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Belief (A Wiccan perspective)

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 5 months ago

The nature of belief and truth

Yvonne Aburrow

 

You understand how to act from knowledge,

But you have not yet seen how to act from not knowing (Chuang Tzu)

 

As Wicca is such an experiential religion, concentrating more on the mysteries than on dogma, it can accommodate a wide spectrum of beliefs within it, from polytheism to duotheism to humanism. It should be noted here that most Pagans would describe the things that we believe that we cannot know by experience as working hypotheses rather than beliefs, which implies that we are prepared to change them if we are proved wrong. (Belief is generally taken to imply a leap of faith.)

 

This question arises in the chapter entitled Living with Witchcraft in Ronald Hutton's book Witches, Druids, and King Arthur, in which he discusses the impact of Tania Luhrmann on Wicca. (Lurhmann was a PhD student in the late 80s, who submitted a thesis based on her anthropological study of Wicca.) The thing that set me thinking was her concept of interpretive drift, which is her explanation of how witches and magicians come to believe in magic. As Ronald Hutton points out, there were a number of occasions when she almost believed in the efficacy of the magical rituals she had participated in, but then drew back to her rationalist-sceptical stance. He quotes Luhrmann (on p262) saying “the process of becoming involved in magic makes the magic believable, and makes explicit belief in magical theory quite tempting unless there is a strong disincentive against it” (which in her case there was, namely the knowledge that she had an academic career to carve out, and no desire to be “tainted” with the label of witch).

 

Luhrmann answered her question of “how can apparently rational people come to believe in magic?” with the notion of interpretive drift – the idea that as you get more involved, your interpretation of phenomena you have experienced drifts from a rational one to a holistic one.

 

However, her model presupposes that the universe is a rational place, consisting of Euclidian space (discrete points separated from each other other by empty space) across which no magical influence could permeate. But what if she's wrong? Then magical thinking would be a better explanation of the universe.

 

The concept of inclusionality, an awareness of immersion in space, provides a more realistic paradigm than rationality for understanding reality, and shares much common ground with the Wiccan worldview.

 

“Inclusionality is an awareness that space, far from passively surrounding and isolating discrete massy objects, is a vital, dynamic inclusion within, around and permeating natural form across all scales of organization, allowing diverse possibilities for movement and communication. Correspondingly, boundaries are not fixed limits - smooth, space-excluding, Euclidean lines or planes - but rather are pivotal places comprising complex, dynamic arrays of voids and relief that both emerge from and pattern the co-creative togetherness of inner and outer domains, as in the banks of a river.”

(Alan Rayner, http://people.bath.ac.uk/bssadmr/inclusionality/ )

 

This is not the same as holism, where there are no boundaries; nor is it the same as rationalism, where boundaries are perceived as lines of separation. In inclusionality, boundaries are perceived as places of connection and interaction. They are the meeting-place of inner and outer, microcosm and macrocosm, darkness and light, God and Goddess. Together, inner and outer create a third place, their interaction or dance. If you read the above explanation of inclusionality carefully, you will discern many similarities with a magical world-view.

 

Coming to know

So, how do we arrive at whatever we believe? In most Pagan paradigms, belief develops from a mixture of received ideas and experience. We approach new knowledge with a healthy mixture of scepticism and open-mindedness – not dismissing it automatically, but not accepting it without question either.

 

A typical path into Wicca might be a childhood experience of Nature, a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the natural world, coupled with reading the right sort of books (CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Rudyard Kipling, Kenneth Graeme, and Ursula Le Guin, etc. - I'm sure everyone could add to this list), followed by a realisation that love and sexuality are divine gifts, and that life and pleasure should be celebrated. Then a search for the right spiritual path, eventually culminating in the feeling of coming home on first stepping into the circle. I asked some twenty-somethings recently if the Internet had made it easier to find Paganism, and they said, actually it has made it harder because there are so many rubbishy sites on there. And in a roomful of about thirty students (the majority of whom were doing science degrees), all of them described a path similar to the above in discovering that they are Pagans.

 

Once one has been initiated into a specific path, the process of discovery, of experiencing the mysteries, intensifies. This is the bit that Luhrmann labelled as “interpretive drift”, I suppose; maybe we originally believed in the gods as internal psychological constructs, valuable archetypes in the process of self-actualisation, but then shifted towards an idea of them as real entities as we experienced more of the mysteries. If one is rigidly rationalist, one will approach the process with a preconceived idea of the universe as a purely material phenomenon, where any spiritual realm is necessarily external (or for hardened rationalists, non-existent or purely imaginary). If one is a holist, one is likely to disappear into the primordial realms of fantasy without a backward glance, accepting anything and everything (we can all recognise the type). But most Pagans are inherently inclusional1, balancing the rational with the holistic, scepticism and open-mindedness, inner and outer realms. And this is not merely a static balance, but a dynamic one, as experience and theory intertwine to produce something new.

