disciplining of our spirits that allows us to grow as people. And while a linear model (Fig. 1):
The body is mastered by the mind, which is mastered
by the spirit, which is mastered by God.
may be a legitimate model, a model that better fits my experience is one in which the mind, body, and spirit all directly relate to one another, and none is preeminent, or of greater value (Fig. 2).
The addition of the interrelationships among the three aspects in Figure 2 bears some discussion. The “self” here is neither illusory nor otherwise an aspect of the mind. Instead it arises in the commonalities of all the aspects of the greater self. Yet this model also gives a place to aspects of a person that were wholly ignored in the traditional model. Most specifically, I am referring to a deeper understanding of what are often called “psychosomatic” effects — effects that resemble illness but do not stem from physical causes. By Western models, these effects are “in the mind” but the relationship between the two aspects, if shifted away from the linear model, makes it clear that the effect could originate in the mind or the body, or perhaps even in the spirit.
The place where the mind and the spirit meet is what we commonly call the “chakras.” They are of the spirit but they are also the root of much of what we experience as the everyday mind. Emotions, thoughts, and our connections with others all reside in this place where the mind and the spirit meet.
At the same time, there is a place in the self, as many martial artists and professional athletes in general can attest, where the normal mind does not reach, and where (however it is described) the spirit and the body take action without the intervention of thought. This is the level of instinct, but it can be (and often is) far more than that.
The first step to train the spirit is to bring it into balance with the mind and body, neither ruling nor neglected. As that is done, the second step is strengthening the spirit and increasing its flexibility. There are a number of ways to do this: one fairly famous example would be the daily performance of a ritual such as the LBRP2 or any number of similar traditions3. The training of the spirit is no different from the training of any other human faculty only in the details.
This article has come a long way to say that the human spirit is neither an unimportant part of the self to be disregarded, nor the central part to be put on a pedestal or put in charge, but truly an integral part to be trained, cared for, honored, and respected. Further, the mind is not the central part of the self, but only maintains that position by subordinating the body and distancing the spirit.
©2010 by Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
This is the first in a series of articles in my column “Faith and Healing in Paganism.” I must say that I am eager to see where the discussion will go, and I hope you can share some of my excitement along the way.
The focus of this column will be on healing. The advantage of this focus is that it allows for articles on healing, pagan and comparative religious experiences, and cross-cultural perspectives on many pagan and magical practices. My specific approach as a healer is usually embodiment, or the experience of a person being inside their body, rather than being “in their head.” I am looking forward, in future posts, to writing on aspects of healing that seem to be problematic, but because of the larger debates going on, it is probably important to start with “faith” as a topic.
I feel some trepidation using the word “faith” in a pagan context. Certainly, I am unwilling to use it unexamined and undefined. That, then, will be the purpose of this first column: to look at the meaning of faith as a basic human experience of the numinous, and to look at what other meanings have been added to it, so that they can be stripped away, allowing the flowering of something that is more wholly pagan. In discussing faith in a pagan context, it will be critical to cut the core idea away from many of its associations and, in the long run, pagans will need to redefine “faith” to match pagan cosmology and theology.
Faith does not mean what we think it means.
An examination of the meaning of faith is, I believe, timely. In the news media, in current books and magazines, and on the internet, there are ongoing discussions of the meaning and importance of faith. The many authors all have different meanings for the word. Some imply belief alone, some mean unquestioning belief in a religious context, and others hold it to be an irrational belief in a system opposed to humanist rationality. While these may all agree with one another on some points, none of them reach to the core of the idea, or more accurately, the core of the experience of faith.
Faith is associated with the dominant monotheistic religions, as well as with “blind” belief. Just this week, as I was writing, Newsweek (February 22, 2010 edition) had two discussions about religion: one about Moderate Islam, and the other about the debates around teaching religion at Harvard. The cultural pitfalls that surround discussing religion and faith, the social dangers of disagreeing with someone else’s protestations of faith, and the general humanist vs. religious aspects of faith are all apparent parts of the cultural landscape. In short, everyone is talking about faith.
