Friday, 9 September 2011

The Question of Faith

"A Priestess"
by J W Godward (1894)
I have an ambivalent attitude to faith. When, for a number of years, I was more or less a follower of Buddhism the subject of divine beings would occasionally surface and the Buddhist view seemed to be that there are divine beings (Devas  note that this word is cognate with the Latin word Deus), who live in something like what we would call heaven but that they are not immortal (though many devas live much longer lives than humans), they did not create the world, they are not omniscient and they are not omnipotent, however some devas are of "great moral authority and prestige and thus deserving of a high degree of respect". According to the Pali canon, the Buddha stated that making offerings to the devas is "noble" and an example of "wealth gone to good use". Ancient Greeks and Romans were also more or less familiar with this perspective as it is not so very different from the Epicurean perspective on the Gods – though I would not go so far, as Epicurus did, as to say that the Gods do not concern themselves at all with human beings, as this is something we cannot know.  

It follows, from this quasi-Buddhist approach to which I am heir, that divine beings are not in need of our private or collective faith in them, although they are not therefore averse or indifferent to reverential treatment. For me there is a difference between respectful reverence and faith. I cannot believe that any divine being worth worshipping could be so appallingly narcissistic as to require my unwavering faith and trust in his or her existence. I confess that I do not unwaveringly believe in Paganism. I do have doubts - I sometimes think that, like so many religious beliefs, Paganism is a fantasy made up by humans who cannot cope with life being no more than sound and fury, signifying nothing. As Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus:
"This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart."
The question of faith only tends to confirm this fearful view; it is well documented that people experiencing a strong detachment from reality, in the form of psychoses, often experience faith and religious feeling very strongly. Their faith is an internal perspective which they have imposed on their external world. Their faith can be so strong that all attempts to reason with them are quite futile - even if they recognise that they themselves are being unreasonable. It is trite to say that such people are insane and hence their experience should be disregarded - insanity and sanity are not a case of either/or, rather they exist on a gradient of human experience. In any case, whenever I read of prophets, those men of unshakeable faith, it seems to me that such people would, in our own times, not infrequently fall within the DSM diagnostic criterion for bipolar – madness and faith are oftentimes hand in hand. Indeed having “mystical experiences” and “feeling one with nature in terms of appreciating the beauty and the world around, and believing that things have special significance” are often considered to be among the symptoms of mania.

Thus the problem I face is that, to me, faith seems like a mere emotion, an inner condition or a personal perspective. Faith does not make anything true, it just makes something feel more true while at the same time abrogating one's ability to ask all possible questions and to be open to all possible answers. And yet I am not, obviously, an atheist. I have had a number of spiritual experiences which I am not so cynical as to ascribe to a vivid imagination or mere chance and coincidence. Nor am I willing to hold them up as beacons confirming my "faith". I say merely that I do not know and I am not sure. At times my belief in polytheism is strong and sincere. At other times I feel like there is nothing there and I am like a child playing with her imaginary friends. Both experiences are mere feelings and cannot point me towards truth.

Regardless, however strong or weak my belief, I never abandon my regular Pagan practice. I cannot see that my rituals do any harm and in fact the quiet sincerity of my practice (which is so sincere that I acknowledge my doubts) is a moment of calm and reflection which feels very healthy.

However, let me not stray from the fundamental purpose of performing deeds in honour of divine beings; essentially it is to show that you are respectful of them and to court their goodwill. If good things are happening perhaps divinity plays a hand, or perhaps it does not? Again I do not claim to know, but given that I have little to lose (unless I become morbidly superstitious) and potentially much to gain by regular, Pagan observance, I continue to observe rituals wherein I manifest my respect for "all benevolent divine beings" (whoever and whatever they may precisely be - Gods, Devas, angels, bodhisattvas or whatever name they go by) and "local spirits" (whether they be fairies, nymphs, ghosts or some other kind of spirit). 

Postscript (2015): for an excellent discussion on faith by Elmaz Abinader see A question of faith - with a lower case 'f'.

Post script (2016): for an overview of how my attitude to faith has changed since writing the above post see Faith in Polytheism.

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook

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