My Crisis of Faith

It’s time to write about an unpleasant but very important event in my life as a Heathen that can only be termed a crisis of faith. It caused me to re-examine my religious beliefs and worldview, and while it was shitty, I came off all the better for it. If any of you are having a similar crisis of faith, I hope this is some small comfort to you.

(This was published on my tumblr four months ago, but I decided to post it here because it’s pretty important in my journey as a Heathen.)

I’d been a Heathen for three years. I’d started out, very solidly, with the idea of “gods as archetypes”. Somehow, my practice had shifted to treat the Gods as independent beings with their own will. I felt somehow that they were more than just archetypes. But my fundamental belief about what the Gods were hadn’t changed. There was a disconnect between my belief and my practice. Why was I treating the Gods as independent beings when I didn’t actually believe they were? I couldn’t reel myself back in to thinking about them as just metaphors, human constructs to understand the nature of the universe. I couldn’t go back. I was too emotionally involved and dependent on my religion to go back. Either I had to drop it completely and become an atheist again, or I had to go deeper down the rabbit hole and reconcile my beliefs with my experiences and my feelings.

My whole mental framework came crashing down one day. I couldn’t believe that gods were real, basically. They weren’t real. Heimdall wasn’t real. If that was true, then He hadn’t helped me, either. If that was true, all my perceived progress was hollow (not true, of course, but I felt it was all false). All the times I’d reached out to Him, all the times He’d stepped in on my bad habits and said, “you know this isn’t helping, don’t do this”, all the times He gave me second chances were all illusion.

So gods weren’t real. I’d been deceiving myself for I didn’t know how long and I was mad that I’d let it get that far, that my atheist rationality hadn’t stepped in and slapped me upside the head a few times. Because now I was stuck with one foot on either side of a crevice and no way to move.

I felt lost. I felt angry at Heimdall, for not being there to stop me going back to old habits of self-destruction. I felt childish for feeling angry at a God. I went back to those old habits to spite Him. I felt childish for thinking I could spite a God. It was ridiculous, and I knew it. I was ready to step back from my relationship with Him entirely, and work on the assumption that Gods were only metaphors or archetypes, even though I felt inside that they had a greater role than that. And then I received a sign. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Continue reading.)

A few days later, I was in a black mood, sitting outside nibbling at my lunch. I was thinking about Gods. When I got up to put my rubbish away, a man sitting at a bench nearby caught my eye. He had tattoos all over his arms; on one bicep was a Vegvisir; on the other, an Aegishjalmur. His forearms had the Elder Futhark running all the way past his elbows. I was deeply affected. Normally when something upsets me I can hide it completely – I am pretty disconnected from my emotions. But I didn’t even have the wherewithal to stop flailing my hands around defensively (they did so of their own accord) or keep myself from muttering. I felt like I was going some sort of crazy – I ran off to the toilets to collect myself in private.

While in there, I decided I would come back out and talk to him, ask him about his tattoos. I was only gone a couple minutes, but when I came back, he was gone.

It was a massive blow. And I thought: that was a sign. But I didn’t think it was a sign from a God, because I had given up on that. It wasn’t put there for my benefit. This sign wasn’t given to me. What I thought was that this man, with his Nordic tattoos, happened to eat lunch at the same place and time as me, and that I happened to be having a crisis of faith simultaneously. I didn’t think it was concidence. So something was up to something. What was it? I decided on Wyrd*. I was okay with Wyrd being the mysterious actor. That felt just fine. Gods? No. Wyrd? Yeah.

Why was it okay that Wyrd should be putting the puzzle pieces together? It was because Wyrd is impersonal. It’s not a being with a personality and ego and autonomy. It’s a construct. It’s a vast, many-layered thing that stretches across all mankind and all time. It pushes and pulls in all directions, and it’s not looking down at me going “Oh, Kettle’s feeling bad, let’s give them a sign”, it’s just doing its job, it’s just being what it is – a mindless system. Of course we its denizens have a certain degree of control over ourselves, and a certain amount of power over those whose lives we touch. But overall, the trails of our lives are much more interrelated than we can imagine. Where I intersected with that tattooed man was a huge thing for me personally. It was emotional and affecting. But Wyrd was just a mechanism. In the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter. It was No Big Deal.

