Belief and Doing the Work

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?

Faith vs. Works

The argument – condensed to basics.

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.

Socialized Perspective

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.

Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow, with “John 3:16” on his face paint as he took to the field during the BCS National Championship in 2009.

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.

The Arrival of Belief, heavenly bolt version.

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.

Um, no.

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.

For Everyone:

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.

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In Support of a Pagan Laity

“Clergy” is a loaded term for any faith, but it becomes especially problematic when coming at it from a Pagan perspective.

Definitions vary, but for me the difference between “layperson” and “clergy” is fairly basic. Most people focus their spiritual practice on themselves. Their spirituality is largely self-contained, and their personal spiritual fulfillment comes from their own connection with Divinity. Others find that their spiritual practice and fulfillment is dependent on serving others. Both of those types of people would fall into what I consider to be laypeople. However, when a need to serve combines with a calling to some sort of leadership role we get clergy.

This important and distinct difference gets glossed over entirely too often.

I think the line gets blurred because most of today’s Pagans are converts from other faiths, and they’re converts because the faith they grew up with didn’t meet their needs. When they finally find a faith that speaks to their soul, they just jump in without checking in with themselves first. By the time they do that they shrug and keep forging ahead, afraid of losing that spiritual home.

Personally, I tried really hard to force myself to be Christian when I was younger. It didn’t work. The stories and tenets didn’t make sense to me. Being a “good Christian” would have required me to ignore or hide my true self, compromise my principles, and make what I believe to be unethical choices. Nothing against Christianity – it just wasn’t a good fit for me.

Finding Paganism was a revelation. THIS fit. Suddenly I had a place, and the relief was intense. When you light a match in a dark room the brightness is overwhelming. It is easy to see how people new to Paganism would take that bright, shiny “I’m home” feeling and confuse it with “this is my entire life now”. Especially when we’re encouraged to make that commitment from the get-go.

It’s fairly common in the Pagan community to take on a clergy title -“priest” or “priestess” – early in the initiation process. By becoming Pagan it is assumed that you’re serving the Gods, and that by doing so you’re automatically somehow serving the larger community.

This is incorrect on two fronts. The first one is that not all Pagans believe there are Gods to serve in the first place. Some people very happily see all deities as Jungian archetypes, or universal principle made manifest, or Divinity as being in everything and so faceless, or … you get the idea. The idea that the Gods are actually distinct individuals with preferences and personalities who deserve and perhaps require worship is not even the majority in Paganism, much less the default option!

Even if the Pagan newbie does believe in individual deities, they might not know how to conceptualize that. I wasn’t really taught how to serve even the Christian God as a child. Sure, I knew how to follow the rules, but study? Devotional practices? Regular prayer? Writing rituals myself? Holidays that focused on church more than presents? That was what monks and nuns and priests did – not me. I was just supposed to show up. Once my practice started incorporating all of these other elements, the only mental category I had for it was clergy. I don’t think I’m unique in that.  And I certainly didn’t know where to start!

So that whole idea – that all Pagans are serving the Gods and so the community -is simply incorrect, either through lack of belief or lack of skill.

That assumption neatly ties into another one, that is almost an unspoken rule in Pagan circles: Pagan newbies will take on some sort of leadership role in the larger community as soon as their skills are developed enough. Again, this just is not true. But everyone is railroaded into a group leader/clergy path, whether or not they are called to it, because it’s simply the next accepted step in Pagan practice. You learn the basics, then turn around and begin teaching and leading others. That’s just The Way It Is, and those who resist that way are essentially admitting that they’re not advanced enough to handle it. Which means their perspectives and skills are overlooked or ignored.

There isn’t an accepted place for the experienced and skilled Pagan layperson, a middle ground between “I don’t know what I’m doing” and “I am called to lead a group”. This is sad.

I know people right now who are serving as clergy without feeling called to do so. It’s the price they pay for remaining in the public community long enough to know which end of an athame is sharp, and expected if they are going to gain acceptance in a specific group. They are not clergy by my definition – they are artists, warriors, scholars, bards, healers, diviners, lovers. Their necessary and beautiful spiritual gifts are being pushed aside and neglected because they feel pressured and compelled to be something they’re not. Not only is all their free time consumed by something that doesn’t nurture them, they don’t have time left over for the things that do. This leads to a lot of passive-aggressive behavior, self-martyrdom, and eventually leaving the Pagan community in self-defense. At the same time, the entire community is losing out on all the contributions these unwilling clergy could be making, if people would simply back off and give them space.

I also know people right now who know, deep down, that they will never fulfill their spiritual potential without a community to serve and a group to lead. Their gifts are all about counseling, teaching, group work, administration, and ritual facilitation. But finding people who could teach them the skills they need to capitalize on their talents is more difficult than it should be. They have no way of knowing who is serving out of sincere desire and who is serving out of duty, so they have to wade through all the passive-aggression, all the martyrdom, to find someone who gets it and can teach them. While this is going on, they see demonstrated all around them that serving the community will suck them dry, that they won’t have a life outside of it, that they have to bravely accept feeling empty and soldier on despite it. These views are internalized, and this attitude translates into the work they do.

