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On Belief and Experience

September 18, 2010

This is cross-posted from my personal blog -- I'm a writing fool tonight!

I'm gearing up for the OMC educational conference, and as I think about it, remembering last year, a couple of key things come to mind. One: I'm reasonably sure I'm going to be the only Pagan there. I was last year. Two: as such, I'm going to field questions about what it is I believe. There will be several iterations of this, mostly from well-meaning mainline-to-charismatic Protestant fellas. They're unfailingly polite, and unfailingly unaware. I wonder how it is that a Pagan in the back of beyond (well, for Southern Ontario folks, it may as well be) is so heavily involved in multifaith work, while elsewhere, if they're involved at all, they must not be particularly forthcoming with information.

The first year I attended, there was a Pagan representative from Ottawa, and Richard James (the founding HP of the Wiccan Church of Canada) was a panelist. That was the last time I saw another Pagan at conference.

In light of all this, I find myself wondering how exactly I can answer this. Ten or fifteen years ago, it might have been easier. I was a lot more rigid back then: a lot more bookbound, frankly. The fact is, when it comes to belief...I don't really have any. I find myself closer and closer to something Starhawk said years ago. I wish I could remember the exact quote. She said, roughly, that she doesn't believe in the Goddess any more than she believes in a rock or a tree. That rings truer now than it ever did when I was younger.

The fact is, I'm not a believer. I'm not much for theism at all: it's not that I find monotheism and polytheism and even atheism distasteful, but rather that they're spiritual frameworks that happen to other people. That's just an example, of course. I know there are non-theistic systems of belief, too.

I experience, in the world, what I identify as the Divine. I don't expect others to share that, though it's pretty nifty when they do. I experience this divinity as a sort of ordering principle, not as a personified entity. Furthermore, probably because I'm very much in touch with my own woman-ness, I experience this ordering principle in the universe as primarily feminine. Not female, mind you, but manifesting in a way that my experience and identity lead me to call feminine. It's not always that way -- there are times when this divinity, this ordering principle, feels more masculine. It's not easy for me to articulate exactly why that is, or how it works. It's very gut-centred. Sometimes it helps to use names, chiefly from some culture's mythology, as a sort of shorthand; other times, it seems silly to outwardly call on something I feel within myself.

My gut, my instinct, experiences some times and spaces as sacred: not absent from the everyday world, but somehow hyper-present. In circles. Next to water, or during a rainstorm. When the sun warms my skin. With my loved ones near a fire. In intimate moments with my loves. In solitude and quiet, and sometimes in boisterous gatherings. Really, those moments of connection can happen anywhere, at any time. I can call them into being, as I do in circle, or allow them to engulf me when they happen spontaneously. I can resist, too, but that just seems counterproductive. It's not a matter of believing -- it's something I experience.

I use certain tools and techniques, and I follow a liturgical calendar. The tools and techniques are an eclectic mix of ancient and modern, but they're mostly chosen for aesthetic reasons: for me, it's not that one tool has any intrinsic value over another, but rather that I recognize that I'm conditioned to use certain items for certain purposes, and therefore it works for me. It makes sense to layer West and water and cup and cauldron and endings and so on because it calls on what I can only imperfectly refer to as a kind of ancestral memory. The calendar I follow divides up the solar year into segments of a certain duration, spokes and spaces on a wheel. It orders my world, and it corresponds to the natural changes around me: longer or shorter days, seasons passing, that sort of thing. Again, it's part of my world.

So what do I believe? Well, I don't. But I experience some really beautiful things.

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