Tradition develops like this as well; growing from ancient (or not-so-ancient) roots, it gets pruned by the process of forgetting, and watered by the process of remembering, and fertilised by new circumstances and ideas, then puts forth the leaves and fruit of new ceremonies.

 

Truth is everywhere

There are no prophets, and no sacred writings are regarded as infallible or canonical. If the truth is out there, it should be available and everywhere – it should not require special revelation. Each religion has arrived at an approximation (coloured by cultural filters) of the perennial philosophy (as Aldous Huxley referred to it). It is true that truths are revealed gradually to initiates, but it is possible to discover these truths through life experience, because life itself is an initiatory process. The primary purpose of initiations is to create a connection between the initiate and the gods and goddesses.

 

What is truth?

It depends on your perspective. Each of us has a unique view of life, coloured by our experiences, our dreams, and so on. Each of us aspires to different aims in life, and this diversity is good. Monocultures are dry and brittle, they fall apart and the centre cannot hold. Similarly, the idea of a single and absolute truth which holds true for everyone through all time seems unlikely. We all see things differently, depending on where we're coming from. But truth is relational (it relates in a nested way to everything around it), not relative (where all points of view are regarded as equally valid).

 

I've always adopted a simultaneously open-minded and sceptical view of any phenomena that I might encounter - I allow all possible interpretations to simmer gently on the back burner of my mind until I arrive at a holographic understanding of the phenomena. But I usually have a preferred interpretation; like most people, I tend to have an emotional investment in my view of the world; and my point of view stems from who I am and where I am situated in the dynamic landscape of ideas and experiences.

The various types of religious belief can be formally defined as follows:

  • belief in the deities as internal psychological constructs – essentially, humanism with leaves
  • belief that the multiplicity of deities come ultimately from one divine source, which is the ruler of the universe (monotheism)
  • belief in “All the gods are one god, and all the goddesses are one goddess” (duotheism)
  • belief that the divine is immanent in everything (pantheism)
  • belief in a multiplicity of deities and spirits, and if there is an ultimate divine source, it is unknowable (polytheism)
  • belief that everything has a spirit (animism)

 

All of the above shade into each each other, with variations and gradations in between. The spectrum of beliefs within Paganism and Wicca is vast, and this is great – strength in diversity, as the Adventure Tradition of Wicca2 puts it.

So rather than describing the shift from purely inner interpretations of the numinous to ones that include outer manifestations of it as “interpretive drift”, I think a better metaphor would be that of a tree growing; its roots are in our experiences, but its branches and leaves are our interpretation of them. And every tree in the forest is different, because it is growing in a different place.

 

Levels of truth

There are many different levels of truth: metaphorical truth (a metaphor that describes accurately a state that is otherwise difficult to describe); personal or local truth (true for me); cultural truth (accepted by a whole culture); and global truth (true for everyone). Some principles are universal – for example, every religion has an injunction not to harm others, but to treat them well. Maybe there is absolute truth, but if there is, how would we recognise it? Our position with regard to it cannot be objective, but is necessarily relational; it relates to other views of the truth, and other truths that we can perceive. To see the “whole” truth, you would need to be able to see from all perspectives at once, and then you would be unable to see it from any one individual's point of view. One way to arrive at a more holographic (multi-perspective) version of the truth is to have a sharing circle,

where each member listens respectfully, not to contrived argument to win a debate, but to the heartfelt sharing of unique personal experience, without comment from the others, as the talking stick is passed from person to person, and the 'holographic' imagery of the way the world 'really is' takes form. (Ted Lumley)

 

But even then, you would not be able to identify all the causes of a situation, as there are so many strands woven together in the web of wyrd. It is hard enough to find out what happened and where it happened, but when you start to try to establish why it happened, the task becomes even more difficult – and everyone has their own pet theory. Consider any event with fairly complex causes and you will see what I mean.

 

Truth depends on your perspective. There's a Chinese story in which a man first loses a horse, which is generally considered unlucky, but he reacts with equanimity. But then it returns from the wild with a number of other horses, which is generally considered lucky. Once more he shows little reaction, saying “Maybe so, maybe not”. Then one of his sons breaks a leg whilst breaking in the wild horses; again people see this as unlucky, but the man shrugs it off in the same way. Finally soldiers arrive in the village to conscript all the young men for a war, but the son with the broken leg is not conscripted. Again people regard this as lucky, but the man says, “Maybe so, maybe not.” And apparently the story is still going on.

