Interfaith Blog Event #6: FAITH (Faith in Druidism)

I’m honored to have been invitied to join in an interfaith blog conversation held by Mike (writing from the Mahayana Buddhist perspective), Jon (a Protestant Christian), Sojourner (pagan/UU), and Matt (an evangelical Christian) — all bloggers I hold in high esteem. Every month (or thereabouts), we write on a topic of interest to us all. This month’s topic is faith:

What is your view regarding the meaning and the role of faith? What importance does it play in your community and in your daily life?

The links to the other articles in the conversation will be updated as they are posted:

[Mike’s Essay] [Jon’s Essay] [Sojourner’s Essay] [Matt’s Essay]

Faith in Druidism

Faith in Druidism is a tricky topic.

ire430eThere are plenty of polytheistic druids, who try to adhere as closely as they can to the pantheon of gods worshipped by the ancient Celts. I am one of those. Then there are duotheistic druids, who believe in a God and Goddess, much as many Wiccans do; and panethiestic druids, and animist druids… There are druids who worship a pantheon of gods who were admittedly made up (or discovered?) out of thin air by college students in the 1960’s. There are druids that practice a mixture of Celtic mysticism and Buddhism (which are not nearly so far apart as you might think — in fact, the similarities are frequently striking). There are even Christian druids, who practice a form of Christianity native to Scotland and Ireland in the latter half of the first millenium (known as “Celtic Christianity”). For all I know, there may be agnostic or atheistic druids as well.

How can this be? What unites all these belief systems?

These simple things: reverence for nature, reverence for history, reverence for language and poetry, for ancestry, and for culture (especially if that culture happens to be Celtic). Taken together, these reverences form a stratum of practice, a path of spirit, that stands on its own, regardless of other belief systems tacked on to it. I may decide one day that I just can’t relate to the Celtic gods, and I’ll switch to Hellenism; or maybe I’ll even return to Zen, or whatever. I can still be — and will still be — a druid.

Paleodruids

This wasn’t always the case, of course. Ancient druids (dubbed paleodruids by modern druid Isaac Bonewits) were in the same situation as other kinds of pagans elsewhere in the world: they had no choice of belief, and wanted none. They believed in hundreds of spirits — probably a dozen or so important gods, and a multitude of local spririts and elementals of every description. But they had no faith — they simply knew.

Faith is constrained belief — that is, in order to have faith, you must limit your beliefs. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you believe something without evidence; on the contrary, evidence can quite effectively constrain your beliefs. (If you keep seeing apples fall to the ground, you’re hard-pressed not to believe in gravity.) But frequently, “faith” is used in the context of beliefs that are deliberately chosen or constrained, with or without evidence. I should emphasize that I’m using “faith” here the way most speakers of English would use it, not as it’s defined relative to a particular belief system.

A hidden assumption behind the idea of choosing beliefs is that you actually have to have a range of beliefs to choose from. You don’t really have a chance to choose your beliefs — to have faith — if you don’t have at least two or three options form which to choose. Ancient druids (and other pagans) are the case in point. For a thousand years, Druidism was the only religion around in northwestern Europe. If you decided not to believe in your tribe’s gods and guides, it was a grave insult not only to the gods and guides, but to every member of your family, living and dead — many of which probably were gods and guides. You would effectively be making yourself an outcast; and in those days, ostracism was essentially a death sentence. Besides which, what possible reason could you have not to beleive in your tribe’s religion? Why would doubt ever enter your mind?

In this kind of situation, then, faith is effectively impossible. The belief is there, certainly, but it’s not really a choice that’s made. There can be no faith without the possibility of doubt.

So where did doubt come from? (Because of course, it did come eventually.) Doubt arose from contact with other religions. If you meet enough people who believe something different than you do, and you consistently observe that these people are not struck down by angry gods, or chastized for missing sacrifices, then you can’t help but wonder if something is missing in your worldview. Druidism began to have competition from Christianity — a new, radical religion that had a relatively systematic, organized belief structure, and “faith” as an important part of that structure. In other words, choosing that belief — the belief in a single God, and Jesus-as-Savior — was an essential part of living that religion. In this, it was very different from ancient Druidism.

