Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Question of Belief

In recent weeks there's been a whole flock of posts flying across the Pagan blogosphere regarding the question of polytheism, atheism, and whether or not one must believe in the literal existence of the Gods to be a proper polytheist.  For those unfamiliar there has been a growing uproar over this matter with much in the way of data spilled in some rather ferocious condemnations of any who do are perceived as being in disagreement with this assertion.  The loudest voice in the Heathen context on this topic since this past fall has been Galina Krasskova.  She argues that modern polytheisms, as religions, by their nature must automatically put this at the center of their practice if they are to have any meaning.  For those who deny the existence of the Gods or seek to understand them from any perspective other than as a literal entity Krasskova all but denounces them as heretical and apostate.  To support her argument Krasskova mostly points to her Master's degree in Classics while refraining from citing any pre-Christian sources or outside scholarship.

This, of course, raises the question of what the foundation of her ideas actually is for making this bold assertion and obscures how much this perspective diminishes the Gods and the rich theological and philosophical potential non-literal, alternative perspectives offer Heathenry.  Quite contrary to what one would assume the questions of belief, thought, and the literal existence of deity are concepts that are unique to Abrahamic forms of monotheism with no evidence these dilemmas were ever an issue in the pre-Christian Scandinavian, Germanic, Frisian, and Anglo-Saxon cultures modern Heathenry draws its inspiration from.  For these peoples, and many other animistic polytheistic cultures the world over, the existence of Gods, spirits, and other entities was accepted without question and this existence was not effected in any way by a person's belief in them or lack thereof.

Central to the whole debate on belief is whether belief is absolutely necessary for one to be religious.  A simple survey of the world's religions shows this question is one that, while central to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, doesn't come up very often in other places.  The best illustration of this is when one compares the central answers behind Buddhism to those that define Christianity.  To some this may seem arbitrary due to the obvious differences between the two religions but when one considers the historical circumstances that shaped both systems of belief it makes the most sense to put them side by side.  Buddhism, like Christianity, was founded based on the teachings of one man, Siddhartha Gautama, and his followers.  Like Christianity and Judaism Buddhism emerged in a cultural world that was largely dominated by polytheists.  Buddhism was, and is, also spread by missionary efforts and in the past with the active support of different states and empires.

In Buddhist religious practice the question of divinity is simply not a major issue to Siddhartha Gautama's central teachings.  According to the heart of Buddhist thought is embodied in the Three Trainings, the Four Noble Truths, the Five Precepts, and the Eightfold Path.  Each of these discusses a specific aspect of Buddhist spirituality yet in none of these does the question of divinity's existence come up.  All of them are rooted in the actions of people with no mention given of thought.  This is best illustrated by the Four Noble Truths:

The Buddha's Four Noble Truths explore human suffering. They may be described (somewhat simplistically) as:
  1. Dukkha: Suffering exists: (Suffering is real and almost universal. Suffering has many causes: loss, sickness, pain, failure, the impermanence of pleasure.)
  2. Samudaya: There is a cause for suffering. (It is the desire to have and control things. It can take many forms: craving of sensual pleasures; the desire for fame; the desire to avoid unpleasant sensations, like fear, anger or jealousy.)
  3. Nirodha: There is an end to suffering. (Suffering ceases with the final liberation of Nirvana (a.k.a. Nibbana). The mind experiences complete freedom, liberation and non-attachment. It lets go of any desire or craving.)
  4. Magga: In order to end suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path.(1)
In fact Buddhism, quite contrary to Christianity and Islam, makes no claim of being the sole arbiter of truth.  As is explained in the FAQ at

Are Other Religions Wrong?

Buddhism is also a belief system which is tolerant of all other beliefs or religions. Buddhism agrees with the moral teachings of other religions but Buddhism goes further by providing a long term purpose within our existence, through wisdom and true understanding. Real Buddhism is very tolerant and not concerned with labels like 'Christian', 'Moslem', 'Hindu' or 'Buddhist'; that is why there have never been any wars fought in the name of Buddhism. That is why Buddhists do not preach and try to convert, only explain if an explanation is sought.(2)
Historically speaking the result has been a pattern of consistent syncretism with local belief systems with Buddhist ideas and practices being integrated with native beliefs as opposed to co-opting or suppressing them.  In India Buddhist practitioners, following a variant known as Mahayana Buddhism, freely integrated the practices, ideas, and even the Gods and spirits of the larger Hindu society around them.  Japanese Shinto, similarly, received Buddhism with a similar approach with some instances of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines being incorporated in the same overall structure.  This all shows a religion that, in its own words, is not concerned with the question of whether or not greater powers exist.  To them, as is the case in many polytheistic cultures, it is simply accepted as true even though Buddhists do not actually worship them but instead see their acts of reverence as signs of respect and thanks.

