The demand for more rigorous proof marked a turning point in my spiritual practice. Like most teenagers who discovered contemporary paganism through books, I had little means to differentiate reliable sources from fabrication. Teachers and elders in the craft sometimes corrected inaccuracies, but the information they supplied often turned out to lack any more robust grounding. I set aside my practice for a while because I could find no truth to support it.

As a young Wiccan, I learned about karma, reincarnation, and chakras. While I knew that those ideas originated in Indian philosophy, I read only shallowly in Buddhist and Brahmanic sources. My understanding was shaped by the Pagans around me and the books I read. High school history classes brushed these subjects broadly in order to encapsulate a deep literary tradition in a few sentences, so I had no more reliable source available.

At university, I took courses on religions in Asia and philosophy of mind. My professors assigned yoga sutras and sermons of the Buddha. I began practicing meditation again, this time under the direction of classical Zen teachings. As a graduate student, I served as teaching assistant for a class on Indian philosophy. The professor was scholar, linguist, and storyteller. He asked his students to read primary sources, and in class he decoded them, ornamenting them in history, vocabulary, literary style, and philosophical argument. While he was not a member of the philosophy department, I learned more from him than any academic philosopher.

Karma and reincarnation all appeared in his lectures. They sat among dissections of Buddhist logic and Vedantana phenomenology. Yet they appeared very differently than they did in the Wiccan books where I first encountered them. My studies into the occult resumed so that I could trace the concepts back from Wicca to their introduction by Theosophy and embrace by the Golden Dawn. With the rise of more generic New Age thought, the meaning had twisted into reflections of Christian retribution and transmigration of the soul.

The concepts as understood by their original traditions contain much more robust philosophical foundations. As a cause and effect framework, karma calls attention to the myriad consequences of our actions and how those consequences follow us until the chain of causation is exhausted. When embedded into Brahmanic or Buddhist metaphysics, rebirth describes little more than the Law of Conservation of Matter. Wicca had appropriated these concepts and wove brittle shells of themselves into its core metaphysics. From that perspective, I saw Wicca as foolish because the tradition anchored itself on mistaken interpretations that cannot withstand critical analysis. They did not note the weakness in their views and seek to repair it.

The religious traditions I learned from the cradle had clear chains of authority. Evangelical Baptists point to the literal words of the Bible, but individual congregants tend to defer to their pastor who in turn references the received view of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Roman Catholic Church codifies its doctrines and the processes by which those doctrines are altered. While authority can be confining when one disagrees, it provides certainty about the boundaries of theology. Paganism, and occult traditions in general, lack any doctrinal authority, so the theology remains unbounded. Beyond common anchors in the practice of ritual magic, polytheism, and animism, internal metaphysics can run wild.

With a heavy emphasis on introspection and mysticism, personal gnosis plays a prominent role in Pagan spirituality. The gnosis drawn from a visionary experience or deep meditation may provide a guiding light for one’s practice and core beliefs. William James discusses the power of such insights in The Varieties of Religious Experience. According to James, mystical experiences form the foundation of religious traditions as insights become codified in doctrine and ritual. Since the experience can be so powerful, James allows that the mystic has every reason to believe the content of their own insight and apply the lessons they draw from it.

However, the same cannot be said for those people who have not had the same experience. Altered states of consciousness can be described, but one must experience them to have a complete understanding. Instead, one must judge the mystic’s message by the observable outcomes that arise from it. The content of the insight cannot impose any justification to believe absent directly sharing the experience. An insight so profound that it cannot be expressed in words cannot be readily transferred to someone else. As such, the mystic can spread their message and demonstrate the good it has done for them, but every other individual may decide to accept or reject that message based on their own experience and observations.

In the Pagan community I encountered, knowledge was learned through books and personal gnosis, often shared through word of mouth. Covens and circles of fellow travelers engaged in a dialogic exercise around asserting personal gnosis and collectively reframing it to harmonize everyone’s paradigm. The resulting consensus usually degrades over time as individuals have new experiences or read new books or pick up ideas from new people. Critical analysis did not have a significant place in this exercise. Rejections were discouraged as intolerant or narrow-minded, so only modifications and reframing were permitted. As a result the Pagan theology I learned from my teachers consisted of ad hoc metaphors threaded with inconsistent principles.

In time, epistemology helped me sort the substance from the fluff. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, what it is, and how we get it. Classical epistemologists defined knowledge as beliefs that are both true and justified. While there are many views among epistemologists and metaphysicians on what makes a belief “true” or “justified”, a belief that lacks either direct sensory evidence or other robust indicator of truth will not pass muster. Many grandiose claims about “energy” with regard to working magic fall flat when the believer is asked “How do you know that?” With that perspective I began to reason about Pagan concepts and my own experiences. In the process I rejected many of the specific beliefs and practices I learned as an initiate, making it difficult to engage with the Pagan community for a long time.

Scholarly study and critical inquiry became important boundaries for my spiritual journey. Buddhist philosophy became a more prominent influence on my daily practice although Pagan imagery continued to provide metaphors and structure for ritual magic. I read more widely in the occult, especially authors that my Pagan elders discouraged. Many streams of influence have fed my curiosity and informed my practice, but no single framework pulls all of them into view. These entries are helping me build that framework as my studies continue.