Saturday, January 21, 2012

Philosophy and Praxis I: Belief and Existence

Galina Krasskova recently posted an excellent article on belief and what it means to be a "believing" polytheist.  This is one of those thorny theological issues which requires attention, but which is often overlooked.  If we're going to restore our ancestral traditions or create a new spirituality for a new age, we're going to have to explore what it means to believe and what role that belief should play in our religious practices.

Most of us who practice Neopaganism, Heathenry, New Age movements, Earth Spirituality and the like arrived as converts.  If we grew up in a majority Christian culture, the issue of "faith" is foregrounded. According to many Christian thinkers, what we do is less important than what we believe. Salvation is based on faith, not works: we cannot attain the Kingdom of Heaven by good deeds but only by believing in Christ. 

(I should make it clear that most Christian theologians will quickly point out that belief should lead the faithful to practice good works, and that belief involves more than reciting a few rote words and then going about business as usual. But those works are important only as a sign of belief, not as a thing in themselves).

I've heard New Agers say "it doesn't matter what you believe, so long as you believe something." When I told them I believe in sacrificing infants to Baal, they quit talking with me. My take-away from that is that it does matter what you believe, especially if you are trying to seduce New Agers. Those looking to get laid at the Esalen Institute are advised to keep this in mind.  Those who have less libidinous motives may wish to consider Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoffer's teachings on "cheap grace."
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like a cheapjack's wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut-rate prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! And the essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be, if it were not cheap?
. . . In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. . .
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.
What these New Agers were looking for is grace which isn't even cheap: it's absolutely free.  You don't have to profess faith in Christ or declare him your personal savior. You don't have to make a pilgrimage to Mecca or the Ganges: you don't have to be circumcised,  become a vegetarian or give all you have to the poor.  According to New Age writer Roy E. Klienwachter:
You are not a victim of circumstances; you are creating them. I think this is the one most important message that New Age has to offer. It is also my truth that we are not here to learn anything, but to experience everything physical. This is an important concept because it is contrary to what you have been taught. If you come from knowingness, what is there to learn; there is nothing. The only thing left is to experience. I go into much more detail in the book. This awareness alone can make a huge difference into how you live your life.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong with what you already believe. Your thoughts are simply a sign post or step in your evolution and spiritual awareness. Your physical world, the universe and the after life are your own manifestations of what you believe and they are unique. No two people think or believe exactly the same no matter what you have been taught. All of us filter information and reformulate it into what works for us in the moment.
This (and other variants of the "Law of Attraction") isn't just faith without works, it's faith without reality.  There are no Gods to obey, no sins to be forgiven, no sufferers needing to be comforted. There is only what you believe, and what you believe is perfectly OK.  It's solipsism for groups, a bunch of "spiritually evolved" types living within their own shells and manifesting abundance.  And for all its positive affirmations, it is at heart as nihilistic as Tuscon shooter Jared Loughner's question to Gabby Giffords, "What is government if words have no meaning?"

The Gods of pre-Christian Europe, like the kami of Shintoism and the lwa and orishas of African Diaspora spirituality, are immanent in this world. They are not distant entities which concern themselves only with those who "believe" in them: for them tangible works are more important than an intangible faith or a nebulous belief.  Odin, Ogou, Ares and other warrior Gods prefer a brave atheist to a devout coward: Kwan Yin prefers the kind-hearted infidel to the cruel believer. They are concerned with individuals fulfilling their rightful roles in the Grand Scheme of Things, a scheme in which They are intimately involved. One serves Them not by reciting prayers or interior monologues (although these can be invaluable tools for establishing contact with Them and ascertaining Their will).  Rather, one serves Them by acting in accordance with Their expectations and following Their example.  They are not part of the reality we create: we are the manifestation of Their reality.  They do not materialize or disintegrate with our belief any more than seven-figure checks appear in our bank account after we visualize prosperity.