Monday, January 19, 2015

The Canard of "Pagan Fundamentalism" or Reconstructionists are meanies

I came across a recent blog post on a rather heavily trafficked Pagan webPortal decrying "Pagan Fundamentalists", speaking out against these fiendish ne'erdowells who seem more at home with the likes of Fred Phelps or Jerry Falwell than Cathbad or Amergin. I have had disagreements with this particular blogger in the past (won't link to her blog, but its pretty easy to find), and so such proclamations and prescriptions are not terribly surprising. Of note is the list of fundamentalist "tells", or if ___________, you may be a Pagan fundamentalist,

They are listed as follows:

  • The belief that your engagement with deity–worship, perception and gnosis, interpretation of texts, magical work, etc.–is the correct form of engagement, and other forms are not only incorrect, but offensive to the deity and harmful to the practitioner;
  • The belief that this form of engagement must be followed to the letter, with no aberrations or lapses, and must be kept pure no matter what;
  • The belief that your role in religion is one of subservience, and you have no choice in the matter–that deities are your masters, and bad things will happen to you if you don’t obey them;
  • The belief that gods do not evolve alongside human civilization; rather, they reached maturity at the time their myths were recorded, and it is your duty as a practitioner to adapt your worldview to their recorded sensibilities, no matter how archaic, irrelevant, or just plain wrong those sensibilities may seem;
  • The belief that the age of myth-making is long over, and you are bound to the texts, stories, and practices that the deities revealed to your ancestors, which are perfect and complete.
The list reads, if not as a laundry list of recon-strawmen, pretty close to it (fleshed out by the rest of the blog), but lets look at each of them individually.

"There is only one right way, and it is my way, and you are doin' it wrong!"

If this comes across as a rejection of the very basic concept of orthopraxy, then congratulations you have a foundational understanding of a great deal of ancient, polytheistic religion. Orthopraxy (orthopraxis) is the concept that correct action (specifically in a ritualized context) is key in ones correspondences and interactions with the gods, far more so than correct belief (or orthodoxy). I personally have no problem with folks being creative and doing whatever it is they feel speaks to them on a spiritual level (all forms of cultural appropriation not withstanding). 

Where I draw the line, however, is when it comes to making the leap from personal practice to broader conclusions or claims which are supposedly drawn from cultural continuums or customs. This is the essential theme which is going to run throughout this particular post, but it is important enough to bear repetition. If you are going to be worshiping deities from a specific culture, than it is wise and respectful to understand that culture, and how those deities were worshiped in that culture. Despite what an infuriatingly high number of Pagans (and far less so with folks who identify as polytheists) seem to think, the gods are not generic, universal* forms and it is disrespectful to treat them as plug and play components of ones ritual or magical practice. Likewise it is problematic to adopt elements of a given cultural perspective, while ignoring the context or functionality of that particular element. Folkways and rituals are not neutral techniques do be divested of cultural trappings so that they may be utilized as "spiritual technologies". 

For folks of my ilk, that is to say polytheists who recognize that the gods and spirits of place are real beings, what you do and where you do it are vitally important. The places we live and the spaces we occupy are all shared with those beings; being aware and respectful of this is a foundational component of GRP and a number of other traditions. To not be concerned with the possibility of offending the gods or spirits of place shows a decidedly impious approach to worship and ritual. While I can appreciate the concern of "my way or the highway" forms of religion, the proviso which is missing from such accusations is that orthopraxy matters. Orthopraxy is not (or ought not be, outliers and all that) decided upon the basis of "I think this, so this is right!" but "Consensus teaches, tradition teaches". 

Which, again, is not to say that deference is automatically given to something because it is held to be traditional, but because there is a good reason to do so. There is a reason that traditional folkways have endured, and that is because they reinforce the worldview they stem from. The best traditions are based on sound foundations of ethics and ethos. Values like reciprocity, hospitality, honour and respect are all virtues which stem from communal perspectives where the community comes before the individual. This is anathema to modern, western and particularly American proclivities when it comes to the individual and the group. So, perhaps, this is why folks who do not see the value in a community based ethos but on individual gnosis alone have such a hard time with understanding the basis of orthopraxy and confuse and conflate it with self righteous spirituality.

"We have no room for your filthy ritual contamination!"

This is really just piggybacking for the sake of being a pedant, but all too often this concept of "pure, untainted ritual" is yet another favourite recon-strawman. I've yet to encounter polytheistic folks who are under the delusion that they are practicing some pure, unbroken line of ritualized devotion where syncretism has never happened (neoWiccans or Wiccanesque folks on the other hand...).

What I understand the complaint to be is that when folks try their best to understand ritual from within a given cultural context, and to reproduce that as much as possible (because they want to honour the gods of that culture in that cultures own ways), that they are being elitist. Further, and this seems to be where things begin to get stuck in peoples craws, when it is pointed out that folks who incorporate non-cultural elements into those rituals, are doing so, then those elites turn into fundamentalists! Buh, buh buh! (dramatic groundhog).

