Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Thoughts on the Future of Revived Paganism

Okay, I've decided to write a series of letters to discuss the future of revived Paganism. Understand that I have to make a distinction here between "Witchcraft" in the traditional sense- which is really a wide-ranging term including many forms of sorcery, all of which can (and do) exist despite the culture that surrounds them. Some cultures make it hard to be a sorcerer or practice occult/sorcerous arts, but still, they persist. Traditional Witchcraft, in the true modern sense, is a phenomenon that existed during Christian times, and now exists in the skeptical/scientific post-Christian era.

I don't worry too much about the "future" of Witchcraft; it will always remain, no matter how small or diffuse it is, because people will always seek out fringe elements of spirituality or the occult, regardless of society or culture's mainstream beliefs.

But what of "revived" Paganism, such as Asatru, Celtic Reconstructionism, Hellenism, Romuva, and the other revived Indo-European Pagan models? They have adherents, good lore and sources, reasonably strong structure as far as rituals and notions of sacred days and seasons: they have all they need to induct newborns and converts into their communities, and all they need to marry people and bury them, with rites. These revived faiths are pretty much complete faiths, with one exception: they all have pretty small populations of adherents.

So where do they go from here? A small population is bad news, for many reasons, but chiefly because small numbers means "little known", even in this day and age of the internet. "Little known" means "little or no political and legal recognition", and that means no support from anyone or anything else other than whatever few people (if any) you have near you that also practice your faith or believe as you do.

The Individual's Hard Road

Revived Pagan faiths are strongly distinct from "mainstream" Pagan faiths- they cannot enjoy the same sort of "recognition" given to Wiccans, for instance, because most (rightly) don't want to be associated in the public mind with Wicca or New-Age religious movements. They tend to be more insular and even ornery about their beliefs. Couple these things with the fact that they are all strongly individualistic, on the level of person and their right to believe as they will, and quite defensive at the level of community (assuming that they are lucky enough to have communities) and not willing to even entertain changing their beliefs or ways, even if it means making them closer or stronger with other members of their own revived cultural movement. I'm not saying people should need to change religiously, but an attitude change towards cooperation with others would certainly be a powerfully good thing.

Two Asatruar groups will like one another well enough (sometimes) but will become very annoyed with one another if either side imagines that the other is criticizing how they do things or believe or worship. Within umbrella movements (like say, the Troth) you get certain points that all Troth Hearths agree on- such as their universalist policy towards membership- but beyond that, very little. I'm not saying that such stances as this "radical independence" is bad, but it does expose the Asatru movement as a whole to a special weakness. It makes the Asatru movement unable to spread fast or far, unable to advertise itself or present itself as a cohesive and attractive alternative faith for people.

Individual groups or people may try, in some ways, to display their beliefs, in the hopes that "like minded" others will be attracted to them, but the nature of cultural Pagan revivalism is such that it does not have much of an "evangelical" spirit. They don't produce missionaries. There is no sense- or very little sense- that the Revivalist Pagan movement as a whole has a greater role to play in the world, or that it could make the world a better place: to be clear, most revivalists/reconstructionists have a more selfish stance on their faith, defensively viewing it as "their own thing" or "their subculture", and once they have gained some standing within it, they scorn to share it with others.

If they have communities, they either attempt to keep communities small, or watch them break up with selfish in-fighting if they get too large. Even the umbrella organizations have a history of constant fracturing through growth and bad blood. It seems that the egos of the luminary members of all these movements have caused a great deal of trouble- and all the while, the idea that Asatru or Hellenism or any of these reconstructions could provide a very wide audience of people with a positive, life-affirming, nature-reverent, and philosophically sound polytheistic life-path was lost.

The Paradox

There was an interesting occurrence back in the 1800's, in the United States: man named Joseph Smith claimed that he saw Angels and had the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven given to him and two close friends. He made a lot of claims, and a rather devoted cult following sprung up around him. They created their own community- the first Mormons- and after a lot of persecution, fled the settled east of the country, crossed the Great Plains en masse, and settled in Utah. They built a city, and prospered. Today they are well known, and while they are reviled by most mainstream Christians, that doesn't matter: They have millions upon millions of members, massive stone Temples all over the world, billions of dollars in the bank, and legal protection everywhere in the civilized world.

I don't like cults, and I especially don't like Christian cults, but these people set out to live on their terms- they created a community by giving up on their old lives, believing in a shared vision, and striking out to find a new life, just like the Norse settlers of Iceland did.

Where have the days gone wherein people were willing to make radical changes in their lives, in the name of their beliefs? Revived Pagan movements won't have much of a future until they decide to truly ante up, and do something as radical as say, create a community- a physical community somewhere- for their families. Failing that, the countless splinter groups of people calling themselves "Asatru" or "Hellenist" or what have you can realize that they have a chance to gain the sort of social stability and recognition that will win their children and their grandchildren many freedoms and a better ease in social living than they had, if they could put aside petty squabbles in the name of working together better, wherever they happen to be.

The painful paradox here is evident: only brave, strong, self-willed individuals are going to be attracted to faiths like Asatru or Hellenism or CR, the sorts of people who have the guts to make a clean break from the previous religious or social conditioning they've undergone, to take such a radical new stance in life. And those very same people don't tend to play well with others, suffer fools much, or deal well with seeing the high-quality religious reconstructions they've worked so hard on being "diluted" or defamed by lesser individuals.

