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The Religious Experience: A Wiccan Viewpoint

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The Religious Experience: A Wiccan Viewpoint[credits]

by Summer Woodsong

 

What is religion? Religion is a set of beliefs which allow us to understand and categorize our world and our place in it. A set of beliefs which define our culture, our expectations, our views of people and behaviors we expect. I have found several different definitions, but one thing comes across fairly clearly – religion almost always acknowledges power outside ourselves. Contrary to popular dictionary definitions, Wicca does not require that we believe in a supernatural or a supernaturally powerful being – but you can if you want to envision it that way. Religion is a spiritual path that allows us to move outside of our day-to-day needs and demands. It provides us with a view of our place in the larger picture. To see ourselves, our lives, and our endeavors as part of a whole world – a tapestry of people, plans, energy, art and creation. It shows the entire process of creation, growth, death and reclaiming of the component parts for the next creation. It provides a paradigm and form around and through which we live our lives and understand who and what we are.

I found one part of the word defined as “A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1977) This is closer to acceptable, but even then they use the word faith. Since faith is believing in something firmly even though there is no proof - it is not a solid match either.

I can only speak with full knowledge of my religion of choice, Wicca. However, I will speak in a broader sense of many religions. There are many excellent books available on comparative religion, and on each religion mentioned. If something catches your interest learn more about it. All religions are a unique fit, to individual needs and gifts. For some, the best religion is none at all. However, even a decision not to believe in a source, a divine being or an ultimate mystery incorporates a philosophy and a social system in its structure. There is only a fine line between philosophy and religion.

 

Philosophy and beliefs justified

Almost all religions provide a philosophy which is a combination of community, social and personal philosophies, and operating instructions for contributing to one's family, friends and society. It is the lens through which we assign meaning to our lives. Humankind is not psychologically geared to work in a vacuum. We want answers and require some reason behind those answers. In general we look to our science, which is also a religion in many ways, for these answers. But when we look for answers that science cannot evaluate for us, we have to make decisions that will be in concert with our values and provide comfort in times of misfortune. However, when it comes to our lives and what society requires of us, it has long been simplest to assign some divine authority to those behaviors to justify societal demands.

 

Etiquette

When a cultural system has specialists, such as priests, shamans or ministers, who interpret the divine's will and use it to enforce social norms, it has frequently lead to one individual telling another what their Authority required of them. However, in the rational and scientific lights of today, that is not as widely accepted as it once was. People have become more skeptical of exactly whose will is being imposed.

All religions are based on a series or set of values – which in turn spawn ethics, working rules of behavior and personal morals. Paganism, in particular, focuses on independence, freedom to choose, self-reliability, respecting each path, seeing each of our members as divinity incarnate.

Now, there are some conflicts here that must be handled with common sense, but in general these values translate well into societal norms. Thus, we value those who are competent in their religious, personal, social, professional and artistic pursuits. There is little rancor against one who asserts their interests and skill level. We do not have any exhortation from above to be humble, although our elders may caution young, strong individuals not to intimidate or overwhelm their peers. Wicca and Paganism is a path for individualists, with room for their family and newcomers to join along.

 

Values and Society

First and foremost, religion provides social guidelines so that we may have predictability and security in our physical environments. These tend to be absolute guidelines such as, “Thou shalt not” steal, murder, bear false witness, etc. In other religions, such as Wicca, you will find broader based exhortations, such as, “Everything will come back to you, threefold.” And “An it harm none, do as thou will.” These social guidelines try to provide a common set of values and behavioral norms that will ensure that people within that culture will thrive and continue. When I was growing up, we were constantly bombarded with instructions on how to behave. Don't hit, don't lie, don't take things that don't belong to you, don't touch, etc. ad infinitum. Of course all that instruction was damned annoying, someone was always at you with it. And to a kid, this seems like the most fussy and restrictive part of growing up. Stay clean, don't get dirty, wash your hands. Yet, all of these were designed to promote a culture where disease was at a minimum, each person could accrue wealth and security, and violence was not part of everyday occurrences. In short, the good life.