Here's the thing, if one accepts that gods or rituals belong to specific cultures or traditions, and one also wishes to promulgate this via religious expression, and that orthopraxy is a key element of those traditions they wish to continue, than of course those same people would balk at others who simply add elements because they think it works better or they like it more. Obviously this ties into the divergence of the significance and role that tradition plays within those perspectives. Yet to label the former as fundamentalist because they are trying to remain faithful to their customs and ways is remarkably crass, if not outright stupid. Of course religions where orthopraxy is foundational will have adherents who get hung up on "doing it right". This again gets back to the idea of respect, particularly of cultural ways and values.

"Bow down before the one you serve, you're gonna get what you deserve"

Oddly enough, this is one point where I, mostly, agree with the author. Not that this particular perspective is indicative of "Pagan fundamentalism" because, as I will elaborate below, the accusation which forms the crux of this response, is nothing more than a fallacious application of the "perennial philosophy", albeit in a slightly inverted manner. 

Where I would say that I agree, is that the idea that you are a slave to the gods, and have no agency in your dealings with them, is a remarkably stupid one. Of course, I have recently belaboured this particular pointso I need not repeat it here. The only caveat being that I fully acknowledge that there may be polytheistic religions where utter subservience to the gods was (is) a thing; doesn't change my sentiments on it. So while I reject utterly the idea of humans being nothing more than the playthings of the gods, I fully acknowledge that there are certainly malefic spirits and deities, that one can fail to honour ones obligations to the gods and that consequences follow from this. Likewise, there are examples from the lore of the consequences of violating ritual or personal prohibitions (aka geasa) and so one ought to take the utmost care and diligence to be aware and take care. 

"Everyone knows the gods obtained perfection in 173 CE!"

This point, and the next one, are significant to this whole endevour as this is the context whereby I first came across this particular blogger. Insomuch as the argument is yet again a strawman, and misses the subtle nuances of how reconstructionism works. To avoid repetition, in this section I will be speaking to "the sensibilities of the gods in relation to their temporal contexts", and in the next section address the centrality of mythology.

Acknowledging that the cultures in which the gods revealed themselves were vastly different from the age we live in now is obvious to all but the most delusional member of the SCA (and even then, the fact that "anachronism" is in the label is a good tell). In general terms, one will not find GRP's advocating for the return of: slavery, bovine based economies, trial by ordeal, cattle raids, peat based primary household heating sources, prayer/poem based medicine or human sacrifice. Nor would those same people argue for social or economic policy based on those elements of Iron Age Ireland. 

You may find, however, that structural aspects of the way in which the cosmos was held to be related to human society, and the very basis of how and why one ought to worship the gods would be of some significance to people in the modern age seeking to worship those same gods. Worldview, an understanding of the cosmological basis of the world, not even of the how, but most definitely of the why. How a particular worldview developed and the perceptual filters one necessarily has to adopt, to understand what our experiences, our lives mean, is vitally important.

This is the point that so many Pagans miss or do not understand; for a reconstructionist the worship of the gods is predicated upon the culture within which the god(s) revealed themselves or were discovered. The culture ultimately comes from how a given group, in a given geographic area, with a specific language and history came to understand their world and themselves. Religion at its best and most natural is a component of ones being and a key component of the self. It is not something which can meaningfully be compartmentalized, only to be brought out every other Tuesday, between 3 and 5 pm. It is part of a whole, of ones worldview. If ones worldview is predicated upon a reconstruction of a given, pre-(or contemporaneous)Christian culture, than one will necessarily try their best to understand the nature of the gods in that context. We do so because we recognize that we are part of a cultural continuum; lost, fragmented and scattered though some of it may be. 

The values we hold the gods as often embodying are those values which, while perhaps not timeless, are none the less valuable, especially in a modern context where we feel they may be underrepresented, ignored or rejected outright. Values like those I mentioned above: honour, justice, truth, wisdom, hospitality, courage and pride may not mesh well with other, more "modern" values, but this does not mean they are not worth striving for.

To the point about the gods "being unchanging", I would certainly make the case that the perception of time an immortal being has would necessarily be different from one who has a relatively short lifespan. I do not think the concept of "the gods reaching maturity" is particularly apt. Rather this argument is a dodge by those who make claims based upon UPG who then try to make emphatic statements, as mouthpieces of the gods no less, which are supposed to be held as meaningful for anyone other than the individual... Or in another way

"Your Fanon has no place alongside Canon"

The accusation of mythic literalism is the last arrow in the quiver of this particular blogger, if not stated outright, it is heavily implied. This too is another common criticism or attack against reconstructionism, to the point where there is a clever pejorative term for it, "lore whore". "Fundamentalist Pagans" obviously share their literalistic bibliophilia with their monotheistic counterparts. Except that they don't, not really, at all.

