Star Foster has written a nice essay discussing some of her internal process around a shift from one school of Pagan thought and practice toward another. Do read the whole piece here .
I sympathize with her, and have certainly been there. I have made two big shifts in ritual style and symbolic matrix in my occult/religious career. The first was from the local neo-wiccan system in which I did my first group ritual work, and which I helped to write into the specific tradition of an initiatory witchcraft group. New tools, new symbol-net, etc. In that case much of the cosmology and the ritual map remained familiar, and there was the advantage of rather being ready to accept the authority of the initiation to drive the shift.
The second big move was to move away from the four-square, seven-tiered cosmos of post-hermetic Wicca, in which the world-view of renaissance magic was often employed with ‘God’ snipped off the top of the ladder. As I entered a ‘Druidic’ system I took the approach fashionable in early Celtic Reconstructionism and entered a Triadic cosmos. The four principles that late Hermeticism calls the ‘elements’ are in that model arranged as a triad of Land, Sea and Sky with the Sacred Fire at the center. This reflects a number of archaic arrangements, such as the Hellenic kingships of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. In one stroke of a leaf-blade I discarded the four elements in the quartered circle, the four ritual tools, and the seven planets (which are not very findable in Celto-Germanic lore). Likewise any traces of post-Golden Dawn duotheism from my Wiccan days were discarded in favor of a much harder polytheism.
The process of making that transition internally took years. It has been the process of helping to build a new Pagan system, now in fairly wide use, and of working at home to build an esoteric practice based on it. So I surely understand how Star might find herself at sea as she pushes off from the shore of a previous system.
Somehow, none of this ever felt like a ‘crisis of faith’ to me. I don’t actually put much value on ‘faith’ in my religion work. I don’t call what I do ‘my faith’ and I’d never speak of my religion as ‘a faith’. I rather dislike that turn of phrase as an effort to duck the primary term ‘religion’. I prefer to talk about ‘our work’ and the ‘work’ of my religion.
Maybe it was because I never had to leave behind my Gods as I shifted systems. I had been moving away from the ‘all gods/goddesses are one god/goddess’ position steadily over my whole life. I already understood my witchcraft cult as worshipping a small list of specific Gods in our traditional way, not some cosmic principle of goddess-ness. Since I was already in a pretty Gaelic system I was able to simply transplant my devotion to Brigid, Lugh, etc. from its Wiccan ritual context to a more Druidic one. Nevertheless the cosmology and ritual-pattern shift was a big one, and sometimes dizzying, especially while doing both systems at once.
So I wish Star well in her path – may her genius guide her and her daemon open her ways. The easy advice: push on, choose some practices and begin them, and keep studying. Also, keep writing about theological ideas – I love that stuff! In fact I was moved to respond to Star’s list of 10 things she wants in a religion.
1. The Gods are distinct, greater than myself, and have an interest in humankind.
This is fine. At least, there appear to be things that act like what human tales call the Gods. I don’t believe I need a coherent opinion about their ‘real’ nature to work with them, or to have a viable religion. I do have two or three favorite models of what they might “really be”.
2. Any unity beyond the Gods is not sentient. Monotheism, in any form, is incorrect.
Agree. If there is a unified field it isn’t a person, doesn’t have volition or providential will. The wills in the cosmos are multiple.
3. I am a polytheist, not an animist, a pantheist, a panentheist, a duotheist, a henotheist or a monotheist.
Here I would only quibble to say that I see polytheism as a subset of animism, really. The world is full of spirits (animism) some spirits are quite mighty, and have a special relationship of worship and blessing with mortals. Those are what we call gods. But it is a difference of degree and not of kind between a God, one of the Dead, an herb-spirit and my own spirit.
4. Religion is the bond between humankind and the Gods, and its purpose is to foster excellence and virtue for the survival of the species.
Agree entirely. I might express the second by saying that its purpose is to foster health, wealth and wisdom for the folk, and wisdom, love and power for the soul.
5. Religion is not what makes me feel good, nor is it therapy or pop-psychology.
Right. Though spiritual methods can be used for healing of any sort, including emotional or even behavioral healing, that isn’t its primary purpose. Pagan religion doesn’t intrinsically propose that most people are wounded, or that we all come to the divine in some state of weakness. Rather, Pagan religion assumes a core of strength and capability in every person.
I do think that the practice of religion, though it is often work, should make one feel good. Like any kind of work/fun deal that may include less fun parts…
6. Religious culture should be multi-generational and fully accessible.
Agree entirely. That will mean the building of Pagan religious institutions that can survive the death of their founders, probably including property, fundraising and all the surrounding deal. It also doesn’t preclude esoteric work inside the larger structure.
7. Religion is a fully realized worldview and way of being. It is not loosely-connected disparate elements. It is coherent with a vocabulary sufficient to express all of its nuances and concepts clearly, but not bound by pure logic.
