Belief and Knowledge

Diotima Sophia

This article was sparked by reflections on conversations and reading around the intersection between knowledge and belief, particularly where these two vastly important movements(1) do not coincide. The article was also spurred by watching discussions (to term them politely) between those who had differing views of the same deity.  Often one view would be drawn from mythologies, legends and lore, while the other came mainly from personal experience.  Each person in these discussions was perfectly certain that their view of Deity X was the “right” one, and often the combatan … discussants were disparaging about any opinions but their own.

In such situations, which is the “right” view?  If the view which arises from a study of mythology is not the same as that which comes from direct, personal experience, is it possible that one or the other of the views is “wrong”?  Certainly some of those involved in the above conversations seemed to think it necessary to discern the “correct” view between the two.

But is it possible in such situations, where what is written down about a particular Deity does not coincide with what is experienced of that Deity, to find a “right” solution? Rather than trying to tease out an answer to this question, I’m inclined to say that the question itself is entirely unhelpful.

I do this not from any stance of total relativism (a belief that every path is the same, that all religions, religious ideas, etc. are equally valid), that is, I don’t hold that it is impossible to be “wrong” about issues in relation to things divine.

To assume that “anything goes” and there is no right or wrong in matters of religion or faith seems to me to negate the rational ability which is surely at least part of what the divine seeks in us.  To deny that an idea of the divine can be right or wrong is to put an end to speculation and the search for truth, for it denies the existence of truth. Yet the search for truth is integral to many (perhaps most?) paths of faith/belief.

Rather than deny the possibility of right and wrong, my qualm with the question above is the assumption that one or the other, experience or knowledge, is “right”.  Rather, I would see these two as complimentary building blocks, and tensions between them as creative spurs to a deepening of both.

When all is said and done, there are two means of gathering information, even information about the divine, as there have been since the days of Aristotle.  The first is to ask someone who knows (this would include consulting written works); the second, to seek experience for oneself.  And, of course, all the knowledge in the world is merely a reflection of reality, a way of describing it – it is not the reality itself (Maturana 1988).  Confusing the two – what I know, and the reality that is – has been a perpetual dilemma for humans.

In terms of experience of the divine, these two, asking (seeking, looking) and experiencing, must compliment each other.  All the knowledge in the world, gained through the most thorough investigation of the sources, the legends, the myths and the lore, will only lay a foundation for belief.

Belief comes not from logical argument (even some philosophers would agree with this) (Malcom 1993) but rather from experience, from the meaning we make of what we experience.  Argument, information, previous experience from other people, at best sets the scene for belief.   Experience always builds on previous experience – how you take on board any new experience, even of the divine, will depend on what you have experienced up to that point.  This is one of the basic principles of all paths, groups and religions which have any sort of set pattern of practice, be it initiatory  traditions of witchcraft, through to the different practices of Buddhism.

I have recently written of the popular misnomer of speaking of Cernunnos and Herne as Horned Gods (Diotima 2003), when in fact they bear antlers.  To mistake the one for the other is to loose the significance of the cyclic nature of antlers, their growth and use through the year.  Horns, on the other hand, are permanent features.  To make such a statement is controversial (to say the least) but it seemed a necessary one, because it appeared that part of the truth about these conceptions of the divine was being obscured. This, however, is a linguistic disagreement, rather than one of experience: most of the popular representations of Cernunnos and Herne do, indeed, bear antlers.

Another, and more illustrative, example of the intersection between “knowledge” (e.g., mythology, etc.) and “experience”  is the motif of the Goddess as Maiden, Mother and Crone, which is so common throughout the English speaking Pagan world.  The motif crops up everywhere from books to websites to newsgroups, and is enacted in rituals time and time again.  Books abound on the nature of the states and the transition from one “state” to another – cf. the current proliferation of “croning” ceremonies.

This motif owes a very great deal more to Robert Graves (Graves 1952) than it does to any time honoured lore or ancient myth.  There are certainly triple aspected Goddess (the Morrigan being an obvious one) (Green 1992; Green 1995; Matthews and Matthews 2002), but rarely do these aspects have to do with age or biological state.  Rather, as with the Morrigan and Brigit, the aspects tend to relate to function (Zell 1989).  It is possible that the very early conceptions of the “Great Goddess” were of this tripartite nature, following on from the phases of the moon, (which would explain at least one instance of three temples to Hera) (Baring and Cashford 1991), but the idea of the Maiden, Mother, Crone progression does not seem to have been as embedded in folklore as one might think.  Certainly, the motif has come into its own within living memory.

