When Belief Doesn’t Matter
(I wrote this a couple of years ago and came across it today again. I’m reposting it because it’s good to be reminded that we hold in our hands the power to shape our devotional lives and having moments of where belief isn’t rock solid is all part of building a solid devotional practice and growing as a spiritual human being. It doesn’t make us bad polytheists. It’s just part of being human. )
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.
Posted on February 3, 2023, in Uncategorized and tagged Lived Polytheism, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
With you 100% on this!
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I believe that a great many Neo-Pagans are LARPing, looking for community and not illumination. Belief ends up being put aside. So when a person becomes a Polytheist, they think they have to believe before anything else. Sometimes, it is not them but the Gods they are trying to relate to. I had that problem with Norse Gods, until I met the Roman Ones in a ritual. The main point was that I kept doing rituals and the like.
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I think it’s understandible, though. My desire for community came at a time where the feeling of belief lived in the shadow of the knowledge of belief. I could explain the logical fallacy of nihilism, but not escape the poison It wasn’t until some hard to logic away sequences of , dare I say, providential coincidences eroded the barriers to the openness I hadn’t been able to intuit logically. And then, against most odds, my son was born, under the sign of Gār which I took to mean Wōden had perhaps answered my offering to Tīw. I think back to that place when times are hard, and then I carry on my devotions to Eorþe whom I feel closest to.
I came across a beautiful little sentence last night in the “Hymn to the Sovereign Sun” written by Emperor Julian the Faithful. He’s just been listing the wonderful blessings that King Helios gives to humanity, and wraps that up by saying:
“All this, I say, let others celebrate in fitting strains, but let me believe it, rather than demonstrate its truth.”
(152B, page 417 of the Loeb edition)
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