In very stark contrast are the clear exclusionary practices that run strongly throughout Christianity and other Abrahamic belief systems.  Unlike Buddhism, which clearly had no problem working with local polytheistic cultures, from Judaism on the Abrahamic spiritual family has been at odds with its proverbial neighbors.  Probably the best expression of this is from the Book of Leviticus:

Yahweh spoke to Moses: “Speak to the Israelites and tell them: I am Yahweh your God. Do not follow the practices of the land of Egypt, where you used to live, or follow the practices of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. You must not follow their customs. You are to practice My ordinances and you are to keep My statutes by following them; I am Yahweh your God. Keep My statutes and ordinances; a person will live if he does them. I am Yahweh.(3)
From there, and throughout Leviticus and later in Deuteronomy, a number of practices ranging from sexuality to ritual purity, feasting, and a whole host of others are listed out and defined by their opposition to existing polytheistic practices.  Unlike Buddhism, which rejected some of the trappings while embracing certain core ideas of local religions, Judaism and its later descendants in this time were defining themselves by opposition and distinction from the surrounding religions.  In Deuteronomy this is taken in some cases to the level of advocating wholesale slaughter:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess, and He drives out many nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you— and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you and you defeat them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.(4)
This tone of all or nothing conflict was reflected in the numerous wars that have raged across the region where the land of Canaan, thanks to its highly strategic position along the only land connection between Asia and Africa, played host to the armies of empires ranging from Egypt and the Hittites to Assyria, Persia, Alexander, and the Romans.  In such an environment it is not surprising the understanding of monotheism that would develop was strongly adversarial to the existence of other deities.  Even deeper, however, is a key metaphysical dilemma posed by monotheism in such a context.  As was discussed earlier the surrounding cultures were all polytheistic ones who took the existence of Gods as a given.  There definitely were conflicts and debates over which was more worthy of worship than others but overall there was never any question the competing cult's God existed.  Abrahamic monotheism presents a very sharp break from this assumption.  In their context all of the other Gods either are not deities or they do not exist.  Yet this also creates a powerful dilemma: if one can deny the existence of other divinities that are clearly seen as real without question then who is to say the One God even exists? 

It is likely this dilemma was one of the many factors that formed the Christian concept of sin of thought.  This is most directly expressed in the New Testament in the words of Jesus himself from the Sermon on the Mount on the topic of murder:

21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors,[e] Do not murder,[f] and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother[g] will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’[h] will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.(5)

And adultery:

27 “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery.[l] 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.(6)
The more common interpretation of these passages is that Jesus was more concerned with what a person was thinking or feeling instead of what they were doing.  What these also imply is that if one doubts the existence of God in their heart then such an action is the same as openly denying God's existence.  This is most pointedly stated in the Gospel of Mark:

29 But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin(7)
From these verses and many other places it is clear one must not just be a good person but one must also BELIEVE without any question in God's existence and all that comes with it.  To do otherwise is transgressing against God's laws and invites God's wrath.  This is all perfectly summed up in the Christian concept known as the "Dark Night of the Soul", a kind of crisis of the faith triggered by the perception by the believer that God has abandoned them.

From these examples we can see, quite clearly, how central the idea of belief is and why this was perceived as necessary for early Judaism and Christianity.  There is also no question, as we have seen in Buddhism, that such fervent belief is not needed for a spiritual practice to be considered a religion.  This leaves us with the question of how this matters in Heathenry.  It is clear the fervent devotion, not just in deed but in the heart as well, was key in Christianity's development but it is quite possible the pre-Christian spiritualities that inform Heathenry could have gone in a similar direction.  They lived in a time of great conflict spurred on by the religious tensions that came with the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia during the Viking Age.  One could argue a similar belief may have developed by the time the Poetic Eddas were written down.

