First I’d like to start by sharing one of my favorite quotes on the subject:
We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art. (Henry James, The Middle Years)
Of course I’ve gone through what you describe, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think if you never experience any doubt you’re in a very dangerous place. That leads to a mindless fundamentalism and also a sort of hollow, useless faith. Because I feel the trials and skepticism I’ve experienced have actually made my faith much stronger than when I started out.
However, as with all things, you can take it too far, and end up talking yourself out of some really good experiences.
So, the question: how do you know? How do you really know?
Fuck, you can’t even really prove that anything outside of yourself actually exists and isn’t just a figment of your imagination. I mean, for all you know, I might not exist. This e-mail could just be magically appearing to you out of nowhere, or perhaps you’ve got multiple personality disorder and one of your other selves is writing this to you.
I know that that’s not the case, because I’m sitting here typing it myself, but really, how do you know that? You don’t, but the alternatives seem rather improbable, don’t they? As Klaudios Ptolemaios once said a thousand and some years before William of Ockham was born, “We consider it a good principle to explain phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.”
And that’s really something that I’ve noticed. It’s much simpler to take things at face value. It requires less effort, less mental juggling, less trying to explain away all these coincidences. Because once you start down the skeptics’ path, and really start questioning everything, it all unravels, and your questions never end.
Now I’m not saying that believe everything is the best approach – as I said above a proper dose of skepticism is a good thing – but there has to be a balance. And that’s really one of the fundamentals of Hellenismos. At Delphi were inscribed a series of maxims or wise sayings and one of the foremost of these was “Everything in moderation” or “Nothing to Excess”.
Now, I could give you a bunch of theological and philosophical proofs for the existence of the Gods – the Greeks loved this shit – but really, do those work? They don’t for Christians, as you and I both know all too well, and they don’t for any other religious. People like to think that you can reduce it down to a mathematical proof, but you can’t. That’s just not how spiritual things work. They have their own laws, their own type of existence, and therefore the laws that govern our meat bodies don’t apply to them. What I’ve always found to be a much surer proof than pretty sounding words – and paradoxically, less certain – is one’s experience.
When you begin to experience the Gods, have genuine encounters with them, feel them as an intimate part of your life, the junkyard dog of doubt that lives in your heart begins to curl up and go to sleep. Not at first, of course. Especially when you’ve had to break away from your cradle faith – which can be an incredibly painful process – you get into such a habit of doubting everything that it’s natural, reflexive. But eventually, over time, you’ll begin to see that you don’t need that armor, that all these weird and wonderful things are happening, things that you can’t explain in any other way but than to assert the existence of the Gods.
So often the root of skepticism lies in fear. Fear of being hurt, fear of being taken advantage of, fear of putting your faith in something that’s going to let you down, fear of looking foolish. So, in order to combat this fear, one actively wars against faith, asserting their independence, insisting that this can’t and won’t touch their life, and thus they won’t be hurt anymore.
But what do you get when you base your life on fear?
Nothing comes out of nothing, and fear only begets fear, emptiness, and loneliness.
It takes real courage to put aside that fear and embrace life to its fullest. And to really be living, you have to take risks, you have to be willing to get your knees bruised and your heart broken.
And Hellenismos is, above all things, a religion of life. Each of our Gods presides over a particular part of it, and in experiencing that part of life to its fullest, you draw closer to them.
And really, a lot of the worries that lead to rampant skepticism don’t apply in Hellenismos. There’s no authority, no one who stands between you and the Gods. No one who’s going to take advantage of you, steal your money, tell you what to do with your life. At most, our priests lead rituals and offer advice – but even then, there’s nothing that says you have to accept what they say as the gospel truth. You are allowed – nay ENCOURAGED to argue with them, and think things out for yourself.
You’re even allowed to disagree with the Gods.
And yeah, maybe there’s still the fear of looking foolish, because from some perspectives, what we do can look a little silly. Standing in front of a table with pretty bowls and statues and pouring wine to them and scattering barley and reciting poetry – yeah, that can seem a little silly.
But really, is that the worse thing in the world?
Think about it – how foolish do you look when you dance, or when you have sex? There is nothing more absurd than two people making love – and yet, nothing more intense, more beautiful, more mindblowingly amazing than good sex. Hell, even bad sex is still sex.
So really, sometimes you’ve just got to let go and let yourself be in the moment, and accept that yup, you’re going to look silly afterwards, but that doesn’t matter, because right now it feels incredible.
And believe me, worship, real worship where you can actually feel the Gods present there with you – is the most amazing thing in the world. Yeah, it’s even better than sex – though I don’t know if I’d want to have to choose between the two of them.
So that’s really my advice – start slow and work your way up. Read about the Gods, try to get an understanding from those readings about them. Then go out into the world and see if you can find them there. Because our Gods don’t just inhabit some fairytale otherworld; they also exist right here, with us, in this world. They live in the sky and the earth, in trees and mountains, in old buildings and city streets. You can find them anywhere and everywhere. The mass of people experience them, but no longer have the vocabulary, the worldview in which to place those experiences. They have also come to doubt their senses. They think only the intellectual matters, and that what you feel with the flesh, what you smell and taste and hear is deeply suspect. Only the mind is to be trusted. Well, mind is nice, but we’re more than mind. We’re all of our senses together, and a little something else, a something that exists beyond the physical. And so is everything else in the world.
So, remember that, and remember that there are many ways to experience things. You aren’t always going to encounter the Gods as seven foot tall humanoid beings who come up and have a heart to heart with you. In fact that’s pretty rare. Sometimes it’s just a feeling of PRESENCE, perhaps accompanied by a smell or taste or some odd random occurrence. Sometimes you’ll experience them in animal form – a deer that uncharacteristically stops, looks at you, and you see in its eyes a greater than animal intelligence. Sometimes its as simple as a sudden breeze rustling the leaves to get your attention, or a phrase on a billboard that exactly matches the contents of your thoughts at that moment. Sometimes you’ll have a dream or a vision, and yes, occasionally you’ll get a burning bush, but not very often. That’s not usually how the Gods choose to act. But the thing is, they do choose to act, and they can choose to act in any number of ways. So that’s part of the religion too – mindfulness. Paying attention to the world around you, instead of contemplating your navel or dreaming of a distant heaven. It’s being here, now, and acting in the world. Which is why stuff like prayer and sacrifice is so important. Because the Gods aren’t just good feelings inside us – they have an independent existence outside of us. And in gratitude for the real things that they do for us, we offer real actions to them. And that’s something else that’ll help with doubt – finding a regular routine of worship, and doing it, no matter what.
Because you aren’t always going to feel up to doing it, sometimes you’ll downright kick and scream against it. But those are the times when you need to do something like that the most. And don’t always expect that there’ll be fireworks kind of experiences when you do that routine – sometimes it’s pretty boring, but you should still do it, because it’s a way of showing respect to the Gods.
When it comes down to it Hellenismos is about gratitude, about deepening your relationship with the Gods. It’s not about dogma, it’s not about fear, it’s not about demeaning and humiliating yourself in order to exult God – it’s about simple thankfulness. About honoring the Gods as the bestowers of all of life’s blessings, and worshipping them by sharing our food, our drink, by reciting pretty words, by making art, by dancing or racing or perfecting our bodies, by simply acknowledging that they’re there, that you recognize all that they’ve done for you, and that you deeply appreciate them.
It’s as simple – and as incredibly profound – as that.