Intentional Belief, Not Unbelief, is the Antidote to Blind Belief

I spent the last eight days conducting a complicated tarot reading. It was a pretty strong deviation from the way I usually read tarot because this spread, adapted from Karen Engerlman’s book The Stockholm Octavo, was designed to be predictive, revealing eight people who will be significant in my life over the next few years.

I love tarot for its ability to draw out my intuition and deepen my introspection, but I have a healthy doubt about whether it actually accesses something greater.

That being said, I’ve had enough experiences to have a healthy doubt that it doesn’t.

I remain in that delightful (or infuriating, depending on your perspective) space of ambiguity, which is where I like to stay when it comes to spirituality and metaphysics.

However, as I’ve been playing with my cards, trying to divine whom they represent and whether they even refer to real, live people in my life or only archetypes and energetic forces, I’ve been thinking more and more about the capacity to believe.

Children have it, this we know very well.

Adults have it, though they are much more jaded, cautious, and skeptical than any five-year-old.

Depending on to whom you talk (or which movie you watch or book you read), the childlike capacity to believe is either something that we should be glad to lose as we get older (because it’s all nonsense) or something we should mourn (because the pure faith of a child is so powerful).

The ability to believe is a sacred thing. Despite having my belief used against me for twenty some years, I treasure the fact that I do have the ability to believe. Without the ability to believe, hope would be impossible.

Belief in…in what?

That’s the beautiful part. The ability to believe, embraced consciously, comes with a choice. Thus I can play with my tarot cards, trusting that I will find something of value in them. I can write a letter to Santa, suspending my disbelief in the ability of a jolly fat man to fly around the world and slide down my non-existent chimney. More importantly, I can believe in the power of love and the promise of hope.

As The Hogfather illustrates so beautifully in the following clip, the human ability to believe is tantamount to our greatest ideals and values—the means by which we make life meaningful.

That being said, I also find blind belief to be one of the greatest crimes of the human spirit. Because I had my ability to believe abused for twenty some years, I’m very wary of its power and how others want to use that for their own ends.

The ability to believe comes with it the responsibility to believe with conscious intention. Irresponsible belief has been at the root of most of history’s atrocities, from child abuse to crusades, as people harm others in the name of God, science, nationality, or just plain selfishness.

I’ve seen memes suggesting that if religion had not existed, 9/11 would never have happened. I wish world peace were as simple as removing a certain kind of belief, but I also know that even in the absence of religion blind belief can still drive people to horrible ends. Few are aware that Jim Jones was an atheist at the time that he convinced an entire colony to drink poison. And look at the history of science, where people have horrifically experimented on slaves, inmates, children, disabled, and mentally ill, not to mention animals, all in the name of reason and knowledge.

Perhaps it comes down to semantics more than anything, but I don’t think we need to believe less.

I think we need to believe better.

In fact, I don’t think it’s possible to not believe. We will always believe in something, whether it be in the good-hearted saint giving out presents or the cold-heartedness of humanity. We can’t help the believing—just what we choose to believe.

Which is where reason comes in.

Belief and reason, faith and logic—they’re not meant to be opponents. They’re meant to be allies. Belief gives us the ability to live out things we cannot hope to see or prove (or perhaps even constructs we create ourselves). Reason gives us the ability to be discerning in how we believe.

It’s tragic to never teach a child to doubt what his or her authorities say. But it’s equally tragic to never teach a child how to be conscious of belief and in belief. Those who have never recognized their choice in believing, be they religious or atheist, are in a dangerous position, at risk of having their ability to believe become a weapon against themselves and others.

That doesn’t mean that responsible, conscious (even skeptical) belief would eliminate cruelty. There will always be those who are heartless.

But if we focused more on creating a consciousness of our belief mechanism, it would largely eliminate cruelty from ignorance, manipulation, or blind obedience.

However, that would require us as a society to embrace belief as the sacred yet powerful tool that it is. Just as any tool or skill needs to be developed and taught, our ability to believe with reason needs to be fostered and the consciousness of it awakened.