Yet quite to the contrary of this assumption there is no evidence of this being a problem in the Eddas themselves.  At no point anywhere is anyone taken to task for not properly believing in the existence of the Gods.  Throughout the sagas, poems, and writings of the ancients there seems to be no evidence of this question ever being a serious problem.  Indeed when one compares the Scandinavian sagas to the Bible there is no mention, anywhere, of a person's inner voice.  In fact it is in the heart of the Havamal that one finds a verse that eloquently and directly rebuts Jesus' denunciations of sinful thoughts:

78. Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
And so dies one's self;
One thing I know that never dies,
The fame of a dead man's deeds.(8)
Another illustration of the focus on deeds over thoughts can be found in the Fafnismol, one of the poems from the Volsungsaga.  In the Fafnismol Sigurd and Regin set out to confront the dragon Fafnir to slay him and lay claim to the Rhinegold.  Following his victory over Fafnir the dying foe gives Sigurd this warning, all couched in terms of his past experiences with Regin and his reputation based on his deeds:

22. "Regin betrayed me, | and thee will betray,
Us both to death will he bring;
His life, methinks, | must Fafnir lose,
For the mightier man wast thou."(9)
Following the dragon's demise Sigurd, after drinking some of the blood from Fafnir's heart and obtaining the ability to hear the speech of birds, overhears the conversation from the dwellers of the nearby boughs and branches:

A nut hatch said:
32. "There sits Sigurth, | sprinkled with blood,
And Fafnir's heart | with fire he cooks;
Wise were the breaker | of rings, I ween,
To eat the life-muscles | all so bright."

A second spake:
33. "There Regin lies, | and plans he lays
The youth to betray | who trusts him well;
Lying words | with wiles will he speak,
Till his brother the maker | of mischief avenges."
A third spake:
34. "Less by a head | let the chatterer hoary
Go from here to hell;
Then all of the wealth | he alone can wield,
The gold that Fafnir guarded."
A fourth spake:
35. "Wise would he seem | if so he would heed
The counsel good | we sisters give;
Thought he would give, | and the ravens gladden,
There is ever a wolf | where his ears I spy."
A fifth spake:
36. "Less wise must be | the tree of battle
Than to me would seem | the leader of men,
If forth he lets | one brother fare,
When he of the other | the slayer is."
A sixth spake:
37. "Most foolish he seems | if he shall spare
His foe, the bane of the folk,
There Regin lies, | who hath wronged him so,
Yet falsehood knows he not."
A seventh spake:
38. "Let the head from the frost-cold | giant be hewed,
And let him of rings be robbed;
Then all the wealth | which Fafnir's was
Shall belong to thee alone."(10)
Nowhere in either of these instances from the poem is there any hint given that this was somehow plucked right from Regin's brain.  Fafnir bases his assertion on his own observations and experiences with his brother Regin(11).  The birds, being in the trees all around them, likely overheard Regin when he was hiding some distance away from the battle between Sigurd and Fafnir.  Either way the flow of this poem and its drama is clearly driven not by the innermost thoughts or feelings of the actors but by their deeds.  

We also find, in a more historical example, that this attitude of actions mattering more than thought was consistently practiced in pre-Christian Scandinavian society.  A perfect example is in the clash between worldviews shown in Snorri's account from the Heimskringla of the reign of King Hakon the Good of Norway.  Hakon the Good was one of the first Christian kings of Norway following its unification under Harald Finehair and was elected based on his promise to restore the udal-rights of possession of the land to the men who lived on it(12).  He built support for his rule by going from Thing to Thing where each declared support for the new king(13)Following this he fought a short war against the unpopular King Eirik and his supporters to cement his claim(14).  The first major domestic point of contention he had was when he tried to introduce Christianity to Norway(15)

