Sunday, May 19, 2013

Give it up already!...Why (apparently) Reconstructionism is doomed

I have written about this topic a few times before, but people taking issue with Reconstructionism never really seems to go away. Truly the label is one which seems to breed criticism based on binary positions: if we aren't being "stodgy academics", we're being "closed minded bullies"; if we aren't "trapped by the past", then we "have too little to go on"; we're "too dismissive", or we aren't "dismissive enough"; the list goes on.

Just what is it that makes Reconstructionism, and to be clear I am referring primarily to Celtic Reconstructionism, elicit such vitriol and dismissivness? I have comes across several criticisms, and like I have in the past, will address them.

1. CR has a methodology which is too restrictive too allow it to be a living tradition.
2. A)There is not enough material to even meet the criteria needed for reconstruction to take place.
    B) Therefore, CR's are as prone to imagination/idealization as any other "Celtic Flavoured" tradition.

1. The second link explores one component of this criteria, namely that UPG "supposedly" has not place in CR methodology, which is patent nonsense. I'll not rehash it here, suffice to say that UPG is as important as good scholarship. Continuing on this line of thought, and we come across the criticism that the methodology is too restrictive to allow for any living, and especially public, form of CR. Funny, all of the GRP's I know seem to think they are members of a living religion, and certainly their daily prayers and rites seem to corroborate this fact. Even those in the broader CR camp seem to have no problem with engaging in prayer, ceremony, rites, festivals and other celebrations which are part and parcel of the world view. The organization I belong to (An Chomairle Ghaol Naofa) identifies its core ideology as Ár nDóigh Bheatha Ildiach is Gaelach " (our Gaelic Polytheist Lifeway). This means that it informs and shapes our theological worldview, as well as every aspect of our lives. There isn't a partition between "religious life" and "profane life", there is no "turning it off", so to speak, because it is part of who were are, both as a community but also as individuals. So when I am told matter of factly that what I do on a daily basis is not possible, I'm going to be a tad irritated at the folks who are talking out of their asses.

Now, having said all that, it is anecdotal. Maybe there are those fabled CR's who are sitting somewhere, in a library no doubt, who are simply too busy reconstructing to actually go out and do it. I've yet to come across them, or have yet to meet anyone else who has, (and perhaps this is because they are so very busy being studious), but others claim they exist and since they are always trotted out as the "typical" example, they must exist somewhere.

Or, you know, maybe it is a case of people creating straw dollies out of season and making pronouncements from their posteriors.

2. A) This is a variation on the "it's too hard" argument, but one which refuses to go away; and not surprisingly this arguments tend to come from the same types. "We can't really know", "Just speculation", "Not enough material", are all trotted out as criticisms, and the responses (by folks like me) are then trotted out again to refute them. Every GRP (and CR) who has been able to get beyond scratching the surface, would be able to rebut these claims. We are eminently aware of the state, quality and caveats which accompany the entire corpus of mythic text. We are aware that nothing pertaining to the myths, can trace their writing to the pre-Christian period. We are aware that other Reconstructionist communities have it better in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons. We are aware that it isn't "easy", but I tend to think that few things which are worthwhile are. This is where a fundamental skill, something which is necessary to understanding, comes into play; the faculty of critical thinking. Critical thinking allows an individual to look at a source, understand the authors/redactors biases, perspectives, translators preferences, and based on their knowledge, make an informed decision about the relative merits of a given source, and how much use said source is in reconstructing. This does not pertain just to medieval manuscripts, but to accounts of folklore from more recent times, secondary texts which explore these mythic writings and have their own perspectives upon them, and so on. All things considered, there is a wealth of information available, and enough of a scholarly consensus to merit the so thorough examination it receives.

2. B) This, of all the criticisms I have come across with regards to CR, is the one which is the most valid; in that it is, in fact, a valid criticism. There are those CR's and GRP's out there who do romanticize and sanitize their image of the Celts, and the Iron Age Gaels. This is due, in  no small part, to the romanticised image of "The Celts" which developed during the "Celtomania" of the late Victorian period. The issue stems from utilizing sources which were sanitized and tidied to appeal to Victorian sensibilities, and so for some of those GRP's (especially folks just starting down this path) out there, they may not be aware of this fact. This criticism does tie into 2.A) to some extent, because for a number of reasons, there are GRP's who tend to take a far less critical eye to the texts then may be necessary.

In fact a troubling, I'll not call it a trend, but perhaps a tendency of observation has developed wherein textual literalism is not only lauded, but championed, by some. My experience of this tendency of observation has led me to a couple of conclusions in regards to why this is happening at all, and why this is the wrong approach to take.
  • GRP's, despite the stodgy academic stereotype, are in reality very passionate people. This passion and enthusiasm can, unfortunately, be channeled into well meaning, but flawed endeavours. The mythic literature is important, and an understanding of it is a core component of even being a GRP. The misstep is in holding the mythic texts to be sacred, and yes you read that correctly. THE CORPUS OF MYTHIC TEXTS ARE NOT SACRED. How could they be? Their authorship is far later than periods which they are describing, and were recorded, redacted, written, exaggerated, altered and invented by scribes who were not polytheists. They were Christians, and while the texts themselves are evidence enough that they had nostalgia for elements of their mythic history and tradition, they were theologically hostile to varying degrees to the old gods. The texts themselves have been translated, retold, rewritten and a host of other literary issues, and so it is simply foolish to hold them as being sacred. The figures behind the stories, the framework and worldview gleaned from a proper understanding of the stories, are where the value of the texts lie. To hold them as being sacred, though, is to romanticize and fabricate a state of affairs that simply cannot be.

