The above title sounds strange when I say it aloud but it’s an accurate depiction of my journey for the past eight years. It feels a little awkward to put it in words, to write it down and give it life. To mark it out as a point of reference on the historical map of my life is to acknowledge my own responsibility for my life’s path, the passage of time, the acquisition of knowledge, the pain of loss and the prospect of a new beginning. This self reflection began after reading a post by Star Foster over at patheos Pantheon blog.
It reads in part: “So think about this for a moment: is your religious practice reflective of what you truly believe? Must you practice the way you do because it is what you believe? Based on what you truly believe, can you change your practice?”
And she later goes on to say: “Do you truly believe in the cosmology or theology of your practice, or is it just symbolism? Does your belief prescribe a way of practicing your religion? Do you ever wonder if you think the way you practice doesn’t matter, then maybe it means you don’t really believe in the path you have chosen? If you practice a magical tradition, does someone not really believing but just going through the motions for the sake of symbolism bother you? Where do you draw the line between emphasizing belief and becoming thought police?”
I left eclectic paganism at the end of 2001 to study history. Up until that time, I had been very eclectic and had spent time with Celtic and African pantheons and a lot of Goddess centered spirituality, as opposed to religion per se. I had never sought out a tradition or felt the need too. What I was following was a different kind of bliss, one that my mother often criticized as selfish but stopped short of calling subjective. I don’t know that this angle of criticism ever occurred to her. Much of Goddess centered spiritual work is grounded in Ontology, which is to say being and identity, rather than cosmology or teleology. Such teleology that there is, is very deterministic because so much of it is bound up with the family and a cyclical understanding of time. This, coupled with the in my face fact that my grandfather, who had molested his son, died on that son’s birthday, is what led me to take a second look at the path I was following and prompted me to ask myself if that path was really going to take me to where I wanted go. So, despite all the negative press by feminist mothers about books like The Myth of Matriarchal pre History, I bought and read it anyway. I also got alot out of it and started reading less and less about paganism and more and more about history and politics.
Since that time, I haven’t gone back to Goddess centered spirituality or even, garden variety plain/eclectic paganism. Nor have I returned to Christianity or converted to atheism or Buddhism. I let Samhain/Halloween pass me by this year and didn’t even throw a party. The pumpkin I bought is still sitting on top of my printer where I can see it from all angles in the living room but I don’t have the heart to cut it up and make a lantern. The Druids will be celebrating true Samhain tomorrow on Nov. 7th and I keep telling myself to go ahead and at least make the lantern sometime today.
What reading Star’s post really brought up for me was what happened to my mother while she was working for Alabama’s Travel and Tourism Board at one of the Welcome Centers. My mother was a Jehovah’s Witness when I was born and only returned to her Baptist faith when I was about six. I remember her being disfellowshipped and the pain and desperate need for religious certainty that this situation heightened/created. While working for the Travel and Tourism board, Mom once again encountered religious discrimination at the hands of her Jehovah’s Witness supervisors. The discrimination was so severe and so entrenched throughout the entire structure of the Alabama Board of Travel and Tourism, that Mom was awarded some compensation. She also declined to pursue the matter thru the courts. One of the comments that followed Star’s article was from a man named John Beckett and this was his reply:
“As someone who comes from a similar background, I think you may be falling back into the conservative Baptist mindset that says the only truth is literal truth and that religious certainty is possible.
I believe the gods are real, individual beings – because I have experienced them as such. But my experience is *religious* experience, meaning it is mystical and highly subjective. If I am honest I must admit my beliefs about my experiences may be wrong and the person who sees the gods as symbols or metaphors may be right.
I can’t honestly claim certainty where certainty is impossible to establish. On the other hand, I have no desire to go through life as an agnostic (I respect those who do, but I need more). Therefore I act as though my beliefs are literally true. Even if they are only symbolically true, the practices they inspire and the experiences they facilitate bring about very real results.
Having people around you who believe what you believe and who practice what you practice helps strengthen your commitment to your beliefs and practices. Experience, belief and practice form a virtuous circle enabling spiritual growth and depth.
I think your high priest and I agree on what works, though we may disagree on why it works.
That it does work is enough for me.”
This is almost in complete harmony with how I have long felt about the nature of religious truth. And herein lies a bone of contention between me as a historian, religious pagans AND Christians who attempt to lay claim to both revelaed religion AND natural religion at the same time.