At the Frosta-thing Hakon stood before the people in attendance and made an impassioned, vigorous plea for them to convert to Christianity.  Throughout he explained the concepts of the Virgin Mary, God, Jesus, and clearly professed his belief in them as he demanded an end to the practices of their native polytheism(16)The crowd did not receive the proposal well, saying Hakon was seeking to take their faith from them, that there was no way they could cultivate the land if they honored the Sabbath, and that the prohibitions against the eating of meat would sap their strength and ran contrary to his and his family's reputation for generosity(17).  One man, Asbjorn of Medalhus, stood up and said in reply to the king:
"We bondes, King Hakon, when we elected thee to be our king, and got back our udal rights at the Thing held in Throndhjem, thought we had got into heaven; but now we don't know whether we have really got back our freedom, or whether thou wishest to make vassals of us again by this extraordinary proposal that we should abandon the ancient faith which our fathers and forefathers have held from the oldest times, in the times when the dead were burnt, as well as since that they are laid under mounds, and which, although they were braver than the people of our days, has served us as a faith to the present time.  We have also held thee so dear, that we have allowed thee to rule and give law and right to all the country.  And even now we bondes will unanimously hold by the law which thou givest us here in the Frosta-thing, and to which we have given our assent; and we will follow thee, and have thee for our king, as long as there is a living man among us bondes here in this Thing assembled.  But thou, king, must use some moderation towards us, and only require from us such things as we can obey thee in, and are not impossible for us.  If, however, thou wilt take up this matter with a high hand, and wilt try thy power and strength against us, we bondes have resolved among ourselves to part with thee, and to take to ourselves some other chief, who will so conduct himself towards us that we can freely and safely enjoy that faith that suits our own inclinations.  Now, king, thou must choose one or other of these conditions before the Thing has ended."

The bondes gave loud applause to this speech, and said it expressed their will, and they would stand or fall by what had been spoken.(18)
Nowhere in this speech or anywhere else in the saga is Hakon himself condemned for being a Christian.  The main objections at the Frosta-thing, which Hakon ultimately agreed to and as such remained king until his death(19), were to Hakon forcing the people of Norway to give up their old faith.  From where they sit this isn't just a matter of losing the practices that had served their ancestors so well in the past.  From the beginning Asbjorn makes it abundantly clear this is about the power the king is trying to claim and the people of Norway retaining their traditional freedoms.  Most telling is Asbjorn's compromise which allows Hakon to continue to reign, without having to cease being a Christian, rather than responding as would most definitely have been case in the same period anywhere in Christendom by howling for his head come Hell or high water.  As a sign of his support for the traditional practices Hakon makes good on keeping the peace and holding to the law by hosting the customary sacrifice feasts in the years following the Frosta-thing(19).  There is little doubt, based on what we have from the saga, that the central issue wasn't belief but the expectation of proper practices, conduct, and good relationships between the people and the king.  After all Asbjorn only threatened Hakon with war if the king chose to go ahead with the proposed policy of forced Christianization.

The same emphasis on conduct and actions is seen in the final moments of Hakon's life.  In his last moments Hakon, dying of a mortal wound sustained in battle, says to his friends:

"And if fate," added he, "should prolong my life, I will, at any rate, leave the country, and go to a Christian land, and do penance for what I have done against God; but should I die in heathen land, give me any burial you think fit."(20) 
Clearly Hakon, in these final moments, sees himself as a Christian with many sins that he must do penance for.  It is hard not to see that from his words given his dying desire to repent but in spite of this he still allows for his friends to honor him in the way they thought was most appropriate if he was unable to achieve his final wish.  Hakon passed on shortly after and the people with him raised a mound for him and held the traditional ceremony including praying for his admittance into Valhalla(21)Following his demise the skald Eyvind Skaldaspillar composed a poem describing Hakon's entrance into Valhalla.  In it he gives a very specific reason for why Hakon, a Christian, would be admitted into Odin's hall:

"Well was it seen that Hakon still
Had saved the temples from all ill;
For the whole council of the gods
Welcomed the king to their abodes.
Happy the day when men are born
Like Hakon, who all base things scorn.
Win from the brave and honored name,
And die amidst and endless fame."(21)
As far as Eyvind Skaldaspillar was concerned his protection of the temples from destruction, the continued practice of the traditional rites, and his own glory and fame on the battlefield were good enough reasons for the Christian Hakon to earn a seat in Valhalla.  It is possible there are other poems and works that do not survive who take a contrary position but that does not negate the fact that Eyvind's argument is rooted in action over belief and it is highly unlikely anyone trained in the skaldic arts would put forward a line of reasoning that would not be at least somewhat persuasive.  Such an argument only works if the core of pre-Christian Scandinavian practice was based on what was seen as proper conduct, praiseworthy deeds, and your relationships with society as opposed to your innermost thoughts, feelings, and doubts regarding the existence or nonexistence of divinity.

