The Nature of Faith -Part I

The Nature of Faith -Part I August 25, 2010

It seems that 2010 Year of the Tiger has been a brutal one for many people. Now, more than ever I have had client after client contacting me with struggles of faith. Life is hard, and sometimes something so nebulous and yet so incredibly charged as ‘faith’ can take quite a beating.

We expect our faith to do a lot for us. Sometimes it seems like an untouchable citadel to which we (maybe) aspire. Other times, we speak about it in the abstract as this thing we have. Either way, many religious writings often talk about how “faith can see one through” and that might certainly be true. There’s a corollary to that though that most people are never taught: we need to do a lot for our faith in return. The strength of faith lies in part, in that conscious and consistent reciprocity. In many respects, you really do get what you sow. If you make your faith a priority, tilling away that which might block or hinder it, nourishing that which will help it to thrive, it can be a tremendous gift, a strength, the bedrock of one’s spiritual work and daily life. But if it is neglected, spirituality can become an empty, hollow platitude.

Faith takes effort. It takes hard, ongoing work. Faith if it is to be a support and nourishment is more about what we do than what we believe. Belief can ebb and flow. If faith is belief then there are times when all of us are lacking. One of my greatest teachers taught me the difficult lesson that belief isn’t all that important. It’s a game we play in our heads and sometimes we’re spot on, but more often we’re not. No, what’s important is what we do both when we are strong in faith, and more importantly when we’re not. It’s the conscious choice to take the small, daily steps toward right action and right relationship with ourselves, our Gods, our ancestors, our world that defines the quality of our souls and the nature of our spirits. It’s that personal integrity that helps to define and hone our faith. Faith is hard.

For this reason, maybe it should be a verb. Maybe it should mean, not something we think about but those things we do. It’s certainly not static. This is one of the reasons that I believe devotional work is so immensely important.  Here is a whole body of practices: prayer, meditation, contemplation, study, ritual that we can do to help our faith become strong and resilient. Here is something that we control: how much time we give this, how great a priority it is in our life, what tools we consciously choose to use. These are the practices by which we can infect our day with a mindful awareness of the Holy Powers, and of our connection to Them. This is how we encourage a spirit of gratitude and humility, piety, and quiet adoration and from that rich spiritual soil, all manner of blessings can spring forth.

There is a quote from (I believe) Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wherein he notes that God is a thousand, thousand times more willing to give than we are to receive. Faith makes us ready. It prepares the way for the gifts the Gods may give, even the frightening ones (is any gift more frightening than the epiphany of self-knowledge?). It may seem odd to read of a Heathen speaking about faith but we have our Holy Powers too and just like in any other religion, the delicate tapestry of faith and belief is one that many of us also struggle to weave rightly and well.

We have a lot to contend with there. Even the word ‘faith’ can be a difficult one for some Pagans and Heathens to swallow. Most of us are converts to our new faith and that comes with a certain psychology of conflict. There’s often such a desire to root oneself deeply in one’s new religion, that anything that smacks of the old is discarded and unfortunately for us, the language of faith, of religion, of spirituality that we possess has largely been formed by two thousand years in which Christianity was the dominant religion. For some people, words that speak to them only of monotheistic spiritual expression are difficult ones to use. We have forgotten, or are re-learning how to apply those things to our own polytheologies as well.

Language is a powerful thing. It speaks to the mind and heart on a level that many of us do not fully comprehend. There is an entire field of psychology: Neuro-Linguistic Programming based around just this thing. I think that despite the difficulties inherent in using terms so associated with other religions, that we too need to explore concepts like faith. We need to develop our own theological approach. We need to accept that as an idea or goal, faith doesn’t belong to any one religion; rather it is the means by which we learn to honor the Holy Powers –however our religion conceives of Them, the road that takes us through the crucible of spiritual life, and the hallowed hall not just of holiness- whatever that is- but of growth, balance, and the joy that can only be found by going through that spiritual fire. Faith kindles the wood but it also takes us through the conflagration.

Faith is about finding one’s place in the evolving schemata of wyrd. It is about learning how to flow in belief, in practice, about learning how to live in ways that enhance our respect for the Holy Powers and our lives. It is the core of both humility and piety and while those terms too might raise eyebrows within Heathenry, I think they are good and necessary things. They create room in the heart into which the Gods and ancestors can pour Their blessings. Faith isn’t about ecstasy, though for some people it can lead to that place; it’s about the daily ongoing struggle to live one’s practices.

Before I wax too metaphysical, I will bring this to a close. I ask only as Pagans, Wiccans, and Heathens that we think about what faith means to us, for us; and maybe, in the quiet places of our own hearts, we look at what we can do to allow our own to more fully blossom.

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  • Laura Patsouris

    Wonderful article, very thought provoking…and inspiring. Faith is indeed something we must engage with actively, rather than something we passively absorb.

  • Bookhousegal

    ‘Faith’ can be a hard word for a lot of Pagans to use: most of us grow up in a culture where the old meaning of the word is buried somewhat under notions that ‘Faith is believing with so much effort that belief becomes unquestioned’ which is not our way, I think.

    I think faith really means a relationship of trust, not just with belief, but what’s *behind* that.

    I do think it’s hard to speak of my *faith* without sounding pretty …I dunno, passive and ethereal, but it *is* in a sense something that ‘just is,’ no more and no less than a ‘relationship’ ‘just is,’ or trusting ‘just is’ …it’s as ‘just is’ to me and as dynamic and ‘real’ as *magnetism.* Or, perhaps, gravity.

    A stillness? A motion? And e-motion? Yes. It’s most of all kind of a ‘yes.’ Faith is not just ‘belief,’ but what actually leads to belief, and even a willingness to let go of belief, should needs be.

    I notice that a lot of people’s idea of ‘faith’ is a certain belief that, particularly, after death, one will find just as one believes. (And a terror at the prospect it might ‘prove otherwise.’) My experience of faith is somewhat the opposite: belief may say one thing about what to expect: faith, really says, ”Whatever it is, it’ll be yes.”

    Engaging that is a living process.

  • bookhousegirl, I really like your definition of faith as a relationship of trust, with all that builds up to that and stands behind it. I thnk that is exactly what it is, and like any relationship, it takes attendance and work.

    One of the most devout heathens I knew would have thoroughly echoed your words: that faith says: “whatever it is, it’ll be yes.” and then structuring your entire life around “engaging with that process’.

    thanks for commenting.

  • Very good reflections here!

    I go back to my Catholic university’s training in graduate school for my best definitions of faith, religion, and belief–this was from a lay theologian at a Jesuit university (so adjusted ever-so-slightly for the polytheistic context)–that faith is one’s experience of divine realities, that belief is an articulation of one’s faith (as previously defined), and that religion is a systematization of beliefs.

    So, like bookhousegal says above, faith is what lies behind belief. The Latin fides, I think, also plays a strong role–it is to these things, these experiences, that we are (and should be) loyal.

    A book I’m nearly done writing expands on this quite a bit…

  • @ P. Suf. Viri. Lup: I love your return to the Latin “Fides.” I think that is particularly apt. Faith is about being loyal, not because you’re getting constant feedback from the Gods (i.e. an ongoing sense of presence or connection) but because it is the right thing to do.

    faith as loyalty..i like that definition a lot.