A Pagan Faith

Mention faith in the Pagan world and you’re likely to get a negative response.

“I don’t need faith – I have experience.”

“My gods don’t ask me to believe – they ask me to do.”

“Don’t say ‘faith’ when you mean ‘religion’ – my religion isn’t based on faith.”

These complaints are valid.  The conflation of belief with faith and faith with religion is a result of the dominance of Christianity in the West and in particular the influence of Evangelical Protestantism in the contemporary United States.  There is an assumption that religion is about what you believe – which set of unprovable propositions you affirm and which ones you reject.

This assumption has carried over into alternative religions.  There’s a quote from Deepak Chopra floating around social media:  “Religion is the belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.”  This is a very weak definition of religion rooted in the assumptions of orthodox Christianity.

More inclusively, religion is a set of practices shown to be useful in facilitating religious experiences.  Religion is a set of rituals and customs shown to be meaningful to individuals and communities.  Religion is a set of values shown to be helpful in living a good life in a good community.

Religion is the collective experience of our ancestors.  We don’t have to reinvent the proverbial wheel – we can use the wheels our ancestors left us to travel further down the paths to which we’ve been called, build on what they left us, and leave better wheels for those who come after us.

Our pre-Christian ancestors didn’t put much emphasis on faith.  What was important was living virtuously and honoring the gods.  Your beliefs about the gods were far less important, and the idea of blindly assenting to a creed, to a formal “this I believe” would have been meaningless.  Rejecting the primacy of faith is part of the Pagan restoration.

But there is a place for faith in modern Paganism.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary gives two meanings of faith.  One follows the common Christian-influenced understanding:  “belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion; firm belief in something for which there is no proof; complete trust.”

But there is another meaning:  “allegiance to duty or a person; loyalty; fidelity to one’s promises.”  For Pagans – and pretty much everyone other than orthodox Christians – faith isn’t about having faith, it’s about being faithful.

Are your ancestors living in the Otherworld?  Have they been reincarnated?  Has their consciousness merged with the Universe?  Being faithful doesn’t require that you insist one of these unprovable propositions is true and the rest are false – it simply requires that you honor your ancestors.

Are the gods individual beings or are they aspects of one Divine entity?  Are they like us, only more, or are they categorically different?  How important are we humans to them?  Are they even beings at all, or are they archetypes and metaphors?  I have some strong beliefs around those questions, beliefs I advocate on a fairly regular basis.  Being faithful doesn’t require you to agree with me or anyone else – it requires you to honor the gods in the way they ask you to do, and to do your best to embody their virtues and support their values.

Is the Earth our Great Mother?  Is it the body of the Goddess?  Is it the creation of the gods?  Is it a living organism?  Being faithful doesn’t require you believe anything about the Earth – it requires that you live responsibly on the Earth and that you care for the Earth and its creatures.

Being faithful requires that you keep your word, your commitments and your honor.  When Pwyll Lord of Dyved spent a year in the form of Arawn, he slept chastely with the Queen of Annwvyn every night.  When Arawn discovered what had – and hadn’t – happened he proclaimed “what a faithful comrade I took for a friend!”  Whether Pwyll was faithful to Arawn, the Queen, his wife or himself makes for an interesting cultural debate, but in any case, he was faithful.

Being faithful requires that you keep showing up and doing the work, day after day, month after month, year after year.  You aren’t responsible for changing the world – you are responsible for doing what you’re called to do.

Being faithful doesn’t mean you don’t have doubts.  It means you don’t let those doubts keep you from doing what you’re called to do.

It matters what we believe.  It matters more what we do.

Having faith isn’t bad.  Being faithful is better.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

    I’d even say that the second definition you give is closer to the actual original meaning, in the sense that ‘faith’ comes, ultimately, from Latin ‘fides’ which, in classical Latin referred to the reciprocal trust and loyalty between people, especially people in a patron/client type of relationship. In this sense, it’s an entirely appropriate word for a polytheist to use in respect to their relationship with their gods.

  • Meical abAwen

    Nicely said, John. When Christians wonder how I can be a good person without having ‘faith’, I reply ‘I am first and foremost a man of faith.’ Now, I’ll be better able to express what I mean by that. Thank you. Meical abAwen

    • Natalie Reed

      It always seemed odd to me that some Christians think we would all be criminals if it were not for the threat of eternal damnation……more a comment on their own character than ours I suppose. Either way I think Darwin explains it well enough – we have survived.

      • Meical abAwen

        Yes. How odd that they do not see that… Talk about cultural blinders.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

        I would ask them “if there were no law, and no God, would you rape and steal and murder?” Very few people would. They don’t refrain from doing these things because they fear punishment, they refrain because they don’t want to do them.

        As much as I rant about wanting to blow up stupid people who cause traffic jams, I’m pretty sure if I could, I wouldn’t.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Thanks, Meical.

  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    Indeed. My working definition is “fidelity to past experience.” Sometimes we have these moments of clarity and insight; often things are murky and obscure. Faith is my way of getting through the latter by remembering the former.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Yes, and the fidelity is to the experiences, not to the beliefs that are formed from them.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    A good discussion, John–nicely conveyed!
    The big toss-up over this, of course, comes down (at least for me) to the terminology used to translate some important terms from Greek and Latin. In Greek, pistis gets translated “faith,” but it means something more like “trust, fidelity” (like the Latin fides), and–perhaps this is the essential difference–”confidence.” That sort of confidence doesn’t come from blind adherence to tradition or “blind faith,” as Christians would often prefer (or insist), it comes down to having gnosis and experience and trusting in that.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Thanks, PSVL. Not having much skill with languages, I didn’t want to get into translations. I suspect there are many Christians who would argue with the idea of blind faith (or at least with its primacy), but those who promote it are especially loud in our culture.

  • http://www.mysticcomfort.com/ Mystic Comfort

    I think this definition fits paganism, too: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof; complete trust.” As pagans, we exercise this kind of faith every day, don’t we? Maybe not *complete* trust, but I would imagine that that is the goal. It is for me, anyway.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I have beliefs based on my experiences. There is no proof my beliefs are correct, but there’s no proof they aren’t, so I believe what seems most likely, and what has shown to be meaningful and helpful.

      But these beliefs are held loosely. More experience – mine or others’ – may cause me to change them. My fidelity, my loyalty, is to the experiences, not to my interpretations of them.

      • http://www.mysticcomfort.com/ Mystic Comfort

        Hmm, I see what you mean. That’s true, beliefs can change with experience. I still think of it as faith, but I guess not the kind of passionate conviction that definition suggests.

  • yewtree

    Great post.

  • CINDY ORTIZ

    Faith for Christians is Faith in the Almighty God the creator of heaven and earth. That’s it. An unseen force that is felt in our lives on a daily basis. You don’t know anything about faith until you walk with the Spirit. You people are walking in the flesh depending on yourselves to be good persons. Only God can change man’s heart. You will never, ever find yourself. and that is why you have to write a gazillion books about how to do it. When you accept Jesus as King, Lord and Savior you finally find yourself and your purpose and there is only one book we need to read for advice. It’s the bible and we read it with faith.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I know a good many Christians whose idea of faith is closer to mine – they try to be faithful to Jesus and his teachings. As for me, Jesus and I remain on speaking terms, but we both realize I’ll do far more good as an enthusiastic Pagan than as a reluctant Christian.

      And my heart doesn’t need to be changed.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • CINDY ORTIZ

    a true Christian is not reluctant.


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