By Christopher Penczak
“Faith” is a powerful word. More and more, I find myself involved in groups and situations where it comes up, and realize that, even just ten years ago, I didn’t hear it so much in the Pagan community. Part of it is because in the last ten years I’ve been part of an effort to incorporate a group into a federally-recognized church, by definition a “faith-based” organization in the eyes of many because it is a religious institution. While Wicca, Witchcraft, and Paganism in various forms were already accepted as religions by the state and federal governments, we had to present our own organization in a manner that could be easily recognized by government officials as religious. While it wasn’t my first choice, we were legally advised that a necessary step was a simple translation into terms others could understand. I do that often when I teach to the general public, so why not with the government? We weren’t the first to do it, and I’m sure we won’t be the last.
Suddenly “sabbat” and “esbat,” or even simply “ritual,” become “liturgy.” Occult concepts such as the Hermetic Principles become “statements of faith.” Soon we take basic guiding principle, fused with a little legalese, and we have Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws. Both were required to go forward with our plans. We purposely kept the structure esoteric, with a board of directors having elemental correspondences and a zodiac oriented council acting as a primary committee, even down to including the decans of the Zodiac for deputies, but we used the terminology that was most legally understood and accepted for a religious organization.
While I was taught, and rightfully agree, that Witchcraft in its various expressions, is legitimately a religion, I always feel it necessary to distinguish what type of religion it is. When I think of it as a religion, I think of it having a clear divide from most mainstream religions, certainly from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. If anything, I see it sharing some of the nebulous waters of Buddhism, where people still argue if Buddhism is a religion or simply a philosophical practice. Many seeking to distance themselves from religion are successful when they say, “No, I’m a Buddhist” though most are not what I would consider practicing Buddhists, but perhaps more philosophically Buddhist. And of course there are some more esoteric forms of Buddhism than others. I can say the same about most people who identify as Pagan. Today, few have dedicated practices, but often agree with the philosophies and culture of Paganism, or at least what they feel the philosophies and culture are, which sometimes sharply conflicts with what has gone on before, even as little as a few years before.
More and more, I try to distinguish various forms of religion, separating the prophetic, scriptural, and orthodox from the more mystical and mystery expressions. One side was based on someone else’s peak experience, or perhaps several other people’s, who wrote it down, and the structure and traditions that grew around those teachings. On the other side, religious groups might have written scriptures, but the essence of the tradition is imparting techniques. Yes those techniques were seen through a cultural lens, but the goal was to experience. In the truest form of Buddhism, one doesn’t worship the Buddha, but seeks to become a Buddha, an awakened one. The Pagan Mystery schools seek to awaken us to the true nature of reality and of the soul through experience of other realities, not merely belief in them.
I never considered what I learned or practice a “faith-based tradition.” In fact, I was encouraged to not have faith in anything my teachers told me. I found that refreshing, coming from Roman Catholicism, which to me seemed entirely based on faith. I was instructed in myth, poetry and, most importantly, technique. The art gave a dressing to the skeleton of ritual technology, the techniques. I was encouraged to practice both, but to “look beneath the hood” so to speak, to understand how it all worked. Teachers required no belief, but just an openness to experience. And, in that skeptical openness, I experienced things that rocked my understanding of the world and my place in it. Powerful psychic experiences, healing, manifestation of desires and control of the weather were things that made a skeptic like me into a true seeker and, later, an experienced practitioner.
Through my training I learned the true meaning of “A Witch doesn’t believe. She knows.” It’s not so much we know everything, but we know what is true and not true for us in a given moment. We don’t take anything on faith. We test and temper it with experience. Witchcraft and related Pagan paths are experiential-based traditions.