This question is more than just an academic one.  Those who argue we must base our practice on the foundation of belief in the literal existence of the Holy Powers do so to the detriment of our development as an enduring, meaningful spiritual practice.  At the heart of this assertion is the implicit presumption of a complete understanding of the Gods and their natures.  From a theological perspective, based on what is in the lore, there are huge problems with human beings assuming they possess an anywhere near complete understanding of these mighty powers.  These beings operate on a level that is far beyond the one we are existing at presently.

The best example of this is in the Voluspa.  In it the Gods create the universe(22).  Consider for a moment how truly vast physical reality is.  We, as a species, are still making new and astonishing discoveries about life on Earth, nevermind what lies in the vast depths beyond the sky's edge.  By this act of creation the Gods show they clearly are operating on a level that suggests a very complete understanding of the mechanics and laws that guide the universe as we know it.  This kind of knowledge is, without any doubt, several orders of magnitude beyond our current level of understanding.  Now one must ask oneself how incomprehensibly vast, in every applicable meaning of the word, the Gods themselves are when set alongside the human mind.  It would be, quite frankly, impossible for any person to truly, fully, and completely comprehend such a presence on its own terms as it is operating based on capabilities and assumptions we can only just barely grasp the outlines of.

That is why the Gods must be understood as more than just literal cosmic entities.  What it is we know and understand of them is filtered through our experiences and our human faculties.  This includes the cultures, languages, ideas, and practices of the people who are seeking to understand them.  It is in this way the Gods are more than just divinities; they are a medium that human beings have used for time immemorial for comprehending the world around them, finding solutions to social problems and challenges, and wrestling with the greater meaning of life itself.  Just as much as the lore and modern practitioners seek to describe the Gods as completely as possible so to are these descriptions a reflection of the ideas, practices, and expectations of the adherents.  If we only understand them in their cosmic dimensions and functions then we lose sight of the rich potential these discussions, ideas, and discourses can offer.

One thing that is clear, regardless of your opinion of deity, in the sources and Heathen practice our deeds in the here and now are what matter the most.  Those who would condemn with words of glowing coals any who seek answers to satisfy their curiosities lose sight of this.  Human history has shown time and again the great danger that comes with making specific thoughts criminal, heretical, or otherwise forbidden.  If we obsess over what happens in the privacy of others hearts and minds at the expense of addressing their words, actions, and their consequences in the world around us then we will be flying in the face of one of the most central ideas of the practices of the ancients.

Correction: as was first published this piece stated Galina Krasskova is currently with Ironwood Kindred.  It turns out Ironwood Kindred self-disbanded last November.  The text has been updated to reflect this.

3. Leviticus 18, Holman Christian Standard Bible
4. Deuteronomy 7:1-2, Holman Christian Standard Bible
5. Matthew 5:21-22, Holman Christian Standard Bible
6. Matthew 5:27-28, Holman Christian Standard Bible
7. Mark 3:29, Holman Christian Standard Bible
8. Havamal 78, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
9. Fafnismol 22, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
10. Fafnismol 32-38, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
11. Reginsmol 9-10, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
12. Hakon the Good's Saga 1, Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson trans. by Samuel Laing (Forgotten Books: 2008)
13. Hakon the Good's Saga 2, Heimskringla
14. Hakon the Good's Saga 3-6, Heimskringla
15. Hakon the Good's Saga 15, Heimskringla
16. Hakon the Good's Saga 17, Heimskringla
17. Ibid
18. Ibid
19. Hakon the Good's Saga 18-19, Heimskringla
20. Hakon the Good's Saga 32, Heimskringla
21. Ibid
22. Voluspa 5-6, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows.  Some interpret the creation of Midgard to literally just mean planet Earth but in this author's opinion the description of the Gods setting the courses of the sun, the moon, the stars, day, night, and twilight implies they were responsible for a whole lot more than just Earth and most likely created all of physical reality as we know it.  At the very least these verses, from a modern perspective, imply the entire solar system at a minimum and last I checked even that scale of creation is far beyond the capabilities of the entire human species.