Sila and Sola Fide

It’s always interesting to run into ethical debates in the Pagan community. I have a distinct feeling that the most common form in which Pagan ethics are expressed, the Wiccan Rede suffers from the same predicament that many rules of thumb do when they move from a very small population of intimates to a larger group without the same group dynamic and unspoken mutual understanding. The first Gardnarians probably had relatively similar notions about what “harm none” meant, and what it could reasonably include. When the Rede hit the shelves of the local big box bookstore, however, it encountered a much more diverse audience.

One thing I’ve seen relatively little of is a discussion of what sorts of occupations can be considered more logically appropriate for modern Pagans. I would think the way we spend eight hours of our day would be something of a major concern. Often, what I see is off hand remarks along the lines of “it’s not what you do, it’s who you are.”

I can see how this would be a way to resolve a conflict. And, of course, it is incredibly difficult to find any work right now, let alone work that aligns with ones values. But it introduces an interesting set of philosophical concerns that ache for some anal retentive bastard like myself to examine. I have an idea where this division between what one believes and what one does for a living might come from. If we start the phenomena of “Modern Paganism” at the point where we have documentation, this puts our origins in England. England, as we all know, is a Protestant country, and the “Protestant Work Ethic” generally followed the early colonizers of the Americas and Australia. (Yes, I’m aware that Australia was a penal colony. But I’m not talking about individuals. I’m talking about established cultural patterns.) This ethic, which in its extreme, Calvinist form actually takes material wealth, however gained, to be a sign of grace, relies heavily on the doctrine of Sola Fide or “Faith Alone.” The most dramatic verse used to hammer the irrelevancy of “good works” is found in Isaiah 64,6: “All your righteous acts are as filthy rags.”

Sola Fide is a response to the Catholic notion of salvation through good works. This is actually a complex debate between the two groups of Christians, and is generally beyond the scope of this blog. (Not to mention the ability of the current author to delve too deeply into the waters of Christian theology.) The general idea, however, is that “good works” as such are likely to give one a big ego. You start thinking you’re better than other Christians (as a Christian you’re automatically assumed better than non-Christians) who are born in sin just as you are. No matter how good you do, you’re always going to fall short. So, it’s better to cultivate a love of God, which should lead to your actions being pleasing to Him.

Whether we like it or not, we as Modern Pagans have inherited at least the broadest implications of this ethos. It’s more than just a religious dogma. It forms a huge part of the cultural matrix of our society. I think it no accident that its adoption on a broad scale roughly coincides with the ascension of the mercantile bourgeoisie in the early modern period. Neither did Max Weber.

Examining this outlook, I think, is important for Pagans to do. The underpinning of it involves something that we are theologically opposed to: the idea that the world we live in is a fallen creation. That subsequent generations of Puritans have, by their grace-filled lives, contributed to the self fulfillment of their own views, need not concern us.

An interesting contrast to the doctrine of Sola Fide is the Buddhist concept of Sila or moral training. Buddhism, like existentialism, does not separate a person’s identity from who they are. Rather, it explicitly denies a permanent “self” that could be “good” or “bad” and focuses on the relationship between ones thoughts and actions. The world itself (contrary to popular understandings of Buddhism) is taken in many cases to already be enlightened. We just have to catch up. The way we catch up is to refrain from harmful actions and engage in positive ones. This pretty much covers the Eightfold Path in toto. The Precepts are basically commentary on that one idea.

It’s important to remember that Buddhism doesn’t really consist of “dogmas” in the theological sense. It consists mostly of advice. Very pragmatic advice that actually tends to work. One doesn’t decide to practice Right Livelihood because it’s a religious doctrine. They undertake Sila because they view it as inseparable from the Path to Enlightenment.

Pagans may or may not be interested in “Enlightenment” by one definition or another. But I do think we should look at the question of intention and its relationship to action. What kind of world do we want to live in? What do we value? Is the way we spend our forty (or more) hours a week likely to preserve what we value and contribute to the sort of world we want to live in, or destroy our treasured world and our hope for the future?

In the end, the question of “what we really want our world to be” may be more important that the specific instance of what we get paid to do. If we really find that out, we may be able to figure out the rest without much effort.


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