While, to this day, I still don't see the point in writing thank you notes, I now understand that with these common courtesies in place, we can see that we live in a good environment. And those that will not adhere to these courtesies will not fit in. Ultimately they will be cast out, or incarcerated or move on to other locations by their own efforts. They were not a good match. Football studs, do not understand or care about the norms of computer geeks. It just doesn't fit.

To that end, each culture will provide its members with a description of its divinity and that divinity's rules for its people. And the leaders of that culture, religion, belief system, etc. will provide interpretation and application of those rules for its members. Is this God authoritarian? Or does He accept compromise? Is this Goddess a warrior, or will She see nurturing as valuable? Does this God over here interfere with humans – should we look to see his messages in our day-to-day environment? Or is He the type that set up the game, and we are on our own to figure it out? These views of divinity are directly linked to our decisions about how we should live our lives. Even if we do not see ourselves as devout or intimately linked to our religion and its practices, we are acting through its paradigms in our daily decisions about ourselves, our family, our coworkers and our leadership.

That definition also tells us how to regard our world. What will be sacred? Is the world a resource, at our whim it becomes a parts list of available components? Or is it, in and of itself, an entity entitled to undisturbed existence? Again, this is a question that religion answers for us, and which has a powerful effect on our actions. These decisions carry through all of our actions and our decisions about our world and our fellows. Is mankind innately flawed? Must people be tightly controlled so they do not rape, steal and plunder? Or are they inherently good, and when put in optimum circumstances will they grow and contribute art, beauty and abundance to their fellows? These decisions about our peers enable our choices to be gracious, generous or to be conservative and cautious. As you can readily perceive, this effects the emotional atmosphere as profoundly as the physical realm.

In the same way religion spells out what our Gods and beliefs are, they also explain what we need to bring to our social group – the obligations under ethics code. This might be something as simple as “Share and share alike” or “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” “Each according to his own merits.” Or, like the old story of the grasshopper and the ant, those that do not contribute, plan ahead, shall perish. Some religions demand that all the time and effort of an individual be devoted to the religious cause. So, day-to-day thoughts and actions are driven by needs and requirements of that religion. Other religions, or even interpretations of the same religion, may have much lighter demands for time and resources. Many churches believe that seeing people once a week is plenty of devotion shown.

 

What is it used for? What good is it?

Religion answers questions that science cannot deal well with. Science is the art of physical examination, measurement and replicable results of that examination and manipulation. It is objective, not subjective. That means that it is not equipped to deal or measure solely personal, emotional responses.

Religion tries to provide sufficient explanations about important questions that cannot be reasonably dealt with through science. In particular it provides mythology concerning our origins. How did we get here? How did all this start? Across the world, there are many parallel explanations of the origins of the race and the cosmos. Even children seem to suddenly realize that there was a time when they were not, they had no life. And they demand an explanation. Many of these explanations are vague, without detail or substantiating details. And that is to be expected, because we are addressing questions that have no answer, yet we are more comfortable if it seems that someone knows.

At this point we tend to create great overarching figures that exist outside our reality. And we assign them powers. Yet, we do not see the flaw in creating greater beings, for that would imply even greater beings created them, and so on, and so on. Being uncomfortable with ambiguity, we simply assign a divine cause and go with it. Many of these divine causes are in the shape of our own lives, just bigger and brighter. Thus we invent God in our own image. Or we assert that God created us in his image.