The very sorts of people you'd want in a Pagan organization are also the sorts of people that don't do "organization" well! This same population also (lamentably) tends to give us people who are excellent leaders, people of vision, but then, the inevitable happens: good quality followers emerge to follow them, and these "leaders" don't want to share power or abandon their little fiefs to work with others.


Radical individuality is, as I have pointed out in many writings, not even a perspective of the Ancestral faiths, which were based foremost on the bonds of community, the well-being of city-states and settlements, the honor of families and clans, and the like.

Not everyone in ancient days was a "hero", a famous "known name" in the bard's tales, and even heroes had family matters to deal with. A strong sense of "clan ties" or family obligations was first and foremost on the minds of all people of honor. With peoples like the Greeks and Romans, even a sort of "National identity" began to form, as they began to compare the merits of their larger culture-patterns with those of foreign people they came into contact with. Some of the greatest men in the standard canons of western literature and history were honored for what? For sacrificing much in service to Rome- to Rome- the Republic or Empire as a whole, with all its variety and massive population. They were honored for being loyal, in their own ways, to an idea that was much larger than any one person or small community.

And Rome flourished with men like this, driven in this way. Another group that arose in Rome flourished likewise and for similar reasons- the fledgling Christian church had a sense of a goal and a spirit larger than any individual. For the settlers of Iceland, the goal they all bonded together to achieve was freedom from political compulsion and the tyranny of kings that were growing too powerful for the good of the people of their homelands.

It's certainly noble to honor the Ancestors' notion that "orthodoxy" should never be forced onto people: I myself couldn't agree more. The Ancestors, within their communities, were orthorpraxic and very much against "invading the heads" of other people, so long as those people held themselves up to whatever social standard was needed for the good of the community. I think this is a great model for us now- but the implications of the model have changed in our modern day.

You Must Be Worthy To Win

Whether or not many people will see it, we have threats and problems that the world has never seen before. What passes for "spirituality" in the mainstream has become shallow and materialistic, and in response, fringe lunacy has arisen- the politics of fundamentalism- which is just a manifestation of the hysteria one can expect when a movement comes crashing down, or begins to change so much that it is no longer what it was. This is happening to mainstream Christianity, though the process will not be done tomorrow. It will take another few centuries.

Islam will take longer, Gods help us- but all religious movements that are in violation of the basic truths of life cannot last forever. What are those truths? I list them as follows:

-The truth of animism and the need to live in this world of natural resources with wisdom and moderation;

-The truth of sacred reciprocity with self and community and world;

-The truth of qualified struggle between opposites,

-The truth of the natural sacredness and diversity of the spiritual world;

-The truth of the dignity of human life above and beyond what people may believe or what culture they may be born into.

If any religion or movement denies even one of these points, it cannot last. It will not last. It is not enough for an entity to win a culture war and set itself up as a dominant faith in an area of the world; it must be worthy to win, if the victory is to be lasting. How will we know who was worthy? We can see the organic spiritual beliefs of primal peoples all over the world that were NOT washed away in the crimson tide of revealed religions, and see that their beliefs were good and strong from the dawn of history, up till either this very day, or until the time came that they were destroyed. We will know worth in how they last, in how they endure.

And our Ancestral faiths have endured- through a firestorm of radical social change, and historical pogroms of annihilation. Why should we be drawn to them now? Because something of worth still exists, and has been passed down to us, something that was never defeated or forgotten.

We Don't Inherit the World From Our Parents: We Borrow It From Our Grandchildren

And what is the future of revived Paganism? Its future will be precisely what you see now, if we do not change in some manner- and when I say "change", I don't mean a minor change that is washed away in a few days. Something- I myself don't know quite what- has to change, a "second order" change as cyberneticians say- for our revived Pagan movements to be healthier and larger in the future.

No, an "evangelical" spirit isn't required, though some Asatruar- one famous umbrella organization- has actually embraced just that. But they are alone; and despite the fact that I am still skeptical of their route to the future, I do agree with them on a few important points- we- all of us modern Pagans- need land and resources at our disposal, social and legal recognition, and education for the public.

If that means appointing boards of people to handle matters, so be it. These sorts of "panels" or "boards" can be non-sectarian; but someone has to break us out of the dark ages of our living rooms and campsites and get us all into phone books, into minutes at town hall meetings and sessions of legislation, and someone has to represent us to the public.

Who is the "us"? It isn't any one community or another, but a new idea that we will have to embrace if we will have a future of greater religious fulfillment, and life fulfillment. It is the idea (to use an example) of "Asatru" or "Heathenry" which stands above all sects or "types" or communities or Kindreds. The same can be said for the idea of "Hellenism" which stands above this or that church or temple or deme. This idea doesn't ask for obedience to any doctrine, or for people to do blots or sacrifices one way or another. It doesn't ask for the worship of any God. It just asks that we work to display, protect, and solidify an identity to the world that can have the recognition and legal protection it deserves, and which our grandchildren will need.

And honestly, I believe the world needs Revived Paganism. It needs alternative spiritualities that can fan the flames of spiritual life higher in people, and which can bring people into a new paradigm of living in this world which is better for the world and all of the living beings in it.