I live with one foot in the world of science and the other in the world of magic. I am an engineer and a Druid, a corporate manager and a priest. It is not the easiest path to walk… though I think most of us who are Pagans in the 21st century West walk this path to one degree or another.
Sometimes the tension between these two worlds produces conflicts that are difficult to resolve. If we are to live both fully and with integrity we must learn to deal with this tension. I’ve been in one of those conflicts the past couple of days.
I. It started with this blog by Juniper who tells the story of a young woman who had been harassed by a “nasty spirit” and the trouble the woman had in finding someone to help her get rid of it. It’s very good and worth your time to read, but stay with me here for now.
The woman asked Juniper why no one in a rather large Pagan community would help her. Juniper offered several possibilities, first among them that some Pagans simply don’t believe in “the woo stuff.” She’s right – some don’t… and it’s pretty hard to banish a nasty spirit when you don’t believe nasty spirits really exist.
Could I have helped this woman? I’ve done some cleansing and shielding but I’ve never tackled anything quite like this. It may very well be beyond my skill level. I could make a couple phone calls and bring in some people I’d trust to take on pretty much anything, but until the occasion arises I’ll never know for sure.
And Juniper’s question remains – do I really believe? If I have doubts, could they keep me from working magic – or from even trying? Is this something that requires both feet in the same world?
II. Then I had a comment on my No Unsacred Place essay “Meeting the Spirits of the Land” that challenged the reality of my experiences. The commenter asked “You have any actual evidence these creatures exist?”
I think I gave a pretty good answer, basically telling him this is unverified personal gnosis. My experiences of “the woo stuff” are meaningful and helpful so I order my life as though they are real, even though I can never be sure. And since I can’t be sure I don’t go around insisting that others take my experiences at face value. If you want to interpret them metaphorically or psychologically I won’t argue with you. You might be right.
That’s an answer both the Druid and the engineer in me can speak with integrity.
III. Yesterday I came across this essay by Southern Baptist theologian Rev. Al Mohler where he insists all Christians must believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. I’m not going to get into why Mohler is wrong from a Christian viewpoint – if you’re interested, here’s a link to an excellent article on the subject by ReligiousTolerance.org.
When I read this the tension between science and magic popped up again. How can I accept Juniper’s story of nasty spirits at face value but dismiss Mohler’s story of a virgin birth?
Both stories make supernatural claims and neither story can be objectively verified. But when you look at them more closely you see they’re very different stories told for very different purposes and making very different claims to truth.
The Pagan story relates a personal experience to tell us we should be respectful of other people’s beliefs – this woman believed she was being harassed by a spirit and she didn’t get relief until she found someone who took her seriously. This story understands that unverified personal gnosis can be very meaningful but it cannot be used as a basis for universal Truth. While some people may have similar experiences, some do not and others have contradictory experiences, none of which can be objectively confirmed or rejected.
The Calvinist (I refuse to lump conscientious followers of Jesus in with fundamentalist Bible-worshippers) story relates a mythical experience and tells us we must believe it happened literally, not because the evidence for it is so strong but because if it did not happen literally then the whole doctrine on which Calvinist Christianity is based will come crashing down. It claims a literal certainty it cannot support and threatens its hearers with eternal damnation if they don’t believe it anyway.
It is not the story of the virgin birth of Jesus I reject or even its possibility. It is the certainty of a literal virgin birth I cannot accept.
IV. These incidents illustrate a major challenge for Pagans living in the 21st century West. We understand the difference between literal truth and mythical truth. We understand unverified personal gnosis – its meanings and its limitations. We walk easily with one foot in the world of science and the other in the world of magic.
But when we step into the circle or when we invoke our gods and goddesses or when we are called on to banish a troublesome spirit we must have both feet in the same world. For that time outside of time in that place not a place we must have the confidence that everything we see and hear and do and say is absolutely real.
During an invocation is not the time to debate whether our deities are individuals or aspects or archetypes – at that time they simply ARE. During a working is not the time to debate whether a spell is directed energy or divine intercession or psychological programming or all of the above – at that time it simply IS.
Don’t try to banish your doubts and don’t try to pretend you don’t have them. Go down that route and you’ll end up believing that if a virgin didn’t give birth your whole religion is worthless. Simply set your doubts aside while you’re in the circle. For that time take a hint from the Buddhists: just be, just do, just experience. Don’t judge and don’t evaluate. Commune with your gods and ancestors. Journey to other worlds. Work magic.
After the circle, pick up your doubts and put one foot back in the world of science. You had the experiences – that makes them real. Contemplate them and decide what interpretation is most meaningful and helpful for you.
V. Some people can’t set foot in the world of magic. If there’s no objective, verifiable evidence then they can’t believe it. That’s fine – not everyone is called to this path. We don’t judge people by their beliefs but by how they live their lives.
Some people can’t step out of the world of magic. If everything they believe isn’t literally true then they lose their faith. Again, if that’s their calling so be it. We don’t judge people by their beliefs but by how they live their lives.
As for me, I’m called to walk in both worlds.
And so I do.