I rattle on at various times about the lack of the need for faith within my polytheistic religious model. We try to let each student begin with some choices of model, and we expect every real practitioner to develop a personal and idiosyncratic practice. There are no credos, no recitations of doctrine. Even as we develop cosmologies and experiential maps of Inner and mythic locales we step back from objective ‘belief in’ them.
“Look, ‘tis Camelot…”
“It’s only a model…"
Nevertheless, you don’t build something unless you believe it will stand. Any venture, including spirituality, requires assumptions, opinions and plans. Separating those terms from the term ‘belief’ is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been trying to avoid in my theological thinking. I try to take spirituality off the pedestal, and assume that it isn’t different in kind from any other human social or artistic endeavor. So I think of ‘beliefs’ as nothing more than ‘opinions’. Some religions want to invest certain opinions as the very image of the divine. Paganisms generally haven’t gone that route, in ancient times, or now. Still, every purpose requires a degree of ‘being convinced’ which is pretty much the same as ‘believing’ (never mind believing by faith – that’s just silly; though I don’t mind believing for experimental assumption… is that different?).
So, what are my assumptions about religion and spirituality? When I set myself down for a look at that part of my head, I noticed that my relative certainties clustered around method, and not around result. In other words I have more opinions on how to do spirituality than about what a spiritual person is or acts like. In general I don’t think the effects of spiritual practice can be predicted very well, but we can predict what practices are likely to bring results. It may be that spirituality doesn’t make us more the same, but rather produces diverse kinds…
Some Assumptions, Opinions or Beliefs about Religion, Spirituality and Magic
• The Existence of Spirits (including the human spirit), and a Spirit-World. I’m entirely willing to entertain the notion that the spirit-world is a psycho-linguistic realm, however I rather think there is more to it than that. Even as information-bundles or semantic complexes, the gods are worthy of worship and the spirits can get work done. This primary assumption includes no details on the nature, number or names of the gods and spirits – my certainties about those are… various and somewhat variable.
• Polyvalent divinity – the divine, or spiritual, is composed of an uncounted number of persons, probably including all of us.
• Contiguity of the spiritual and material worlds – the spirit-world isn’t outside of nature, and it is in constant interaction with the material as part of a natural process.
• Relationship between mortal and spiritual persons is forged and maintained through rites and customs. This is the set of behaviors that get called religion and/or magic. Traditional cultures have passed-down sets, though innovation happens everywhere. One bit of good news is that innovation often seems to work fine – you *can* make it up and develop this stuff on your own with the spirits, if you have the talent. However systematic and traditional practices are those which have brought results in the past.
• Human ritual action is spiritually efficacious and pleasing to the spirits – A long leap for some moderns, but one that can be proven by experiment.
• Spirituality/religion requires deliberate human effort – While the spirits occasionally reach out to humans most interactions are begun and maintained by us.
• Relationship between spirits and mortals leads the mortal psyche through processes of spiritual evolution and change. The human spirit or mind responds strongly to the experience of the divine. Various schools of practice try to focus this process for certain goals deemed as the good – compassion, love, various kinds of salvation or enlightenment. My certainty stops at “stuff will happen in yo’ head”, though I’m working on some more specific application models.
• As without, so within – the old Mac and Mic - when Apollo approaches he stirs the Apollo-shaped part of the self.
• Specific complexes of spirit-contact constitute “the mysteries” – ancients made constellations of gods and spirits and invoked them for specific kinds of results.
• The guidance and wisdom of tradition leads us into patterns that increase our health, wealth, and wisdom. Here I mean old-time agrarian and tribal tradition. What Nineteenth Century writers called ‘fertility religion’ is, in my opinion, really ‘prosperity religion’. The cycle of the seasons produces a regular pulse of growth and harvest in whatever one’s crop may be – wheat or words or iron-work. Put another way, old ways helped our ancestors live well; they can teach us how to do the same today.
So, those are some over-arching ideas which I’m willing to assert are true. Note that they include nearly no specific mythic elements. I’m not betting my certainty on the Book of Invasions, or on Snorri, or even on Thrice-Great Hermes. But with the above assumptions I think I can approach any of those systems and begin an experimental approach to the gods and spirits. I believe in them – if by ‘believe in’ we can mean ‘am reasonably sure they exist’.