Monday, February 9, 2009

Faith and Works in Pagan Theology

Discussions in the comments sections here have led me to want to think a bit about what I mean when I say that ‘Faith’ doesn’t play much of a role in my understanding of Pagan religion. I guess the primary thing is that one doesn’t have to ‘have faith’ in the Gods and Spirits in order to begin work in a Pagan system, or to get results from it. To me, Paganism is about technique and method, much more than it is about doctrine and faith.

Paganism doesn’t require us to believe anything specific about the deities and spirits (such as that they are objective beings, or human mental constructs, or masks of impersonal forces), nor does it ask us to believe in strictly defined forms, names and attributes of the Deities. Dagda in Munster may well be different from Dagda in Leinster, but either would be recognizable by your average Gael. Likewise Paganism does not teach (or need) fixed opinions about things like why sacrifice is useful, or what the fate of the soul may be. Students can decide as they please, or decide not to have any ‘beliefs’ (fixed opinions) at all about things like the afterlife, simply waiting to see what happens. Success in Pagan spirituality does not depend on ‘orthodoxy’, i.e. correct opinion.

That being the case we have to ask why a new Pagan would take up the work at all. If we don’t expect newcomers to begin by ‘believing in’ the Gods and Spirits why would anyone take up the work of ritual and meditation that is the heart of Pagan practice? I think the answer is one that Pagans won’t like very much, but which remains true – we must begin by having faith in authority.

Much of what we call ‘knowledge’ is actually just our faith in authority. For instance, how many of us have seen an electron? Our belief that electrons exist is based on our faith in the scientific system that instructs us. Even if we have used some piece of equipment to ‘see’ one, we must have faith in the people who built and operate the device.

To some extent this is the basis for Pagan practice. We read or hear of folks who have gotten some good from the practices of ritual and meditation, and we find an affinity for the style and flavor of Pagan myth and symbolism. We begin to practice, and we begin to see results from the practices, whether subtle personal results or the occasional special effects of healings, visions, etc. In this way the faith that is based on trust in authority is replaced over time with faith based on trust in the methods one uses. I trust that a sacrifice will bring blessing for the same reason I have faith that turning the key of my car will produce an engine start – it has done so reliably. To me, this is rational faith – faith based on history and experience – and rational faith is the sort needed by Pagans.

Of course some Pagans arrive by more direct means – they are called by a specific deity or cultural complex, and over time learn the patterns of worship. In this case the call itself becomes both the authority and the experience on which trust is built. Once again, it does not include what some skeptics like to call ‘blind faith’.

It does require a certain sort of conditional faith, though. When we pour whiskey to Morrigan we cannot be *certain* of the nature of the being we honor. We know we can make an idol of Her in our shrine. We know we can make an interior totem – a vision, a presence – of Her in our Inner landscape, and we know that with proper skill the Inner Idol will move and speak. We have trust (faith) that somehow we are making contact with what we call ‘the divine’ and we find ourselves experiencing the divine as the person we call Morrigan, but we are as uncertain about what’s really going on as Ben Franklin was about electrons. We could choose to accept some explanation that someone tells us is ‘traditional’, but there’s nothing in Pagan ways that requires us to do so.

Now, how is this different from the sort of faith that is more commonly spoken of? Maybe not by so much... For those who follow the so-called revealed religions, the scripture of their faith is the source of authority. The thing is, for that to work the authority of the scripture has to remain unquestioned. It’s impossible to believe in the literal and inerrant truth of scripture based on any rational position – it must become an ‘article of faith’, with all events interpreted to support the theorem. Now *that’s* the sort of blind faith I think has no place in Paganism.

I’m confident that at no time in Celtic history did the Druids teach that there was One True Way to tell the old stories, or One True Way to interpret the symbols. That just isn’t the way with polytheist cultures – we have zero examples of a polytheistic culture in which doctrine was reduced to a single True interpretation. Homer and Hesiod weren’t ‘scripture’, there are four Vedas with many variations, and even the stories of Finn and the Cu vary from version to version.

So when I say we don’t need ‘faith’, what I mean is that we needn’t have complete trust in any source of information or claimed authority about what Irish Paganism might be. We don’t need to agree on what the Gods are; we don’t even have to agree on the details of their stories. Not only do we not need to have social agreement on such matters, we don’t have to have inward certainty. We needn’t feel certain about the nature of the Gods, we only need to trust that the work we do will bring the results we seek. Even in mortal life, we have meaningful, productive relationships with other people – do we know what those people ‘really’ are?

To me, a Druid’s wisdom demands a skeptical eye, to see past appearances, and past culture. It may be that in old times the Druid had to keep such critical observation to himself, lest he confuse the farmers and warriors, but in our time I think it’s good for us all to cultivate that perspective, just as we cultivate the warrior’s strength and the farmer’s diligence. Faith can be a valuable emotional response in some cases, but it does best when partnered with skepticism and a rational analysis.

3 comments:

thomasjdflannery said...

Hear, hear.

Paganism is concerned with induction from lived experience, not deduction from revealed absolutes. Funny, I was considering making a post on the very subject on my own blog.

hth-the-first said...

I hear what you're saying, and I can't say that I disagree with you. If anything, I guess I think the distinction you're making has a certain tang of that common pagan arrogance about other religions: *they* have dumb faith based on nothing, *we* have reasonable and laudable faith based on a combination of our faith in authority/tradition and our lived experience. Honestly, in my experience most people who are devoutly religious, in any religion, will talk more readily about the real difference their religion has made to their quality of life than they will about doctrinal abstracts. Everyone's faith, or lack thereof, is ultimately about what has "worked" for them -- it's not something that makes us as special as we like to think!

Yewtree said...

It's true that other people appeal to the authority of experience; but if the experience conflicts with the revealed scripture, then what do they do? If they are non-fundamentalist, they'll probably trust the experience over the scripture (which is, after all, only a record of someone else's fallible understanding of their experience); but if they're a fundie, they'll probably ignore the experience and go with the scripture.