Faith or Experience?
Article ID: 14862
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: February 19th. 2012
Times Viewed: 3,738
Once upon a time, a skier was swooshing down a steep mountainside when he missed his turn and flew over a dangerous cliff. With quick reflexes he grabbed the limb of a tree that grew out of the side of the cliff and caught himself. Down a thousand feet below he could see jagged rocks poking out of the snow. He looked up and shouted as loud as he could, “Hello! Hello! Help! Is anybody up there?”
Suddenly a bright cloud appeared over the top of the mountain and a voice from the cloud said, “Do you have faith?” The skier said, “Yes, yes! I have faith!” The voice said, “Do you believe?” The skier replied, “Yes, yes! I do believe.” Finally the voice said, “Then let go.”
The skier blinked for a second. He looked down at the jagged rocks below him and up to the cloud above. Then he said, “Is there anybody else up there?”
This little story illustrates the difference between faith and experience and serves as a convenient introduction to an examination of Wicca as an experience based religion and not a faith-based religion. To begin the examination, we must first take a look at what exactly is included in these two terms and what is not.
Faith believes in things for which it has no proof. There may be proofs out there that have not yet been discovered – at least not yet discovered by the believer – but the believer doesn’t care. He or she accepts faith for its own sake without proof and makes decisions based upon it. Faith accepts as fact outcomes to which no natural, logical, or scientific path leads. Sometimes the word “faith” is used incorrectly as in “I have faith that my car can safely get over the pass without chains.” That is not really faith. That is an informed judgment based upon past performance of the car and the weather report – in other words, that is experience.
Faith is something believed rather than something known. The word “believe” is also often used incorrectly as in “I believe in the freedom of religion.” That statement is an empty abstract. Freedom of religion – to do what? To merely exist requires no belief at all because religions exist in our experience all over the place. Freedom to collect tithes? Freedom to sacrifice babies? Freedom to preach? Freedom to hide pedophile priests? Once we begin to define which freedoms we choose to permit and which to deny, we are making choices on the basis of some rationale. Rational choices are by definition experience based.
Pure faith for its own sake is what is accepted as the deciding factor based upon absolutely nothing but personal conviction. That is not to diminish its existence. Missionaries, visionaries, and conspiracy theorists are loaded with pure faith.
Experience, on the other hand, is something known rather than something believed. It has proofs. Granted, the person claiming experience may use proofs that are incomplete, inconsistent, and not rightly understood. Nevertheless they are based in some rationale, which in turn is based on education, past encounters, or logical deduction. For example, we may not know how the chemistry of aspirin works, but we take aspirin to relieve our headaches because the instructions on the bottle say they will. We are not exercising “faith” in the instructions because if the product fails we know there is a finite cause such as criminal activity or quality failure.
Experience is never pure. It runs the gamut from a tragedy seared into our memory to something we heard on the television, from a disciplined scientific study to hearsay. We may not personally have knowledge of black holes but we accept that Stephen Hawking does. We may not personally know what is wrong with our body but we trust our doctor’s advice. Trust is born of experience. When we have a bad experience with someone we lose trust in them and we all know that simple faith alone will not rebuild that trust.
Of course our lives rarely divide themselves neatly into predetermined categories. The line between faith and experience is often thin and for each person in each situation that line may be in a different place. For example, two first time skydivers may jump from the same airplane with different perspectives. One may take a leap of faith while the other paid attention in class and learned the location of the ripcord. Nevertheless, when they get to the ground they will both have gained experience.
By the same token, religions divide more neatly in the abstract than they do in practice. Faith-based religions often claim their origins on some sort of supernatural revelation like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, etc. Experience-based religions are those which have “grown up out of the soil” so to speak, like Nature religions, Paganism, and shamanism. Other experience-based religions have derived from logical thought like Buddhism. Making changes to a faith-based religion is very difficult because it requires either a new revelation or a reinterpretation of existing revelation. It took the Catholic Church 400 years to admit Galileo was right! Making changes to an experience-based religion requires nothing more than a new idea or a rational evaluation of what worked and what didn’t. The healing arts of witches evolved over time as new cures were discovered and the Neo-Pagan movement was radically affected by the archetype theories of Carl Jung.