In the same uncertainty that made us examine our origins, we look to religion to tell us what it is we are supposed to be doing here. There is some opinion that this is a local and recent phenomenon. Back when we spent most of our time and resources on survival, this question was put off until the elders had time to sit and cogitate. Now most people have some time to devote to their spiritual questions, and so we look to our spiritual specialist for answers. For, if we create or acknowledge a greater force than ourselves as the designer of what is, and was, and will be, it follows logically that there must have been a reason for our presence. This may be something as benign as the Creatrix was lonely, or as demanding as that Creator needed worship and attention to continue. Decisions about the reality and personality of that which created our world, then also will tell us what kind of precautions, actions or steps are required in order to lead a fortunate life. Is this a God which needs attention or He will send storms and destruction? Or is this a benign God which we can safely leave to its own devices, while we get on and pursue new projects? Must this Goddess be addressed and gifted prior to conception of a child? Or is birth a natural part of the order of things, so we can save our efforts and energy toward other endeavors?

It seems somewhat odd from this outside view, but these questions occupy us and our energies until we make some working hypotheses from which to work. And these are not questions which fit into the common mold. They are not measurable quantities, you cannot weigh or assess their validity with any measure available. These are the mysteries of life. And mysteries leave open unanswerable questions. There will always be those story tellers who provide art in absence of solid form. Later this art becomes metaphorical reality and we proceed to religion as an inherited truth. Where science cannot help, our spiritual artists will provide new truths that satisfy the inner child of our minds.

 

How do you choose a particular religion?

The first thing to do is to decide what is important to you. This not only encompasses the services available, but more importantly – what is it these people believe? What would they have you do? Are their beliefs going to contribute to the life you see as valuable and preferable? Or will they teach you new ways, and new lifestyles? Is that what you want?

If you are a strong, independent person – does this religion tolerate controversy, questioning, differences in doctrine? If you do not have time and energy to contribute – will this religion allow you to miss services, meetings, singles, prayer groups etc.? If you deeply value free speech, will this work out? Are your values and the organization's beliefs in concert? Do you tend to devise your own rules, or is it important that the religion you seek lay out exactly what it is they expect, what you need to do to be accepted, saved, anointed, whatever. People can be internally driven, respecting the paths, decisions and goals of each of its members, or it can be externally driven. Externally driven philosophies have mandates from their leaders, Gods, or councils that are very firmly set in place. It is important to match not only your day-to-day endeavors, but to ensure that you can wholeheartedly endorse and strengthen the goals of the group you are going to join.

What precisely is it you need from the religion and the religious group you are considering joining? You need to outline what kind of services you expect from whichever organization you will join, what kind of opportunity you need for your spiritual rituals or ceremonies. Is it important that you can gain more involvement over time, or are you completely comfortable simply observing and attending ceremonies that other people hold for you? This religion should not only reflect your values, ethics and moral code, but it should provide a certain amount of emotional security while providing opportunity to stretch and grow. Classes, mentoring, participatory groups, family outings and events, singles events – what are your needs?

Each religion has a different way of looking at life, yet there are two broad types which we have not yet addressed. For many of the Pagan, Wiccan and other Earth-Oriented religions, we see life as a series of mysteries which we celebrate. We see ourselves as part of the natural divinity, participating in the flow and ebb, life and rebirth, youth and age of our world and our people. Our world-view tends toward the optimistic, with a touch a pragmatism to leaven it. Death may be the natural ultimate consequence of life, but it is only the doorway into rebirth and new life. Thus, we do not focus on an afterlife, or potential dire consequences. Each life is redolent with growth, potential, love, light, sex, children. That joy is balanced and created by acknowledging our need to learn, support, do and be all that is required in order to conserve, sustain and create an environment which will nourish that which we value. Our life and our accomplishments are set aglow by the joy and wisdom which we share. For other religions, there is a fear of the afterlife. It is referred to as a death focused religion, because those religions focus throughout the life of the member, tightly on what rewards or punishments will accrue following that life. These lives are seen as qualifying tests to decide the ultimate, temporary or eternal destination of those individuals. Failure to meet specific, and sometimes uncertain standards are a constant preoccupation and fear among its members. These religions beseech and attempt to placate their god(s) in order to lighten perceived punishments here in this life, and to understand the requirements in order to qualify for a better afterlife. These religions are categorized as supplicatory. They seek to provide sufficient, pleasing energy, works, words, etc. in order to avoid negative consequences.

