The Matter Of Faith
Faith, simply put, is trust.
Some Pagans have a negative reaction to the entire concept of faith, because it has become synonymous in our culture with one particular brand of faith: Christian. But I submit that, whether one is Christian or Pagan or whatever, faith is the root and foundation of any serious spiritual life. Christian faith and Pagan faith may differ radically, but I believe that faith itself, that is to say trust, is indispensable in any genuine relationship with the Divine, however we may understand It. If I have no trust in my Goddess and my God, then I am simply going through the motions of being a Witch, and I might as well just declare myself an atheist and get it over with.
From my experience as a nominal Christian in my youth, and from my observations since then, it seems that Christian faith is an almost fanatical trust that God or Jesus will deliver the faithful from the tribulations of this life, and secure that person a place in Paradise in the afterlife. Pagan faith, on the other hand – at least as I practice it – is an implicit trust that my Goddess and my God will always help me to find within myself the resources to deal with the trials of life. A large part of my spiritual life as a Witch is spent opening myself to the various ways in which the Divine communicates with me in the course of my daily life, so that when a crisis does occur, the lines of communication are already open.
These two types of faith may be labeled “passive” and “active, ” and objectively neither is really superior to the other. I do, however, have my personal opinions and preferences.
Faced with a crisis, a Christian will tend to pray and “put things in God’s hand, ” trusting that their Lord will set things right. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as most negative situations are beyond our human control anyway, and the more we meddle, trying to “fix” things, the worse the situation gets, and the more stressful it becomes. “Getting out of our own way” by turning the matter over to a spiritual power, and trusting that the situation will work out, may indeed be the best course of action, and in this situation, faith becomes the psychic buffer that allows someone to let circumstances run their course without living in constant anxiety. Using their version of prayer and having deep faith in their Lord and Savior, the Christian is effectively working magic, if one defines magic as “changing consciousness at will.”
Speaking solely for myself, I believe that this type of faith ultimately disempowers the individual. Like a child who never escapes the apron strings, the practitioner of passive faith learns nothing from the challenges of life, and can only meet each new challenge as the last was met, with passivity and an abdication of responsibility.
Active faith, on the other hand, encourages – even demands – that the individual take responsibility and take action, even if that action is taking no action at all. This last may seem a bit paradoxical, but it is really an important and subtle point. A practitioner of passive faith may take no action by default – the matter has been turned over to God, and there is no further need for personal action. Indeed, continuing to struggle after invoking Divine intercession could be seen as a denial of faith. The practitioner of active faith, on the other hand, may elect to take no action, but only after appropriate contemplation of the situation, and due consultation with the Gods. In this context, taking no action becomes a choice, perhaps just one among many.
There is a Jewish proverb that says: “Pray as if everything depends on God, act as if everything depends on you.” I think this is a beautiful and concise definition of active faith, one that is both eminently mystical and logically practical, and it is the manner in which I strive to live my life as a Witch.
One important function of faith, in the spiritual or religious sense, is indeed to satisfy deep psychological needs. My faith, my trust, that my Goddess and God are always with me helps me to feel secure, appreciated and loved unconditionally, often in the face of insecurity, rejection and hatred. My Deities do not eliminate the negative circumstances willy-nilly. Rather, They provide the guidance whereby I find within myself the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual resources to deal with those negative circumstances. I do not hide behind Them, but I know They are “watching my back.”
For many people, Pagan and non-Pagan, this sense of “Divine parenting” is all that is required of faith. Many people can accept it and practice it simply because it is a tenet of their chosen religion, and it is so effective in their lives that they never find the need to go deeper.
For some of us, however, the matter of faith runs much deeper, into realms that are difficult to address via the cumbersome medium of the spoken or written word, and the linchpin of this difference is often the “spiritual experience.”
I have heard it said that there is a difference between “faith” and “belief.” One is said to have faith when one trusts in something that cannot be or has not been proven. One believes in something that one has directly experienced. Today, the words are synonymous to me, largely because I have been fortunate enough to have had two powerful “spiritual experiences” in my Pagan life. Members of 12 Step fellowships often refer to these as “burning bushes;” the immediate and undeniable manifestation of Divine presence in our ordinary reality. Before the first such event, I had “faith” in the Gods because that was what a good Pagan was “supposed” to do. Actually, it was simply a matter of fitting the spiritual beliefs that I had developed on my own into the Pagan context. But still, I took it “on faith” that the Gods were real, as I had not yet had direct experience of Them. After my first spiritual experience, I believed in the Gods the same way I believed in my ’92 Taurus, for They were suddenly just as “real” and just as “present” in my life.
Faith and belief have their own logic, if one can call it that, and it is certainly fractal in nature. I think, at times, we grasp that logic in a brief and tentative manner. Ultimately, however, it eludes examination and defeats definition. Nor is it necessary, for me at least, to know “how” or “why” it works. It is enough that I have faith, belief and trust in my Deities. These, along with willingness, are the doors through which They enter my life, that we may dance together.
In Their Service…