Does someone plan Wyrd? Make it function to an end goal? Plan out people’s lives, and set Wyrd to nudging them along? I don’t think so. I think this world simply is. I think Wyrd simply is. It’s a fundamental part of this world, just like hydrogen and earth and heat and the quickening of life. It’s a framework, and we move along it like pool floaties on intersecting slides at a gigantic, insane waterpark.

The point to all this is that Wyrd stuck me here. Or rather, I am here because of my own past actions in addition to Wyrd’s sensitive workings. It’s not that I was given a sign by a god, simply the idea of which I was having theological problems with. Whatever I believe the gods are, whatever They actually are, no matter what I think about Them at any given time, Wyrd is always there. Wyrd is always doing its thing. And it’s placed me here, now, with these Gods, whoever/whatever They are – so I may as well dive in and learn as much as I can. This is what I’m meant to be doing at this point in my life.

Even if I lose faith in my Gods, and wonder if I’ve been imagining everything, I have faith in Wyrd, and I have faith that I will be brought to whatever I’m meant to be doing. That doesn’t mean it’s always good things that will come to me. It simply means wherever I’m going, that’s where I’m meant to be. Whatever it is. I accept it.

Crisis of faith: 0/10 would not recommend. But good things came out of it for me.

 

* I realize Wyrd is the Anglo-Saxon term for a certain concept, and that looking at the sources, Urd or Ørlög seems to be the cognate term in Norse. I am primarily an Icelandic-based Heathen, and so using the term Wyrd is a little weird (ehehe), but since the modern understanding of Wyrd and Ørlög tends to paint them as two distinct things, I have gone with Wyrd in its usual understanding.

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How the Hel Did I Get to This Point?

I feel like I made a huge step today. In the midst of conversation I told someone I was a Heathen without hesitation.

Just a year ago that wouldn’t have happened. If I was chatting with someone and we got to the topic of religion and they asked the inevitable question, my knee-jerk response would be “No, I’m not religious”. Because I was so used to being an atheist for so long, and because I was scared to say “Yes, I am religious; I am a Heathen”. Something has changed inside me to allow me to say to a near-stranger, without hesitation or crippling anxiety, that I am a Heathen.

It wasn’t out of the blue. We were talking about History Channel’s Vikings, which I enjoy immensely, and I said I was relieved with the way they handled the religion of the period (that is, with respect, surprising comprehension, and research befitting a History channel. With the exception of the weird-ass priest guys. What’s with everyone licking their palms? Seriously). We talked a little bit more on the topic, and my interlocutor said something like “I find any of those religions, Norse, Greek, as _____ as any other”. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear the word he used to describe them. It started with a p and it had three syllables, is all I know. (Update: I since asked him what word he used. It was ‘plausible’.) From where I was sitting, I thought he could have meant one of two things: all religions are silly and useless, or all religions are equally useful (as good as one another). I realise those two statements aren’t mutually exclusive.

Whatever his sentiment, I knew that my moment had come. I lifted the hammer around my neck and said “Well, I’m a Heathen. This is a hammer of Thor”. Amazingly, amazingly, he seemed to know what I was saying. And you know something else amazing? He wanted to know what it was about. What I did. Holidays? Rituals? Daily activities? How I got to this point? And I told him. And it was wonderful.

I think he might have researched paganisms before, since he knew what I was talking about, but he indicated that although he admired the Hellenic gods/myths, he couldn’t bring himself to be a believer (he didn’t use that word, but more delicate phrasing). I assured him there were a lot of atheist pagans, if he was interested, and that basically one’s own practice was one’s own practice. One can do whatever feels right.

I wasn’t trying to proselytise, and I believe we were just having a [great] discussion about religion. Maybe he was interested. Maybe he wasn’t. But it was a good chat.

It got me thinking, how exactly did I get here?

