In this post, I wanted to take a brief break from the explorations to touch on a subject that seems to have been hovering in the ether near me lately: the question of belief.
(Is this related to the subject matter of this blog? Absolutely, but I’ll get to that in a while.)
You’ll have noticed by now that the Magpie’s path is not your mama’s old time religion. In this day and age, I often find myself caught – like many spiritually liberal, independent or moderately agnostic folks – between two opposing camps. Watching them fight can have a perverse interest, but can sometimes be perilous, like sitting on the fence between a cheesed-off badger and a farmer with a loaded shotgun; one tries to duck when necessary and not get one’s tail feathers not too ruffled.
The battle is between the more conservative traditional religions (generally Christianity, in the part of the world I live in), and what’s known as the New Atheism. Yeats pointed out back in 1919 that
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…
– though who’s ‘best’ and ‘worst’ in this instance depends which side you’re on.
My take on things is that science is one way of explaining the world, religion is another, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t both have their place. The problem is how some people with these worldviews impose them on others. The minute anyone says ‘This is how the universe works, I and my cronies have the only valid access to Truth, and anyone who says otherwise is deluded and/or evil’ – whether that person says they’re getting their authority from Darwin (no slur on Darwin, I’m sure he was a fine chap) or Jesus (likewise) – that, for me, sets immediate alarm bells ringing.
(And just so you know I do have a sceptical bone in my body, it irks me equally when it comes from less conventional spiritual places. If your high priestess, your yoga teacher or the Ascended Masters (they’re never Ascended Mistresses, which perhaps says something…) claim they’re the gatekeepers of all knowledge and wisdom, and you’re unenlightened for begging to differ, I’ll come join you on the naughty step.)
The whole debate hinges on proving and disproving what may or may not be the facts. It’s as well to point out here that the word belief originally had nothing to do with literal, factual reality. The -lief part is historically related to love, and to trust. Believing is an act of trust, of relating emotionally to the deepest part of yourself and the world, while accepting that it’s not something your limited intellect can ever totally grasp.
Carl Jung, in the course of a BBC interview, was asked if he believed in God. He replied ‘I don’t need to believe; I know.’ He didn’t mean he had factual proof of a deity; he meant he had an inner relationship with the Source as he experienced it. It’s the difference between accepting that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and actually going out and watching the sunrise.
Of course, because inner experience isn’t something you can drag someone up a hill early in the morning to watch beside you, there’s the question: are we making it up? In a sense, yes, and people on the fringes of religion have always been willing to admit this. Peter Redgrove, in his fascinating book, The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense, notes from an interview with two magical initiates: ‘It was less that their goddess desired worship than that she rejoiced in being imagined.’ And the infamous magician Aleister Crowley made the comment that whether the gods are real, isn’t as important as what happens if you act as if they are.
Does that mean encounters with the Sacred are ‘just imagination’? Joan of Arc was asked that question about her voices, the angels and saints who guided her. She replied: ‘How else but through our imagination do you think God speaks to us?’ Today, people might dismiss her as mentally ill, even though experiences like hers aren’t actually that uncommon in the sanest of people. (Traditional cultures have always, in fact, drawn a careful distinction between mental afflictions and shamanic experience – while accepting that they can happen to the same person.)
Science has fallen over itself to ‘prove’ that spiritual experience is nothing more than a brain glitch. Neurologists might well be correct to say that it manifests, physically, as activity in the temporal lobe; they’ve even found a specific ‘God spot’. But to say that’s all it is, would be to say that love is ‘just’ a release of oxytocin, adrenalin and other feel-good chemicals. Anyone who’s ever been in love knows that it’s very much more than that.
The important question with any spiritual experience or practice should perhaps be: what are you getting from this? What results does it have in your life, your feelings, the way you act towards other people and the world? If it tends towards love and wholeness, if it helps you to deal with life, if it leads you in a direction that feels balanced and open and empowering, that’s probably as much assurance as you need. If it feels uneasy, gets in the way of your work or relationships or any other life-affirming activity, or leads you to surrender your power to another person or a belief system, you might want a rethink.
It’s like the way I look at homeopathy. I suffer from the world’s worst jetlag, and I’m a British person who loves to visit Seattle, and if you know your geography you’ll know that’s a very bad combination. And homeopathic sleeping tablets are the only things that stop me looking like a survivor of the Zombie Walk two weeks after my return. No, I have no idea how they can possibly work, unless it’s the placebo effect. The point is that they do work.
And Joan of Arc’s voices may have been ‘just her imagination’…but she did save France.
And the spirits encountered by shamans may be imagined, as may the gods invoked by ritual magicians. But shamans do heal. And magicians do accomplish change in themselves and the world.
And if your means of connecting to Spirit work for you in a positive way that doesn’t do harm or impose on anyone’s rights or freedoms, I’m not about to condemn or ridicule them. (Ridiculing your own beliefs, on occasion, isn’t a bad idea, simply because spiritual paths that can’t laugh at themselves tend, historically, to end up doing nasty things. But that’s another story.)
I said I’d come back to this blog, eventually, and here we are. I’ve been asking myself if it’s presumptuous of me to be presenting the creative explorations I’m sharing here without knowing where you, my readers, who might want to try them (and I’m hoping you will, that’s half the point of this thing) are coming from, belief-wise.
You might have a spiritual structure in place that works for you – and if so, that’s great – but be intrigued about how you can use your creativity to deepen and enrich your experience of that path. If you need to adapt the exercises for them to sit comfortably with your existing way of doing things, please feel free to do so. Then again, you might still be looking around for the particular Something you can relate to on an inner level. Or you might be a sceptic as far as all this spiritual stuff goes. That’s OK too.
What I’m saying is, don’t worry too much about whether you believe or not, in the sense of whether something objectively, measurably ‘real’ is going on. Just give it a go and see what happens, how you feel, whether it changes anything. Trust the actual process of creation, and if nothing else, you’ll be learning to trust your own deepest self. Which, whether you believe in the Goddess, gravity or the Great Pumpkin, can’t be a bad thing, can it?