It is important to look at not only the beliefs granted you through your personal history, but to investigate and make a determination of what it is that you want to have in your life. Many individuals have adapted supplicatory religions and converted their view of the deity to that of a gentler, more loving God. Others have gone farther, and become completely disassociated from anything that smacks of religion or spirituality. In essence, they have created meaning and goals from refuting all that people of religion have to say. Secular Humanism is one such philosophy. Atheist beliefs also work in this manner.

There is a less well known belief that sees power and meaning in religion and spirituality that cannot be offered by anything less than the informed, intelligent and rational decision to engage in activities that are pleasing to the mind, the psyche, the inner child. These endeavors feed the natural love of art, beauty, and mystery that makes us so much more than Skinner's reactive machine. Religious Humanists are probably the closest thing I have seen to define what it is that Wicca offers to its members. Without compromising common sense, without offending intelligence, without denying the interconnectedness of all things in this world, these rationally irrational religions offer the ability to provide a working theory of life, that encompasses joy, strength, and will allow devotion on a level unavailable when these gifts must be compromised for belief. This was what I found in Wicca. Finally, there was a place that respected the Earth, the Elders, Life, Pleasure, Joy, Self-Reliance, Strength, so many things that I had instinctively seen as the building bricks of my world. When I finally found my religion, I understood at last so many things that had been senseless. I finally understood true devotion. I was suddenly fully at home. My spiritual puzzle had been solved.

For many people coming to Wicca or WitchCraft there is any immediate recognition that this is what they have been looking for. I call it the `click.' There is this sensation that a puzzle piece has finally been found, which clicks right into place. A real “Yes, at last! This is it!” sensation. I do not know if other religions have this kind of effect when they are discovered and accepted, but I can only hope that they do. My religion is my delight. It is in all that I am, all that I do and in all that I offer. I never try to convince others that my choice would be right for everyone. I know it is uniquely suited to me. I can only hope that others respect my choice, and that they are as happy as I.

 

What do you have to offer?

In an interview in this issue, eluki bes shahar gave us this definition of Wicca, not as an absolute, but as a single descriptor among many. “...Wicca is an initiatory, non-pastoral, non-proselytizing, adult-conversion polytheism and let it go at that.” Note the word initiatory. There are many aspects of Wicca that are important, but this one area is changing, and I believe it is one of those which must be reclaimed.

In the past, Wicca was made of small, private groups, which were tightly knit since what they were doing was broadly misunderstood, and in many places, punishable by law or even death. Thus, trust, cohesiveness within the group, belief in stated norms was of paramount importance. It was an initiatory experience only offered to those who were willing to put their time, effort, studies, and adherence to the test. After many years, in most cases, people who had gathered the knowledge, proven themselves reliable, and come to the point of flouting all the more common social norms, took initiation into the Coven. That Coven had also spent many years, training, assessing, considering and deciding whether or not this person could be trusted, was sufficiently valuable to risk the Coven's social cohesion and its existence. Ill-considered words could spell the end of traditions guarded and nurtured for decades.

Thus, the initiatory experience was always a serious and coveted experience.

One of the things that people face today as they look toward the Wiccan religion, is the level to which they are willing devote their time, resources and energy. There is great discussion of Congregational Wicca. And there is a place for it. But for those who truly want to understand and experience devotion to the Gods, Wicca as a religion and the richness that it can encompass, these people must look toward an initiatory experience of the highest level. Simply reading two or three books and going through a self-initiation ritual will almost never compare to the dedication and demands of a Coven path that so stretch, define and mold a personality.

If you are strong-willed and would know the limits and capacity of your power, then become truly involved in a path that makes demands of you, that will shape you from the small personal being you were into the leader and Priest/ess that you could be. Never will simply claiming such a title bring you to understand the depth of your service to the Gods and the community.

