Faith and Belief

Many Pagans will tell you that they do not have faith and belief, because they know by experience that the gods exist. Here they are using the words in their modern sense of ‘assent to a creed’. Other Pagans will quite happily use the words faith and belief, because they mean something different by those words. What is going on? What do the words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ mean? Has their meaning changed over time? Yes, according to Karen Armstrong:

“Faith” has its etymological roots in the Greek pistis, “trust; commitment; loyalty; engagement.” Jerome translated pistis into the Latin fides (“loyalty”) and credo (which was from cor do, “I give my heart”). The translators of the first King James Bible translated credo into the English “belief,” which came from the Middle English bileven (“to prize; to value; to hold dear”). Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and loyal commitment to God.

~ Brian McGrath Davis, Religion is not about belief: Karen Armstrong’s THE CASE FOR GOD

Similarly, Alan Watts, a writer who popularised Zen in the West, regarded faith as an attitude of openness to mystery and uncertainty:

“Faith is a state of openness or trust.

To have faith is like when you trust yourself to the water. You don’t grab hold of the water when you swim, because if you do you will become stiff and tight in the water, and sink. You have to relax, and the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging, and holding on.

In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

~ Alan Watts

When we view faith and belief as meaning trust and/or the humility to admit that we don’t have all the answers, or even know what all the questions are yet, then they seem like much more attractive ideas. As Karen Armstrong says, they don’t involve assenting to a set creed, and bending your reason out of shape, or leaving it at the door, in order to ‘believe six impossible things before breakfast’ – rather, they are about opening yourself to experience.

Otter in Alaska, photo by S Chucke (public domain).  Pixabay.

Otter in Alaska, photo by S Chucke (public domain). Pixabay.

Everyone knows that being open to experience without trying to come up with a theory to explain it can lead to more experiences of the same kind. Tania Luhrmann referred to this phenomenon as interpretive drift. I would prefer a more neutral term, such as openness, as her terminology (and indeed her study of magic users) was based on the premise that everyone starts out rational and then shifts, or drifts, towards a belief in magic. Whereas I do not think that a belief in magic is irrational, or incompatible with science. Pagans have a variety of ways in which we reconcile our theories of magic with the materialistic world-view of science.

I have always said that I don’t have a fixed belief (in the sense of assenting to a creed); instead, I have working hypotheses to explain my experiences.

Sometimes, we Pagans tie ourselves up in knots trying to avoid the problematic terminology we have experienced in evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christianity that some of us have experienced in the past. But sometimes it is worth trying to find out what these terms originally meant, and reclaim them for our own use. People have similar issues with the terms ‘worship’ and ‘prayer’, but that is a topic for another post.

Faith

So, if you have faith in the gods, it means you trust them. What are the implications of that? Well, if you trust your friend, it means you believe they have your best interests at heart; that you can confide in them; that they will not let you down in a crisis. So maybe you don’t have that kind of faith in all the gods, but rather with the ones you have a special devotion to, or a special relationship with. Or maybe you place your faith in Nature, and your relationship with it.

This faith – this relationship – is what sustains you when you feel doubtful, depressed, or otherwise wobbly. It doesn’t mean you never have doubts; it means that you keep on keeping on, even when you have doubts. You lean back into the water, and trust that it will hold you up, even when you don’t know how deep it is.

Let’s face it, even when we have direct experience of the gods, or of magic, we still don’t really know how it works, or what the gods really are. The face of the gods that we see is only one facet of their nature, whatever that may be. The gods are vast ancient cosmic forces, and our personifications of them are their reflections in human culture. As Sam Webster wrote recently:

Let us start with the Gods as we experience them. Much to my surprise, I am no longer convinced that the Beings we experience are the Gods Themselves. What we are experiencing is a projection of Those who are Gods refracted through our souls and the cultures we are a part of. 

We do not really know the full nature of the gods, so we are open and trusting towards them in order to experience more of their nature. We do not cling to our limited ideas about them, but are ready to open ourselves to more experience and insight.

Belief

To believe in something in the original sense is to prize it, to value it, to hold it dear. Do you prize your Pagan practice, your relationship with the gods? Do you hold dear the culture and values of Paganism? Then you believe in them.