“Faith” is a dirty word in some circles, even, or especially, pagan circles. Yet at the same time, a religion free of “faith” would be a hollow thing. I believe that pagans should come to their own understanding of what faith is, recognizing the differences and similarities of their experiences to those of other religions. Faith is what happens to the human mind when it is confronted with spiritual presences that are vastly greater than us. For pagans, however, that is not some distant, solitary God. In my experience, there is an immanence to our spirituality, the awareness of the spirit in all things. This “spirit” is not somehow separate and directing, but interwoven and integral with the world. For pagans, such experience is not tied to removal from the world we live in, but rather it ties us more closely to this world. The clear experience of the “numinous other” does not have to happen only in some distant Heaven, but is just as valid as we stand here on the Earth.
Faith has come to mean many things, mostly as a result of our cultural exposure to Western Christianity. What has happened is that the simple, unclouded experience we could call faith has been redefined and informed by two thousand years of tradition based on different underlying assumptions of the universe — ones that, as pagans, we categorically reject. Perhaps the most important of these is the belief that the world of the spirit is remote, and somehow greater in power than the world in which we live. To hold the earth as sacred disrupts this separation; to hold the earth as inherently and simultaneously physical and spiritual is to begin to recognize that these divisions are not “outside” of us but “inside.” At the same time, as members of our culture, these are mental associations that we often unthinkingly accept. They are simply part of the way our culture and language are “shaped.”
For example, I would like to critique the idea that faith and belief are synonymous. This suggestion is not true, at least not as I am going to define faith below. Faith is a spiritual experience which can lead to belief, but it is not the same thing. Culturally, faith has come to mean “unquestioning belief.” Let’s look at the simple sentence, “I have faith in Sarah.” What does this generally mean? Well, if I read it, I would say that it means that the speaker has an unquestioning belief about Sarah. It probably does not mean that the speaker has had (or is having) a spiritual experience based on Sarah. This is a co-opting of the word “faith” for much more mundane reasons. It is this understanding of faith that I wish to escape. It might be easier, with all the associations that come with the word, to turn our backs on it, avoid it, and dodge the debate. That would mean that we have taken the easy way out. Instead, I suggest that we embrace the term, taking our place in the great intellectual and religious wrestling match that is going on around us. Some might argue that the specific word “faith” is not important. However, in the end, I cannot use a different term because faith is the best term for the experience I am discussing.
Faith is personal and spiritual.
What I would like to do now is momentarily step aside from the above debate and talk about what “faith” means, not so much as a word, but as an experience. Behind the many uses of the word, I would argue, there is a simple experience of the Divine. Faith begins in the moment that one travels the road from “I believe in higher powers” to “I have direct experience of higher powers.” That is what faith, as a word, means here. This is not about blind belief, but about beliefs that seem blind from the outside because the person who carries them has based them on experiences that are personal and cannot truly be shared. Faith is about experiences that are beyond words.
Faith is a spiritual experience. The ideas attached to that experience, and used to interpret it, are actually a mental filter between the numinous and the everyday mind. Religion, in the context of numinous experience, is not so much a set of beliefs as an interpretive construct for understanding that which is purely spiritual — or perhaps more accurately, outside of everyday experience. Traditionally, in Western culture, religion tries to codify, interpret, and pass down to future generations these valued experiences. What the culture is less good at, in my opinion, is accepting that these beliefs are interpretations of something that was intensely personal and contextual. The words, and not the spirit behind them, are recognized as sacred. It is in this way that faith and belief have become entangled.
Faith is a key part of human religious experience.
What is faith, then? If it is not a set of blind, non-rational beliefs that we pass from generation to generation, then what? Faith, as I mean it here, is directly analogous to the Christian “state of grace,” the direct communication with something (usually represented as a god-figure) that informs and directs our experiences in the world. That sounds pretty heady, doesn’t it? Well, it is. This is not an experience that belongs alone to the Christian Charismatics, or the Sufis of Islam. It is a basic experience that belongs to all people. The religions themselves, the sets of beliefs that we share, are ways that we use to find meaning and relate these experiences in words. Faith, itself, goes beyond words. Faith does not belong to the part of the human mind that uses words.
