It’s always a little disconcerting to hear your own voice. I remember the first time I played with a tape recorder – I asked my mother “do I really sound like that?” It was a cheap cassette recorder, but yeah, I pretty much sounded like that. All these years later, I still do. My voice is higher-pitched, my Southern accent is more pronounced, and my speech pattern is a lot rougher (uhs and ums, starts and stops, etc.) than I like to think it is.
I should be familiar with my own voice by now. I’ve recorded myself countless times, I’ve got stuff on YouTube, and I’ve been interviewed on several podcasts. Last week I was a guest on Down at the Crossroads podcast. When I started listening to it, my first thought was “this is better.” It helped that Chris Orapello edited out some long pauses and places where I stopped and started over. It wasn’t great, but it was much better than usual.
As the podcast moved into the second segment where I was talking about my recent Otherworldly experiences, I heard something I rarely hear in my recorded voice: passion. I’m usually the voice of reason, a calm and logical presence. But I heard myself not just telling stories (i.e. – relaying facts) but also interpreting those stories and orienting them within a metaphysical context. I spoke of the Gods, the Otherworld, a cyclical view of time, and other elements of a Pagan and polytheist worldview – my voice tone said they’re all as real as the ground we walk on.
If this sounds like I’m bragging, well, maybe I am. Writing passionately comes easy for me – speaking passionately doesn’t. This is a part of me I don’t hear very often, and I kinda like it.
But as I listened further, I started getting concerned. Was I being too passionate? Was I implying I have a religious certainty that I don’t actually have? (There is no such thing as religious certainty.) Is Chris going to get e-mails demanding to know why he gave a platform to someone who’s trying to tell everybody what they have to believe? (a charge that’s never true but that I hear occasionally.)
This is why I’m confident my passion is not misplaced.
The experiences are real. In a comment on The Otherworld is Bleeding Through, someone suggested that maybe I made it all up. For someone who doesn’t know me, that’s a reasonable question to ask. But I know I’m not lying – I saw what I saw. I know how I feel when I make offerings to the Gods. I know how I feel when a spirit speaks to me, and I know how that’s different from my own stray thoughts. I know the Tarot cards I draw and how they line up with the things going on in my life.
From the tiniest coincidence to the most powerful ecstatic communion, these things happen. They’re real. We can debate what causes them and what they mean, but we cannot debate the fact that they happen.
Never, ever say “it was nothing.” If you must force your spiritual experiences into a materialist box (“there must be a rational explanation for this!”) so be it, but do not lie to yourself and say “nothing happened.” Something did happen – our experiences are real.
Repetition brings confidence. There are several reasons why the first eight years of my Pagan journey were less than satisfying. High on that list is that I didn’t practice consistently.
We’re born spiritual beings and most of us have numerous experiences of magic in our early years. But then we spend years and years having it educated out of us. Mind you, I value education highly. I just wish our education system focused more on learning and learning how to learn, and a lot less on conforming to mainstream expectations.
We don’t get over those 12 or 16 or however many years of indoctrination overnight, particularly when we’re trying to “make a living” under difficult circumstances. All our lives we’ve been told there is only one God, or there are no Gods. Accepting the idea that we share our world with many Gods and spirits doesn’t come easily, even when those very same Gods and spirits are whispering in our ears.
And then one day something happens, and we know all our practice has been worthwhile. Then it happens again, and we start to accept that the world isn’t as black and white as we were taught in school. It happens again, and again, and again, and we start to develop the confidence to speak about cyclical time and Gods moving in the world, and to speak about them passionately.
Our interpretations inspire helpful actions. For all our wondrous experiences of the Otherworld, the vast majority of our time is spent in the ordinary world. Our experiences of Gods and spirits aren’t entertainment or pleasant diversions. Rather, they inspire us to embody the virtues of the Gods, to work with and for Them to bring the world more in line with Their values, and to live in such a way as to be worthy of the honor of our descendants.
We cannot know if our religions are “right.” They deal with questions that are not just beyond our current knowledge, but beyond our capacity to know. A religion that preaches something that is demonstrably false (i.e. – young earth creationism) is wrong. But for the rest of us, the question is not whether our religion is right but whether it’s helpful.
My belief that time is cyclical and that we are at the beginning of a downswing motivates me to clear my life of nonessentials and focus on building strong communities. My belief that the Otherworld is bleeding through to this world motivates me to pay attention to what’s going on around me, and to treat strangers with the kind of cautious respect with which one would approach the Good Neighbors. My belief that I am working for and with the Gods helps me to accept that even though my actions are small and my lifespan short (as are all of us in the grand scheme of things), I can make a meaningful contribution to something that will take multiple generations to complete. I don’t have to fix it all before I die, and I’m not tempted to give up because I can’t.
I’m open to new evidence and new interpretations. Understanding the reality of our experiences, building confidence through repetition, and translating our experiences into helpful actions allows us to speak passionately about our beliefs and practices. Conversely, closing ourselves off from new experiences, new evidence, and new interpretations is the gateway to stagnation and eventually to fundamentalism.
The problem is that people get so invested in a religion that evidence to its contrary threatens their identity. So they ignore it, deny it, or rationalize it away. That’s how you get otherwise-intelligent people who insist Noah’s Ark was a literal boat. We don’t want to be the Pagan equivalent of Ken Ham.
If the Gods teach us anything, it’s to live with integrity. Pagans have mostly done that. We accepted that Margaret Murray’s theories about the survivals of witch cults were wrong, and witchcraft has never been stronger. New evidence is changing our view of prehistory, and our reconstructed and reimagined ancestral religions have never been stronger. New facts and better scholarship don’t threaten our religions, they make them stronger.
So if you listen to the new Down at the Crossroads podcast and you find yourself wondering “how can he be so sure he’s right?” the answer is that I accept the reality of what happened, I’ve done it enough times to have confidence in it, it motivates me to do good work in this world, and I remain open to new ideas.
It works for me. Whether or not it works for you is up to you. But I have to say I like hearing the passion in my voice.