Spiritual Warfare and the Need for a Pagan Worldview

Spiritual Warfare and the Need for a Pagan Worldview August 3, 2021

Fellow Patheos Pagan blogger and Psychic Witch author Mat Auryn showed me something a couple weeks ago that got a fair amount of attention. He found it in a Facebook witchcraft group, where some unidentified witch said:

So, I saw something that says World War 3 won’t be a physical war, it’ll be a spiritual war. And I gotta say, I resonate with it because I’ve been feeling like something spiritual is going to happen. Anyone else feel this way?

Mat and his Facebook and Twitter friends were not happy with this. Mat spoke for many of them when he said:

This is so cringe and shows how deeply the Evangelical mindset is poisoning every spiritual community, not just the New Age. “Warfare” and “Spiritual” shouldn’t be a united concept.

I agree with Mat that this is a bad thing. And he’s definitely right that this comes out of an Evangelical mindset. But unlike so many who commented on social media, I can’t completely dismiss it.

I sometimes read Supreme Court rulings. If I care about an issue, I don’t just want to know which side won a case. I want to understand the legal reasoning behind the ruling. Sometimes rulings are broad and set a precedent for the future, while other times they’re so narrow they only apply to the case at hand.

Frequently one or more justices will issue a concurring opinion. They agree with the conclusion reached by the majority, but they came to that conclusion by different reasoning. Perhaps they would have issued a broader ruling, or a narrower one. And so they issue their own opinion that does not carry the force of law but may influence future cases, or signal a need for legislative changes.

So consider this a concurring opinion in the case of spiritual warfare. Mat’s conclusion is right: the original statement is incorrect, and it’s unhelpful to the Pagan community.

But there’s more that needs to be said.

Spiritual warfare: military roleplaying for Evangelicals

Mat and I grew up in similar religious environments, but a couple of decades apart. The Evangelicals of my youth didn’t talk much about “spiritual warfare.” They were quick to quote Ephesians 6:12, but the memory of World War II and Korea – and the reality of Vietnam – made even the most conservative preachers reluctant to lean too heavily on military metaphors.

Our younger generations have no collective memory of war and its aftermath. Some want the glory of being a soldier, but without the strictness of military life and the dangers of people shooting at you. And without the moral ambiguity of killing people to support politicians and empires.

Enter spiritual warfare. The concept is not new, but it took on a new form in the last part of the 20th and early part of the 21st centuries. We saw the beginnings in movies like The Exorcist and The Omen. It expanded with the Satanic Panic, and it was fed by post-911 Islamophobia.

Here was a chance for fundamentalists to cast themselves as spiritual warriors, to assume that their faith and piety (except when no one was looking) made them some sort of warrior wizards for Christ – never mind the fact that’s about as un-Christ-like as you can get.

It would be easy to laugh this off. It would also be a mistake. These spiritual warriors have some skill with magic (even though they would recoil at calling it that), and what they lack in refinement they make up for with passion – and with sheer numbers.

The lure of global spiritual war

If occasional battles with Beelzebub are attractive to these folks, imagine the lure of a global spiritual war.

On one side stand The Forces of EvilTM: not just Satan and his minions, but all the “false” religions – including Christians these folks deem insufficiently like themselves.

On the other side are the True Believers, ready to go into battle for their faith. Onward Christian Soldiers.

Except that spiritual warfare doesn’t work this way.

And these days, neither does actual war.

Wars today: some shooting, some subtle

There hasn’t been a shooting war between great powers since the end of World War II – 76 years ago. There isn’t likely to be another one any time soon.

The U.S. has had proxy wars, the Cold War, and an Endless War in Afghanistan that may finally be ending – at least for us. We’ve had more wars of empire than I care to count. Other countries have had their own wars, some of them quite deadly.

But the great powers – the U.S., Russia, now China – have avoided physical conflict with each other. Some say the nuclear deterrent (MAD: “mutually assured destruction”) has worked. I tend to think the rich and powerful finally understand that war is too expensive. They may not care that war kills people, but they definitely care that it destroys their property. And there’s always the chance you’ll lose the war, and lose not just some of your wealth but all of it.

For all the posturing we see in hot spots like the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea, the chance of World War III actually happening is very, very low. Instead, we’ll see more proxy wars, cold wars, and trade wars.

The spirit world is not so different from this world

Many people have the idea that the spirit world – the Otherworld – is a place of peace and perfection. The stories of our ancestor tell us something very different.

In the Welsh Mabinogi, Pwyll accidentally wanders into Annwn. Arawn, the King of Annwn, tasks Pwyll with eliminating a rival – which he does. Even the Christian Heaven was the scene of combat – the war that ended with Lucifer and his allies being cast down.

The spirit world is not so different from our own world. Its conflicts are usually portrayed at one side against another – good vs. evil, old Gods vs. new Gods, us vs. them. Such dichotomies make for good storytelling. But when you look at the stories in total (particularly from a polytheist perspective) what you see is a series of local and regional conflicts, some of which overlap – much like you see in our world.

So there is reason to believe that there is warfare in spiritual realms and spiritual matters – just not world wars.

