A few days ago there was a back and forth on a friend’s social media account about the differences between faith and proof. One person asserted that they didn’t have faith in the gods because their past experiences provided them with proof of the gods’ (presumably positive) influence in their life. Furthermore, in the unfolding of the conversation, ‘faith’ and identifying as ‘of faith’ was attributed to Christians only (and presumably those who had yet to jettison whatever conditioning came along with being suffused in a culture colored by these particular faithways).
Several other people pointed out that faith as a concept was not unique to Christians, nor was having faith in the High Ones (by whatever names or attributes we ascribe to Them) something that characterized Christian faithways as such. I pointed out (with some degree of snarkiness, I have to admit) that non-Christians were just as likely to describe their own faith in their divinity-infused worldview in terms of proof, as well. That is, we have faith because we have been giving proof of some kind. In other words, we have a trusting confidence – and/or a hope, and/or an optimism – that the Powers we are in relationship with will continue to relate to us in a meaningful, increasing way. Whether that means we hope that the gods will help us endure difficult times, or whether we will be aided towards successful outcomes, or whether we desire ongoing emotional reciprocation in a way we can recognize and respond to doesn’t much matter. Something has to have already happened such that we feel it’s worth our mental effort to expect – or hope, or desire, or even leave the possibility of maybe just maybe please – future reciprocation will occur.
We have faith carrying us towards the future because something happened in the past.
The religious milieu I was raised in made me elaborate promises about the rewards of faith, about the rewards of trusting that a god was there listening to me and caring about me. And while I remain open to the possibility that that deity is there, somewhere, they and I clearly didn’t click on some level. Reciprocation was never in evidence, regardless of my child’s confidence in the words of the people around me. Many people discover – and fail to discover! – divine reciprocation in precisely this manner. A particular deity or face of divinity is championed by their devotees, and a person might be persuaded to invest some emotional confidence in that deity. If that confidence pays off, the person then has the emotional proof they need that their initial faith was, indeed, rewarded. If that confidence doesn’t pay off, the person may wander off to find something else entirely to invest emotional confidence in or they may be open to trying again. It depends on what they think they stand to gain (and lose) as a result of making that first emotional investment.
Because let’s face it – people don’t usually make formative decisions about their spiritual lives based on the kind of metrics that govern most other choices. (Sure, there are those of us hijacked into various practices, and who persist as a matter of self-preservation, but that’s a rather separate conversation.) We’re not choosing deities to love or traditions to participate in based on future employment prospects, household financial goals, miles per gallon, or whatever. We’re balancing ideas we have about complex, subtle concepts like the soul, afterlife, sacred emotionality, sacred community, the continuation of tradition, and so forth. We come up with equally complex and subtle metrics by which to see how they fit into any new spiritual practice or relationship we might consider taking up; when balancing currently-held ideas against the emerging proof offered by new spiritual experiences, a fragile battle can occur. Here we might even find a crisis of faith.
In a way, faith or confidence in the networked complex that includes the Powers and the relationships we share with Them rises out of what experiences we judge worthy of being called proof. While individual traditions might provide guidance on what faith is, how it is cultivated, and how it is expressed, what it means (and even what it should be called) is by and large up to us to individually decide. At the same time, trying to ‘splain why someone else should not have faith is entirely unhelpful. The hidden soil in which one’s confidence and yearning for the Powers is sown is quite private; even through close self-examination we can’t always say what grows there.
People have sometimes asked me why I worship Loki. The best answer I have is that He has proven Himself worthy of worship. Although I hold up almost two decades’ of experience with Him as the foundation of faith in Him, my heart feels weak at the enormity of the expansive mystery that continues to surround Him. My confidence is based on proof that comes from past experiences, yes – but my faith is rooted in knowing that I am willing to always face whatever mystery He turns towards me. I have confidence in Loki, and I have faith in myself.