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Monday, September 10, 2012

Belief and Practice

 There seems to be a pervasive, underlying dualism in paganism which can be seen in the various either/or arguments that go around. Either religion or spirituality. Either modern or traditional. And at the moment, either belief or practice. It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me and my liminal ways that I reject both hard views - the either/or paradigm - and instead my own perspective is based in balance.
  The current discussion going around is centered on whether it is orthodoxy (belief) or orthopraxy (practice) that matters more. One view holds that belief is the cornerstone to everything else and that what we do is less important than what we believe; by this view community is built on a similarity of belief. We all believe the same therefore we are all the same religion. In contrast the other view holds that what we believe is less important than what we do and that community is based on a similarity of practice. We do the same thing, ritually, therefore we are the same religion. The belief argument is often held as a neopagan stance, while the practice side is held by recons. Both have their pro's and con's; similar belief can acts as common ground for those with different practices, while similar practice can act as common ground for those with different beliefs.
  My sticking point in all of this is the either/or aspect, the idea that it has to be one way or the other. I believe this is a logical fallacy, a false dilemma. My experience with the pagan community over the last few decades has shown me that those who hold to the orthodoxic view still have boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable practice, just as the orthopraxic side has limits to what beliefs are and are not allowed. Most neo-pagan groups, for example, that embrace the idea of similar belief will still reject practices that involve, say, conducting a mass to the goddess in the guise of Mary, even if they all believe that Mary is a face of the Goddess. Similarly the orthopraxic groups will reject beliefs that are too far out of the accepted norm, such as CR groups that refuse to allow CR style worship to Lwa. (note that these examples are purely illustrative and not meant to imply any personal judgment in any direction). The point is that it is not nearly as clear cut or simple as the either/or. To be heathen or CR is as much about believing in the deities and cosmology - on some level - as it is practicing like everyone else. Even atheist heathens relate to the gods in some way and understand the heathen worldview. So to my mind it isn't either belief or practice, it's belief and practice.
   If I had to concisely describe my own view I suppose I would say that it is experiential, because experiencing something beyond ourselves - whether that experience comes through belief or practice - seems to me to be the heart of spirituality. Rote belief or practice by themselves, to me, are not transformative or powerful, but can be tools to reach past ourselves and create that connection. Even if the experience is a simple moment, an awareness that we didn't have before, it is that experience that we should strive for. Of course I am coming from a very esoteric place and my own past experiences shape my views on the value of experience; it may well be different for everyone else, and I don't judge those who find true value without transformative experiences. Spirituality will always be unique in many ways to the individual practicing it, no matter how much common ground that person shares with their community.
     I am a wanderer, and sometimes I practice with those who hold different beliefs just as sometimes I practice differently from those with similar beliefs. I do not feel that having a different belief from someone is an insurmountable issue, nor that practicing differently is the core of what defines us. A community is too diverse to ever fit into such a narrow model. No, it will always be a blend of differences and similarities, with a fine balance maintaining the homeostasis necessary for the community to exist at all. Sometimes people stray too far from the common belief or the common practice and cross that boundary of "acceptable" and then a new community is formed, but generally even in communities that emphasize orthopraxy or orthodoxy there will always be variations. It's human nature.


  1. "It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me and my liminal ways that I reject both hard views" ...lovely! me too! my world is not one of extremes. =]

  2. To me, the whole argument comes down to the statement that I've heard various people make at different times that they would not engage in ritual with someone who didn't believe the same as they do. That seems ridiculous to me. I am ardently opposed to the "shun the unbeliever" attitude.

    1. I agree - and I feel just as strongly about being open minded with people who believe the same, essentially, but practice differently. I think many people mistakenly feel that if we don't agree on belief or practice someone has to change their approach, when the reality is that I can appreciate the differences in others without feeling judgment.