Dealing With Religious Uncertainty: Hold Loosely But Practice Deeply

Dealing With Religious Uncertainty: Hold Loosely But Practice Deeply December 8, 2019

Over on the Modern Witch blog, Storm Faerywolf has a very interesting piece titled The Undeniable Hubris of Knowing. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything where I simultaneously agreed and disagreed so strongly.

I encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself. Read it twice (I did) to make sure you understand exactly what Storm is saying. He writes as a witch, for witches, but what he says is applicable to pretty much anyone in the Big Tent of Paganism, and well beyond that.

Storm does an excellent job of describing the inherent uncertainty in religious and magical experiences, and the difficulty of interpreting them accurately.

Whether one asserts that the gods are independent, separate beings, or affirms that they are but aspects of the human psyche, both arguments suffer from the same fatal flaw: they assert to know something that by its very nature cannot be assessed fully with the rational mind.

I’m in complete agreement with this statement. And I think it’s important to pay special attention to the final words: “they assert to know something that by its very nature cannot be assessed fully with the rational mind.” It’s not that we don’t know the true nature of the Gods and magic because we haven’t discovered it yet. We don’t know because it’s beyond the capabilities of our brilliant but still limited minds.

How many religious conflicts would simply disappear if everyone understood and accepted this obvious truth? Not all of them – many “religious” conflicts are cultural or political, not theological or doctrinal. But plenty would.

Beyond that, how many meaningful spiritual experiences do we miss because we’ve decided they aren’t possible?

I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church where preachers continually talked about knowing this or knowing that and how doubt is a sin. I can remember being 11 or 12 years old and silently screaming “no, you don’t know – you believe.” I never want that kind of false certainty in my Paganism.

But having accepted the inherent uncertainty of religious experiences, we are still left with the question of how to interpret them, and how to integrate them into our lives. This is where I shift from strongly agreeing with Storm to strongly disagreeing with him.

Before I begin, I want to be clear on one thing: I’m not saying Storm is wrong. I’m saying I have a different approach that I think is better, even though we can never be completely sure who’s right… or if we’re both wrong. As always, you must choose for yourself.

Experiences require interpretation

Raw, unfiltered experiences – religious or otherwise – are literally meaningless. They’re a collection of sensations: sights, sounds, and smells. Touches that range from barely noticeable to pleasurable to intensely painful. Emotions like joy, elation, anger, and fear. And thoughts: not words in your head that may or may not be your own, but ideas and images not yet articulated – what our earliest ancestors would have experienced before they had the capacity for language.

Part of interpretation is a simple matter of determining cause and effect. I feel pain in my arm. I see blood flowing from my arm. I see you standing in front of me holding a bloody knife. I conclude that you cut me.

But the bigger part of interpretation is figuring out what it means. Are you a doctor performing surgery? Was I tied up and you were trying to cut me free? Or are you threatening to cut me again unless I hand over my wallet? In each of those cases I have a very similar set of sensations, but the meaning I assign to the experience is very different.

Likewise, we have to interpret our spiritual experiences. Do these raw sensations have an internal source or an external source? Was a favorable outcome the result of our magic (whatever magic is) or was it random chance? And regardless of the source, what does it mean? How should we respond?

Even calling something a spiritual experience is an act of interpretation. Doing so assigns a meaning of “special” or “non-ordinary” or “significant” – as opposed to random or ordinary or trivial.

We may never know exactly what’s behind our experiences, but we still have to decide what they mean.

Interpretation requires context

Gordon White of Rune Soup once told a story about dog-sitting for his mother. This particular dog was old and needed daily medication, which had to be given by injection. Gordon wondered what the dog thought of the fact that the people who fed him and pet him and generally loved him also hurt him once a day every day. The dog had no context for chronic diseases or injectable medication.

In Paganism In Depth I talked a lot about unstated assumptions – the things we’ve always been told are true or assume are true that may not actually be true. And perhaps more importantly, the things we assume can’t possibly be true. These assumptions form the context in which we will interpret our experiences.

One of the reasons medieval Christians conducted witch hunts was that official church policy said that humans were incapable of working magic on their own. Any magic had to come from a spirit, and any spirit not approved by the Church had to be from the devil. Lots of assumptions there and none of them are likely true.