This is complicated. A culture is a fully realized worldview and way of being. Religion is a subset of culture. In a multi-religion culture such as the USA, some religions make a great deal out of ‘world view’, and consider the holding of the correct opinions about this and that to be a part of the practice of the religion.
Myself, I don’t think that to have been the case in ancient Paganisms. In no case do we find a ‘credo’ of Athenian religion (to choose an example). One can find various philosophers who proposed various sets of opinions (opinion = doctrine, linguistically), but none of them became mandatory for participation in the community’s religious life. Religious life depended on observances – on making the sacrifices, remembering the nymphs of the pool and the Gods in their temples, attending the community rites. No priest would ask what one ‘believed’ (that is, what one’s opinion was) about, say, the nature of the gods and spirits.
In our modern religious supermarket environment one might hope for a Paganism that could be bound between covers. It would be comfortable if Pagan ways could be delineated and defined but I think that when we do that, and to the extent that we do that, we do something unlike what the Old Ways were. I think that religion in Athens would have been a lot like a loosely-collected set of traditions, customs and ideas. The ways of one household would not have been identical to another, and even different Athenian-kingdom villages would have had different festivals and customs. In a polytheism religion tends to become various, local and differentiated.
As to vocabulary, I’d expect a number of competing vocabularies to be the norm. In a system with no authority that determines required opinion various schools of thought will arise and compete. While members of those schools might keep some religious customs separately from one another they would also be likely to turn up together at a city festival. In this way I suppose we can talk about sects within what is still describable as a single Pagan religion. I think we find a nearly exact parallel in what is called Hinduism, which is really a family of related schools and practices, sharing myth, custom and history, but expressed specifically in what amount to different sub-religions.
That leaves any given Pagan – especially one working without a ‘village’ or largish worship group – the task of essentially creating their own hearth religion. This is a natural part of building our modern polytheism, I think. In old times hearth religion would have been based on family ancestors (probably buried under the house), the Gods associated with the family livelihood and customs, and the local land-wights whose cooperation allowed access to resources. That hearth religion would have interfaced with local village religion through the community calendar-festivals and the public sacrifices sponsored by rich people, and it all might have interfaced with some royal or tribal religion to which one went on pilgrimage once in a while. At least Ireland looks likely to have been that way…
Here’s the thing. Not a single part of that shared religion that might cross an entire island such as Eire would *require* a “fully realized worldview and way of being”. Any two cattle-barons standing next to one another might disagree wildly on what the nature of the gods was, whether there ‘really’ were Gods or an Otherworld, etc. Certainly there would have been cultural norms of opinion, and repeated tales and histories offered as evidence of the gods and spirits, but once again devout participation in religion would not have involved the holding of specific opinions or beliefs.
Incidentally, the essay discusses mystery religons, such as initiatory witchcraft, and whether they can function as complete religions in themselves. I would say that in the ancient world (or modern Hinduism) they do not. A mystery religion is a specific set of rites, images and ideas meant to produce specific effects in the initiates. It always exists inside of (or occasionally in contrast to) a larger community religion. As my own work has built a local village-style religious tradition I have been starting to feel the need for some mystery…
8. Science is not opposed to religion, and very important for humanity to study and promote. However, the languages are not interchangeable. Zeus cannot be explained by string theory any more than a libation can cure cancer.
Agree to the first. In fact religious descriptions of cosmos should be influenced by scientific understandings, even as they continue their mythic and poetic forms of expression.
We’ll see whether the languages turn out to be interchangeable. We may yet find machines with which to speak with spirits. At this time there is little to be gained in practice by mixing the metaphors of science and religion.
9. What you believe matters as much as what you do. Only when in accord with a single vision can any physical act by humans be truly effective. This applies whether you are making the next Avengers movie, or building a temple to Athena.
Disagree with the first. I tend to see beliefs as ephemera, compared to traditions. If one pursues a spiritual practice of meditation, ritual, study and reflection then one’s opinions (‘beliefs’) will change and grow with the results. In my opinion the belief should not precede the practice, or should be approached only as a proposition. As an occasional teacher I would never tell a student of Pagan religion what their opinion should be about the afterlife. Rather I would set them to honoring the Dead and honing their trance and vision skills, while studying the lore about the Dead from old times. After a year or three of that I might ask them what they have come to believe, and compare notes. It would not be important to me for us to agree, so long as we were willing to make the sacrifices together.
If one were to say that passionate commitment - dedication and focused effort - were required, then that sort of belief – as in belief in one’s ability and in the value of the work – makes sense. What one believes, for instance, about what Gods ‘really’ are, or about the afterlife, is much less important. That sort of thing needn’t be organized or consistent to have a working spiritual system. Folks like me who enjoy that sort of thing might come up with coherent models, but once again there’s no reason to pick one of those and make it official inside a religion. Let the ale-house be our collegium, sez I.
10. The religious work we do should not be for ourselves, but for the generations to come.
For ourselves and those who come after, surely. Religion should always benefit us in the here-and-now. Making ourselves stronger and wiser makes the tribe stronger and wiser, and making the tribe greater makes us greater.