The spirit world is bleeding through into this world

This has been a recurring theme on this blog for many years. The call of the Morrigan telling people to “get ready.” The re-emergence of the Fair Folk in the ordinary world. Tower Time. And Otherworldly persons making their way into our world.

Increasingly, the spirit world is intersecting with this world. As I wrote in 2016:

I’m not talking about some Paganized version of the Christian heaven where a smiling Mother Goddess pours the sweetest mead from an endless bottle and all your ancestors dance merrily around a fire because death cleansed them of whatever made them so ornery in life. No, I’m talking about Gods with their own agendas for this world. I’m talking about angry ghosts, restless spirits, and meddlesome demons. I’m talking about dead who are just as much assholes as they were in life. I’m talking about fae that bear no resemblance to Tinkerbell, who view humans as annoying invaders and tasty snacks.

There is conflict in the spirit world. The stories of our ancestors say there is. Our contemporary experiences say there is.

It’s not World War III. It’s not the Christian apocalypse. It’s not even the Heathen Ragnarök.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

The problem of a borrowed worldview

This is a perfect example of the worldview problems I talked about in the last post.

When the witches say “I’ve been feeling like something spiritual is going to happen” I absolutely believe them. If you’re the least bit spiritually sensitive you know something is going on. Yes, there’s plenty going on in this world – climate change, social and economic injustice, political corruption and ineptitude, and a pandemic. But there’s something going on in the Otherworld too, and it’s bleeding through into this world.

We feel it, we see it, we hear it. But it’s not being printed on the front page of The New York Times. It’s a series of observations and experiences. Those observations and experiences have to be interpreted, and interpretations require context – a set of foundational assumptions about the world and the way it works. A worldview.

The problem is that most witches who experience these things have no Pagan context for interpreting them. So they grab whatever is in the wider culture – which in this case is the worldview of Evangelical Christianity. They start using the “spiritual warfare” language they hear from their fundamentalist neighbors, including the good vs. evil dichotomy.

And that causes Pagans who recognize a religiously foreign worldview to downplay the experiences of other Pagans. But it’s not the experiences that are the problem – it’s the interpretation of the experiences.

“Something spiritual is going to happen” in a Pagan worldview

I feel the same thing these witches feel. I’ve been feeling it – and hearing it, and seeing it, and experiencing it – for about ten years now. It ebbs and flows, but it never goes away. And it seems to be getting stronger at the moment.

I believe there’s a cyclical aspect to this. Only it’s a very long cycle – about 26,000 years to make a full cycle. And I think we hit a turning point about five years ago.

Many of our Gods are very active: the Morrigan, Odin, and Hekate get a lot of publicity. Others are operating more quietly. What are They doing, besides promoting Their values and virtues? I don’t know. None of Them have shared Their plans with me… not that I expected They would. I can’t speak about Odin or Hekate, but I trust the Morrigan, I am sworn to Her, and I will follow where She leads.

The Fair Folk are increasingly active. They never left the ordinary world, but we are encountering them at a rate not seen in centuries. All the usual warnings still apply: mind your own business, be polite, and be impeccable with your word. But they are here, and they have goals and plans – goals and plans that sometimes intersect with ours. Sometimes.

Other “classes” of spiritual persons are also active. Some of them are victims of bad publicity – their stories were written by their enemies. Others are just as dangerous as our ancestors warned. Interact with them with caution.

Playing the Grand Game when you’re not a great power

Not everyone is on the same team, and there are more than two teams. This is not good vs. evil – this is multiple shades of gray.

And here’s the important thing: none of them are on your side. They’re all on their own side. They do their own things for their own reasons, though they may work with you if you have common cause.

The Gods are always virtuous – worshipping and working with Them is a good thing, though not an easy thing. “Virtuous” doesn’t mean “nice.” The Fair Folk either cannot or will not lie, but they can spin the truth so fast you think up is down. Other persons can and will lie.

In 2017 I wrote Playing the Grand Game When You’re Not A Great Power to try to explain this. It’s not my best writing. I was trying to work around some material and some relationships that were – and still are – oathbound. I was only partially successful. I should have cut it back and just emphasized this:

We’re seeing changes in the magical and spiritual worlds. Change creates winners and losers. Those whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on the way things have always been will lose. Those who can adapt will win. Those who cannot adapt will die.

And sadly, those who interpret their spiritual experiences in the context of an unhelpful worldview will be looking for the wrong things in the wrong places. I don’t like their odds.

Spiritual warfare – a concurring opinion

Witches and Pagans who are upset about “the Evangelical mindset” are right to be concerned.

The fact that some of our own buy into the fundamentalist concept of spiritual warfare points toward the need for better Pagan education and the need for more Pagans to examine their own unstated assumptions. We have enough unhelpful ideas in our own traditions – we don’t need to import them from other religions.

But while the witches talking about spiritual warfare are wrong in their interpretation, their experiences are still valid. They’re experiencing the same thing I and many others have been experiencing for at least a decade.

They have legitimate reason for concern.

They just need a better context for interpreting their experiences.

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