If you are not interested in the role of leader/servant, there are still necessary obligations for any of the religions that you choose to call yours. There are many roles which are available, and it is important to choose a religion that provides you with an outlet for your spiritual needs, your gifts and talents, and that is a good match for the time and interest you need to devote in order to satisfy your spiritual personality.

 

Choices/roles within the religion

These roles include a variety of contributions, and sometimes needs. Many people want to find a group which will allow them to express their opinions and strengths by being pivotal in a leadership role. Coordinating other's efforts for projects, designing new projects, being a visionary, etc. Others find their greatest joy in assisting and providing the nuts and bolts for accomplishing such projects, and bring visions into reality. If you are proud of your organizational skills, then the administrative details of group coordination may suit you well. Sometimes the most important skill one can offer is to assist with the children of the group. To keep them occupied so that their parent can have the time and mental focus necessary to learn new concepts, behaviors, courtesies, etc. To create an environment where others have the opportunity to weave their lives into their peers can be the greatest gift one can provide.

Occasionally, we all find that we need help. That perhaps it is our time to be given energy and assistance, rather than offering it to others. At another time we may move into a role of sharing our experiences with others, advising, playing the counselor as once others provided us the same service. This happens when the group offers its sympathy and support to someone who is undergoing immense stress – such as divorce, abuse, drug dependency. To reach out to help others in need is a sign of the personality of the group, it is healthy and strong enough to support others without demanding reciprocation.

It is not unusual in any group to find all these roles happening at once: leader, observer, administrative person, newcomer, potential leader, social coordinator, extra care required person, those growing in their spiritual path, and others that don't quite fit any of those descriptions.

Groups are the basis of any religion, and any congregation, coven, grove, area community will be made up of many different types of groups, each with their own distinct personality. These groups provide a touchstone for those who would support us when we are in stress. We are not just intellectual computers, spewing forth solutions and taking up data. Our chosen religion offers spiritual richness when we are devoid of energy to be imaginative. To those involved in the stressful day-to-day professional world, spirituality allows us to return from the sterility of professionalism and rational denial of self, back into the richer forum of experiencing our physical and emotional facets. We need to feel, touch and connect.

 

Why not just rational?

It almost seems contradictory to teach Rational Emotive WitchCraft, teach people to control their emotions and energy, and then insist that straight rationality is not enough. Yet humans constantly seek meaning. Some are more spiritually inclined than others. They may actively enjoy seeing their world as a constant display of the mysteries of our life. Many are grounded in the scientific model. For these folks it almost seems paradoxical to offer spirituality as a panacea for those definitions and explanations that science cannot offer. There are a couple reasons, though, to include religion in addition to science and its rational model.

Science cannot answer all questions. Although it can assess results, and record what our thoughts, it has no answer to the ultimate mysteries – thought itself. Although it can record emotions and causes of those, it has no answer as to why we experience emotions. Perhaps all humankind is the result of Skinner's behavioral model, and we only act out of selected survival traits over the millennium. Yet, there seems to be much more to us than that. Beauty is not survival, art is not survival, why do we love music? For these attributes, we can only look within and speculate.

Humankind needs to see a goal, a plan, a reason, in order to structure and weigh their actions. And as we have more and more available resources, time and energy, it becomes even more important that we have a guiding view of what it is we need to be, accomplish, and contribute in order to be successful as humans. As interdependent members of a culture, we long ago learned that cooperative strategies maximized our capacity to produce food, necessities, and protect ourselves from disasters or violence. That ability to move in concert required more than just an agreement to work together, it was based on common goals and a thorough understanding of each other's intentions. Thus, over time, our beliefs and expectations for behavior, worth and trust were developed into common standards for membership of that community. There was consensus. And with that consensus came consistent decisions and activities within the culture. One knew what one needed to give by way of time, resources, etc. Roles became defined, and enforced – either directly or indirectly. People became more secure in their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Those who have less capacity intellectually and emotionally are less able to tolerate divergence from these culturally established norms. Over time, we calcified these roles into absolutes. Men did this, women did that, only shamans could do this. This provided both predictability and discomfort for those the roles did not suit.

