Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Faith in Polytheism

Roman coin depicting Fides, minted 2nd century CE
Source: romanmint.com
One of my first posts on this blog, nearly five years ago, was about the question of faith. It turns out this has been amongst the more popular of my posts. In it I essentially make the case for leaving faith out of my religious perspective. In one of the more articulate passages I wrote:
“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.” 
When I wrote this my mother had been dead for less than a year. Her long illness (cancer) and death was profoundly traumatic for me and part of that experience was made up of her elder sisters, both devout Christians, coercing, persuading, and generally doing all that they could to convert her before she died. As she edged closer to death she began to fear the prospect of hell, without definitively converting, and it disturbed her peace of mind in her final months. For this reason I went through a phase of disliking Christianity and, to me, “faith” was a term irrevocably linked to it. I associated faith inextricably with the word that often precedes it – blind. The notion of faith seemed like (to me at the time) a dodgy trick by which people were lured into believing untrue things based on the flimsiest of evidence.* Fast-forward a few years and things have a changed somewhat. I can now look at faith without the caustic afterglow brought about by my previous antipathy to Christian beliefs.

The word faith derives from the Latin fides which means, inter alia, trust, reliance and confidence. The well known expression bona fides gives us an idea of its meaning. Literally bona fides means good faith but when in English we say bona fides (or bona fide) we mean to give extra credence to what we say. The implication is that when we say bona fides we tell the truth and what we state can be trusted.

A woman prays in a Hindu temple (London)
Image source: allposters.com
When one moves along a spiritual path it is natural that over time one begins to have confidence in it – this is faith, but it is genuine faith, not artificially imposed via religious doctrine. This new understanding of faith is much gentler. What I have faith in is that it is possible, in one’s better moments, to live in a more respectful and intelligent way within our multifaceted and profoundly interconnected universe or, put another way, to achieve pax Deorum (peace with the Gods)  a state of internal and external harmony free from anxiety and confusion, which is the traditional purpose of Roman polytheism. I have faith that when this happens one achieves an enhanced life state that extends to both the physical and mental domain. I believe that anybody can potentially achieve this enhanced life state, but of course they would have to work at it, through a concerted attempt to respectfully and repeatedly connect with the divine, such as by maintaining a shrine and making offerings. I do not state that I am in possession of this enhanced life state (though I may experience it from time to time), only that I have faith that it is possible to achieve it. 

I do tend to think that ethical behaviour has a role to play in all of this, as a means of demonstrating one's respect for the environment in which we live (which is a microcosm and intrinsic part of our divine universe); it is clear that many ancients would have agreed with this sentiment, for the Goddess Fides was worshipped in Rome amongst those who oversaw their moral integrity (other such deities include Virtus, Honos and Concordia – the Gods of virtue, honour** and concord). Fides’ festival day was 1 October and it is said that King Numa built a temple to her in the earliest days of Rome; certainly one existed by the 3rd century BCE.


This is not to say that I consider faith to be a necessary prerequisite to polytheistic practice. No, absolutely not; action comes first, this is what matters. It is not what you think, but what you do that is really important (though your thoughts may determine your actions), but over time action can lead to the development of faith, not blind faith, not stupid, submissive faith, but faith built with the bricks of reason and experience. I now tend to think that faith is a nice to have within any religious outlook; it is the antidote to a sort of nihilistic cynicism that too often goes hand in hand with depression. If you have faith (I think) you have a better sense of agency in the world, you have a sense that there are things you can do to improve one’s lot, rather than being tossed hither and thither from brief pleasures to subdued despair, and in any other direction that fate throws you. However, like all the best things in life (love, for example), it is not something that can be forced, but emerges naturally.


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* This was my view then – my attitude to Christianity is now much more open minded. I think there is a great deal of beauty and truth in Christian teachings, when they are about love, compassion, frugality, charity, equality, ethical living and so on. It is when Christianity focuses on sin, hellfire, emotional self-flagellation, etc that I turn my back on it.


**Ancient Roman attributes commonly associated with virtue and honour include courage, diligence, steadfastness, self-discipline, austerity (or, at least, a life not given over to luxury), pietas (an unswerving sense of duty to family, friends, country and Gods) and gravitas (taking one's responsibilities seriously). For ancient Roman women add sexual modesty and fidelity (Shelton).

Mostly written ab lib, with facts checked against britannica.com, Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome (Vol 2), Cambridge University Press, Shelton, As the Romans Did, Oxford University Press and Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome, Routledge.

Written by M. Sentia Figula.

6 comments:

  1. Your God-fearing relatives are praying for you.
    Be afraid....be very afraid! *vbg*

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    1. They can pray all they like - we need all the good vibes we can get. Just as long as they keep Satan and hellfire to themselves and don't get too pushy I reckon it's all good. I have a lot more respect for Christianity than I did a few years back (though it is not a religion I could see myself ever converting to) - like any religious path it has strengths and weaknesses:)

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  2. Just when I feared christianity and AA had infiltrated Antartica and another continent was going to be over-run, I was beyond impressed to find a Odin totem one of the researchers had carved in the 70s.

    Google Fred-the-head, Man Sculptured by Antartica

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    1. Odin is usually depicted as blind in one eye so I wouldn't call it an Odin totem, but it is somewhat similar to traditional wooden carvings from the Slavic north, which is pretty cool, though it reminds me more of the Easter Island carvings than anything else:)

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    2. This is Odin before he gave his eye to drink from the Well of Mimir...and the style of carving is reminiscent of the Cycladic culture than the Rapa Nui. :-P

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    3. We'll have to agree to disagree about the style;) but I agree it is very cool!

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