This is proving difficult to write, despite the fact that I’ve had a few days to think about it, even now that I’ve stared at this blank screen for several minutes. So first let’s get the disclaimers out of the way. This is my truth, not universal truth. Your mileage may vary. Also, what I say may be very different from your experience, and might possibly make you angry. That’s not my intention, but I have to speak my truth.
Abrahamic and Dharmic faiths, thanks to their unbroken dominance in the cultures they have thrived in, have developed an all-embracing religious culture. Their religious cultures are ones you can walk into, sit down, relax, and experience without having to participate in its creation. A spiritual sanctuary where you can find solace when distraught without having to craft your own answers. A place to stand where you do not have to hold up the ceiling yourself. It’s for this reason so many Pagans, even those who are second and third generation, look to Abrahamic faiths for inspiration, to the Kaballah and the ancient allegories, because modern Paganism lacks an equivalent or alternative.
In Paganism a crisis of faith is an alien concept. Paganism is often seen as therapy, as self-help, and as a way to feel better about yourself. To question the pan-Pagan orthodoxy (and there is one whether you choose to recognize it or not) is not acceptable, and likely lead to people suggesting you leave Paganism for a path better suited to you. What is fascinating is that same element that suggests you leave is often the same element that loudly insists you belong when you try to distance yourself from mainstream Paganism.
I am in the midst of a crisis of faith. I have been since I left my coven at the beginning of the year. I have much love for the tradition I was initiated in, and the coven that trained me. I left because being in a coven that has a calling to teach is not right for me, even though that is an admirable and noble calling. Without a coven, and having undergone the ordeal of initiation, I came to realize that traditional initiatory Witchcraft is a true Mystery Tradition, and that outside of a coven it did not work for me. I discovered the truth of the old saying “Ye cannot be a Witch alone.” My understanding and experience of energy and ritual made solo work in that particular tradition seem futile and useless to me. Less formal forms of religious Witchcraft didn’t suit, and I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of embarking on a solo path in the tradition I was trained in. I should note that this is by no means because my initiators taught me badly or made me think this was not possible, but it is to their credit that they gave me something so big and real that I cannot bear to see it made small and cramped enough to fit just me.
Mystery Traditions are unique. Consider Eleusis. Initiates did not gather together at home to reenact the rites. They did not meet at Eleusis every Sunday, or every full moon. They underwent the rites, and sometimes never returned. That didn’t mean their initiation was insignificant, but it does say something about the scope and place of Mystery Traditions in people’s lives. You were initiated into the Mysteries of Demeter in dramatic fashion, but you went home and observed the homely rites of Hecate’s deipnon all the same. Perhaps Mystery Traditions aren’t religions, and the attempt of traditional Witchcraft and/or Wicca to be that is part of a truly new and unique innovation in the history of religion.
Perhaps Mystery Traditions were never meant to be full-fledged religions, and maybe that is part of the answer to the restless yearning in my soul. I need a deep, meaty, all-encompassing religion. Theology is deeply important to me, and while those who believe different from me are lovely people, I am not them. The drum circle, the liberal socio-political camarderie, the broadly inclusive Wiccanate ritual doesn’t do it for me religiously. I am not a mainstream Pagan. I sometimes feel as I have gone from being Pagan to being pagan.
In a religious culture that prizes blazing your own path and creating your own meaning, there are people who find it exhausting to dance on such shifting sands. There are people who desire a firmer foundation, a sheltering roof and a faith that stands without their supporting it. I am one of those people, and it is perhaps ironic that I feel I must blaze my own path now to find that. Perhaps I am Pagan after all.
The strange thing is that when you are Pagan and have a crisis of faith, you realize how poorly equipped modern Paganism is to support you. While the language might have once existed among the ancients, today the only ready language to describe such an experience and process it comes from the Abrahamic faiths, and, to a lesser extent, the Dharmic faiths.
I am not Abrahamic in any sense, tempting though it is to step into their sanctuaries and feel the palpable surety of their spiritual anchors about me. And though I will admit converting to Hinduism is not an objectionable idea, in truth I find that their faith, however fascinating and enviable, does not resonate with me.
So I find myself isolated, with no native language to describe my situation, and a few unshakeable personal truths before me:
- The Gods are distinct, greater than myself, and have an interest in humankind.
- Any unity beyond the Gods is not sentient. Monotheism, in any form, is incorrect.
- I am a polytheist, not an animist, a pantheist, a panentheist, a duotheist, a henotheist or a monotheist.
- Religion is the bond between humankind and the Gods, and it’s purpose is to foster excellence and virtue for the survival of the species.
- Religion is not what makes me feel good, nor is it therapy or pop-psychology.
- Religious culture should be multi-generational and fully accessible.
- Religion is a fully realized worldview and way of being. It is not loosely-connected disparate elements. It is coherent with a vocabulary sufficient to express all of it’s nuances and concepts clearly, but not bound by pure logic.
- Science is not opposed to religion, and very important for humanity to study and promote. However, the languages are not interchangeable. Zeus cannot be explained by string theory any more than a libation can cure cancer.
- What you believe matters as much as what you do. Only when in accord with a single vision can any physical act by humans be truly effective. This applies whether you are making the next Avengers movie, or building a temple to Athena.
- The religious work we do should not be for ourselves, but for the generations to come.
Though I do feel religiously isolated, I do not believe I am the only one who feels this way. I’m not willing to make do with what I have, or to compromise my truth just to get my “spiritual fix.” I honor my ancestors in my practice, and I have been thinking about them a lot lately.
The Iroquois held that the decisions they made should benefit the seven generations to come. When I look back through my family tree I find that eight generations ago Lt. Laughlin Fanning served in the Virginia militia under General Washington, and was at Yorktown when Cornwallis surrendered. He was only one man and I have no idea if he was brave or cowardly. I do not know if he distinguished himself, or if he did the bare minimum. What I do know is that the fact that he fought and survived has a direct impact on my existence today. Not only do I exist, but I exist in a secular democracy.
This second-generation Irish immigrant is a reminder that what I do echoes down through the centuries, as well as what I don’t do. If religion is this important to me, then it’s my duty to leave a better religious ecosytem behind me than I found.
So I will be using this blog to explore Hellenic religion, which I have always been drawn to, as an ecosystem. I will be trying to find a firm foundation, solid walls and a sheltering roof in that ancient faith that does not require me to hold them up. I suspect this once existed, not merely physically, but spiritually and culturally.
I’m no scholar. I’m a failed homeschooling experiment with a GED. But maybe if I talk about this and explore this, it might inspire others to do the same. And maybe it will slowly build a religious culture that future generations can walk into, sit down and simply be in. So long ago we began speaking of our sacred stories as myths, placing ancient paganism at a distance from our modern practice, and even considering the ancients as religiously ignorant compared to our post-Jungian selves. I don’t know when we began to prefer ruins over habitable faith, but that’s what I feel the need to correct. At least for myself and those who feel as I do, today and in years to come.
Maybe this all seems arrogant. Maybe I suffer from hubris. If so, then I expect the Gods will make that known in their own way. Maybe it will please them just a little bit. I certainly hope so. After all, I think it’s fair to say some of Greek philosophy likely had a crisis of faith as its impetus.