When Christianity arrived, many druids, who were prominent leaders and teachers in ancient Celtic society, simply adopted Christianity and went on with things. The style of Christianity they developed was very different from Roman Christianity, and caused considerable friction between the Pope and the religious leaders of the British Isles for hundreds of years. One key aspect of Celtic Christianity was reverence for nature: while much of Christianity considered this world to be a sort of mini-hell that had to be endured a while before receiving the reward of heaven, Celtic Christianity saw God in every leaf and dewdrop. But they presented a challenge to Roman hegemony, and after Rome won several important victories, Celtic Christianity was slowly brought to heel.

Mesodruids

After dying a death by a thousand cuts at the hands of Christianity, Druidism went underground and languished until it was revived in the 18th and 19th centuries by a number of remarkable men (Iolo Morganwg, William Stukeley, and others) who were dissatisfied with the modernization and dehumanization of society at the time, and wished to bring back the ancient virtues of reverence for nature and exaltation of learning and of Celtic culture.

For these men, Druidism was definitely a matter of faith. Many of them and their followers tried to find ways of fitting Druidism and Christianity back together, usually mixed with a hefty dose of the alchemical mysticism so popular in the 19th century. This movement merged and cross-pollinated with other emerging movements, such as Theosophy and Wicca, and today these forces have generated…

Neodruids

Druidism today is more diverse and inclusive than it has ever been, and the role of faith in practice is similarly varied. For Christian Druids, no doubt faith has much the same role as it does for other Christians. For many, myself included, faith is as irrelevant as it was for the ancient pagans, though for a different reason.

Recall that Christianity has always had faith as an essential part of its belief system. Modern Druidism has not responded to this by adopting faith as part of its essential structure. Instead, it has grown and flourished purely out of a very strange, raw sort of belief — an unchosen belief that arises naturally in people, frequently with them hardly noticing it.

If you ask most druids how it was that they came to be druids — what made them decide to be a druid — they’ll say that they really didn’t decide. Instead, they’ll say, they were never really at home in “standard” religions; and when they first found out about Druidism and began to learn about it, they were drawn to it instinctively. They were called to it; they resonated with it. They realized, one day, that they were druids, and always had been. You hear it most frequently described as “coming home”.

In my own case, I was brought up essentially Zen Buddhist, and waffled around between Zen and agnosticism and atheism for thirty years before I picked up a book on Druidism and realized, immediately, that it was this that I had been searching for my whole life — searching without really knowing I was searching. Each aspect of Druidism — the reverence for nature, scholarly inquiry into history and rhetoric, interest in occult matters such as ley lines and astrology, facility with languages — everything, all the different strands of my life, which I had thought were unrelated and at cross-purposes, were revealed to work together in a natural home under Druidism. I didn’t decide to become a druid; I realized I already was one!

For myself, faith didn’t even enter into it, and still doesn’t. I haven’t chosen any beliefs; I have simply come to realize that I have them. In modern Druidism, faith is hardly relevant.

Druids don’t choose Druidism. Instead, it seems, Druidism chooses them.

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14 thoughts on “Interfaith Blog Event #6: FAITH (Faith in Druidism)”

  1. That’s why I consider myself spiritual and not religious. Yesterday I ordered the introduction package from http://www.druidry.org. I’ve wanted to do this for very long, but yesterday I finally went through with it. If it feels good I will order the whole course. What I find intriguing about druidism and shamanism is just like you say; they don’t necessarily want you to believe in other gods or anything. I ‘did’ Wicca and Witchcraft, but never really had my heart in it since all the Gods and Goddesses just don’t interest me – I believe in something, but not something that I can put down in words – something that I can call upon when I do rituals. Instead I feel it when I go outside and see nature.
    Yesterday when I was listening to a meditation on their website it was the first time I actually calmed down and felt the words. No meditation managed to do that yet to me, with my hyper brain :). If something is good for you, you will feel it. I totally agree with that.

  2. That’s a big step, Nathalitanis; congratulations!

    Something that a lot of people need to work on when it comes to spiritual matters is to let go of the little doubting voices that say “Is this right? Am I feeling the right things? Am I believing the right things? Do I have enough faith”? Blah blah blah…

    The true religion is not difficult to follow; the true religion is not hard to believe. You follow it, and you believe it, because it rings true in your soul like a great bell, and you can do nothing else.

  3. Wouldn’t you know, I had this whole long response typed up, and then my internet crashed. :-p Let me try to recall what I said (this time in brief–probably lucky for you that I didn’t end up submitting my essay-long comment after all ;).