The distinction between mythos and logos is important here. Mythos is metaphorical truth – something that rings true, that is an accurate symbol for representing something. Logos is literal truth, such as empirical knowledge about how things work. Karen Armstrong explains the difference:

In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were crucial and each had its particular sphere of competence. Logos (“reason; science”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos, an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience.

This is related to the concept of worship, which is about holding something to be worthwhile – a celebration of ultimate worth, as the excellent Abraxan Essay on Worship by Von Ogden Vogt has it. We value something, we trust it, we invest our time and energy in it – we believe in it. We still use this sense of ‘belief’ in everyday speech – “I believe in you” means “I value you and trust you”.

Belief is reinforced by belonging – the more we feel part of something, the more we place our trust in it; and the two are mutually reinforcing: the more we believe and trust in something, the more we feel that we belong. This process is contingent on experience, however; if your community lets you down, it is hard to continue with that same level of trust. Trust and belonging and belief are created by practice, which is why most religions place much more emphasis on practice than they do on assent to creeds. Karen Armstrong explains how religion is about practice:

Religious truth is, therefore, a species of practical knowledge. Like swimming, we cannot learn it in the abstract; we have to plunge into the pool and acquire the knack by dedicated practice. Religious doctrines are a product of ritual and ethical observance, and make no sense unless they are accompanied by such spiritual exercises as yoga, prayer, liturgy and a consistently compassionate lifestyle. Skilled practice in these disciplines can lead to intimations of the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. Without such dedicated practice, these concepts remain incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

Reclaiming the words

So, let’s reclaim the words faith and belief to mean what they originally meant, and not use them to mean ‘assent to a creed’. They mean far more than that; they are about creating relationship with the gods and/or Nature; reconnecting with the sacred; re-enchanting the world. We believe in the gods and spirits, Nature and the Earth and the  land, because we hold them dear, and value our relationships with them; we have opened our hearts to them. We have faith in them, because we are relaxed in their presence, and have let go of our assumptions, and we trust them.

A bubble of complacency

One of the things that enables me to function more-or-less effectively is the notion that bad things won’t happen to me. I call this “the bubble of complacency”. The bubble is a sense that all is well, life is generally benevolent, and other people do not actively wish one harm, and that the arc of history may be long, but it points towards justice. When bad things do happen to me, of course, the bubble gets popped, and I walk around all raw and unprotected. In 2010, I was in a car crash which was not my fault, and it was then that I first realised that the bubble existed, as the car crash popped it, very suddenly and abruptly. there was also a wonderful rush of relief at not having been killed in the car crash, during which I loved all my friends and family intensely, and even tiny mundane details of existence were intensely beautiful.

The following year, 2011, was really awful in a number of ways. I had an awful line manager, my relationship was on-again-off-again, I was planning to leave my job and start a course, but had no idea where I was going to live or how I would support myself during the course, and all the options I thought I had kept closing down. In November 2011, my beloved cat Harry died. I now realise that all those options closing down was actually the Universe trying to tell me that I was headed in the wrong direction, but it was painful at the time. My home, job, relationship, income, and spiritual journey were all in question. Normally it is pretty stressful if only one of those things is in doubt, but all of them at once was bad.

So, during 2012, my bubble of complacency started to reassert itself, living in Oxford, enjoying my job, and gradually getting everything together. I met my lovely partner in August of that year. But even in my bubble, I remained aware of social justice issues and tried to raise awareness of them.

In her excellent novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing, Starhawk talks about El Mundo Bueno (the good world) and El Mundo Malo (the bad world). Every situation has two possible outcomes, a good one  and a bad one. With our magic, prayer, and positive thinking, we constantly try to create the good world, the one where everything goes right. But every so often, we fall through the cracks into the bad world, the one where everything went wrong. My “bubble of complacency” is an attempt to keep walking in El Mundo Bueno.

“Doña Elena used to say that there was the Good Reality, El Mundo Bueno, literally the Good World, and the Bad Reality, El Mundo Malo, and they were always vying with each other. In the Good Reality you have a mild headache; in the Bad Reality you have a fatal brain disease. In the Good Reality, you catch hold of the rail as your foot slips; in the Bad Reality, you miss, slide down the stairs, and break your neck.