 

Scientific truth?

What about science? Isn't that objective and therefore truthful? Certainly it strives to find out the truth, but quite often it turns out that it is just plain wrong, even recently. This is because it has a vested interest in defending the status quo, until it becomes indefensible and collapses, and then you get a paradigm shift.

 

Professor Frank Pajares 3 sums it up beautifully:

 

A scientific community cannot practice its trade without some set of received beliefs. These beliefs form the foundation of the "educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice". The nature of the "rigorous and rigid" preparation helps ensure that the received beliefs are firmly fixed in the student's mind. Scientists take great pains to defend the assumption that scientists know what the world is like...To this end, "normal science" will often suppress novelties which undermine its foundations. Research is therefore not about discovering the unknown, but rather "a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education".

 

A shift in professional commitments to shared assumptions takes place when an anomaly undermines the basic tenets of the current scientific practice These shifts are what Kuhn describes as scientific revolutions - "the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science" New assumptions –"paradigms" - require the reconstruction of prior assumptions and the re-evaluation of prior facts. This is difficult and time consuming. It is also strongly resisted by the established community.

 

Uncertainty in science has been growing over the last century, not diminishing. The scientific method of enquiry and experiment works well up to a point, but the problem with it is that it separates the subject of the experiment from its context, creating a fixed frame of reference – a box – which ceases to resemble the real context from which the content was extracted. So the results of the experiment only predict what will happen in another similar closed system (or fixed frame of reference), not what will actually happen in the real world. Also the scientific method usually works by manipulating variables which affect the thing under observation, as if these variables were separable forces acting on an inert object.

 

Postmodernism has attempted to do away with the contradictions inherent in rationalism by dissecting everything with discourse analysis and asserting that nothing is true, or that truth is relative. Another tenet of postmodernism is the “death of the self” - the idea that we are all merely intersections of overlapping domains of discourse, and our identities have no intrinsic reality. But clearly there must be some underlying truth, and a coherent identity that perceives the truth.

So if neither science nor postmodernism are reliable guides, how do we know what we know? Often it is because it “rings true” - that is to say, it resonates with inner truth. This is why we need to practice attunement with the divine, so that we know that the promptings of inner truth are not merely self-delusion. Charles Williams defined sin as "the preference of an immediately satisfying experience of things to the believed pattern of the universe" 4. Quite often we mistake our own selfish desires for inner truth, and then things can go badly wrong. For example, deciding that just because you fancy someone, it is the will of the universe that you get to sleep with them (whereas they might have entirely different ideas).

 

However, making mistakes, learning by experience, is the beginning of wisdom. In a way, you could define wisdom as 'knowing how much we don't know'. It is this awareness of not knowing that seems to me to be a sign of a truly wise person, one who can act from uncertainty and still be attuned to Wyrd, or Tao, or the dynamic of the universe. In the ordinary cock-a-hoop world of the rationalist, wisdom is often seen as foolishness. In a traditional Welsh story, The Three Blows5, a faery woman marries a human man, bringing a dowry of magical cattle. She tells him that she will remain with him as long as he does not strike her more than three times without a cause. He protests that he would rather cut off his own hand than do such a thing, but her father just smiles. One day they are invited to a wedding and she asks him to go back to the house for her gloves. On his return she is sitting very still on her horse, so he playfully flicks her with the gloves and says, “Go, go.” That is the first causeless blow. Some years after they are at a christening, and whilst everyone else rejoices, she weeps. Her husband slaps her on the shoulder and asks why she weeps; she tells him that it is because the child's life will be full of sorrow, and that that is the second causeless blow. Not long after the child dies, after a short life of suffering, and at the funeral she laughs. Her husband strikes her, shocked at her behaviour, and she explains that she was laughing because the child is now free of its suffering. And she tells him that that was the third causeless blow, and she returns to the lake, taking her faery cattle with her.

 

Symbolic or mythological truth

In her novel Always Coming Home, Ursula le Guin6 divides Western narrative modes into three main areas, fact fiction, and propaganda.