Years ago, when I was being social with friends, a woman turned to me and asked, “Do you believe in witchcraft?” I looked back at her and responded, “Do you believe in rocks?” “But rocks exist!” “Yes, exactly.” My point then, as now, is that only ideas and beliefs can be analyzed for truth value, and that once we have experienced something, it is not a matter of belief. Moments of faith, therefore, are transformative. They realign our perceptions of the world. To wax metaphorical, belief alone can do no more than sow the fields of faith. That is not to say that belief is without merit itself, but it does mean that belief is not faith. Belief, however, does allow us to interpret and ascribe meaning to our experiences of the other.
With our hands, we reach out and touch rocks, and we know that they exist. Certainly, we can argue the implications of the idea of “exist,” and say that the meaning of “exist” that we use in our culture is probably horribly wrong, but we have no doubt that they exist. We can say that they do not exist outside of our own minds, and while that might be true, we can nonetheless pick them up, admire them, or make houses from them. By placing existence in our minds, we have simply changed the value of the word “exist.”
With our spirits, we can reach out and touch the numinous. With our spirits, we can look around us and see the effects of that spirit within the world. This is not something that is solely the purview of certain religions, but is instead something that is a part of all humans. Insofar as we are in touch with our own spirits, we are aware of the spirits of others. This recognition of the spirits of others is called “compassion.” This compassion is in fact a key aspect of healing work. It is important in Christian and Muslim faith healing, it is important in such modalities as Reiki, and is important in the practices of Buddhism. I am suggesting that these religions are all pointing to the same experience: the awareness, by means of our own spirits, of the existence of the spirits of others. But, let me throw in a word of caution. Compassion is not simply “being nice.” Compassion is not a weakness. And compassion is a virtue, but not the only one.
Like compassion, faith is an opening of a part of the human spirit to the outside. As a healer, I would argue that the opening to faith is a valuable part of being a healthy human. Faith is as much a part of us as “instinct” or “being grounded” (a term which I will argue in a later column has two separate meanings, depending on context). Of course, while we might like to be paragons of virtue, the purpose of virtue is to have something for which to strive, not berate ourselves and others for not living up to our beliefs.
Pagans will need to redefine faith to match pagan cosmology and theology.
For faith to be a useful thing for pagans, we must reexamine the foundational ideas out of which all other notions grow. These foundations will be different from those of the monotheistic religions of the world, but not unrelated. Faith should be a part of pagan religion, as should belief, but it need not be the sole foundation.
For this, we must remove from the term a belief that faith alone is the cornerstone of religion. With all this talk of faith, it would be very easy to slip into a position that it is the core of religion. But for pagan religious experience, it is important to relegate faith to a place where it is balanced with other aspects. Faith can be a guide, but reason, compassion, and grounded experience of both our culture and the world at large must be balanced as well. Faith offers one kind of truth, but that truth should be recognized for its value without being placed on an untouchable pedestal. The beliefs that come from faith must be recognized as personal and contextual. The experiences can be powerful, but it is sheer hubris to believe that they are more “true” or more “valuable” than other kinds of knowledge.
Pagan faith lends itself to being integrated into the wider, global world, without leaving us helpless to act in it. Pagan religions are, by their nature and creed, more accepting of a wider world in which there is a polyvocalism, rather than a single voice of Truth. For this, we must focus on living in the world as it is, not as we believe it should be.
©2010 by Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Christopher Drysdale will join Rending the Veil as a columnist beginning in our Ostara issue.
Pasty-skinned, the office-boy who has seen too many days inside the cube-farm slowly makes his way up the mountain path. Trees loom on either side, and he greets each as a new friend, with his eyes if not his voice. In places, the trail is worn by the seasonal runoff that heads to the stream below. The sound of the brook, fast moving in this season, covers the sounds of jets flying overhead, and the sounds of trucks struggling down a nearby highway.
Clattering against his side is a plastic water-bottle. In his backpack is a small rattle, bought at a pow-wow, and a drum bought at an online store. In outward appearances, there is little that resembles his spiritual ancestors who walked this land, and likely the lands of his blood ancestors. What right has he to be called a shaman?