I hope that in the new year we can see this shift to create intention behind our beliefs.



Irreverence is Good for the Soul

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how I was learning to put playfulness back into playing my violin. It got me thinking about how important playfulness is in my life. Whether it’s wearing fairy wings to work, dressing up in a prom dress just to dance around my apartment, hanging crayon drawings on my walls, or building fairy houses, play finds its way into almost every major area of my life to some extent or another.

But nowhere is it more important than in my spiritual practice.

When I work a spell, celebrate a holiday, perform a ritual, read tarot cards, scry, or peruse religious texts, I deliberately approach the process with a sense of play. I try to never take any of it too seriously because I have found that somberness kills.

Christianity is filled with a fear of light-heartedness. It’s so taboo that “church laughter” has come to mean “uncontrollable laughter at an inappropriate time.”

[Edit: Some have pointed out that my above statement is vague. I do not mean to imply that all of Christianity is afraid of all light-heartedness. Rather it holds a phobia of irreverence and a fear of laughing at itself. In my experience, Christians of all denominations hold certain things to be outside the realm of laughter, whether it be the Virgin birth, Cross, Resurrection, or any other doctrine. That’s not to say that there are no open-minded Christians capable of laughing at themselves and their beliefs, merely that the lack of brevity is much more common in the interactions I have had.]

The sect that I grew up in was even more burdened by a phobia of playful spirituality. Communion was an affair wrought with terror because taking it with a flippant attitude could potentially result in my death, or so I was taught. Making fun of the sacred was a sin—a sin potentially unforgiveable if it was bad enough to insult the Holy Spirit. Even laughing at the foibles of a pastor was discouraged with terrifying stories about children who were eaten by bears after disrespecting a prophet.

Therefore, my first acts of freedom and exploration were tentatively making fun of my religion. It was terrifying and liberating to a degree that would seem absurd to anyone who hadn’t grown up with such taboos.

irreverence good for soul

Today, the things you’ll hear out of my mouth make even atheists gasp in shock. It feels great to ridicule what I was taught was too sacred to question. But here’s my secret, I don’t hate Christianity as much as my ridicule would suggest.
What I hate is the mindset that you have to be scared of irreverence.

I definitely didn’t want to carry that fear over to my new spiritual practices, so I turned it into play time—a time to let my imagination make believe whatever it wants. Staring into a scrying mirror, I’ve met beautiful elves. I’ve eaten cakes with fairies and played hide-and-seek with brownies. One of my favorite meditations is actually wrestling with one of my totems.

Even the “serious” stuff gets lightened up with dramatic displays that make me feel just a little bit silly—just enough to take the edge off.

That’s not to say there is never any darkness. I’ve written about embracing the shadows before. A lot of my spiritual work is healing my own trauma. It can get grim and scary. A simple meditation can leave me crumpled on the floor in tears because my subconscious decided to bring up a memory and say, “listen to me.”

But the presence of solemnity is all the more reason to keep play integral. Play gives me the freedom to explore without the need to get the answers right away. It relieves stress, allowing me to approach the shadows with anticipation rather than anxiety. It shuts down the overly critical, cynical, “adult” voice in my head so that I can contact the parts of me that aren’t so vocal.

In other words, play is what makes spirituality work for me because it frees it from the limitations of expectation.

Developmental classes will teach that play is vitally important to growing up because it’s the means through which children learn about their world and themselves—it’s what makes them so adaptable.

I don’t necessarily think that is only true for children. I think adults need play too. I think the more difficult life gets, the more desperately we need a playful approach. If spirituality is meant to help us deal with the aspects of life that feel out of control, then it is only natural that play should be part of that.

“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” -Chesterton

People assume that playfulness is immaturity, shallowness, or naivete. They couldn’t be farther from the truth. Playfulness, imagination, and brevity are essential to any truly serious project.

Without them, solemnity drowns the soul.