Is it any wonder that many people reach a Journeyman level and retreat from the public scene rather than continue to offer their unique perspectives? That newbies have to get most of their instruction from books, and don’t even know which books to start with? That finding teachers and/or books for advanced topics is such a challenge?

Group leadership is no more important, valid, or devoted a path than the artist who connects to their Gods every time they create, the scholar who finds understanding through history, the lover who feels union with Divinity at orgasm.  They all serve in their own ways.

Laypeople serve different functions than clergy, but they are no less important or valuable. We need to start offering respect, support, and validation of their individual experience. The better we are at doing this the more fulfilled we’ll be as Pagans, the stronger we’ll be as a community, and the better we will serve our Gods.

Covensteads and Clergy

During a recent series of conversations with a Pagan group I was strongly reminded of a quote common in polyamory circles: “Love is infinite, but time is not.”

We were discussing the treasured dream of establishing a “Covenstead”. Dedicated ritual space, meditation gardens, shrines, classrooms, accommodations, the whole deal. Parts of the discussion even started veering off into theoretical water systems! It was all interesting and stimulating, but struck me as putting the cart way before the horse. There are reasons very few Pagan groups manage to maintain this kind of setup, and I think most of them boil down to the finite nature of time.

Let’s assume that the average American sleeps 8 hours a night, or 56 hours a week (oh, fond dream!). Statistically, they also work an average of 50-60 hours a week. Just work and sleep account for 110 hours of the 168 weekly hours available. The time remaining is eaten away by significant others, children, other family, laundry and cooking, connecting with friends, exercise, grocery shopping, and all the other demands juggled by people on a daily basis. Relaxation has to fit in there too, somewhere. No wonder people feel so rushed!

Those following any spiritual path have all of the above to deal with, and then have to somehow add spiritual practice to the mix. Meditation takes time. Study takes time. Ritual, devotional workings, and magick all take time. It can easily add up to an hour or two a day – 14 hours a week, or a part-time job in itself. Taking on students or working with a group adds even more of a time burden.

Then add in the time required to maintain and use that dreamed-of Covenstead. Someone has to mow the lawn, trim the hedges, pay the bills, plan the rituals, run the classes, tend the shrines, polish the altar tools, and clean the bathrooms. These same people then have to attend and/or facilitate everything so all that effort isn’t wasted.

All of this, on top of everything else, is damn near impossible. It’s not a question of “dedication” or “priorities” but math – there are simply not enough hours in the day for any one person to do all of it.

There are two ways to approach this problem. One is to share the work out. Even the largest task becomes more manageable with more hands, right? This is the path chosen by most Pagan groups, and if everything runs exactly as planned all should go smoothly.

The problem with this approach is that life happens. Those who could volunteer this week might not have availability next week. Work gets hectic, people transfer or move, children get sick, and personal projects have to get done sometime. And while the hours volunteers can contribute vary, the hours required do not. The only way to successfully cope with this is to have a huge pool of potential volunteers from which to draw, and very few groups have those numbers. So when life happens those with a bit more flexibility try to cover for everyone else, either burn out or just can’t sustain the added work load, and the whole thing implodes in spectacular fashion.

The other way to do it is to designate a small part of the group to do most or all of the work. For those few this is a huge time commitment. So huge that those who take it on typically have to give up standard employment and/or family – on average, life’s two biggest time consumers – in order to make it possible. The members of the group not making that kind of time commitment balance it out by contributing financially instead. Since the financial burden is borne by the much larger group, no one has to contribute more than they can afford and everyone is a part of things.

And thus we have the birth of a dedicated clergy.

Religions all over the world have adopted this method as they’ve grown, and it has been successful for centuries. The clergy system is similar to a kind of religious insurance. The layperson can go about their daily lives, secure in the knowledge that when they need a rite of passage or holiday observance there’s someone to facilitate it and a place at which to do it. And we certainly have enough people who identify as members of the greater Pagan/polytheist/magickal community to support a similar system for ourselves.

However, Pagans tend to shy away from the entire idea of a dedicated clergy. From what I’ve seen they either fear some sort of religious oppression or don’t want to support the work of those who don’t practice the exact same way they do. As a result, the closest thing to dedicated clergy we have as a community are published authors, which are not the same thing.

This is unfortunate. We need clergy.

We need people who understand as many different paths as possible, so they can understand and adapt to the needs of everyone in our community. We need people available to meet those needs, whether it’s conducting a hand-fasting or visiting a solitary practitioner in prison or the hospital. We also need shrines to our gods, sanctuaries for the land, schools for our children, cemeteries for our dead – and all of those require dedicated people to tend them. None of this is possible without the hands to do it, and we can only get those hands if they have the time to develop and use all the necessary skills.

I’ll agree whole-heartedly that Pagans and polytheists of all paths could seriously benefit from having our own dedicated ritual spaces. We just need to approach the issue from the other direction – people first, land/structures after. Otherwise all the time spent to create the space will be wasted, and none of us can afford to waste time.