have placed this in the subforum dealing with non-pagan religions, but since my spirituality to some degree intersects with ideas in neo-paganism and other sources, I did want to leave a space open for others reflecting on their own non-Christian spiritualities and relationship to matters of faith, or whatever. Much of this is particular to my circumstances, but I wanted to leave room for that should anyone wish to contribute their own understanding of faith, practice, and tradition, from a pagan background or not.
I am still in a period of evaluation as concerns my relationship to the traditions handed down to me from various sources. Even if I go it “alone,” I’ll never really be alone. I do not exist in a vacuum, and even an eclectic spirituality is informed by our own backgrounds.
Since my original formation was in Oneness Pentecostalism, but as strongly informed by my grandmother’s Holiness trinitarian background — she was not quite “orthodox” in the Oneness sense — I have struggled with faith ever since I realized not everything handed down to me was making sense to me personally or in the abstract.
There have been periods in my life in which I was close to or identifying as an atheist and periods in which I have been close to epistemological and moral nihilism. All of this is a part of my journey: this is merely an observation, not a negative judgment. And I have incorporated insights from that part of my journey into my present spirituality.
For a long time now I’ve been Catholic, though I’ve wavered between Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism with pros and cons on both sides. I’ve pondered some things and made some observations. These paths have problems, as does any religious system, I believe.
But I’ve got to decide how I’m going to deal with these problems based on what my commitment is and what I most cherish, honor, and value. I cannot allow badly informed and often immoral practitioners of these faiths to make my decisions for me, nor will I allow anyone to make a decision for me based on my sexuality. I have given these matters quite a lot of thought and reading, and I am utterly comfortable with being gay as informed by my learning and experiences both ordinary and numinous.
I have also had to evaluate my understanding of holy tradition as a whole. I could go on and on about it, but I will attempt to remain to the point. I am in a very tough situation because for years now, whether I have used the term or not, and though I have sometimes wavered in what I should commit to, I am a traditionalist, and the Anglican parish I have long been a member of is largely traditionalist and high church, nor am I the only gay person in that community or the only one who pushes the boundaries theologically.
Now in terms of faith, I will probably always tend to be skeptical because of my formative experiences, but there are some things I have learned from Catholic teaching, traditionalist Catholics and Anglo-Catholics, and neo-pagans, and that is the importance of practice and behavior in spirituality. I have had to de-program myself from understandings of faith that seem to have been prevalent in my Pentecostal background.
As a child, I struggled with faith from the beginning. I remember my mentor looking at me as I was dwelling on my doubts internally, and he said, “James, God is real.” Somehow he sensed my doubts. I had the notion that I had to work up a certain feeling of certainty.
Now, someone can go through the darkest night of the soul. Through no merit of my own, from the time of my extremely difficult childhood, I have been at times graced with ecstasies. When I cried out to the great Whoever the Hell You Are Out There, as a suffering gay man, I was graced with torrents of love from what I would call the heavenly host. But doubts lingered, and despair was always around the corner nevertheless. Is it all just a hallucination? There were times when I thought, “If there is a God, if I have a soul…”
And some of this is very commendable! Some of this is mere brute honesty about the limitations and fallibility of human knowledge, and that’s not a bad thing at all! But what I am saying is that there can be a complete lack of any subjective sense of certainty or belief in a person who is still faithful. Faith, as I have learned in Catholicism, is not about how I feel, nor in my understanding of epistemology is it even about having 100% certainty.
Faith without works is dead. And that is why I turn to works, actions, habits, and externals. I may be in the darkest night of my soul without any subjective sense of belief at all. And I’m not merely talking about atheism here. Don’t get me wrong: I have no problems as such with atheistic paths or atheists, and I am often sympathetic to their arguments for their positions!
These can be joyous paths, too, and honest, sincere ones. I am speaking primarily here about the loss of joy and hope, though this may coincide with the sense that what one does love and honor and cherish is all an illusion, whether that be God or morals or whatever.
But as for my own spirituality, faith is principally about commitment, and my efforts in obtaining salvation, that is, a healthful and harmonious state of being, are of prime importance. This is not about 100% certainty. It isn’t about feelings. It isn’t about my subjective state. It is about what I do. What have I committed to?
I have committed to tradition, but tradition is a tricky thing in general, including in Christianity. I come from a poor, rural background, Pentecostal on my dad’s side, mostly non-denominational Protestant on my mother’s. And I’ve noticed right off the bat that the sense of tradition on my mother’s side is quite a lot different from the Protestantism I have at times observed among the upper classes.
There is tradition as various authorities Protestant or Catholic (or whatever) present it, and then there is the folk sense of tradition. Sometimes these different senses of tradition are in conflict. Sometimes they are complementary. They are very often in tension. People in my mother’s family come to me for spiritual guidance.
Though they are spiritually speaking descendants of a sort of evangelical, non-liturgical Protestantism, I find that they have their own sense of what the faith is. They have their novena candles. They value works. They are praying for our dead, which lately, that number seems to be increasing. One of them in particular had an apparition that reminds me very much of a purgatorial realm, though the term “purgatory” does not feature in their vocabulary. That was merely my slant on the matter.
They don’t have much commitment at all, and quite a lot of distrust toward, institutionalized Christianity in any form, and I am sympathetic. Too many of them have been hurt or shunned, made to feel less than, when they showed up for church, but they had drug problems, or they couldn’t afford the nicest clothes. At a graveside memorial, the man chosen to speak insinuated that my very pious, but wounded, grandmother may have not had any faith in God. The family had some words to say about that, and we didn’t wait until the memorial was over, either.
The folk have their own way of understanding things, and this is true of those coming from a Catholic background as well. I honor my roots as passed down to me by a financially poor family, and I honor all the traditions that have been passed down to me from whatever religious background or source, so long as I am able to integrate them into a coherent whole, because I value tradition and coherence. And I respect the pain and suffering they have been through, including the pain they have handed down, and increasingly I research and incorporate ancestral veneration.
I pray for my dead, and I pray to my dead.
There are still some doctrines I have tensions with, such as certain understandings of death I come across, but I am leaving no rock unturned in my search for what is authentic and rings true. When reading about matters of religion, I often come across an implicit bias that…