“We walk in the Good Reality as if we were treading the thin skin on warm milk. It’s always possible to break through and drown. …

“There is a hopeful side to Doña Elena’s teaching. … Even in El Mundo Malo, the Good Reality is always just on the other side of the surface of things. If you can learn to reach and pull yourself through, you can make miracles.” (Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, page 44)

But recently I have become aware that my “bubble of complacency” may actually be a bubble of white privilege. Part of white privilege is the ability to walk down the street without being suspected of a crime, to get a job based on one’s qualifications, to get a house without being discriminated against by the seller, the estate agent, or the person renting it to you. In short, these are actually rights that everybody should have access to. White privilege is also the inheritance of wealth and resources stolen from colonised countries and enslaved people – again, something that the descendants of those people should be entitled to, but are still denied, due to the lack of a will to offer or even discuss reparations.

The horrific shootings of far too many Black people in the US, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, has made me aware that for Black people in the US, there can be no “bubble of complacency”. If you can’t walk down the street without fear of arrest or shooting for “walking while Black” – if you fear for the safety of your children when they leave the house – if you know you will be treated more harshly by law enforcement, and cannot get justice or equal treatment in any sphere – then El Mundo Malo  is always lurking just beneath the surface, ready to swallow you and all that you hold dear.

Here in the UK, I have become involved recently with two organisations, both of which have made me aware that my bubble of complacency is very much a privilege.

The first is Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary. They are a group that campaigns against institutional racism, in particular the indefinite detention of asylum seekers by the Home Office. They have campaigned (successfully, in several cases) against the deportation of LGBT asylum seekers back  to countries where being LGBT is illegal. They also campaign against the detention of other asylum seekers and people who have been imprisoned for very minor crimes who are under threat of deportation. One of the most egregious injustices that they have highlighted recently has been the death in custody of Pinakin Patel, a 33-year-old holiday-maker from India who was detained with his wife Bhavisha by the UKBA (UK Border Agency) on arrival in the UK for a holiday, on suspicion of coming here to look for work. Detaining innocent holiday-makers from India is deeply racist (assuming that they were lying about coming here on holiday, among other assumptions). Make no mistake: Yarl’s Wood and other detention centres are, in effect, concentration camps. Another very worthwhile campaign against them is Close Campsfield, which in addition to campaigning for the closure of the immigration detention centre just north of Oxford, has also organised conferences to try to raise awareness of these unjust and inhumane places. Britain is the only country in Europe which detains asylum seekers indefinitely.

Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre

Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre (photo by Yvonne Aburrow)

I have also been talking to other people about the issue of how badly asylum seekers and immigrants are treated in Britain, and have been met, for the most part, with indifference and in some cases, casual racism. The only people who get it are people who either come from elsewhere, or have partners or friends in the same situation.

If you read my recent post, Blue Beltane, you will see that El Mundo Malo was trying to break through into my world, as my partner was having visa issues. Thankfully, these have now been resolved, and he is back with me, in time for a belated Beltane celebration. But that situation heightened my awareness of other  people’s problems with visas and immigration.

The other organisation is the International Liberty Association, an organisation which has consistently campaigned for democracy and human rights in Iran and the Middle East, and which promotes a tolerant and egalitarian version of Islam, where women are recognised as equals and encouraged to take up leadership roles. 2700 of their members are currently trapped in a transit camp (called, somewhat ironically, Camp Liberty) near Baghdad airport. The forces of ISIL are closing in on one side, and the Iraqi forces on the other. Because they promote democracy and human rights, the Iranian regime wants to extradite them to Iran and execute them. The Iranian regime has already murdered thousands and thousands of people who campaigned for democracy and human rights. Last night I had the privilege of meeting some people who have recently been rescued from Camp Liberty. Brave, brave souls. These are people whose relatives have been murdered, who have been in constant fear of their lives from rocket attacks, arrest, torture, and imprisonment. They have never had the luxury of a bubble of complacency.

How can we, as Pagans, respond to all these horrific situations? Certainly not by retreating ever further into a cosy world of magical illusion, bickering over the right way to cast a circle, or what colour your candles should be. Rather, by engaging in the struggle for social justice, and promoting a vision of a world where all life is sacred.