    I find your discussion of the relationship between faith and choice (and, by extension, doubt and diversity) to be really intriguing! I recently wrote a bit about the idea of “choice” in my own blog, on how it plays such an essential role in my spiritual life. I had never considered this to be largely due to my Christian leanings (btw, I’m thinking of calling myself a Christo-panentheistic neo-Druid–I figure if I keep adding prefixes, eventually people will stop asking me to define myself ;). I, too, felt that sudden flood of “homecoming” when I first stumbled upon Druidry, as if it were somehow in my blood and already an essential aspect of who I was, integrating many seemingly incongruous passions and interests.

    I suppose, then, Druidry itself is not a matter of “faith” for me, and yet as a Druid, I find myself still relying a great deal on faith in everyday life. I may “know” of the interconnection of all life, but my love and gratitude for that life and my commitment to nonviolence and peace for the sake of that life is, for me, a matter of faith. You talk about the reverence for nature, culture, language, history, etc., but this reminds me that it would be just as easy to be cynical or bitter about how pervasive such things are, how we cannot “escape” them even when they are diseased, destructive and oppressive. What is it that moves a neutral statement of knowledge about the importance of these things, to a feeling of appreciation, reverence and love for them? If faith has a place in Druidry, I think it lies not in theological statements, but in the sentiments of sacredness that seem to spontaneously well up from within us, on our good days–but which we sometimes still need to take “on faith” and do our best to remember when we’re sunburnt, hungry, sore or generally having a bad time of it out in good ol’ Mother Nature.

  4. Hi Jeff. Great post on Druidism and Faith. Both are tricky concepts depending on your point-of-view and you presented yours so well.

    I myself have unique perspectives on faith, paganism and Goddess worship.

    Maybe I’ll get around to voicing more of this on my blog someday.

    Keep the good stuff coming!

    Blessed Be.

  5. Ali — fascinating point! You’re speaking here of “faith” specifically in the sense of “faithfulness”, of “holding fast to a commitment” — what you call “decision” vs. “choice” in the post you mention. It isn’t quite what I was talking about here (choosing or constraining beliefs), but it’s obviously closely related. This aspect of faith is certainly a practice — something that requires dedication and effort over time. You’ve already chosen your beliefs (your “decision”), but you have to keep them in mind and put them into practice consistently (“choice”). It’s nothing more or less than self-change, self-invention, one of the most amazing abilities of the mind.

    I think, and I imagine you’d agree, that this isn’t something specific to Druidism, Christianity, or even religious practice. It applies to almost everything in life — including the love we have for others, our work, and everything we aspire to do and be… This is about living consciously, about viewing yourself as a work of art and yourself as the artist.

    In your article on choice vs. decision, you talk about a tension between expressing the self, your individuality, versus reaching for oneness and union with the Absolute. Just a year ago, I was feeling the same tension, the same apprehension about letting myself go; I was afraid that if I devoted myself only to the Absolute, I would lose everything that made me Jeff. But curiously, I’ve found that as I’ve opened up myself more, and allowed myself become a more open channel for the solar energies I am devoted to, I’ve found that my the parts of myself that I loved the most were not just part of “me” at all, but also existed in the Absolute. My creativity, my passion, my personality quirks, my loves and interests — these have all been strengthened, intensified, and given fuller expression when I have let myself go and devoted myself to the sun.

    I’ll tell you a weird little secret. It doesn’t feel like the Sun is “taking me over”, or something horrible like that. Instead it feels like I’m finding out that I am the Sun already.

    So I think what you’ll find is that as you go on the path toward unity, you will find your individuality — at least, the parts of your individuality that you most love and cherish — is strengthened, not weakened. And this, in turn, makes it all the easier to make the “right choices”, in the sense of your post — to remain faithful to your beliefs. It’s easier because these beliefs become part of your fabric, and act on them, and believe in them consistently, without choice; it’s just because of who you are. It’s quite Taoist in that way.

    Anyway, that’s been my experience. Maybe your mileage will vary… 🙂

  6. Vera, what a tease you are! Please, please post your ideas about this! 🙂 And do drop a comment here with a link back to them.

  7. Jeff, I definitely agree with what you’ve said about the idea of unity and union supporting and elevating the sense of uniqueness and those “parts of yourself” that you love and cherish. I learned this very early on through my poetry writing. Giving myself up to the “Divine muse” (or Awen, as my new Druid vocab gets it), I didn’t lose myself or abandon my seriousness about writing as a craft. Similarly, plunging into the particulars of concrete detail and vivid imagery through poetry didn’t pull me away from a sense of unity and ineffableness about the world, but opened up that union even more so… That’s when I began to suspect that true individuality is found within union, and true union grows out of individuality.