In practice, however, people often join a religion not so much out of either faith or experience but because of a myriad of practical reasons such as appealing rituals, friendly people, help in need, social acceptance, brute force conversion, political advantage, etc.
So it is that many people these days are turning to experience-based religions because of the failings of faith-based ones. Wicca is one experience-based religion that has grown rapidly as a result of this religious migration. The word “wicca” comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means “wisdom”. It also means to bend or shape as in shaping energy (wicker baskets come from “wicca”, too!) . Wiccans (or “witches” – another word derived from “wicca”) are those who possess this wisdom or ability to bend. They gain wisdom from study, practice, experiment, and teachers. This is why Wicca is called The Craft. It is a learned body of knowledge and skills. It is a proven path that requires work, not faith, to practice. It is more than spells and Sabbats. It is a way of living mindfully, in harmony with Nature and people, in the understanding that all things share in a divine spirit.
Technically speaking then, Wiccans do not actually “believe” in the Goddess or God or in Magic – they know Her/Him and they know Magic. They have actually experienced some aspect of the Goddess or God. They have actually experienced the power of Magic. For example, when a priestess is invoked to carry a Goddess, she becomes Her voice and performs Her will. It is similar to what passes for channeling in some New Age groups, but I think more consciously deliberate and prayerfully spiritual. One writer called it “sleeping with the Goddess”. She was reporting on how she felt for months prior to her performance at a mystery festival where she was to carry a Goddess. She found herself saying and doing things differently. I myself recall one Summer Solstice when I was carrying the Goddess and the priestesses forgot to devoke me. I was buzzing for three days afterwards until She left on her own!
Recently I tried an experiment to demonstrate for myself the difference between faith and experience. I deliberately avoided the use of the word “believe”. The first thing I noticed was how often that word showed up in my normal vocabulary. “I believe you are correct.” “I believe the facts will show that… yada yada ... and so on. Instead, I inserted words like “I know” or “I think” or “I choose”. These are not ephemeral faith-based words. These are power words that exercise my will in the here and now.
These words also force me to admit that there are things I don’t know. I don’t know a lot of things. How liberating! Instead of inventing myths of creation and afterlife, good and evil, and all sorts of other ideas and then putting faith in those myths, I can simply say I don’t know and be perfectly comfortable with that. After all, is it really going to affect the quality of my daily life to speculate on the ineffable actions of a Creatrix or a Big Bang?
I choose to stay grounded in the here and now. If there is something I need to know or that my curiosity demands, I can research it with the tools at my disposal. I can ask for directions. If all else fails, I can turn within and try to come up with a rationale that works for me at least for the time being. Since my religion is based on my own experience and reason, I do not have to invent elaborate theories to defend it. In addition, I lose nothing when what I think or know is changed by new facts, since what I think or know is based on facts in the first place – or at least how I perceive them.
Faith-based religions are not based on knowable facts and thus they feel threatened by new facts or other faiths. They cannot tolerate differences. They have to be right which means that other faiths have to be wrong. How many wars have been fought, how many people have been killed, burned, raped, and tortured in order for one faith show it is more right than another faith? How many myths of some supposed afterlife have been used to justify injustice in this life or horrible crimes in the hope of some future paradise?
In contrast, experience-based religions are very comfortable with other religions because experience is personal. Every person grows up with his or her own experiences. Even my perception of the differences between faith and experience in this article may run counter to someone else’s experience. Many good people believe in faiths and it serves them well. Fine! Experience based religions have no need to proselytize or persecute to prove they are right. They don’t live in a world of absolute Rights and Wrongs. They live in a world of “And ye harm none, do what ye will.”
That’s one of the things I most appreciate about Wicca. It gives me room to learn and grow, to appreciate the wise ones in my life without any dogma forced upon me, and to understand my life and the world around me in a way that makes sense. If by sharing these thoughts I can provide words and ideas that are useful to someone else, so much the better!
Copyright: Janice Van Cleve, Copyright 2011-2012.
Janice Van Cleve
Location: Seattle, Washington
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Bio: Janice Van Cleve is a priestess with the Women Of The Goddess Circle in Seattle at www.wotg.doodlekit.com. She has jumped out of airplanes and the fairies in her house are real. Copyright 2011.
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