I often say I have no faith, which shocks some people who consider me a priest of the Craft, and assume that all priests must have faith. I don’t. I have experiences. That means I can change my understanding of how things work as my experiences change. I don’t have to blindly hold onto something I once believed because I once had “faith” in it. I know that everything I could possibly conceptualize is just that, a conception of something beyond. Philosophy, theology, and even technique can be the best way we understand it right now. That understanding can change with further experience. Everything is simply a set of good ideas to follow, not hard and fast rules, though if something works for many people and is passed down for a long time, it probably behooves you to check it out and find out why and if it would be helpful to you.
I wasn’t particularly spiritual, meaning that my motivation wasn’t simply to do good in the world, or for the god/s. I went from feeling I was religious as a confused Catholic, to simply agnostic before finding Witchcraft. Spirituality came out of seeking the Mystery. One can’t be touched by Mystery without being transformed. A pivotal experience hammered home the idea of interconnection and how everything you do effects everything else. So that started my spiritual path of wanting to do good works, internally and externally, and realizing one of the biggest things I could do for the world was to gain greater mastery over myself, my own consciousness. I didn’t feel a strong call to community, and in particular religious community. My first serious teacher, Laurie Cabot, stressed that Witchcraft was a Science, Art, and Religion, but for years, I just focused on the science. The little group that I practiced with did as well. Though the benefit of fellow walkers on the path—in a small three person coven, and later in a larger coven and then a greater community—was evident for myself, my fellows and eventually my own students.
The title of this article comes from a quote by Darth Vader of Star Wars, of all people. I’m not only a Witch, but I find my wisdom and inspiration in the popular culture of my childhood. Vader is told by an Admiral in the Empire: “Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient [Jedi] religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebels’ hidden fortress…” Vader responds with “I find your lack of faith disturbing” as he uses the Force to choke the admiral. Here the admiral is having an experience of the power of the Force, and one must imagine that was not the first time he saw or heard about Vader’s powers. Yet there was still a disrespect stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding of it. Vader’s references it as “faith” but obviously its not something he simply believes in without evidence. He’s experienced it directly. And faith is usually defined as a strong belief in something with no proof or evidence. So I’m always a bit disturbed when those of the magickal traditions describe our path as “faith-based.”
I fear in our use of the lingo of faith to bridge a gap with people in truly faith-based religions, we’ve made the errors of either attracting people through that language who are simply looking for another faith, or perhaps misinforming people who are sincerely seeking magick into a faith-based view. Perhaps that is the first veil to penetrate in the mysteries these days… and many do not seek to go through it. I think educators and activists have to give this some serious thought as we share our traditions with the public, and with potential seekers. Do we want to become a faith-based tradition? I do not. I will continue to promote the metaphysical experience. Though I’m sure when talking with people who have no concept or experience, my desire to put it in the most simple terms as possible could perpetuate many of the things I’m talking about in this article. It’s a classic catch-22.
Granted, for many people, the various forms of Paganism are faith-based. My experience is as a modern Witch—and much of my audience is for that community—even if I do try to make many teachings applicable for whomever wants to use them. There are many reconstructionist traditions and purely religious traditions out there that have no emphasis on sorcerous practice, psychic ability, or deep spirit contact. It’s more about the customs, ethics, ideals, the fidelity to the gods through ritual and offerings and, dare I say it, the faith. Perhaps many Pagans who use the word faith are less referring to belief, and more in the faith in one’s word, sincere intentions or a deep devotion to their spiritual powers and principles but, if so, I think that should be clearly articulated. Most are referring to faith in the traditional religious sense. Many perform rituals and rites in a similar style to the prayers of mainstream religions. We often describe a spell as a “prayer” to outsiders as it’s the easiest way to understand and make it less scary, yet there are a lot of ways to pray. Some have a metaphysical “juice” behind them. Others do not. Most people’s prayers do not, as they come from a place of “lack” and “bargaining” not a place of deep connection. Defining it as prayer takes away the components of nature-based spirituality. There is a reason our spells often involve herbs and stones. We believe they are alive and have a spirit and an energy to help us. Ritual actions, astrological timing, and poetic inspiration are all ways our spells differ from most forms of prayer.
