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.”
- Neopaganism describes people’s spiritual experiences.
- Neopaganism is pretty cool about other people’s religions.
- In a world that is constantly and rapidly changing, Neopaganism is fluid enough to provide a spiritual “base.”
- 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.
© 2013 Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Author’s note: This is part two in a three-part series on some of the challenges of a modern pagan theology. Part one can be found here.
Part II: Culture, the Mind, and Social Evolutionary Theory
It is a common critique of Christianity that when we look at the way many people live in the West, it tends to be placed in a separate “mental basket”1 from the rest of life. Religion ends up being something relegated to one day of the week, or paid attention only in certain contexts. Where religion and secular life might intersect, they are often held apart. For example, the general idealism of Christianity often does not inform business decisions—and if it did, Christian businessmen would go out of business.
Orthodoctic religions, especially those that claim to have the one universal truth and entertain attempts at orthodoxy,2 can, for some followers, function mentally and cognitively as a unifying set of beliefs. They create a consistent way of seeing the world. They are not just a lens through which to see the world; they can also act as filters through which experience is sifted. At the level of the subconscious, each experience is quickly assigned relative value and accepted, ignored, or rejected. So far, that is not very different from what any other belief system does.
What, then, sets religion apart from any other belief system? Orthodoctic religions3 provide an alternate value system that acts in balancing opposition to other aspects of a culture to create meaning and order. This is neither good nor bad in and of itself. While some followers might cleave to these beliefs and try to follow them slavishly, on the whole, there is a balance between the religious beliefs and secular beliefs.
In a culture that secularly promotes sex, like Western culture, the religious beliefs (take, for example, Christianity) stringently work against that, claiming that sex for pleasure is anathema. An integrated, spiritual “middle path” exists somewhere between the two. By balancing out secular drives with religious ones, these orthodoctic religions can provide access to experiences of the numinous and thus a broader understanding of and appreciation for reality.
Orthopractic religions (like Wicca), by contrast, attempt to integrate the religious and secular drives. By holding sexuality as sacred, they avoid the secular drive for pure pleasure at the cost of spirituality.
The Mental Shift to Monotheism
But let’s jump back a couple of hundred years ago to the time when sending Christian missionaries around the world was not just a religious imperative, but colonial government policy. The Christianity that was promulgated during the colonial period was often a more idealized form than that which was actually practiced in Europe. The standards to which local populations were held often were different from those of the European versions. The evangelized version of Christianity was interlaced with beliefs extending from Western culture about appropriate dress, race and ethnicity, and even hygiene. More, it was often intertwined with local political power and the backing of colonial powers.
This raises the question of why people would choose to be monotheist, and more than that, compete to be more monotheistic. Why is calling a Christian anything other than a “monotheist” generally considered a grave insult? There are cultural meanings associated with monotheism that make it a point of contention, or a point of pride. Edging “down the scale” toward polytheism implies some sort of devolution. For that scale, we can thank, among others, the famous Edward Burnett Tylor (2 October 1832 – 2 January 1917 — first publication in 1856).
Social Evolutionary Theory
E. B. Tylor relates to anthropology as Sigmund Freud relates to modern psychology in three significant ways. First, both are credited with heavy influence on the early theory of their respective fields. Second, their names are well-known outside the field. Third, while the theories in their fields have advanced by at least a century, the public images of both fields are intertwined with these out-of-date, but culturally palatable, theories.
As discussed extensively in the writings of E. B. Tylor on cultural evolution, Western culture places a value on monotheism as “more advanced” than polytheism. Tylor created the following Social Evolution scale:
Animism → Polytheism → Henotheism → Monotheism → Science
In Tylor’s theory, the original religion was animism, the belief that all things have a spirit. This was followed by polytheism, graduated to henotheism, which was followed by monotheism, and finally would be replaced by science. While this idea has since been abandoned by the social sciences, it is still prevalent in some parts of Western culture. For instance, we can see it the announcements of Stephen Hawking that God does not exist can find their genesis in this early social theory. While many scientists, both in the past and present, are religious men who not only “manage” to reconcile science and religion but function comfortably in both without conflict, Tylor is an early and important link between science and atheism.4
Yet E. B. Tylor was not writing in a vacuum. Monotheism has been part of the package of “Westernization” since the beginning of the colonial era, which arguably began in 1492 with the voyages of Christopher Columbus.5 We gloss over the process of religious transformation, by and large, when we say that local religions were replaced by Christianity. The conversion required that the populations first change how they thought about religion, in many cases introducing the idea of religion as something not contiguous with ethnicity.
Neopaganism terribly upsets this evolutionary scale. Why, we might ask, would people who are part of Western culture take up “old” ideas like polytheism? Several answers come to mind:
This is the most basic of arguments: Neopagans find their religions to be experientially true. We are practitioners because it works for us. We are somehow suited to immanent and orthopractic religions, and Neopaganism fits the bill.
The Information Age (that’s the one we’re in, at the moment, right?) exposes us to more and more varied belief systems. Simply opening a news webpage will bring us in contact with people who believe differently, and just as fervently as we do. Neopaganism is open to other ways of approaching “truth,” It is, in this sense, more descriptive of the postmodern world in which we find ourselves. All of these religions out there do exist, and do give meaning to people’s lives, and do have spiritual components. If we are to do something other than argue, if we are to get down to the serious business of spiritual experience, then a system of practice that admits the value of these other paths can serve us well.
Since Neopaganism, by and large, derives its value and meaning from practice, rather than belief, it is suited to an ever-changing world. For example, a little less than a hundred years ago, people believed that there was an Iron Age belief system that had been passed down, hidden, from generation to generation. When this origin story of Wicca was shown not to be true, it did not cast doubt, as Wicca’s foundation and strength is not its ancient roots, but rather its strength of practice.
1. These “mental baskets” are best addressed, currently, by cognitive science. Cognitive science is the study of how the mind organizes information.
According to R. D’Andrade, (1995 The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), the categories are arranged into schema and their arrangement shapes how people think about things. Schema both guide thought and are shaped by the purposes for which we use the words. As an off-topic example, a schema might be “color” and categories under it may include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet and many, many others. A sub-schema would be “primary colors” with red, blue, and yellow, and another would be “secondary colors” with purple, green, and orange.
Culture and experience both play a role in the development and interpretation of schema. For instance, visual artists need and have a much larger and more descriptive color vocabulary. Members of an entirely separate culture would have not only different vocabulary, but possibly very different associations for the colors. In Western culture, red is often used to symbolize “danger,” but in another culture it might mean “life.”
For a similar but alternative view from an occult perspective, see Patrick Dunn’s Postmodern Magick.
2. Orthodoxy, or “correct belief,” is used here in contrast to orthopraxy or “correct action.”
3. This refers specifically to religions that follow the model of being a separate part of culture, often differentiated (though not completely separated) from other important aspects of life such as livelihood.
4. It is simply personal bias, and stated in full awareness that everyone has different opinions, but physicists are no more qualified to discuss religion than anthropologists or theologians are qualified to discuss physics. That is to say that some are and some aren’t, and those qualifications are completely independent of their skill with, and status in, the realm of physics and physical sciences in general.
5. Please note, however, that the experience of the Reconquista, the battle to reconquer Spain and place it under Christian rule, informed the culture of those who came to the New World. This war lasted from the beginning of the 8th century, was mostly complete in the middle of the 13th century, but was truly completed with the defeat of the Kingdom of Granada. It was at the celebration of this victory that Christopher Columbus approached Queen Isabella and asked her to fund his expedition.
© 2013 by 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.
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.