If one were to examine the sort of recommend reads/ readings list common to the webpages of reconstructionists, one will always find collections or resources of the myths of the given culture being reconstructed. What one will not find, however, are instructions explaining how the lore is the primary basis upon which we are to reconstruct or religions. Let me repeat that, in case you missed it: the lore is NOT the primary basis upon which we develop our religions. Seems kind of counter intuitive, but this is because as dilligent recons, we've spent time learning and studying the historic, linguistic and cultural context of how the lore came to be in the first place. The lore, typically speaking from a GRP/CR and Asatruar/Heathen perspective, has many problematic elements, being Christianized along a gradient ranging from veneer to solid, chief among them. I have said it before, here and elsewhere, the mythic texts are NOT SACRED.

Rather, the gods the myths tell us about, are what is to be considered sacred. One can certainly start off with the lore, but you will soon run into a great deal of questions or have a perspective which is informed by something other than the culture the myths sprung from, and come to a lot of weak conclusions. This is why studying the culture and history is so vital, because you understand what the meaning behind the stories is, to what purpose were the stories transcribed and recorded. Understanding with what functions the gods are associated with, what role (and generally this is varied) did they play within the cosmological framework of that culture? The myths are certainly the best source we have on trying to understand the nature of the gods or at least key elements of their nature, but they are not perfect. 

What they do provide, however, accompanied with a firm understanding of the history, archaeology, cultural and social elements, is a means of fortifying ourselves against delusion. They act, in a sense, as a series of checks and balances with which to check our UPG against. They can do this, because they represent the inherited wisdom and introspection of the cultures from which they were spawned. They are the sources by which we have any knowledge of the gods at all, and so they are provided a placement of importance and honour.


We come now to the keystone of my whole piece, the turn-about question that reconstructionists ought to be asking:
If the cultural context in which these particular gods exist does not matter, if the ways with which our ancestors traditionally worshiped these gods does not matter, if the values our ancestors held to through their worship of these gods does not matter, and if the stories told of these gods do not matter, then why do you cling to a god from this culture at all?
If you are coming at this from the perspective that the gods are just universal archetypes, obscured through cultural filters, would it not be better to remove the trappings altogether and worship the gods as they really are? If you genuinely believe that your experiences of the gods are more authentic or authoritative than what is reflected in the combined and collected knowledge of the gods as depicted in the mythic texts, then upon what basis do you reason that your experience is of any such mythic god at all? Finally, if your experience of the god(s) is inverse or anathema to the depiction within a given mythic narrative, which is also contradicted by the more generalized cultural function of said deity, upon what basis are you judging that this is the same god? There are many other questions which could be asked, but it would be rather repetitive. Suffice to say that I personally find lists, like the one above, incredulous, to say the least.

When it comes right down to it, the idea of "Pagan fundamentalism" is nonsensical, at least the way in which such a slur is usually wielded. It is generally predicated upon an inversion of the "All gods are one God" platitude, the so called perennial philosophy of religion. In this case though, the generalization is "All religions have fundamentalists", which is as apt as the perennial approach. Which is not at all.

The sort of fundamentalism being slung here is not to be confused with the historic fundamentalist movement among Protestant Christianity, but rather a general sense of "My religion is the only right, only true religion, and all others are necessarily wrong, evil, etc." Now, to try and make the argument more cogent in a Pagan/polytheistic context, the phrasing is not as harsh, absolute or universal. Instead of "my religion is the only right one", it morphs into "my religion is the only right way to worship ________", which of course changes what fundamentalism in this context means. Which steals power from the concept to the point where it becomes meaningless.

Acknowledging orthopraxy, that things ought to be done a certain way for reasons j,k,l, in a ritualized context, within a given tradition, is no more fundamentalist that a Catholic expecting to receive the host as part of a Catholic Mass. It just so happens that some folks feel that gods belong to cultures and are not universal. Therefore it is reasonable to worship them in keeping with traditional ways and forms. Likewise, when a given component is divorced from its cultural context, and held to be universal, then it looses a great deal of the meaning and power it had because of its place within that context. 

I do not think that any of these perspectives, nor the rebuttals to the points raised above engender fundamentalism in my perspective or practice. Others, though, may disagree.



* When I say universal in this context, I am referring to the term in the sense of cutting across cultural and temporal boundaries and not in the sense of widespread worship within a specific cultural, geographic and temporal context.

1 comment:

  1. Basically I agree with you. I personally am much more interested in getting the lore, context and tradition right. The experience and depth of doing so far exceeds that lite approach you describe so well. The generic tone that most Pagan writers take is disconcerting and unappealing to me. Especially those laundry lists of deities categorized by what they can do for you followed by who is "the same as" who. On the other hand when I see some of the creative divergings that the African Diaspora traditions have taken it helps me see the possible value of having groups of people loosely connected with a lore or culture but very much part of the modern melting pot, reinventing a practice to suit their modern lives. I would even go so far as to say that both paths are almost always present in any living religion and it's just a sign that the thing is not dead when you have people going off in different directions like that. I know my own path lies in a reconstructionist direction but I don't and wouldn't worry about it that most people are not set up for such a path.

    We have come so close to loosing our real culture and having it overwritten that I can't understand why people don't see the value in at least somebody keeping track of the baseline ideas, it really ought to be respected (and freely admitted to) as a calling.