I’ve written about this before so you’d think I could just go back and read it again. I told my conversation partner that I’d gotten into Norse mythology and decided that it felt like home, and that just reading it wasn’t enough; I needed to live it. And that’s true.

But what events actually happened to make me a “believer”? How can I believe that my gods exist, in whatever form? How the heck did I go from staunch cold-hearted atheist to devoted gods-loving Heathen?

My journey into Heathenism was facilitated by Heimdall, the gatekeeper and warden of the gods (and I only just now realised the symmetry there – real tears are in my eyes). I was probably ten or eleven. I remember seeing an image of him (okay, it was in Age of Mythology, chillax), with his name above it, and just staring at him. For ages. Not knowing why his name felt so familiar, why that image struck me, why it felt like he was important somehow. (You know, I remember thinking that that particular artwork didn’t suit him, as though I knew what would have suited him. Isn’t that a strange thing to think?) Looking at that image now, it’s nothing special. It doesn’t even look like him to me. But it’s the first conscious memory I have of somehow truly connecting with a Heathen deity, and that memory has always stuck out to me. It’s one of those memories you never forget.

Here's the image, copyright Ensemble Studios. It's the biggest one I could find.
Here’s the image, copyright Ensemble Studios. It’s the biggest one I could find.

Fast forward five or so years, and I was interested in Pagan religions. I don’t know what prompted it. I began to research, went through Wicca, somehow realised there must be a similar revival thing with the Norse myths, and came upon Ásatrú. Well, dang, thought I. This really makes a lot of sense. Who would have thought there were other people in the world with the same values as me? I was interested. But I had still problems with the idea of religion and being religious.

A year or two later, I had some rough times. In retrospect I can recognise depression. Maybe some other thing. My life was a dark tunnel for two continuous years, and it just got darker. More and more frequently, I was afraid, truly afraid that I was going insane. That I was so angry and empty that I would snap. I really didn’t have a good hold over myself. Needless to say, I developed and even willingly enforced some terribly unhealthy mental habits.

Here’s where the inexplicable ‘blank’ in my conversion comes along. Somewhere along the line, in that hateful, awful tunnel, I found Heimdall. I don’t know if he horned in on my life or if I went to him for help. I think I might have held him in my mind all that time, and realised what he stood for. I think part of me knew that I should strive for what he stood for. That I should follow his lead. This rational, healthy part of me battled with the depraved, angry part for a long time. I won some. I lost most. I started talking to him like he was real. I started asking him for strength. I started apologising when I broke my promises to him, and I started asking for second chances. (More about all that in a later post.)

Basically, he became a deity instead of a mythological figure. He was a force in my life, whether it was all in my head or not.

It was a long time before I started winning more often than losing. I still lose from time to time, though I don’t fall as far as I used to. By the time I started becoming healthy again, I was a full-blown Heathen, albeit not a totally hard polytheistic one.

I guess the answer to the question “how did you get to this point” is that I had been brought low, down to the ground, and by the time I was able to stand up again, I had been reforged entirely – as a Heathen.

Facing Your Challenges With a Hammer

image

The most important thing my religion has taught me is to never give up. To keep on fighting against everything that challenges you.

Heathenry especially seems to hold this message in all its sources and current forms. I think this arises from the cultural context that surrounds the religion. (All religions are a product of their cultural context.) Specifically the cold, biting weather of the North, long winters, unforgiving landscapes, communities that rely on each other for support. In all the myths and stories and sagas and poems that have come down to us, there is a pervading spirit of resistance and stubbornness, to see out our lives as well as we can, and to flip the bird at our enemies (and at the weather). Even when everything looks bleak and impossible (which it would in medieval Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain), we have to persevere and kick life in the ass while we can. Because we can, and because we’ll be damned if the challenges of life get the better of us.

There is also the culture of gallows humour, which one often finds in the literary sources. Warriors make jokes in battle or laugh as they die. Our figures find humour in the bleakest of situations, because they would be overwhelmed otherwise. They did what they had to to survive. They made jokes in the hardest of times and refused to be beaten down.

