Much as I love the idea of foreign languages and ancient etymologies, and much as I love a good academic discourse, in my experience most of these are somewhat irrelevant in usage and it is such an uphill battle to try and constantly hold to them and usefully debate them, even in purely professional usage. So I have my own set of definitions for a collection of key religious terms, which is the most useful contemporary way that I’ve found to navigate and actually put them to lived, rather than hypothetical, use.
It is my understanding and observation that people engage religiously and spiritually through a set of four basic spectrums: faith, belief, experience, and practice. I hear a whole lot of arguments (many of which I agree with absolutely, others I think are full of shit, and so forth) about their proper use and which is the “right way” of doing things religiously, polytheistically, and so forth. I think these debates are useful. I have yet to see evidence of a better way of viewing these terms in practical context (as opposed to academic assessment) and so this is how I choose to navigate them.
- Practice: Arguably the “most important” spectrum of religion is practice, as it is through practice that one does anything at all. And religion is not a passive thing, it is an active thing. A thing that is done, a thing that is experienced, a thing that is attended and indeed tended. It is not conjecture or theory (those would be called theological study and debate) nor is it concerned with assessing individual qualities of mind, unconscious or otherwise (as those would be elements at home in the fields of psychology). Practice is the spectrum of religious employment that covers things like rituals, private rites, prayer cycles and worship calls, devotions at a shrine or gestural devotions at certain landmarks (such as bodies of water, bridges, or cemeteries). Practice is attending a mass or a religious misa, stripping down and running in Lupercalia, or carrying an Irish war goddess for a small collective of devoted priests and laity who sing Her praises with all of their hearts. Practice is the active use of and engagement with religion.
- Experience: In my life, experience is the next “most important”, and as this is my list, I’m putting it in my order. Experience should speak for itself and be self-explanatory, but, you know, here goes anyway: this is the spectrum of reliogiosity which is often (but not always) the result of practice, and it is the “effect” side of things. Experience of the divine powers and spirits of one’s tradition (or some other tradition not personally adhered to, which happens a whole lot to people) is a major part of religion, and it can look like a whole lot of things. This is the perceivable engagement with that which is understood and assumed to be outside of one’s self; an other-than-human agency which comes into communion with a person through some means or methods and carries with it some experienced consequences, if only perceptual in nature. For me, experience is the intended natural consequence of practice, but for many I know it is a harder thing to conceive of or be open to, and so I have no judgment upon those whose relation to this spectrum is different than mine. I chose the word “spectrum” to describe these four things because I believe us all on a spectrumed continuum of these things, which are never static, and even in our own lives and minds and hearts, constantly changing as we adapt to changing times, changing experiences, changing circumstances or responsibilities, and indeed changing selves. Experience looks like a lot of things.
- Belief: This is the spectrum of religion that is engaged with and “flicked on” when practice and experience have (for a time) ended, for example in between prayer cycles or rituals, in the days following profound mystic experience or oracularly delivered insights. Belief is irrelevant in practice (although it can be an added bonus for some) and it is even more irrelevant in experience; one does not need to believe in a tiger to be mauled by it in a dark room on an airplane. As with practice, prior belief can be useful in contextualizing an experience, but is not actually going to change the outcome: teeth are teeth, claws are claws, and humans are meaty morsels all the same. Belief only becomes a relevant consideration in anything at all when experience and practice have both come to a temporary pause. Imagine this: you go out drinking with your friends to celebrate somebody’s job promotion, and you get a little bit more toasted than you intended, and you wind up in the middle of somebody else’s major heroin deal in a dim lit parking lot, and a gunfight breaks out, and police are not far, and in the hail of gunfire you manage to somehow gather your wits and pull not only yourself, but a random young high-school boy who was walking home with headphones blasting and nearly got blasted in the face for no reason at all. But you saved him. Somehow. The next morning you wake up in a cheap motel with some unclothed people you only vaguely remember meeting earlier in the evening, your own clothes are sprayed with somebody else’s bed, and you find yourself dimly reaching through the fog of the evening to determine if what you seem to remember really happened at all. Was there really a gunfight? Did you really save that boy? This is where belief comes in. There is evident to suggest that something happened, but how do you know that it was that something? What you wind up accepting at the end of this process is your belief; an assessment held to and acknowledged based upon some sort of data. (In many cases, that “data” is just an unconscious assessment of one’s own parameters of comfort, and a rejection of any would-be belief that threatens that comfort. Because humans.)
- Faith: Lastly we have the thing that we fall back on as a secondary or tertiary back-up, for when practice is over, experience has faded to (even recent) memory, and belief is somehow threatened by something, such as external social pressures or internal psychological distress, or rational denial. Faith is the failsafe of religious engagement, not the first item, not the most important item, but the thing that you fall back on when the other stuff is either finished with or threatened. It is your turtle shell to hide from predators, your safety lights during a power-outage, a thing that you turn to when you are experiencing an inherent scarcity of religious resources, internal or otherwise. Faith is the membranous sheath of belief, and faith is the battery of practice, and faith is the process by which we return to ourselves and our gods following experiences which may be so profound as to defy reason or so nuanced and small that we find it hard in sober daylit rational consideration to hold onto them. Faith is important.
These four spectrums do not exist in a vacuum from one another, and while a person could conceivably be religious or spiritual with three of these and not all four, I view them as the sort of food pyramid of religion. These are your nutritional needs, the balanced associations of active engagement and passive reflection which keep one solid coursed and above water. Or way the fuck below it, if that’s the nature of their tradition.
I don’t like to use the word “faith” to denote a specific tradition, in the context of “it is tenet of my faith to do such and such”, because this is lazy use of language and fuck that. I sometimes use “belief” to refer to the acknowledgement of gods (and for that matter things like gravity and oxygen) but really what I (and “we”) should mean and say with these is “acknowledgement”. I acknowledge gravity, as my belief in it is irrelevant. (I also believe in the experience of gravity, but again, irrelevant. Helpful, in that I don’t get confused and panic-stricken when I fall out of a tree.) I avoid using the word “knowledge” for these things as well.
Language is tricky, and my own use of it is far from perfect… but these are my thoughts on what I see as the four most frequently used and misused and debated terms from religion of all kinds, all walks, and flavors.
It is not my intent to start a new debate, nor end somebody else’s, nor critique any specific uses of these terms by others which are contrary to my own. Rather, it is my intent to share my observations and experiences, which include running these terms by others and plugging my definitions into various debates or discourses, and I find them to basically just work, at the end of the day. I don’t go into orthodoxy versus orthopraxy because honestly I don’t think that these are necessarily opposed, but rather, misunderstood (and certainly misemployed by the majority of major world religions today, especially those of monotheistic structure). I’ll leave it to others to bring that discourse to the floor — or put it to rest in wormy earth, if indeed the time for such ever comes around! — and instead just focus on how I see these ideas best employed in the act of living authentic tradition and engaging with integral religion, rather than merely something calling itself that to fill an emptiness for a while.
Religion is something which is actively practiced, which leads to experiences, after which we are tasked with questions of belief, which inevitably face challenge which we must answer with a rising faith. All things exist upon a spectrum, a continuum, and nothing is static, and everything changes, everything is in constant, beautifully orchestrated but purely chaotic movement, spinning and turning and twisting. Practices bring us to the table of engagement, and introduce us to the equations themselves, as variables big or small. Experiences are the sum of those equation, which we can believe or not, and faith is the fall-back when shit hits the fan and the fogs roll in.