This essay is written in response to a question posted on the Essay Request Thread: "The separation in BTW between belief and practice--does theology matter at all? Would BTW be classified as a religion or is it only an practice/activity or does it fall somewhere in between?"
An excellent question.
A Starting Point: Definitions
Before we go any further, lets look at some terms I'm using, and how I'm using them.
The Role of Theology in Orthopraxy
The role of theology in British Traditional Wicca is far more focused on our orthopraxic commentary than our orthodoxic commentary. That is to say, our Craft's view of our gods is not based on what we're expected to believe, but rather in the role our Gods play in our ritual and practices.
British Traditional Wicca's ritual reveal a rich cycle of interaction between our Lord and Lady through the course of the year. Orthopraxy insists that all of our seasonal rituals include an element of this interaction, but there is no orthodoxy associated with them - no one is expected to "believe" in this mythic cycle.
Instead, these rituals serve to align the new initiate with the magical, otherworldly current of power that is at the heart of our tradition - a current of power that, like an electrical current, is maintained by the interplay of positive and negative spiritual and occult "charges" maintained by our Goddess and God. They sit at the center of this current, and only by aligning ourselves with this specific current can someone experience Them.
Once one has begun to align with this current, one's ritual experiences include a deepening interaction with our Lady and her Consort. At this point, the reasons for a lack of orthodoxy within our practice becomes apparent, because They reveal themselves in different ways to each priest and each priestess.
But it is only through the proper practices that we can be assured that we are truly interacting with the same entities at all - because unlike many spiritual entities (such as the lwa of vodou, for instance), our God and Goddess do not maintain the same ways of interacting with all of their followers (not because they are inconsistent, but because the spirits of each of the Wica are different and unique, and align with Their power differently).
In these interactions, however, the initiate begins to develop a personal theology, based entirely on personal experiences. These experiences are initiated, but not defined, by the rites we use; that is, while we may use a ritual technique with the Goddess as a fertility figure, the experience may be with Her as a Star Goddess. Thus, our orthopraxy provides the key to accessing the current, but do not define how we interact with the Eternal Ones we find in that current.
So, theology does play an important role, but it's a personalized theology, rather than one mandated through philosophy, liturgy, history and the personal divine experiences of others passed on to the followers of that faith.
The natural consequence of this, of course, means that the Wica do not always agree on the nature of our Gods (although there is a remarkable amount of consistency therein). We don't have to - each of our experiences are powerful and unique and true, and we love nothing better than discussing them with one another. We are able to do this because we all use the same rituals as a "ground zero" starting point.
The Nature of the Mystery Cult
As to the question of whether or not we should be classified as a religion, I can't comment. No one has ever provided a definitive set of traits that a practice must adhere to that isn't (often unconsciously) modeled on other faiths. What any given individual considers "essential" for a practice to be considered a religion is all too often influenced by their own background.
What we definitively are is a Mystery Cult. The Eleusinian Mysteries were attended by thousands of people, all of whom were initiated into them and practiced them during the time of the year when they were held. These Mysteries included divinities that the Hellenes knew about already, but it deepened their experience, taking those divinities from folkloric, religious figures to spiritual entities at the core of a shared experience. All were sworn to secrecy.
This is what we do - we offer our initiates an experience, and allow them to come to know the Nameless Goddess and God that reside at the center of our Craft current. Our rites join us together as brethren, and provide the ritual psychodrama necessary to provide connection, but the experience is unique to each of our witches.
So, at the end of it, I would hazard to answer the instigating questions thusly:
Yes, theology does matter to the Wica. But it isn't a taught theology - it is a personal, ever-evolving theology that grows from personal experiences instigated through a precise magical and ritual liturgy and technique.
I don't know if British Traditional Wicca can properly be considered a religion. I could argue for or against it with equal passion, which tells me I probably don't really care one way or the other. What it is is a Mystery Cult, without question, and because its power is in transgression and counter-culturalism, the Mystery will wither and fade if it is pulled out of the shadows in which it dwells and turned into something mainstream.
It's very nice, Oakthorne. Very revealing. And in order to clear up any confusion as to the differences between British Traditional Wicca and everything that is not Wicca, is one permitted to reveal those differences? I think it is important to talk about theology. But I still think it is important to keep some methods within the shadows.
Dean: Ultimately, it's because we don't necessarily worship - we perform our rites.
Now, to most of us, the reason we are performing these rites is as an act of worship. But that's something inherent in us, not in the rites. Others perform them as part of strengthening community ties, for instance, or as a psychological endeavor connecting to archetypes in a way that aligns the subconscious and conscious.
We simply do. Each witch has his or her own reasons why we do.
I have folks in my lineage who are atheists, in fact. :)
Belief is not defined in the praxis at all - we perform these rites as they are intended to be performed, using the skills we have developed in the priesthood. The skills that are used in magic are used in the performance of these rites: the raising of energy, active visualization, presence with Self and communion with Deep Mind. These skills require no belief to learn - I can teach them to someone who actively disbelieves in the concept of energy or their own ability to visualize, for instance. Once learned, they are exercised properly in the rites, and the experience they have is true, within the personal context, and unquestionable by those outside of it.
Thus, if someone performs the rites properly (in both esoteric and exoteric applications - that is, doing the internal work/skills while also using the right tools, gestures, breathing and work), and it results in their belief that they are merely interacting with archetypes from deep in the human subconscious, devoid of any true individual identity or spark of divinity, then that is true, in their personal context, and irrefutable within the Work of the Wica.
Sangraal said:This is a lovely post, Oak, and very informative. While I believe in served to answer that question quite well, another relevant one comes to surface:
To what degree of belief is defined in the practice?
You suggested that the Lord and Lady are revealed to each Wica in an often deeply, personal matter. However, would the experience of regulating them to mere symbols/archetypes be as valid? I ask, because I have heard it argued that one could very well be atheist and proper Wica, because it's based upon what you do, rather than believe. But, wouldn't belief have a role in that practice, too?