Laura Bruno expresses it well:

…we live in a Both/And Universe. El Mundo Bueno and El Mundo Malo exist simultaneously, and we summon them by honoring or rejecting the sacred — in ourselves, in others and in the “world” at large. Every time we calm ourselves and remember (re-member … give new form and vessel to) the sacredness of Air, of Fire, of Water, of Earth and of Spirit, we pull ourselves back into the Good Reality.

Rhyd Wildermuth, Alley Valkyrie, T Thorn Coyle, Crystal Blanton and others have all been doing their best to promote a compassionate and engaged Paganism, one that connects deeply with the sacred, with the gods, and with the vision of a way of living that acknowledges that life is sacred. Rhyd and Alley in particular have correctly identified capitalism as the biggest threat to the flourishing of life. Why? Because capitalism disconnects the maker from the made, the worker from their work, and encourages the idle rich to make money from the labour of others. In the UK, the gap between rich and poor has become even wider during the Conservative administration and their austerity programme.

Wikipedia’s definition of capitalism glosses over the biggest problem, which is the extraction of profit by shareholders from the enterprise.

Capitalism is an economic system and a mode of production in which trade, industries, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned. Such private firms and proprietorships are usually operated for profit, but may be operated as private nonprofit organizations.

Capitalism is not simply a market economy, where small traders make and sell their goods. It is the notion that a person who invests in a company, but does none of the actual work, is entitled to a share of the profits. The alternative to this (which has proven to be very viable and successful) is the co-operative, where every worker in the co-operative is a member and gets a share of the profits.

Pagan worldviews and visions – of what is sacred, of how we might live in harmony with the Earth and each other – are deeply important in showing what is possible. Pagans were among the first to argue that the Divine is both feminine and masculine. Now that view is widely acknowledged. Pagans were among the first to argue that Nature is sacred. Now that  view is more widely acknowledged. We also were among the first to welcome LGBT people to our circles and groups (though there are still issues with heterocentrism). Many Pagans (but not enough) are actively involved in the struggle against racism. We are often at or near the forefront of movements for social change. We can be agents of transformation, both in the struggle for social justice, and in the practice of magic to help bring about change. I would argue that showing up for demonstrations against injustices is a form of magic, in that it brings about a change in consciousness.

So, I aim to transform my “bubble of complacency” into an effort to bring about the manifestation of El Mundo Bueno for as many people as possible. Instead of luxuriating in my privilege, I intend to work  to extend that sense of comfort to as many people as possible.

The Enchanted, a beautiful article by Lia Hunter at Gods and Radicals expresses the contrast between a world of selfishness, greed, and exploitation and a world where everyone is valued, including the natural world. She writes:

We can cancel the terrible show and start writing and rehearsing, or even remembering one that does not eat our children and destroy mind, body, soul, Earth, and connection. It made us forget what community is, and what sacred means, but we can find them again. Some of us have already begun. Some of us in indigenous communities never lost them and can share them. There are paths strewn with fulfillment rather than endless hunger. We can find the paths with vital air to breathe, clean water to refresh, and solid ground to stand and circle with each other upon. Our ancestors knew them, walked them, danced them. Some continued to remember them throughout empire, despite the illusions of usurious capital and divine right of kings, and preserved markers for us in myth, symbol, and language. Nature, itself, contains markers and inspiration. Our home and kin are calling us.

Yes! We do not have to dance to the tune of war, austerity, destruction, greed, and selfishness. We can articulate a vision of a world of beauty and sacredness. We can build communities, friendships, and connections. We can work towards a world where all are equal, safe, and free. This is the sacred vision towards which our gods are calling us, which the whole of Nature is crying out for.

The sacred and the holy

The Virtuous Well at Trellech - geograph.org.uk

The Virtuous Well at Trellech (Wikipedia

Interestingly, many Pagans (including myself) seem to prefer the word “sacred” to the word “holy”.

To me, ‘sacred’ implies something that celebrates the sanctity of being alive, and it can include the erotic and the wild.

‘Holy’, on the other hand, implies abstinence from the erotic and embracing ‘civilisation’.

