One of the most raging debates in Western spirituality over the last few centuries has been the old “faith vs. works” argument. It was a core reason for the Protestant Reformation, and was argued by Roman philosophers even before that.
The question is simple: What matters more to the Divine and makes us better followers of our gods – what we believe, or what we do?
Every religious path has to answer this question, and devotional polytheism is no different. It’s just a bit complicated for us because we think we already know.
We all begin as products of the society that shaped us. Our internal defaults for things like religion and ethics are all set when we’re tiny. The society that shaped most of us is predominantly Protestant Christian, and those defaults linger in our subconscious even when we stop considering ourselves any kind of Christian at all.
Protestants are firmly on the “faith” side of the whole “faith vs. works” argument. Their perspective can be summed up by a single verse in the New Testament of the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NIV version, emphasis mine).
Considered perhaps the most well-known verse from the whole Bible, displaying just the “John 3:16” part is synonymous with displaying “good Christian values”, and we see it everywhere.
What that verse says is simple. It doesn’t matter how many prayers you say or how many offerings you make, belief and belief alone is what makes you a good Christian. It’s such a permeating concept that defining a religion based on “belief” is considered in some circles a Christian bias, since it cuts out a whole different type of definition from the get-go.
This is the idea we were raised knowing, and it’s programmed into us at such a deep level that it doesn’t really ever occur to us to reconsider it. We see the issue popping up all the time as people continue trying to write a handy guide to “What Pagan/Devotional Polytheists Believe”. There has yet to be an effective guide written, because neither path can be defined that way, but people keep trying because a community standard of practice doesn’t seem like enough. And that creates some problems.
The Disconnect During Transition
When we start this road we’re usually so entrenched in the Protestant notion of “belief before all” that we just kinda wait for our belief in the Powers to spontaneously appear, complete with Michael Bay special effects.
Many of us already gave our full belief to the Christian god, though, and it seems like most of us only get one shot at blind faith. For whatever reason Christianity didn’t work out, and we still feel burned by whatever happened there to make us leave the religion completely. As new devotional polytheists we want assurances, dammit. We’ll not be wrong a second time! We want some indication we’re on the right path before we commit, something we can count on and know in our souls to be true.
So we wait for a sign. We might even pray for a sign. We want to regain our belief before we take one more step on the spirituality road. The thing is that while we’re waiting for a sign the Powers are waiting for us to get off our asses and do something.
Our focus on the belief part creates a fundamental disconnect between where we are and where we’re trying to go. Because traditionally, polytheistic religions have cared a helluva lot more about “right action” than “right belief”. It’s not what we believe, it’s what we do.
We have to bridge that gap if we’re going to get anywhere at all with this.
Bridging the Gap
When our belief in a person has been somehow lost most of us don’t become bitter lonely hermits who collect cats like postage stamps.
We simply become a bit more cautious. Belief is no longer automatically granted to others. Instead we relearn how to believe in other people by building that belief step by step.
If we can do that with other people, why can’t we extend that same idea to our relationships with the Powers?
Everything about polytheism is based on hospitality. We give Them a little, They give us a little, and so relationships are made. Waiting around for our “Divine commitment phobia” to just fix itself with no effort on our parts is beyond ridiculous. It’s like expecting to win the lottery without ever buying a ticket. We need baby steps, and we have to work to make it happen.
So here are my “pearls of wisdom” to help with that – which, incidentally, vary based on experience level.
For the Newcomer:
Don’t sit around and wait for a Power to drop in with no notice. They’re not your mother. Say “hello”. Set up a shrine. Do some research. Bake and offer a cake. Invite Them to accompany you on a walk. Meditate. Chat with them. Do the Work.
Let me repeat that. Do the Work.
You don’t feel like meditating, or journaling, or tending your altar? Do the Work. You have other things to do instead? Do the Work. You don’t think you’re getting anything back? Do the Work. The work bores you? Do the Work. You just don’t feel it right now? Do the Work. Life is stressing you out? Do the Work. Your favorite tv show/movie is coming on? Do the Work.
Are you noticing a theme here? We have to Do the Work. Period. No excuses, no bullshit, no procrastination. Doing the Work, living that correct action, offering that hospitality, is the very first step to any interaction with the Powers at all. Without that starting point we’ve got nothing at all to offer Them, and we’ve given Them very little pathway back to us.
Do the Work. It lays the groundwork for everything after.
For the Experienced:
The longer we interact with the Powers the easier it is for us to say “we got this”, right? We Do the Work every day. We have our practice, we listen to Them when They speak, we understand right action, and we do our best to live our whole lives in harmony with the Powers. Our experience has made us elders, teachers, guides, and role-models for newcomers.
However, that experience is also prone to bite us on the ass when dealing with newcomers if we’re not careful.
The majority of the people I’ve met who have been doing this for awhile (and it’s not like I’ve met everyone, so YMMV) felt “called” or “compelled” to this path, and since then a large majority of those so tapped have become priests, spirit-workers, scholars, authors – all people chosen to spread the word and help others come back into balance with the Powers after a long hiatus. These are the people who developed the terms, explained the concepts, came together and formed a supportive community.
But things have changed a bit as we’ve progressed down this road. Our spiritual specialists form a core around which devotional polytheism can grow, but we’re starting to grow beyond that core. We as a community need to learn how to interact with and offer support to a laity.
Not all devotional polytheists are meant to be spiritual specialists. Not everyone has a god phone, a godspouse, or a calling to serve as clergy. That’s perfectly ok. People have their own path to follow, other commitments to meet, their own relationships to the Powers, and it is not for us to evaluate the depth or quality of their devotion.
The idea of the wise-woman living on the edge of society presupposes a society. Shamans serve a tribe. That society, that tribe, is made up of the laity – and they too have their part to play.
Spiritual specialists are doing the research and having the experiences necessary to restore community ritual and temple worship, resurrecting it from the ashes and learning once more how to balance with the Powers. This is crucial work.
It is the laity who will bring up their children as devotional polytheists, who will help restore the smaller household rituals that used to be so common, who will take this out of the temple and into the world. That too is crucial work, and it must be honored and supported as such.
Both laity and spiritual specialists are essential to the creation and maintenance of a functioning society. A society nurtured and supported by devotional polytheists welcomes and honors the Powers both in large-scale rituals and the daily interactions of families, just like historic polytheistic societies did. That being a Very Good Thing is something upon which I think we can all agree, and to make that happen we all have to Do the Work.