In recent years it has become increasingly common to find pagans talking about their faith and their faith communities. Yet faith is a troublesome word, at least in the English language, as it is imbued with Christian understanding and hard to use without a lot of carry over from Christian theology. Before I get to faith, it’s necessary to talk about belief. In Christianity faith is equated with belief, a peculiar use of belief, which is translated from the Greek pistia, which means to trust and to have confidence in. However, in the New Testament pistia takes on a technical meaning which it had not carried before in the Greek, namely to have heard the Gospel message and to have believed, as Paul wrote in Romans 13:11. To believe in this case was synonymous for conversion. The hoi pistoi becomes the term for the community of Christian believers, who were called brothers or saints*. Paul put it clearly that this ‘belief’ was “one Lord, one belief and one baptism” Ephesians 4:4-5.
And what precisely was this belief?** It was the resurrection of Christ, which was seen as the essence of him rather than his messages. The meaning of the Greek word shifts from ‘trust’ to believing in the Resurrection and that which it signified, a conviction of salvation in Christ. It was both a belief in the resurrection and a belief that this was the Word of God. Christian belief according to anthropologist Malcolm Ruel took another decisive development with the development of the creed. Creed developed in the ritual of baptism; another unique development of Christianity was that of its clear boundary marking between believer and non-believer via this rite. The person baptized is resurrected from an old life that has now passed away to a new life in Christ and in the Church, which is the community of believers in the resurrection, those who had faith. Then the creed became incorporated into the liturgies.
The word faith comes from the Latin fides, which comes from the same root as the Greek pistis. Yet, again fides had a very different valence before Christianity; it had the same range as the Greek word, that is confidence in or trust. In the Protestant Reformation faith took on a new weight, moving from being fairly synonymous with Christian belief, as in Augustine’s usage, which is declarative, as discussed above in terms of the creed to something one is committed to–to being something interior and psychological. This is deeply entwined with Martin Luther’s distinction between a Catholic Theology of the Cross and his Theology of Glory, the former being one of the law and outward performances, many of which he found corrupt and the latter a Grace that worked inwardly on the believers. One of his Heidelberg theses declared: The law says Do this and it is never done. Grace says ‘Believe this’ and everything is done.” Luther makes the shift to justification by faith, something inward and experiential—it’s belief based on internal struggle.
Finally there is the diffuse culture of belief of the modern era. I’ve heard people say you are what you believe, sort of like you are what you eat. In a liberal Judeo-Christian framework in a secular society religion retreats and becomes private, a matter of belief. It’s not the dogma but the act of believing itself that becomes pervasive. People say they believe in angels, or science or UFOs in this sense of some psychological experience, some inner determination that comes from Protestantism.
Since pagan religions are not based on creed or its ritual affirmation in a liturgy, the word faith to describe them therefore is highly problematic. Finding confidence in the deities through prayer, ritual and other aspects of cult and lore is a better way to understand traditional pagan relationships and, I think, as well in our present communities. Confidence contains the fides root; fidelity is here also, a word whose meanings suggest a building of trust, loyalty and reciprocity. This puts us in the pagan sense of cyclic returns, of giving, of kharis, hopefully reinforced in our rituals of offerings and sacrifice. One of the ways we practice as Druids and polytheists of various kinds is holding loyalty, fidelity to the gods through ritual, sacrifice, and prayer, and coming back time and time again to share with our peers in honoring the gods, building trust and confidence. This is quite a different situation than what faith generally means in contemporary English with its strong Christian orderings of perception. Using the term faith to describe non-Christian religions (with exception of Islam) is the equivalent of a sound system that produces lots of unintended noise, and distorts meaning and comprehension for listeners.
*Ruel, Malcolm. “Christians As Believers.” A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
**The emphasis on Belief makes me think of Starhawk’s take on belief in The Spiral Dance: “People often ask do you believe in the Goddess? I reply ‘do you believe in rocks?’”