Interestingly, the first sense of ‘sacred’ offered by the Merriam-Webster dictionary uses a Pagan-sounding example:

Definition of SACRED

  1. a : dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity <a tree sacred to the gods>
    b : devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose) <a fund sacred to charity>
  2. a : worthy of religious veneration : holy
    b : entitled to reverence and respect
  3. : of or relating to religion : not secular or profane <sacred music>
  4. archaic : accursed
  5. a : unassailableinviolable
    b : highly valued and important <a sacred responsibility>

Whereas ‘holy‘ is defined using Christian and monotheistic examples:

Definition of HOLY

  1. : exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness
  2. : divine <for the Lord our God is holy — Psalms 99:9 (Authorized Version)>
  3. : devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity <a holy temple> <holy prophets>
  4.  a : having a divine quality <holy love>
    b : venerated as or as if sacred <holy scripture> <a holy relic>
  5.  —used as an intensive <this is a holy mess> <he was a holy terror when he drank — Thomas Wolfe> ; often used in combination as a mild oath <holy smoke>

Of course, some Pagans do use the word ‘holy’ occasionally. Here are a couple of examples.

  • How to make Pagan holy water. Once the author has established that holy water was used by the ancient Greeks and is not restricted to Christian practice, the author subsequently refers to blessed water.
  • Pagan sacred space. This article by Carl McColman (now a Catholic, but presumably still a Pagan when he wrote it) uses the term holy as synonymous with sacred at one point, but then reverts to using sacred throughout the rest of the article.

However, the word ‘sacred’ is much more frequently used in contemporary Pagan discourse. (Google for Pagan + sacred versus Pagan + holy if you don’t believe me!)

Wiktionary unpacks the etymology of ‘holy’:

From Middle English holihali, from Old English hāliġhāleġ (“holy, consecrated, sacred, venerated, godly, saintly, ecclesiastical, pacific, tame”), from Proto-Germanic*hailagaz (“holy, bringing health”), from Proto-Germanic *hailaz (“healthy, whole”), from Proto-Indo-European *koil- (“healthy, whole”). Cognate with Scots haly (“holy”), Dutch heilig (“holy”), German heilig (“holy”), Swedish helig (“holy”). More at whole.

The Old English connotation of ‘tame’ bears out my idea that  the term ‘sacred’ can include wildness, but ‘holy’ cannot.

Interestingly, when an Anglo-Saxon Heathen set out to create sacred space, it was space set apart from the surrounding land, which was inhabited by spirits regarded as malevolent.

The etymology of sacred comes from Middle English, but ultimately from Latin.

From Middle English sacredisacred, past participle of Middle English sacrensakeren (“to make holy, hallow”), equivalent to sacre +‎ -ed.

Wikipedia defines ‘holy’ as associated with the Divine, whereas ‘sacred‘ is associated with something more generally consecrated for ritual use:

holy (perceived by religious individuals as associated with the divine) or sacred (considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; or inspiring awe or reverence among believers in a given set of spiritual ideas).

So ‘sacred’ is used as a more general term without reference to the Divine.

Pagans use the term ‘sacred’ to refer to sacred space (usually a place consecrated for ritual), sacred sites (usually places that feel special and numinous, often because they were used for ritual in the past, such as stone circles, burial mounds, and holy wells), and sacred sexuality (consensual sexual activity for a spiritual purpose).

The word ‘holy’ is generally used only when it would be more easily understood by a general audience, in phrases which are already in general usage like ‘holy book‘, ‘holy well’, ‘holy water’.

Initially, I thought that the Pagan aversion to the term ‘holy’ was just an adverse reaction to its usage in Christian discourse, but I think the avoidance of it may be due to something deeper — the widespread Pagan view that everything is sacred in its own right, and does not depend on divinity to sanctify it. In addition to this, the connotations of ‘holy’ include abstinence from sex, whereas ‘sacred’ can include sexuality. In Christian discourse, ‘holy’ appears to mean something directly affected by God, whereas ‘sacred’ appears to mean something consecrated by humans. In Pagan usage, the sacredness of a thing or place can be either an inherent quality, or something conferred on it by using it in a ritual, or consecrating it. If we wanted to say that something was directly affected by, or associated with, a deity, perhaps we might use the term ‘holy’. The phrase ‘Holy Names’ appears in a Gardnerian Book of Shadows dating from 1957.

What do you think? Do you prefer ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and why?