  • The above argument also underlies why the idea of textual literalism, from a GRP standpoint, is not only stupid, but (properly) impossible. I say properly, because it is possible in the same way that those who interpret the Christian Bible literally are able to do so, by cherry picking and cognitive dissonance. Literalism would require one to first accept all of the Christian framing present, and by default this enhumerizes the depiction of any figure who is representative of a deity. One could then step up on a ladder and begin harvesting the bits they like, but then they need to be able to determine what elements are actually pre-Christian, and which have been added in, requiring a critical examination, rendering literalism null and void. This is not to say that believing in the existence of the gods is wrong, far from it. I believe the gods exist as much as I myself, my wife, my family, friends or you reading this do. It is simply that the very nature of the mythic texts precludes any sort of functional literalist interpretation.

  • Some GRP's are still beholden to a foreign (i.e. not Gaelic) approach to understanding the place and function of religion. The enthusiasm is channeled in the same way that, say, Born Again Christians channel their energy following the conversion experience. The problem is that not all religions function in the same way, and so trying to use the same sort of behavioural models will not work. Literalism, as I explained above, can not work. Proselytizing in the endeavour to convert others, will not work. Fundamentalism as a practical expression of belief, will not work. None of these things will work because GRP is not based on believing the "right things" or having exclusive access to "the truth". It is based on the fostering and maintenance of proper relationships: with the de ochus ande, with our families, with our community, with society, with the cosmos.

Reconstructionism itself is often accused of being the "fundamentalist" branch of paganism, precisely because we maintain a degree of criticism when it comes to our understanding of the gods. The goal of doing our best to understand the worldview of our ancestors, is difficult, especially when the  information we have to go on is flawed. To pretend otherwise is to do precisely what our critics accuse of doing, and on top of that, ignoring a basic principle of Celtic Reconstructionism altogether: a rejection of the romanticism that has plagued the image of the Celts since the 19th century. But we are not beholden to an erroneous belief that the texts we work with are perfect, are infallible. We know (or ought to know) better.



  1. Fantastically well said, Gorm.

    The literalism is the one that I don't understand the most, I think, because if we take the myths as they survive then we must come to the conclusion that many of our gods are dead. That makes no sense to me at all...

    To a certain extent, I think it's understandable that some of these misconceptions have arisen - especially the idea that we're too busy being stodgy (a good word) to actually do anything. A lot of the time discussions have tended to revolve around the stodgy stuff rather than the actual practice. I think that's change quite a lot in the last few years, and especially since smaller groups have sprung up with a narrower focus - ones that focus on a particular culture, where you might get more useful answers to questions. But maybe the people who are making the criticisms aren't looking in those places any more.

  2. Certainly, as a lot of the groundwork necessary for CR (and GRP) to get going required a great deal of study and synthesis among those seeking to reconstruct, I do understand how the rep came to be and why it has stuck around...

    I just wish it didn't linger so strongly; but alas folks need to find something to complain about.

    ...I'm one to talk.:p

  3. Personally, at this point in our development, I don't see my practice as focused on the act of reconstruction; after decades of reconstruction and revival, we have solid practices and reinvigorated traditions. Now the focus is on practice, preservation and passing what he have on to the next generations to ensure that it survives.

    As new sources continually come to light, additional songs and tales are found, bits of information are added to what we have, fleshing things out even further. But that is very different from the idea that we are starting from scratch with just fragments. People who think there's not enough material are simply unfamiliar with what survives in the Gaelics. There is more material than any one person can learn in one lifetime.

    Anyone assessing the GP and CR communities from a Neopagan or Newage worldview, and doing so from a purely online p.o.v., is not going to understand us. We speak a different language, and have different values. Most of us don't talk about our deepest spiritual experiences in public. In public, we are more likely to talk about hard facts - research, the lore, tradition. I guess that seems freaky to people who only want to talk about their imaginative experiences and never try to learn a coherent tradition, but again, we're back to the worldview issue. GP prioritizes community over modern American "rugged individualism", and that permeates a lot of the reasons why mainstream Neopagans don't understand who or what we are. They know we're not really like them, even though they may use some of the words from Gaelic cultures (and in the process usually twisting the meanings), so I think some of them tend to lash out at what they don't understand, and will not make the effort to understand.

    But that's fine. People who are stuck in a state of adolescent rebellion and rejection of all tradition wouldn't be comfortable around us, nor us around them.

    I find it hilarious that some would find starting in CR or GP, at this point, "too hard." They have no idea. [Insert "When I was your age...I walked a mile in the snow to get to school" story.]

  4. Even better, and true: "When I was your age... We didn't have the Internet. It wasn't invented yet. We had libraries. And newsletters. Online arguments that now take two days used to last two years. In-person gatherings were the only way to meet people. We met in person. We did ceremony together. And here's the kicker... some of us still do."