    I think that’s also an important way to “test” situations and relationships, on a more mundane level, to make sure they are in keeping with this experience. Devoting yourself fully to a particular career or cause or group or person can open up that experience of communion and can encourage the best qualities of an individual (I think of marriage as ideally being this type of complete devotion), but it can also be a dangerous thing, which suppresses and denies the individual (cults and abusive romances come to mind). That’s another way I came to understand the subtle relationship between union and individuality–love, and choice–I had a few crappy relationships during my teen years (and I wrote a lot of bad poetry…. it’s all related ;)).

    Anyway, when I mentioned tension in my blog post, I think I was just talking about how these two things never really resolve themselves into one or the other–there is always both, and that “tension” between the two is kind of like how two eyes give a person depth-perception. Or like how if you hold your finger a few inches from your nose and close one eye, then the other, first your finger will seem to be in line with one object, and then a different one–we can view particular ideas or actions either through the lens either of union or of individuality, but it’s only by bringing the two together to inform one another that we get a truer sense of how everything is related.

    I feel like that last part wasn’t the best metaphor to use, but hopefully you get a sense of what I mean. Anyway, I’m packing a lunch and going for a picnic in the park! 🙂 Thanks for the thoughtful and intriguing words.

  8. That’s so awesome, Ali! No wonder your poetry is so incredible!

    I absolutely agree with you about the mundane-relationship-test, as well. I don’t know if you’ve seen this in your own experience, but it seems to me that many of my friends and relatives who never committed to a serious relationship in their 20’s or 30’s gradually lose the ability to completely devote themselves to a relationship — it’s as if they’ve become so comfortable in their own skin, they are afraid of losing themselves in the devotion.

    Regardless: I hope you enjoyed your picnic! Drop back by anytime.

  9. Very nice essay on faith, Jeff. I like how you analyzed the topic through history, linguistics, and personal experience. You spoke about the similarity between Buddhism and Celtic mysticism, and my experience has been the same, having worked through about a third of the training program of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and now being a practicing Buddhist (sort of the reverse of your path!). Both religions are not doctrinal, but rather present a path of practice. In Druidry, your path consists of practices that embrace reverences for nature, history, language and poetry, ancestors, and culture. In Buddhism, our path consists of practices that develop wisdom and compassion through the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Six Paramitas.

    I like how you write that ”You don’t truly have a chance … to have faith … if you don’t have at least two or three options from which to choose.” This is definitely one of my pet peeves, that of people claiming to follow a particular faith but never actually having critically examined it nor consciously chosen it. Instead, they lazily follow the religion they were effectively brainwashed with in their youth.

    I wrote in my comment to Jon’s post about the vitality and necessity of religious diversity, in particular based on how different people can come to such different conclusions based upon a critical analysis of logical, empirical, and experiential evidence. You provided yet another confirmation of this when you wrote, ”If you ask most druids how … they came to be druids, they’ll say they really didn’t decide. They realized that they were druids, and always had been.” That explains how I came to Buddhism–I didn’t choose to be a Buddhist, I came to realize that I already was one.

  10. Mike, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I think there are definitely very deep similarities between the paths we’ve chosen, and they’re certainly not conflicting paths. In fact, in a lot of ways they complement each other perfectly. I have found many times that when Druidism fails to provide a clear answer on some point or difficulty, Buddhism has the resolution right at hand, and vice versa.

  11. Jeff,
    The true religion is not difficult to follow; the true religion is not hard to believe. You follow it, and you believe it, because it rings true in your soul like a great bell, and you can do nothing else.

    I love this; it’s a beautiful thought beautifully expressed. Do you mind if I add it to my “commonplace book” series?

    I am definitely finding that as I focus more deliberately on “cultivating the Way(s)” (my pagan ways, that is), that my creativity is starting to reassert itself and the universe seems to be aligning itself again in small ways to provide encouragement.

    Oh, and did you see Clark Strand’s article on faith and the Pure Land in the fall ’06 issue of Tricycle? This is exactly what he talked about.

  12. Sure, Erik — be my guest. Glad you enjoyed it!

    I didn’t see the article. What is the Tricycle? I’ve never heard of it. Is there an online link?…

  13. No problem! If you knew all the things I didn’t know, you’d be amazed at my ignorance. (You’d also be omniscient, presumably. 🙂 ) I will have to consider getting a subscription…

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