(It’s not that other cultures and religions don’t have these sentiments. But I’m a Heathen and I know about Heathen stuff, so that’s what I write about. It’s familiar to me and it resonates in a way other things do not.)

It’s a very inspiring philosophy, to defy hardship just because. It has been important for me in the past, as I’ve gone up against depression and general hopelessness. Even when I couldn’t imagine anything improving, ever, I persevered after the example of my gods and heroes, and continued just because – because I wouldn’t let these things get the better of me. Because even if I was hopeless, I was still stubborn, and I would fight while I was able. To do anything less was, for me, to not live up to my name as a Heathen. My point is, Heathenry was a very strong motivator. And lo and behold, things have improved. No doubt they’ll get worse again in the future. When that comes, I’ll stand and fight for myself again. I deserve to be fought for.

Keeping a defiant and humorous disposition when faced with hardship will get you far in life. Deciding to fight is half the battle when things seem hopeless. My religion inspires me to pick up sword and shield every day and fight – for myself, for my future, for my well-being (and my family if I had one). I think of hard times as challenges set forth by the universe. I’m not a victim; I’m a warrior facing my enemies.

I Feel Wyrdly Whole

I love being Heathen. It has brought a sense of wholeness and contentment that I never had as an atheist. I think this sense has to do with the concept of Wyrd.

Heathenry for me (and probably pantheism/animism in general) fosters a sense of our world being complete somehow, like everything that there is and ever was and ever will be is part of a coherent whole, even if we’re too small to see it. Whatever happens to us or our earth or the universe is okay, really, because it’s all one big system made up of smaller systems. The Whole, made up of the universe, is organic.

That’s not to say that whatever happens happens for a reason. I find that this idea usually assumes that ‘for a reason’ means ‘for eventual human benefit’, which is anthropocentric and therefore ridiculous. It also tends to imply that there is something or Someone pulling all the strings, which  doesn’t sit well with me, though I remain open to the Norns. If we look again, however, things do happen for a reason. For many reasons. Things happen because the conditions required for them to happen just happen to be set up by things that happened before. In a less awkward formation, the present is dependent on the past. If the past were any different, things now might also be totally different. Who knows. If your parents had never met because one of them got stuck in traffic, you wouldn’t be you. On a huge but suitably ridiculous scale, because the universe itself is huge and ridiculous, if Genghis Khan had never conquered the nations of a good chunk of Asia, a lot of people’s genetic makeup would look very different. Maybe there’d be different genetic diseases. Maybe his would-be descendants would be different people.

My point is, everything now is the way it is now. Your parents did get together at some point, and Genghis Khan did sow his seed all over the continent. Everything that has ever happened has brought us here in a specific and unique constellation, and that is mindboggling and beautiful. It’s mindboggling and beautiful not because Someone planned it that way (even if They did it’s irrelevant to my point anyway), it’s mindboggling and beautiful because everything fits together as a whole. The world’s interlocking systems of ecology and society and environment and inscrutable webs of energy all work together to give us the Here and Now. Here’s the really awesome thing: we are all part of this wonderful behemoth. We can change the future; in fact, it’s inevitable that we will change it, every one of us, in small or large ways.

Not to get up on a soapbox, but this interconnectedness begs the moral questions. With so much power, you should do the right thing for yourself and for others. (I mean, I’m just a blogger, do what you want, but it’s some real food for thought.) You can choose to smile at your cashier, who because of their raised mood will give money to a homeless man, who will finally have enough to get some new clothes to get a job, and eventually have a family, and make a company, and hire people in his struggling home town. Stranger things have happened. Or, you could, you know, frown at your cashier. Your choice. It’s your choice completely how you’ll use your place in this wonderful behemoth.

All this just to emphasise the feeling of wholeness I get from Heathenry. We have a word for the wonderful behemoth: Wyrd (pronounced like ‘weird’). If you’re not familiar, it’s an Anglo-Saxon word related to concepts like fate (remember Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters?) and personal destiny, except that we have power over the path of our fate. Importantly, everything is dynamically connected in large and small ways. That is the Whole.