The myth of the Noble Savage runs through most of our popular culture and media, from the famous words that Chief Seattle never spoke, to the “wise old Indian” in Natural Born Killers, to the “wise old Indian” in Thunderheart, to the “wise old Indian” in Poltergeist II. Yet it is not only Native Americans who are subject to this artistic brush: in media it is often a combination of a darker skin color and an assumption that foreigners, rural dwellers, and colonized peoples are somehow more pure and live “closer to the earth.” Their lack of technology is seen as a rejection of our culture rather than lack of access to the means of production.
Media representations of stereotypical “natives” are so pervasive that it would be impossible to tell our stories without them. However, for those who study the “other” in one capacity or another, it is critical to realize that for the most part these supposedly non-Western characters are, in fact, written by Westerners themselves. The “Truths from the Earth” that the characters spout are often created whole-cloth by the Western authors, or at best pre-digested through several Western sources and made more palatable for the Western audience. The “natives” are characters serving a purpose in a Western story, and the final product is one hundred percent Grade-A Western.
The idea of the Noble Savage was originally a European response to the excesses of European colonialism. Early colonialists thought was that the native peoples (who were being massacred or co-opted as forced labor for European profit) were somehow lesser humans. These were the same beliefs that bolstered slavery in America up until the time of the Civil War. Eventually, especially in literature, there was a counter-movement to these ideas. The “Noble Savage” was a cultural construct by the West, projecting their ideas of a “pre-civilized” man who was filled with good manners, wisdom, and knowledge, virtues the writers felt were lost to the West. These beliefs came from the same sources of philosophy and religion that started many of the Utopian movements that helped populate America. At their core was a belief that mankind, left to his own devices, would be more civilized than civilization could make him.
The earliest portrayals of the Noble Savage are representative of a belief that mankind is inherently good, a concept that speaks to Western culture steeped in Christian tradition. The idea of the Noble Savage is an origin myth, a cultural statement about the nature of the world and the place of humans in it. Origin myths are core statements of meaning, loci of interpretation, and bases of authority. They are not just stories, and can encompass anything from the Biblical “Garden of Eden” to the story of the founding of a corporation. Setting aside the bias of Western ideas on what makes a creation myth, they are stories of how things came to be the way they are. And because they are told as stories, there is no need to “prove” their underlying assumptions.
The true Noble Savages are not members of some far-distant tribe in a land unspoiled by Westernization and Globality. Neo-shamans are the true Noble Savages, standing as part of and yet in counterpoint to the frenetic civilization that surrounds them. In a culture caught between Enlightenment notions of what man might become and the cold, hard realities of biology, neo-shamans in particular live in a tension between the spiritual and the physical. The parts of ourselves that we push away become our spiritual guides and help us take part in a deeper, richer version of a whole human being. We become not just members of our culture, but of a longer and deeper tradition of meaningful human life.
Just as non-Westerners are the imagined “other,” so is the world of the spirit. Neither of these ideas are part of our shared everyday life. These two ideas are linked, not in truth, but in our imaginations. With the simple logic of the imagining mind, making connections where it will, both non-Westerners and all things magical are “other,” and so are connected metaphorically. This link is not a new idea, nor a purely Western one. While there is no logical truth to it, in the world of metaphor the magical “other” is a very powerful image. It is further supported by the stories with which we surround ourselves, and there are many stories that tap into this myth. As a lens for truth and cultural understanding, the Noble Savage myth is rotten to the core. But as a lens for looking inward into ourselves, and as a lens for looking at our own culture, this archetype is both powerful and wise.
The people of the Western world, for the most part, no longer sit around hearth-fires in the cold of winter retelling the stories of their people. The fires we sit around are blue lights seen through neighbors’ windows, flickering their own stories at us. We no longer sing as we work; many of us listen to our personal music devices in isolation and outward silence, sitting in front of computers in small, ergonomically designed “cubes.” The communities we create, the myths we retell, seem to be very different from those of long ago. In some ways they are, but at the core they are still much the same. While the names and the faces change, the stories that are told touch on many of the same themes as before. Where they change over time, it reflects our changing views of the world and what it means to be human.