 

Fact: non-fiction Non-fact: fiction Propaganda
Journalism Myth
Description Legend
Report Folk tale
Biography Parable
Annals Tale
History Story
Novel

 

In the story, the metaphorical and conceptual framing of the world by the Kesh culture is completely different from present modes of thinking, and hence their culture is completely different from ours. They have three modes of truth: What happened (our 'fact' category); Like what happened (our 'fiction' category); Lies, jokes (they do not have propaganda)1. They divide the world into nine “houses”, four of which are Sky houses (the unborn, the dead, the imaginary, and those in the wilderness) and five of which are Earth houses. The whole of society is divided into exogamous clans or moieties based on these houses, and animals and birds and plants are also regarded as being in one of the five Earth houses. The symbolic scheme makes sense and provides a coherent framework for the society to function. Similar systems can be found in many tribal societies.

 

Mythological or metaphorical truisms are deeply embedded in our culture, and constantly influence the way we think. Sometimes these metaphorical constructs can be used to great effect to transform the psyche; at other times they may be used cynically to manipulate people. This is perhaps why the word myth has acquired a rather pejorative connotation, as in “It's only a myth” - implying that it's not true. This category of myth should, I feel, be properly referred to as legend, by which I mean a story with some basis in historical fact, but which has acquired mythical connotations. Frequently people embellish or alter stories to make them more exciting. Ronald Hutton describes this process in How Myths Are Made, a chapter in Witches, Druids and King Arthur. He searched high and low for genuine folk memories of the English Civil War. He found many legends, but only three factual stories that could be corroborated with historical evidence. Anthropology has demonstrated that the oral tradition is reliable for a maximum of 120 years (usually in pre-literate societies). However, what is contained in these folk legends is an indication of what people are interested in, whether it be ghosts or treasure or whatever, as these are the details they embellish.

 

However, myths and folktales appeal to us because they ring true – they contain many useful insights into life, as we have seen from the Taoist story cited above, and the Welsh story, The Three Blows. Traditional stories also contain archetypes, which interact and develop through the story, and may bring about transformation in the listener. It is said that in India, psychiatric care consisted of giving the mad person a traditional tale to meditate on.

 

Metaphor

It is necessary to take great care to check your assumptions when working with metaphors, however; as George Lakoff says, “Metaphors can kill.” He points out that much of American foreign policy is based on the metaphorical notion that nations are people.

 

The Nation As Person metaphor is pervasive, powerful, and part of an elaborate metaphor system. It is part of an International Community metaphor, in which there are friendly nations, hostile nations, rogue states, and so on. This metaphor comes with a notion of the national interest: Just as it is in the interest of a person to be healthy and strong, so it is in the interest of a Nation-Person to be economically healthy and militarily strong. That is what is meant by the "national interest."

In the International Community, peopled by Nation-Persons, there are Nation-adults and Nation-children, with Maturity metaphorically understood as Industrialization. The children are the "developing" nations of the Third World, in the process of industrializing, who need to be taught how to develop properly and to be disciplined (say, by the International Monetary Fund) when they fail to follow instructions. "Backward" nations are those that are "underdeveloped." Iraq, despite being the cradle of civilization, is seen via this metaphor as a kind of defiant armed teenage hoodlum who refuses to abide by the rules and must be "taught a lesson." 8

 

The theories of George Lakoff and others with regard to metaphorical constructs framing the way we think are known as cognitive linguistics; it is a very useful approach to understanding how myths – both positive and negative – work.

 

 

Archetypes and narrative

Archetypes are “Forms or images of a collective nature which occur practically all over the earth as constituents of myths and at the same time as autochthonous, individual products of unconscious origin. 9”

 

Jung says that there are three levels of symbolism: personal symbolism (where one thing represents another only in the mind of one person); cultural symbolism (where one thing represents another across a whole culture); and archetypal or universal symbolism (where one thing represents another for the whole of humanity). This universal symbolism, he thought, is found in the collective unconscious – that part of our minds which we share as part of our common heritage of humanity.

 

Archetypes of the feminine Archetypes of the masculine
Muse / Femme Fatale Businessman / Traitor
Amazon / Gorgon Protector / Gladiator
Mystic / Betrayer Hermit / Warlock
Daddy’s Girl / Bitch Ladies’ Man / Seducer
Earth Mother / Terrible Mother Artist / Abuser
Matriarch / Scorned Woman Saviour / Punisher
Messiah / Destroyer King / Dictator
Damsel-in-distress / Troubled Teen Fool / Tramp

 

(source: Victoria Lynn Schmidt (2001), 45 Master Characters, Writer's Digest Books ISBN: 1582970696)

 

Each archetype has both a positive and a negative aspect. The archetypes are frequently used in constructing narratives. There is a kind of narrative imperative in the writing of history and journalism; we always want to make it a story, with an intelligible plot and characters. By fitting people into the frame of an archetypal figure, we can make the story more appealing, as described by Lakoff:

 

One of the most frequent uses of the Nation As Person metaphor comes in the almost daily attempts to justify the war metaphorically as a "just war." The basic idea of a just war uses the Nation As Person metaphor plus two narratives that have the structure of classical fairy tales: The Self Defense Story and The Rescue Story.

