Over the long weekend I watched two very different movies that touched on the same theme. One of them was a religious drama written and directed by Robert Duvall, a true passion project if ever I saw one. It was called The Apostle. The other was very much a product of its time — a light and fluffy wish-fulfillment movie that was big about fifteen years ago. I’m talking about that modern classic, Practical Magic. Though they’re both on just about polar opposites of subject matter, religious inspiration and pop culture niche, they both twinged something that resides deep within me. I wasn’t expecting that, so I had to think it through.
In The Apostle, Robert Duvall plays a white Southern preacher known as Sonny to his friends. Right from the beginning you see that he’s a true believer; he wades into the chaos of a car accident, and the first thing he does when he finds one of the victims is minister to him. It’s a fascinating scene that does a wonderful job of establishing how deeply Sonny’s faith motivates him; it really is nothing less than the foundation of his character. Sonny’s entire life is geared towards his faith. Everything that happens is attributed to God (or Satan); everything that he enjoys can be connected to the Church. Soon you find out that Sonny isn’t quite what he appears to be, and the movie becomes interesting in a different way. But for that first act where we’re getting to meet him for the first time, I was totally arrested.
My entire family belonged to a black Southern church, except for us (we were Jehovah’s Witnesses). When someone died in my family, we didn’t have a funeral — we had a “homegoing celebration”. For someone who hasn’t been to a traditional Southern church service and has no idea what to expect, the liveliness can be disconcerting. Speaking as an outsider, it’s fascinating watching a mass hysteria wash over the crowd. The preacher is like a conductor, managing the ebb and flow of the energy in the room, and when he decides to turn it up to 11 it’s really something to see.
The movie filled me with an unexpected homesickness. There’s a reason that I got out of my home environment and I’ll never forget what it was, but there’s something strangely comforting about being around people who can be true believers. They live their lives with a fervor that’s infectious. They’ve rooted themselves to an ideal that gives them strength. While it’s true that many of them use that strength to do terrible things, it doesn’t always turn out that way. There are many people I remember fondly from my Jehovah’s Witness days, that I think are wonderful people, that have used their faith to really push themselves to become better.
When I left the faith of my childhood I was adrift for a while, and looking for something different. I had actually found Wicca well before I left home, and dabbled in practicing it. But college is where I really embraced it — wearing the pentacle, painting my fingernails black (that had nothing to do with Wicca, but it helped with the image), leading my school’s Pagan Student Union for a time. There was actually a small but thriving Wiccan community around my college that I got into, and found myself embedded with another group of true believers.
One of the things that drew me to Wicca was the idea that spirit flows through all things, shapeless and formless, and it’s all around you always. Your belief and will can help to shape that spirit, and the more people who direct their will towards a symbol or idea, the more powerful it becomes. The God and Goddess fulfill the same functions in the universe, and you can imagine them any way you wanted to, but for most people it would be the Earth Mother and the Horned God.
If I wanted to, I could surround myself with the symbolism of nature and work my will towards becoming attuned to it. Wicca really is a way to reposition yourself so that you have a more symbiotic relationship with the natural world, and that part is appealing as well. It’s surprisingly open; according to Wicca, casting a spell and praying to Jesus is the same thing, simply working your will towards a desired effect. As Sonny said in The Apostle: “You do it your way and I do it mine, but we get it done, don’t we?”
Watching Practical Magic took me right back to my college days, wanting to believe that I could will something into existence, that the first step to making change in the world was simply wanting it, then acting on that desire. And it reminded me that my history is filled with communities of believers, and that’s something that I don’t have now.
Am I poorer for it, not actively believing in something beyond what I can see? Over time I’ve developed my spirituality into something of an agnostic animism. I still carry the vague belief that a spirit inhabits everything, that it’s formless and takes on the properties of the will around it. But at the same time I realize that my belief could be just bullshit, an amusing fantasy that helps me make sense of a world that is senseless. If you peel back my agnosticism, you’ll find a powerful, existential drive. Reality is actually meaningless, and it’s my job as a sapient being to infuse it with any meaning I can.
I have the desire to believe, but none of the tools to do so. The reason I eventually left Wicca is that I knew I couldn’t invest in the community; I’d never be able to believe as hard as everyone else did in what they were doing. I thought it would be a nice way to pass the time, but the moment it got difficult or inconvenient, I’d cast aside the ideal.
So what DO I believe in? If I don’t actually hold stock in the fictions I create to make sense of the world, what is there?
I honestly don’t know. I have a suspicion, though, that this life is all there is and afterwards there’s nothing else. I could become some of that formless spirit-stuff after my body ceases to function, or my spirit could actually move on to some sort of after-life. Since there’s no way for me to know, there’s no way I can count on it being true. I can’t let the hope of something like that influence my behavior.
Since this life is all there is, I believe that we should make it good. I believe that humans are social creatures, and that we can’t really get along without forming clans, communities, groups of people we depend on. I believe that part of what it means to be a good person is improving the community around you, whatever it is. If you work in McDonald’s, your coworkers and customers are part of a community. Make it better. If you’re part of a bowling league on Tuesday nights, your friends and opponents are part of a community. Make it better. If you have a neighborhood grocery store that you go to once a week, the people there are part of your community. Make it better.
I believe that we only have what we have, and each other. Why shouldn’t we make our communities as great as possible? My life’s work is making my world a better place, in big ways and small. Hopefully, I can work towards dedicating more and more of my actions to it. I want to become as devoted to my ideal as Sonny was to his.
I’d like to believe that there’s a heaven that we go to after we die, or that there really is magic in the world, waiting for us to discover and shape it. But I can’t, any more than I can believe I’m actually a rabbit trapped in a man’s body typing this out to you. All I can believe in is what’s in front of me, and you, reading this, right now. Let’s make a community of it.
So…what can we do to make that better?