Steve is a writer and publisher in his forties. He lives in New England with his two (male) partners in a polyamorous triad and is an ordained pagan priest.
1. What are your spiritual beliefs?
My spiritual belief is summed up in the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Technically, I’m a polytheistic panentheist, meaning I believe in many divinities and that divinity is both immanent in creation as well as outside/apart from it.
I suppose you could say that I’m a “pagan agnostic” as well since, essentially, I believe that spiritual Mysteries are, by their very nature, unprovable. Therefore theories about them are all equally untrue. That does not mean the same thing as false, however. It just means that we cannot know, in a certain, objective sense, that one spiritual belief is correct and others are incorrect. I say: wonderful! That means they all get to be right—for someone, somewhere, at least.
My belief is that belief itself is something we choose—or choose not—to have. We ultimately determine its shape and feel, even if we’re just “tailoring” something “off the rack” to fit (or embarking on a process of self-change in order to fit into it).
My spiritual practice, on the other hand, can be described as “magickal neo-pagan.” I think there’s a distinction between spiritual practices—such as meditation, yoga, mantra/chanting, prayer, and a broad palette of rituals—and spiritual beliefs. So often we treat “spirituality” as a purely mental exercise: something you believe or think, select and then sort of ignore or allow to run on auto-pilot. I think that it is something that you do, and it is in people’s actions that we really see their beliefs made manifest. We shape our beliefs, but the practice of those beliefs shapes us in return.
2. How sure are you that those beliefs are true?
Not at all! Indeed, about the only thing I am sure of is that I will likely never know if my beliefs (or anyone else’s) are true or not. Maybe I’ll get some marvelous insight upon or after my mortal death but, as they say, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
On the other hand, knowing that my beliefs are a choice means they don’t have to be “true” in any objective sense, so long as they are true for me. That’s where we get into looking at the meaning of “truth.”
When a lot of modern people say something is true, they mean it is “factual” or “proven” (often even when it is not). That is, they mean it is objectively true, which we’re often taught is the only kind of truth that matters, perhaps even the only kind of truth that there is. What this overlooks, however, is the idea of subjective truth or what I prefer to call “meaning.”
Consider works of art: the great ones may invoke a powerful internal response from those experiencing the work, part emotional, part intellectual, part imaginative, and part what we might call “moving” or “spiritual”. There’s nothing necessarily inherent in the physical or material nature of the work that does this. It’s an investment of meaning, conveyed through uncounted millennia of shared culture (and human beings all share a cultural heritage, if you go back far enough).
The same is true of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life: they have been deeply moving, but there is nothing inherent in them that objectively proves anything. I understand and recognize that.
3. How did you come to have these beliefs?
I was raised fairly agnostic. My Methodist parents believed religion—or at least attending church—was something largely wasted on children. So church attendance was optional in our household and I, like many children, was more much interested in playing or watching TV on Sunday morning! As I grew older, I was invited to find my own path, whatever it might be, and I had a number of frank discussions about religion and faith, particularly with my father.
Because I felt that I was gay from childhood, and knew what to call it by the time I was an early adolescent, I tended to shy away from the Abrahamic religions that condemned me and people like me. I explored Eastern religion and philosophy and, because I was an avid reader of mythology and fantasy fiction—and later a tabletop gamer—I explored neo-paganism. In particular, I studied a lot of Chaos Magick, starting with the works of Peter Carroll (Liber Null & Psychonaut and Liber Kaos for starters) and I really took to its sort of punk, DIY (do-it-yourself) approach to magick and spirituality.
For quite some time, I was solitary in my practice, until I came to realize the benefits of community. I was like an artist living in a hermitage: perfecting my craft, but producing works of art no one would ever see. One of the experiences of spiritual practice is shared experience, and you need a community to do that, so I became involved in starting and running a neo-pagan Temple, which has had its own challenges, but many rewards as well. Turns out my parents were right on a number of levels: church would have been largely wasted on me as a child (and probably inflicted more scars than growing up in a homophobic culture already did) but I did find my own way to it—or something like it—in adulthood.
4. What do you wish you could believe (but don’t)?
Nothing, really. I think we all have moments when we wish we had absolute faith, absolute certainty—I think that’s what a lot of people are looking out of belief—but I’m grateful I don’t have it, because I think that kind of absolute, unquestioning belief is dangerous and leads to fundamentalism and fanaticism. I’d rather have the ability to question my beliefs and abandon a belief or practice that no longer serves me than the need to cling to it and demand that everyone else do the same in order to validate my decision.
5. What do you think it means to believe in something?
This question is an interesting turn of phrase, since I think believing in something is all about what it means, or that it means something at all. It’s about meaning, infusing the lifeless, the senseless, and the pointless with the numinous, thereby making them greater than what they are. I think that not only is this ability the true magic (or miracle, if you like) at the heart of spirituality, but one of the most remarkable things about human beings in general.
…HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME… SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
6. Does this stuff matter to you? Do you think about it much?
A fair amount, since I’m technically “clergy” (in as much as that means anything in a neo-pagan context). The spiritual, the idea of having meaning in one’s life, does matter to me and I hope to provide a context wherein other people can find and experience it without necessarily having to be told whether their experience is “right” or “wrong” and without it having to conform to my experience, or somebody else’s.
I think absolutist spirituality—the idea that our spiritual beliefs have the exclusive right to truth, the need for them to be “right”— is something we as a species and a culture are going to have to leave behind if we are going to co-exist in a truly pluralistic culture. I hope that we do, because I would much rather have the rich spectrum of a hundred thousand (or a hundred million) different spiritual paths and practices than the homogeneity of just one … but then I am a polytheistic panentheist—by choice.