The reasons for the popularity of this image are many, but some of them are surely tied to culture and epoch. The rise in popularity of this image has paralleled the rise in consciousness (or the raising of consciousness, from those of us old enough to remember such events) of and about women, primarily among women themselves.

In the image of the triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother and Crone, women have found a divine prototype for the stages of life society dictates to us.

Immediate objections will be raised that these are biological states, and of course to some extent this is true.  However, many women experience a gap of years or decades between the state of maidenhood and that of motherhood, and more and more women are bypassing that particular stage (in the physical sense, at least) entirely.  “Maiden” as commonly used denotes either virginity or an unmarried state (c.f. “maiden” name). (2)

Yet it is clear that this triple image serves a purpose and fulfils a need.  For the first time in centuries in the West, we have an archetype for older women which celebrates their age and state, rather than apologises for it.  The face of the crone in the Maiden, Mother, Crone conception of the Goddess relates to joy in life and age, to respect for knowledge and experience (both!) acquired in life, and to the continuation of happiness beyond the quintessential “mother” state.

Some sociologists hold that structures which survive in society do so because they fulfil a function in that society (Aron 1970; Craib 1997; Pickering 1994).  It is by no means unheard of, either, to hold that religious/faith views arise and take hold in societies which are ready for them, and that we choose our religious beliefs in the same way we make other choices (Aldridge 2000). (3) The motif of Maiden, Mother, Crone is one such: in a society which not only was ready for it (made so, greatly, by the second wave of feminism, from the work of de Beauvoir onwards (de Beauvoir 1974)) but also had great need of it.

Does this negate the spiritual value of the image?  Does the fact that it is a useful image, coupled to its lack of deep seated antiquity, mean that it has in some way less validity than other images, which bear a longer history?

Certainly not.

The fact that an image, even an image of the divine, fulfils a need in no way debases or invalidates that image.  Nor does the fact that an image does not have a clear history in mythology, lore, etc. mean that it is somehow lesser, or more imprecise, or that it is some from of wishful thinking or wish fulfilment.  And by no means does it invalidate the image or make it “wrong”.

The experience of many people (not just women) is that the image of the triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother and Crone is a helpful and useful one – indeed, a very powerful one. To say that it is invalid or somehow lesser because it is not “historical” is to miss the boat entirely, I believe, and that on two counts.

The first is simply that an insistence on what has been handed down (traditio – to hand on) at the expense of current experience runs the risk of what might be called historical snobbery. After all, myths and legends of the past are records of the experience of previous generations – what privileges their experience over ours?

It is possible, of course, to make an argument from the point of view of weight of numbers, that is, that over quite some period of time people have experienced the divine in X fashion.  This indeed lends weight and credence to a particular view; it does not, however, negate the opposite of that view.

The second reason, however, is by far the more important one.  To say that our impressions of/contact with the divine must always accord with what has happened before, with “the lore”, with mythology, with history or tradition, is to limit both the divine and ourselves in an entirely unacceptable way.  If there are few historical precedents for the Maiden, Mother and Crone motif, need we disregard such a valuable idea on that score? Need we, in essence, say to the divine, “we have not seen you like this before, therefore we will not recognise you now? Please return to your toga/animal skin/cave”. Indeed, dare we attempt to limit the divine in this way?

While I am an outspoken advocate of both study and historical accuracy where appropriate, these are tools, they are means – they are not the ends in themselves.  To allow them to dictate our current experience of the divine is to privilege information (knowledge) over experience, and thus to stymie both – because knowledge grows only through experience.

Knowledge sets the scene, lays the groundwork and provides the framework for belief.  It does not presuppose belief, nor, more importantly, does it instigate it.  Belief is the result of experience, not of learning.

1: They are movements, because neither of them should ever be static. Unfortunately, the acquisition of knowledge from study seems to come to an end for some people when a course of study ends, be it a degree or the OBOD course, or whatever it may be. The old adage, “you can tell when he graduated – look at the latest book on the shelf” is with us still.

2: It is, of course, entirely possible to make arguments that “Maiden” should not be understood as meaning “virgin”; rather, it may mean “unmarried” or “unyoked”, as in, not tied to a particular (sexual) relationship (Ma’at 2001). However possible this is to argue, in common parlance, “maiden” signifies at the very least, “girl” if not “virgin”.

3: This opens an entirely different debate – do we choose the Divine or does the Divine choose us?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s