On the other hand, there were very few witch trials in Ireland. When bad things happened, the medieval Irish didn’t assume someone had bewitched them – they blamed the Fair Folk.

Our assumptions about the world and the way it works provide the context for interpreting our spiritual experiences. We will only consider what we believe is possible.

Two heads are better than one

Storm Faerywolf talks about maps, their usefulness, and what happens when we go off the map. He says

In the end we must adopt the role of explorers, paying serious attention to every detail we encounter, and resisting the very human urge to relax into explanations based on what amounts to little more than hearsay, rather than direct experience.

I love the explorer imagery, and I’m in strong agreement with the need to pay close attention to the details of our encounters. The best way to kill a mystical experience is to start analyzing it while it’s happening. In the moment, simply experience – and if you can, take good notes. Save the interpretation for after it’s over.

But while all of us can make mistakes in observation and interpretation, together we can do better. We can point out things others miss and we can challenge weak logic. More importantly, we can compare and contrast our experiences – larger sample sizes facilitate better data analysis. This is how unverified personal gnosis (UPG) becomes shared personal gnosis (SPG) and can eventually become confirmed knowledge.

Knowing through intense experience

Part of me is still that little kid in the Baptist church saying “you don’t know, you believe!” But that little kid hadn’t had multiple first-hand experiences of Gods and other mighty spirits. He hadn’t worked magic and gotten favorable results over and over again. He hadn’t discovered that his true calling was becoming a Druid and a priest.

How do you know your spouse loves you? They can say it, but people often lie. But over time, between their concern and affection and interest, it becomes pretty obvious they do.

I don’t know that my beliefs about the Gods and magic are true in the way I know the Pythagorean Theorem is true. But my experiences have convinced me they’re true, and that’s good enough for me.

Be careful of “this is my truth”

Truth is not relative. There is no “my truth” or “your truth” or “this is true for me.” Things are either true or they’re false. Or they’re too complicated for simple binary classifications, but that’s another rant for another time.

The Gods are not real distinct beings for me and psychological phenomena for you. Either they are one or they’re the other (or they’re something else neither of us is thinking of, which is a distinct possibility). And if the Gods are real distinct beings, that doesn’t mean your psychological phenomena isn’t real – it just means it’s not a God.

Do you want to try to get closer to the truth, or are you content with not knowing?

I’m never content with not knowing. I have to try, even if I can’t get all the way there.

What do we do when we don’t know for sure?

Storm says

I might have ideas on the nature of the gods with whom I work, but in all honesty, I can’t know for certain.

I completely agree with that. It’s what comes next that brings the disagreement.

Storm says we should approach the Gods as a mystery. He doesn’t explain exactly what he means by that and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but most people who say “the Gods are a mystery” mean something along the lines of “so I’m not going to think about them too deeply.”

I want to be clear that this is a perfectly valid approach. As I said in the beginning, Storm isn’t wrong.

But I prefer a different approach.

Hold loosely but practice deeply

My first-hand experiences of the Gods are the deepest and most meaningful part of my religious practice. I want to understand them as best I can, and more importantly, I want to incorporate them into my life. And so I interpret them, and then form beliefs from the interpretations. Those beliefs lead to religious practices, which in turn lead to more religious experiences.

Over time, over multiple iterations, and after consulting and collaborating with those who are doing similar things in a similar context, those beliefs get stronger and stronger. Stronger beliefs enable stronger experiences.

At the same time, I never forget that humans contemplating the nature of the Gods is like cats contemplating the nature of humans. If I encounter new experiences or new lines of thinking, I am ethically obligated to give them due consideration. If they look promising, I’m obligated to explore them. If my exploration indicates they’re true, or likely true, I’m obligated to change my beliefs and incorporate them into my practice.

Hold your beliefs loosely. But while you hold them, live them out as deeply as you can.

And at the same time, understand that everyone else is doing the best they can. While it is necessary to draw boundaries around significant religious differences – and to actively oppose those that harm other persons – we are still ethically obligated to treat others with dignity and respect even if they follow a drastically different religion.

Even if we can never be sure who’s right, or closer to right.

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