A Pagan Primer, Installment 25

Knowledge and revelation.


Tonight I want to talk a little bit about what we know. While that will touch on science, the important concept, or at least the relevant one tonight is spiritual.


I’ve mentioned before that one charge leveled against Neo-Paganism is our lack of an ancient revealed body of scripture. We’re also often criticized for “making things up as we go along”. Kirk Cameron, a former “growing pain” who some in the Neo-Pagan community seem to think is continuing that early role with vigor, brought up this issue when poking fun at a group of people who were holding a druidic ritual a while back.


So, I suppose that the question we might ask ourselves is “how do we know that what we’re doing is right?”


The first thing we might look at in our search for an answer is this: “Can any spiritual position be right to the exclusion of all others?”


On a legalistic level, one might look at this question and state simply that if there is an ultimate reality, then of course, any religion that properly and fully embraces and teaches that framework must necessarily be right. Any religion that fails to do so is wrong, to the extent that they deviate from the ideal model.


If we want to follow the philosophy of Pascal, as he put forth in his famous wager, maybe we would choose to make our choices based on the possible punishments we might endure at the hands of whatever god might be angry at us for not having been convinced.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, Pascal was a French Philosopher, Mathematician and Physicist. His wager or gambit reads as follows:

 “If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is....

..."God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

“Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. "No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all."

“Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

"That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much." Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. “

If you take Pascal’s wager, and view it from a Christian perspective only, it does make sense. However, it does fail in one crucial point. If there is more than one competing position, the wager falls apart. If the only choice was between Christianity and atheism, the wager would be valid; one could easily choose eternal bliss over current intellectual satisfaction. But that isn’t our choice; it’s not that simple.

When we look at the world full of religions, we find that we are presented with many choices. To try to extend Pascal’s wager to make the best choice among many, what we’re left with is an attempt to discern which religion offers the greatest rewards and punishments. We are left with making a simple financial calculation and living our life based on a cost-benefit ratio. Our spiritual life is reduced to risk assessment.

In the end, what we’re left with is a need to discern, for ourselves, what our own spiritual life will consist of. For some of us, that’s easy; we’ll inherit the faith of our parents. Maybe we could call that vicarious certitude – it was true for them, it’s true for us. Whoever worked it out in the past, must have gotten it right.

Some of us though will, for various reasons, not be left with an inherited faith. Maybe we’ve got parents who left it up to us to work out our own faith, not wishing to “program” their children or to indoctrinate them into a faith not of their own choosing. Perhaps, growing older, we’ve examined the faith of our youth and found it wanting.

Whatever the reasons we’ve come to this particular point, it’s now up to us to make an examination of what we have, where we are, and what we believe.

The Christian faiths have the Bible; the claimed word of  God, perhaps the most-read book in all Earth’s history. It is claimed by believers to be absolutely true and without error. But a critical examination of the Bible will show that while it relates some historically factual information, there is still a great deal which must be considered allegory or taken on faith.

Some point to the Bible’s antiquity or popularity as an indication of its accuracy or inerrancy. Some have engaged in legal studies, attempting to prove by rule of law that the Bible is true or that Christ was really god, or that the resurrection really happened.

In the end though, for Christians, with their Bible, it still comes down to faith – one needs to answer the question “Do I believe what this book says?” Even then, that’s not the end of it. Individual Christians need to determine to what extent they consider the Bible to be inerrant or to be taken literally. Was Peter really the first pope? Is the world really 6000 years old? Is the bread and wine really the body and blood of Christ?

A “revealed” scripture really isn’t that much help when it comes to working out your faith. Yes, you’ve got one book that becomes your creed, but you still need to determine whether or not you really believe that book.

For the Neo-Pagan, things are a bit simpler. By not being tied down to an ancient text, which someone can poke holes in or twist the meaning of, our faith is not fragile when we encounter a contradiction. On the other hand, we don’t have a “final authority”. We don’t have an imprimatur who endorses our writings as scripturally valid. For most of us, we’re quite on our own.

We might have teachers and authors that we respect, but we are truly responsible for what we believe.

So where does the Neo-Pagan find truth? Most of us find it in the laws of nature. We experience seasons. We see plants being born in the spring, dying in the fall, and returning the following spring. We see many fish in the river, then fewer, and then again, more. We see rainy seasons, then dry seasons, then rainy seasons once again. The moon waxes and wanes forever. The Sun moves North then South, then North again.

The world is full of cycles, and we find that we are as well.

The truths that we find as Pagans are the truths that exist in Nature. They can’t be argued with, they can’t be misinterpreted.

After the truths, we begin to see their spiritual implications. If plants live, die, then live again, why should we not? Is there supporting information for such a theory? Many believe so. What we have is a process of nature, a finding of ourselves as part of nature, supposition, and then support for that supposition.

As Pagans, we’re typically not dogmatic about our beliefs. We don’t call someone a heretic and burn them because their beliefs are a bit different. We do though, take responsibility for what we believe. We know that if we believe something to be true, then we must act as if it is true for it to be any benefit to us.

We have many important writings which many Pagans hold dear. They are not though, taken as infallible scripture. We look to these writings, and indeed to the writings of many religions, for in each of them, we do find elements of truth. What we as a rule don’t, and perhaps shouldn’t do, is to claim that because we’re right, all others must be wrong.

© 2008, Deirdre Hebert