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:
Faith in Druidism
Faith in Druidism is a tricky topic.
There 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.
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.
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…
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.