Religion today is again in a quandary. We no longer are in a pattern of adversity which allows absolutes and strict roles to be forced on our community members. Wicca and Paganism looks to a model that allows each to contribute according to their unique gifts, rather than by predetermined roles based on age or gender. And it may be in time that Wicca will find itself creating more hard and fast roles in order to define itself better. But, for now, it is a very flexible system in many ways. Christianity still has many sects which restrict how women can contribute. While supporting roles are encouraged, the absolutes that demanded only the male gender lead, counsel or preach is slipping. All religions are now being chosen and assessed on different merits than in past. And each religion must provide appeal to attract new recruits and members based on a combination of its values, needs and the services it can offer those members.

In many ways, strategies are being developed specifically to attract new members. Some Christian small ministry books I have read advocate deliberately misleading newcomers about their inner political structures, group missions, and beliefs in areas which might not be palatable to newcomers. Only after newcomers become entrenched and indoctrinated in the new beliefs will these inner truths be shared. And often then only in small parts, so as to retain the new member and desensitize them to unpalatable material while displaying rewards which supplant earlier values.

 

Cult vs. Religion

Wicca, Neo-Paganism, WitchCraft have all been accused at some time or another of being cults. In popular terminology, this seems to mean any religion or spiritual group with insufficient wherewithal to legally argue the label. However, cult does have a technical definition and there are distinctive characteristics to watch for. Cults, and any religion can have a group which would qualify, seek to initially draw one in by either seeking those in a time of severe need and stress, or offering particularly enticing rewards for the newcomer. Signs of a destructive group/cult include: attempts at mind control, deception, fatigue, alienation, change of diet, lack of privacy, exploitation, guilt, totalitarian world view (us vs. them), deceptive recruiting practices, member's time is spent in recruiting, fund raising, and elitism (we are the best!). Mind control sounds a bit strong and paranoid, but again, it is a technical term by people who focus on what cults do and how they operate. The two basic tactics of mind control are: 1) If you can get someone to behave the way you want, you can get them to believe the way you want, and 2) Sudden, drastic changes in environment lead to heightened suggestibility and drastic changes in belief. The most common form of mind control I can point to is Military Basic Training. They always bring you in in the dark, you are always exhausted, your behavior is completely controlled and you become fantastically concerned with things that have never before had relevance, like the crease of a uniform pant, folding underwear and other highly detailed and unusual demands. No one comes out of Basic Training the same person that went in.

If you encounter any group that demands anything close to that level of dedication, run, don't walk. Religion should complement your values, illustrate your goals, and demand only that which allows you to grow and find greater depth in your life. Any group that isolates you from your friends or family, or which demands that you only concentrate on their provided information, is restricting your freedom of belief. That is not growth. It may sometimes seem simpler, maybe even welcome, but it is not a display of your choice of path and power. Ultimately, it will only weaken you, not fulfill you.

Religion is a rich combination of personal philosophy, combined with values, behavioral norms and social courtesies. It offers a rich appeal to the senses, and satisfies the emotional need to belong and understand the ways of the world that each of us inhabit. All religions have aspects that can only be understood over time, and all people have aspects that will only encompass certain spiritual facets as time goes by. Yet this is the most exhilarating and rewarding journey one can begin. This article only begins the exploration. Now, it is your turn. All journeys begin with a single step. Choose a path

 
Big Thunder (Bedagi), late 19th century Algonquin

 

"The Great Spirit is in all things, is in the air we breathe. The Great Spirit is our Father, but the Earth is our Mother. She nourishes us; that which we put into the ground, She returns to us...."