The postmodern world is not only inundated with the interactions of people, but also with all the stories they have to tell. The dominant stories of the West: through novels, movies, and television all, are often new ones reflecting the cultural change that has occurred in the past century-and-a-half of industrialization, or perhaps reach as far back as five centuries to the beginning of the era of the Enlightenment and European colonialism. It was then that the story of what would become the United States of America began. The myth of America is the myth of a new country, a break with the past. The myth of the West, stretching from the Enlightenment, is also that of a break with the past. Neo-shamans more than others, as carriers of the myths of culture and as those who work in relationship with the land, should strive to be aware of its history and, truthfully, prehistory. While the people who live atop the land may have forgotten, the land itself remembers.
If neo-shamans are to have authority to speak, and to have relationships not just with people but with spirits and with the land, then we should know the whole story. Not just the histories of our own people, but of all people, of the animals, and of the land itself. The cultures that thrived on the land and the ways they propitiated its spirits are important, not because we should mimic these rituals ourselves, but because we need to enter into our own relationships with these same spirits. The authority of neo-shamans, just as much as that of the “shamans” in traditional cultures, depends on their relationships with the land and the plants and animals that survive on it. Western neo-shamanism looks different from other “shamanisms,” fits into a different culture, and has different stories and assumptions. Nonetheless, at its root it is not an attempt to mimic other cultures. Western neo-shamanism is ‘its own thing.’
When neo-pagans perform ceremonies honoring Mother Earth, this is not simply a myth from elsewhere, from antiquity. If it were, it would have no relevance to our daily lives. The ritual is expressing something in our culture, and about our culture. Insofar as we attribute these beliefs to the “other,” to the “ancient,” we are challenging models of authority within our culture using authorities from elsewhere — we are writing and accepting new origin myths that express a different truth about who we are as human beings.
Drawing on creation myths, the quintessential origin myths, is a common part of shamanic practice across the world — authority often extends from origins. For an American, “The Way the West was Won” is just as much a creation myth as the “Garden of Eden.” The “Noble Savage” as the ‘pure other’ is an appropriate image for spiritual renewal. Western myths are part of our rich lore: to identify with the “victim” in the myth allows us to reclaim the parts of our own culture which were lost in the dream of “progress.”
Western thought is bound up with concepts of linear time and progress. From the Christian Bible’s “Revelation” to science’s “heat death,” the universe and all things in it are seen as having a beginning and an end. At the same time, most short-term change is seen as “progress” trending from less complex to more complex, from worse to better. Just as computers get faster every year, all change is seen as “progressive” and inherently positive. While science has much to offer, for those who bridge to the world of the spirits, this perspective is not particularly useful. Yet these ideas have become dominant and intertwined with Western thought and knowledge. It is no surprise that those who are called to step away from this perspective might look elsewhere for models of time and space.
As Western thought is tied up with linear time and progress, the non-Western, the “other,” is merged in our minds with all that is not part of the Western stereotype. Attempts to reclaim things lost to the juggernaut of “The West” (a broad generalization) wear the veil of “the other,” and we are quite capable of reworking other belief systems so that they become part of our own culture. This process is not unique to the West: any culture that accepts an idea from another culture changes the idea so that it fits into the matrix of its own culture and lives. Usually, in fact, individuals within a culture change the ideas in many ways, not all of them agreeing with one another.
Neo-shamans live in a world of changed and challenged assumptions, different from the dominant cultural dialogue of positivist science. The practitioners break away from the dialogue limiting the importance of spiritual existence to the afterlife, away from any notions of a transcendent deity. They are, in their very essence, liminal: living in two worlds, or in two perceptions of the world, at the same time. By their very nature, they challenge both the dominant physical and spiritual authorities of our culture, and try to maintain a relationship with the land and with spirits, neither of which are particularly valued by the dominant views. Yet the neo-shaman, as the speaker for that which does not have a voice, is a darling of our myths, of our popular culture. Americans, at least, always root for the underdog.
Neo-shamans speak with the authority of Western myths. They are not some expression of a universal “shaman,” but a part of American culture growing from our own traditions and histories. They are the inheritors of a world of colonialism, of the myth of progress, and of stripped away meaning. Yet they also see something deeper in the world, and are called to do what they do. They are indeed inheritors of duties and responsibilities, whether they have the right to use the word “shaman” or not. Through their nature, and training, they are responsible to both the spirits and their communities.
©2010 by Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.