 

In each story, there is a Hero, a Crime, a Victim, and a Villain. In the Self-Defense story, the Hero and the Victim are the same. In both stories, the Villain is inherently evil and irrational: The Hero can't reason with the Villain; he has to fight him and defeat him or kill him. In both, the victim must be innocent and beyond reproach. In both, there is an initial crime by the Villain, and the Hero balances the moral books by defeating him. If all the parties are Nation-Persons, then self-defense and rescue stories become forms of a just war for the Hero-Nation.

 

In Gulf War I, Bush I tried out a self-defense story: Saddam was "threatening our oil-line." The American people didn't buy it. Then he found a winning story, a rescue story – The Rape of Kuwait. It sold well, and is still the most popular account of that war. 10

 

Terry Pratchett uses the idea of the narrative imperative to great effect in Witches Abroad, when the villainess tries to use the power of story to gain control of a kingdom. He calls it the theory of narrative causality, which

 

“means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been. This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.”

“All witches are very conscious of stories. They can feel stories, in the same way that a bather in a little pool can feel the unexpected trout. Knowing how stories work is almost all the battle.”

 

Wisdom and truth

Wisdom is generally regarded as being more important than knowledge. It is broader, deeper, more multi-perspective.

 

“Insights and acts that are widely considered wise tend to:
  • arise from a broad (not narrow-minded) perspective,
  • serve life in some broad or deep way (not just narrow self-interest)
  • be grounded in but not limited by the past (experience, history, etc.) and the future (likely consequences)
  • be informed by multiple forms of intelligence – reason, intuition, heart, spirit, etc..

Because of its expanded perspective, wisdom is also often associated with humility, compassion, composure, and being able to laugh at oneself. Many liberals would argue a tolerance for dissonance, paradox, nuance, ambiguity, uncertainty is also important.” 11

 

Wise people know that we cannot know everything, and base their progress through life on a sense of integrity and openness. They do not act from selfish motives, but from an intuitive understanding of the community dynamic. They realise that the individual perspective is limited, and try to holographically include others' perspectives, whether from tradition or from current thinking. At the same time they trust their instincts, acting from the heart, using the gift of discernment. They are connected to the great well of Unknowing, the Tao, the source. This concept is found in various metaphorical guises in all traditions.

 

“Destroy the world, you men of the atoms, and Unknowing will retain the pattern. 'Trust that which belongs to the universe itself,' says the Tao. 'From that there will be no escape.'

Unknowing, if one can be open and vulnerable, will take us down to the very deeps of knowing, not informing the mind merely but coursing through the whole body, artery and vein – provided one can thrust aside what the world calls common sense, that popular lumpen wisdom that prevents the emerging of the numinous.

Unknowing needs that a man be in a certain state of grace, playful, artless, inwardly acquitted of opinion, not at all as children are but rather as fools or saints.”

(P L Travers 12)

 

References

 

1. See the section on Inclusionality in Wicca and Science.

2. Ashleen O'Gaea (2002) Raising Witches: Teaching the Wiccan faith to children, Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books. ISBN 1564146316

3. Frank Pajares (2004) 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' by Thomas S. Kuhn, A Synopsis from the original, Philosopher's Web Magazine, http://www.emory.edu/EDUCATION/mfp/kuhnsyn.html

4. Charles Williams, quoted in http://www.secondspring.co.ukSecond Spring: A journal of faith and culture. Personally I'd replace the phrase “believed pattern of the universe” with “attunement to the dynamic of the universe”, as I don't think we can grasp the complexity of the universe in one belief system.

5. The Lady of the Lake, http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/wfb/wfb03.htm

6. Ursula K Le Guin (1985), Always Coming Home, Grafton Books, London. ISBN: 0586073833

7. Jokes, however, often contain truth about a situation, and should not really be categorised with lies and propaganda (]Nick Hanks]' comment)

8. George Lakoff (18 March 2003), Metaphor and War, Again, AlterNet, http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=15414

9. C G Jung, Psychology and Religion, Collected Works, Vol. 11.

10. George Lakoff (18 March 2003), Metaphor and War, Again, AlterNet, http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=15414

11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisdom

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