When Belief Doesn’t Matter

I counseled someone recently who came to me distraught (and I am sharing this now with permission from that person). “There are days when I don’t believe.” She said. “Days when I question. Days when the Gods seem so far away.” She was sure that she had offended her Gods greatly because of those moments where the reality of Their presence was the farthest thing from her mind in the world. I just shrugged and said “me too.” And watched the girl almost fall off her chair.

Belief is a funny thing and while it’s important to cultivate I think it’s equally important not to fetishize it. I know the Gods exist like I know gravity exists. I don’t have to beat myself over the head thinking about it every single day. If for a span of days I don’t feel Them palpably in my world, so what? I don’t consciously feel the presence of gravity either, thinking every time I drop something: behold its power. The most devout person I ever knew, a woman I considered a living sancta told me once that there were times she didn’t believe; but she continued, “whether Loki exists at those times or doesn’t exist, I love Him anyway.” And that was all that mattered. It was that commitment, dedication, and love that guided her devotional life, not abstract musings on the state of her belief. She didn’t let it bother her when it was less than she would have liked; rather, she worked to cultivate it regularly to be more than she could ever hope and in between allowed love and devotion to guide her.

I think it is normal given that we are fighting for restoration, rather than living it organically, that we are picking up and reweaving sundered threads rather than inheriting the full tapestry of tradition passed down in an unbroken ancestral inheritance that sometimes we will be self conscious about our internal processes around belief. Nor am I saying that non-belief is ok. I think, however, that part of building a devotional relationship is learning how to cultivate belief every single day. It’s difficult not to fetishize belief when we are working at a nexus of communities wherein we must fight for space for our Gods to exist but I’ll share with you what I was once taught about it, by the sancta I mention above:

Belief is a choice. You make it over and over every day, throughout the day. You make it every time you choose to engage in devotional work, every time you choose to do something that deepens your relationship with the Gods, that prioritizes Them in your world and like working a muscle, the more you do that, the easier it becomes. Belief moves from the realm of the abstract into a bone and soul deep certainty that sustains.

It is less than about any right belief than understanding that because the Gods exist it has consequences in our lives. Because we are seeking to cultivate devotional relationships with Them, to prioritize Them in our lives, our behavior with respect to things sacred will be impacted. Things have consequences. When one is likewise working to rebuild a tradition, well, that has consequences and requirements too. Getting back to belief however, it’s counter productive to beat oneself up when it falters. It’ll happen. If we think that we contemplate our belief only at those times when it is physically and emotionally palpable, then we must realize that what we are dealing with is an emotion and emotions are questionable guides to any truth. Just because we do not feel belief at a given point in time does not mean that our belief is shit. What it means is that feelings are vague – at best—indicators of ontological truth. Feelings are fragile. They can be affected by anything from lack of sleep to indigestion! We’re all going to have times where we’re just not where we want to be in terms of actively feeling belief. That’s when you make the choice to carry on with devotion anyway, to act in right relationship with the Gods anyway because emotions are variable things but the Gods are not.

I think people often get too caught up in the “feeling” of belief instead of action. In reality it’s not about right belief or feeling, it’s about hospitality and being respectful. One can be respectful regardless of the state of one’s belief. One can treat Them well, as proper guests, respectfully even if one is struggling spiritually. One can likewise struggle toward organic belief and doing so is one of the things that helps to build a strong spiritual life.

I don’t think any Deity expects perfection of practice, not now, not ever. I think that it is the struggles and sometimes even our failures that add color and texture to the fabric of our spiritual lives. I think struggles can be immensely productive and working toward belief can bring us more deeply and closely to our Gods than simply moving through devotion by unthinking rote. The corollary of course would be to embrace those fallow times as deeply nutritive, at least in potential, to our faith but I’m not quite there yet! I dread them, even knowing their worth. Still, and here is the heart of what I’m saying in this post, it’s not productive to beat oneself up for those times belief seems very far away. Just get on with devotion and know that when you can do nothing else, you can still make the choice to be kind, hospitable, and respectful to the Powers.

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Posted on December 5, 2015, in devotional work, Polytheism, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this.

    To crib from the NT, “Oh Gods, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief.”

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  2. This is POWERFUL and important. Thank you for sharing this, because there are so many of us out there who can resonate, and from personal experience.

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  3. However, when there is nothing and has been nothing from a particular quarter (Christian) since the beginning and the Gods of another pantheon reveal themselves (Hellenic) at a very young age, the feeling of knowing that you are indeed not alone is powerful. Indeed, they do not stick around all the time; however, I don’t need that. My soul was open and now it is full. They are there, even when you doubt, even when you try to “fit in.”

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  4. I really needed this.

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  5. This reminds me very much of what Robertjohn Knapp, a Seneca/Tubotolabal/Ohlone elder I met at the WPR said: love is not an emotion, it’s a conscious intellectual choice to care about someone or something. One may not like someone all the time, but one can always choose to love them and care about them no matter if they have “the feels” of LUV at all times or not.

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  6. Thank you very much for writing this.

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  7. There was posted something similar to this over a yr or 2 ago, im not sure, but i have always held the depth of it in my heart & it has helped me every day! There are so many things that can get in the way of our ability to “feel” that it is not logical to rely on this alone. To me this also makes it so very special, beautiful & sacred when i do get the *feels*, that over the days & years of interacting with The Gods i know they are there & when i do get blessed to “feel” Himself so very close, well i wouldnt trade this for all the gold in the world!

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  8. Reblogged this on Ironwood Witch and commented:
    “Belief is a choice. You make it over and over every day, throughout the day. You make it every time you choose to engage in devotional work, every time you choose to do something that deepens your relationship with the Gods, that prioritizes Them in your world and like working a muscle, the more you do that, the easier it becomes. Belief moves from the realm of the abstract into a bone and soul deep certainty that sustains.”

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  9. I first got the idea of belief as a choice from Castaneda, and it’s stuck with me as a most practical advice. Belief sometimes happens through events, but we can’t rely on daily miracles to sustain our belief.

    Love is a feeling and a verb. You get the feeling by doing the verb,though it’s hard to do when you’re not feeling it. I certainly almost never feel it during half-awake morning prayers. 😛

    When I struggle with belief, I do my reality check: “Assume the spirits and gods are all fantasy. Is my life bettered by believing and devoting time to them? Am I doing no harm to others through my beliefs?” The answer is always yes, so I renew my choice to believe and act accordingly. Those actions then provide fresh evidence of their support in my life.

    A trickier belief issue I see in myself and others is “Yes they’re real, but do they believe in me? Why would they bother themselves with someone like me?” That usually has more to do with current feelings of self-worth, and doing more devotions does help, but I don’t have a good answer for that one.

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