But my mother shared something with me two weeks ago that made it very clear she has no such comfort outside the bounds of her faith. Mom had come to visit me over the weekend so that we could go to the Renaissance Faire together, and watch a friend of mine perform in a 30 minute production of Romeo and Juliet, highly edited. We had a great time together and what set the tone for our visit was a conversation about where she is now in her life. When she walked in, she put down her bags and we began the polite conversation that would mark her entire visit. She confessed that since she has been unemployed, and has been assured as often as needed by my step father that she does not need to go back to work, she is facing a kind of crisis. My mother has long struggled with mental health issues that manifested as anorexia and bulemic when I was a child. It was only when I was in Massage School in Atlanta that she was hospitalized for the first time. She told me that if Jesus ment nothing and that his life was a lie, that her life in turn ment nothing and she couldn’t go on. She said that she wouldn’t take her own life because she was living for my nephew, Julian and that she didn’t want to scar him with the memory of a grandmother who had committed suicide.
That such an action would scar myself and my sister and everyone who loved and cared about her did not even seem to be a concern to her.
We did not enter into the picture.
Only Julian’s present and future mattered.
I just listened and replied “So the place you are looking into is this dark right now?” And she said “Yes.”
She told me she has not been this honest with my step father and that she has slowly stopped going to church every time the doors are open, but continues to go each Sunday. She said she didn’t have anything to share or give and interwoven through all this was the fear that she would inadvertently harm others. I couldn’t quite tell if she was being narcissistic or not. She said she didn’t have it in her to do intercessory prayer for others any longer and I was not aware that this is a deliberate spiritual act in her mind, that she has engaged in for years. I always knew she did pray for others, but I never perceived it as the kind of act that one needs reserves of strength for and that this was very shortsighted on my part.
I remember her reading books about the case for historical Christianity when I was younger. I remember how important she felt it was and how desperate she seemed at the same time.
She gave me a compliment that isn’t in keeping with the way she has handled me over the years. So I don’t know how real it was.
She said that I was a good listener and easy to talk too. Which humbled me and I was grateful to hear but it came right out of left field.
I was completely shocked by what had happened to Mom when she was working at the Board of Travel and Tourism. I was unable to comfort her or assist her in any way because she had retreated into some dark self negating place where I could not reach her. And she is still living in that place and has for most of my life. Our relationship has been corrupted by her self negation, abnegation and shaped overall by her her definition of religious history disguised as religious certainty.
Both my parents worship a God who is literal and not allegorical.
A God of the Trinity and not the Arian God.
That literal understanding of religious history is the foundation for their entire ontological existence as human beings. That I consider them as capable of being both part of and independent of/from that religious ontology is not how they understand or define themselves. I think my mother could one day talk about the evolution of her Christian faith and in Christian contexts, she has but I don’t have that same assurance about my father. When my mother gave talks about leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was only about 12, and I don’t recall what she said, only that I was there while she did it.
And so I turn to my relationship with and to history and what Mr. Beckett said about the Baptist preoccupation with Biblical literalism and the possibility of religious certainty. As someone who only knows the child’s version of the Baptist faith, I have no idea if he is doctrinally correct but it sounds good and that is enough to get me writing.
Is Faith a Feeling of certainty or a step into the unknown? I think it involves both to a limited extent but is mostly about the suspension of belief in what is possible. This is the exact opposite of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, which states that Faith is: complete trust or confidence in something or someone. Strong belief in a religion. System of religious belief.
Note that it says nothing about belief in a divinity.
A system of religious belief is still a system. It’s not belief in a diety that has revealed him or herself be that revelation thru personal direct experience or thru inspired texts. It’s belief in the value of rituals and in the people who practice them, not in the divinity itself.
I said earlier that I left eclectic paganism to study history. And that is more or less True and factual. However, in some ways, I question if I have simply recreated my Mothers journey of exile from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
While I have not endured persecution from pagans for having ‘left the fold’ there are no “post pagan” support groups or discussions about the kinds of spiritual or religious questions that lead people to leave paganism or what a post pagan can find beyond the borders of their former faith. There is no discussion board I’ve found that spends it’s time talking about the kinds of spiritual questions people left paganism to pursue. Your effectively thrown to the wolves and the numerous Christian crazies who presume that if you’ve left paganism, you must be looking for a return ticket to Jesus and Christian redemption or your in philosophical danger of being seduced by Buddhism at the very least. Many academics and secular Historians also fall into this camp, albeit unwittingly for some or by academic and cultural bias for others. The general idea is that you’ve either spent too much or not enough time in the English Department at some point, and only enlightenment ideology can save your anti intellectual soul. A VERY safe and secular position to take where religion is concerned and a nice way to put the history of revealed religion , rather than natural philosophy front and center for the historiographer. Pagans often describe and talk about people who just ‘fall away’ and ‘leave’ presumably for greener pastures. Pagans often complain bitterly about there being no books that go beyond Wicca or Paganism 101. And when people leave, in-depth discussion about why someone left is only discussed in closed trad circles and treated as a private inner circle/group matter and certainly not one worthy of a public discussion about the limits of natural theology and how exploration of such philosophical issues may lead people to leave.
I am finding that this is a real pain in the neck and a problem that needs attention. My attention anyway, even if no one else sees a problem to begin with.