Many are looking for a new cultural model when coming to various forms of Paganism, one that would not be described as occult, or mystery based. More and more, I find that is the divide in my communities – the occult or esoteric divided from the purely religious. I’ve heard some pagan priest/esses speak the same way about Thor or Zeus as a Christian would of Yahweh, as unworthy supplicants rather than cooperative partners. Perhaps some ancient Pagans felt this way, but it was never part of the model of my own training and experiences as an occultist. And it must be said that many people in traditional religious models, known as faith-based traditions, have equally powerful metaphysical experiences, often of “being saved” that is the basis of their faith and is as valid as any occult experience I’ve had. I agree, and often understand those practitioners better than those who have not had an experience. I just find a disconnect from having the experience to then accepting the other rules, customs and, quite frankly, dogma, without question and without experiencing something explaining why directly. If anything, wouldn’t the direct connection teach you to renounce the dogma and seek the answer for yourself?
I don’t really understand those who follow a magickal path who have a “crisis of faith.” I think the cure to such a crisis is to practice and experience. I’ve known quite a few people over the years of teaching who leave anything esoteric, even though I know they have had profound, or what I believed were profound, initiatory experiences. Such crisis points are really an opportunity to refine your understanding of your experience and go deeper. Is it the threshold of the veil or the abyss, to borrow from ceremonial magick teachings? Is it the dark night of the soul, the dweller on the threshold, the underworld initiation? Could be, if you move through it, rather than turn away from it.
For some its not really a crisis of faith, but perhaps a crisis of identity. Or crisis of mythos. Or even crisis of community. Those I understand. Some people use Witchcraft, Paganism, and other magickal paths as a healing step on the journey, but their identity is not a Witch of Pagan. I wish them well and hope we helped them along their way.
Some just don’t jibe with the mythos of the Witch. Even in our organizations, there is quite a bit of rebellion. Ours is the story of the outsider, and often the darkness of the night. If that is not your nature at all, then perhaps the mythos does not fit, the art and poetry do not speak to your soul, and you have not been absorbed enough into it to then add your own changes. Some find comfort in another branch of Paganism, such as Druidism, or Asatru, if coming from a more Wiccan background. Other find a general form of New Age metaphysics to their liking, and might leave the sphere of religion all together, so faith is no longer an issue. Those who go back to Christianity in an esoteric form, not a dogmatic form, also can make some sense to me. Christ is not a bad guy at all—it’s often the Christians you have to look out for, at least the dogmatic ones. The mystical ones are quite lovely.
Of course there are also those who just don’t like the Pagan community. It can be hard to be an outsider amongst outsiders. Some fit into that scheme. Others don’t. And sometimes the various forms of Witch, Wiccan, and Pagan communities just suck. But so do all communities. There’s times when I can’t stand the overall community and that’s why I’ve been busy creating the change I want to see. But there are other times that I find the whole community amazing, loving, supportive, and powerful. But if a problem with the community is why you leave altogether, then perhaps you experiences were not that anchored into your being after all, and it’s probably good to keep searching. Even if there was no community, I would still be a Witch, and never truly alone with my spiritual allies and contacts. In many ways, even in community, all Witches, and I think all people, are on their own paths, and simply walk next to each other for a time.
So I don’t find a lack of faith in a student or community member disturbing. I find it refreshing. I admire and appreciate the ability to question authority (even when I’m the authority being questioned) and think for one’s self. Those who are too devoted to the religion of the Craft without a firm experience of it or, worse yet, a delusional experience of it with no metaphysical principles behind it, scare me quite a bit. They often have the loudest voices due to the “pulpit” of our social media, and drown out the more experienced and reasonable voices (which are often busy having actual experiences). Like my teachers before me, I encourage people to enter the mythos, but also look under the hood to see what makes the engine run, and to experiment and ask questions. Don’t simply trade one belief for another, but seek an experience so you can have and know for yourself.