“I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.” – Neil Gaiman, “American Gods”
From time to time, due to the popularity of my blog, folks have been given to speculating on what my stance or agenda is given a certain political, social, or theological topic. For various reasons, I have tried, or more accurately, learned, to keep the personal stuff as close to the vest as possible. Partially because I write about people I disagree with all the time (though I personally like many of those I disagree with), and partially because I want the focus to be on “us,” rather than on me. I don’t always succeed in this, because I’m human and fallible, and sometimes because my hesitancy to get involved will do more to convince someone of my partisan nature than any action.
Lately there’s been a debate over, well, I guess you could call it a debate between those who believe praxis (practice) is primary in Paganism, above even belief in the deities invoked, and those who believe that practice is meaningless without that belief. I inadvertently became enmeshed in this debate when I featured a guest post by Brendan Myers on Humanistic Paganism. Many took this post to be an insult towards the intelligence of Pagans who believe in the reality of gods and powers, and a wide-ranging debate took place across the Pagan blogosphere on the topic of the “atheist question.” For a number of reasons, mostly due to me wrestling with burnout and being busy with my other job, I didn’t document or follow this discussion at The Wild Hunt. This led some, perhaps understandably, to think I was a partisan in this matter. That I favored an agnostic/atheistic view of Paganism over a more devotional model.
So let me set the record as straight I can, without engaging in troublesome over-sharing.
This debate has been bringing to my mind Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods,” because the entire work is a treatise on belief disguised as an action-adventure story featuring various gods and powers. At different points several key characters give their view on what is important regarding belief, from the “let’s give everything a shot” monologue of the character Sam, quoted above, to the following quote from Wednesday, which no doubt warms the cockles of reconstructionist and devotional-minded Pagans everywhere.
“And tell me, as a pagan, who do you worship?’ ’Worship?’ ’That’s right. I imagine you must have a pretty wide open field. So to whom do you set up your household altar? To whom do you bow down? To whom do you pray to at dawn and at dusk?’ ’The female principle. It’s an empowerment thing. You know.’ ’Indeed. And this female principle of yours. Does she have a name?’ ’She’s the goddess within us all. She doesn’t need a name.’ ’Ah,’ said Wednesday, with a wide monkey grin, ‘so do you hold mighty bacchanals in her honour? Do you drink blood wine under the full moon, while scarlet candles burn in silver candle holders? Do you step naked into the seafoam, chanting ecstatically to your nameless goddess while the waves lick at your legs, lapping your thighs like the tongues of a thousand leopards?’”
Wednesday is making the point that her “belief,” being nameless and formless, is meaningless to the old gods who cling to existence in the novel. That she isn’t worshiping anything at all, aside from herself. It’s a quote I’ve seen trotted out many times over the years, usually to critique eclectic practitioners, fence-sitting agnostics, and “fluffy-bunnies” of various stripes. It says, practice is meaningless without a devotional focus, without a god or goddess to benefit from your sacrifice. Of course, Gaiman gives plenty of time to the humanistic side, if you want to call it that. Often pointing out just how dangerous belief can be when not corralled and given limits. In fact, you could argue that the underlying message of “American Gods” is that America is “a poor place for gods.”
In any case, what I believe.
I guess I inhabit the mushy middle of this debate. There are days where I believe in the existence of discrete spiritual entities that many of us call “gods” or “powers” or “mysterious ones,” and there are days where I think Jung had the right idea about archetypes and the collective unconscious. I believe that artists, musicians, poets, and storytellers are far more vital than priests and clergy, and that religion is a by-product of art, not the other way around.
“It is the artist’s responsibility to be the oracle, to abstract where you are – that is our responsibility – we’re not there to look glamorous, you know? We’re there to tune into the frequency of the Earth and the connective tissues of those things that we are responding to – language, colour, costume, literature, poetry, cuisine, perfume – these are the things that make up the desire to throw paint on a canvas, these are the things that create the excitement for building a new language!” - Lisa Gerrard, Dead Can Dance
I believe the construct we call “modern Paganism,” that colossal egregore with which we hope to change the course of the world, is far more reliant on art than on either devotion or practice. I also think I’m incredibly biased on that score since my identity was wrapped up in being an artist for the bulk of my adult life (but I still think I’m correct, despite being aware of this bias). I believe people like Morpheus Ravenna or Thorn Coyle, who express far more intimate dealings with the divine that I could ever claim, are awesome, powerful, and needful no matter what the ultimate reality of the powers they interact with. I believe that our community, if you want to call it that, is at a turning point in where we go next and that’s why these debates seem so intense right now. I believe that when I chant to two very different powers at the same time, I get travel luck, and I believe that I am thanking them for that service when I leave offerings at the crossroads.
“We are more than we think, and that is not the puffed up shell of an out of balance ego. We are more than we think because we are limited by what our very imaginations will allow. Can we stretch the realm of possibility today? Can we risk becoming more?” – T. Thorn Coyle
I believe that my highest service to these powers is being done by writing The Wild Hunt every day. I also believe that this is true even if all the gods are a lie, and we are simply co-creating a new paradigm of reality with nothing but our mortal selves. That the enterprise, and what we Pagans collectively do, is important no matter how we choose to be a part of it. That’s what I believe at this moment. This is who I am right now.