Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Missionaries of Heathendom?

The Missionaries of Heathendom?
Our Present, Our Growth, and Our Possible Future

The "Fastest Growing' Religion?

Is Paganism of any sort, or all Paganisms out there together, the “fastest growing religion” in the West? There is much talk these days about the spread of Heathenry, and of Pagan religions in general. It goes without saying that there are more neo-Pagans of various stripes than traditional Heathens, Heathens here meaning followers of the Asatru religion, or Theodism, or the like. But taken as a whole, does the (painfully) generalized "Pagan" movement really grow as dramatically as some claim?

The best answer I've heard was during a discussion on "The Wild Hunt". A rather insightful fellow there said "The reason "the Pagan community" *seems* to be "gaining adherents" is because, in my opinion, there are no bounds that define what paganism is."

He is very right; when you get outside of the world of reconstructionism, of traditional ethnic and scholarly approaches to the Old Ways, you find yourself in a miasma of ill-defined, sometimes indefinable quasi-religious movements that all claim to be "Pagan".

This is the new-age miasma that I am referring to, of course; the broad "movement" of various forms of badly watered-down Wicca and new-agery that anyone can begin claiming as their own "ancient tradition" after just reading a book or a website. These watery hodge-podges have all the usual Eastern new-age elements ("all the gods are one god", a belief in Hindu-like or Buddhist-like reincarnation, and usually a "Great Goddess" somewhere) and people who find, create, and maintain these beliefs tend to be young, very liberal, and quite dramatic.

These people are seldom defined by who they are and what they believe, but in how flamboyant they can be and how in line with the liberal political agenda they are. They know more about chakras and the cabbala than the actual cultural stories of the Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe. They want to "draw down the moon" more than re-create the ancient and powerful ritual of sacrifice, in some form, to re-establish bonds of reciprocal giving with the living, individual Gods.

Whatever their failings may be, they are what the mainstream of the non-Heathen or non-Pagan public actually see; the eye of the media and the eye of the common man on the street encounters them far more often than they encounter serious traditional Heathens or reconstructionists. And, whether we like it or not, we Heathens get judged by the standards these new-agers set. This presents an issue worth considering, and getting back to.

A Sad State of Affairs, Really

I don't think that "Paganism" is growing so quickly- I think that, since anyone can claim to be Pagan at any time, and many do, it seems that way. But many of these "Pagans" drift away from their proclamations just as quickly as they make them. These people have, somewhere inside them, a desire for the Old Ways- I don't doubt that. But, finding no real focus, and finding only fads and passing fashion statements, that desire (lacking grounding) fades away.

It's a sad state of affairs, really. I've often said that even the worst new-ager team is better than the best Christian or Muslim one, and I mean that (however painful or tedious I find them all). But the facts would seem to be clear, to any who observe trends of "growth"- we cannot count on the general "new age" world to reliably grow into anything of social consequence beyond what it has already become.

It's done some interesting and important things- battles have been fought for constitutional rights on various issues, to Pagan symbols on grave stones, Pagan chaplains in the military, Pagan chaplains in Prison, Pagans in public office, and brave, bold men and women have taken these steps- and not all of them have been Heathen. The best and finest of the non-Heathen world are people with formidable spirits, and may Allfather and the Disir keep them safe and give them victory.

But I still believe that we won't see much beyond what we've seen now, precisely because "Paganism", as it stands, means very little. Of course, it means something different to nearly every Pagan you ask, but in meaning so many things, it ultimately means little. It has little strength to establish itself as an entity of its own, with clear boundaries and some form of identity. It will remain as it is: small cults of personality and internet celebrities and some yearly conventions and festivals for the big stars to attend, a lot of mass-media paperbacks and renaissance festivals with booths selling pentacles and Willendorf Venus jewelry.

The Dreaded Trap

Should we be concerned about the "growth" of Heathenry? Or even "Paganism", in general? Should this be an issue of discussion? What are the theoretical benefits of creating a larger, more cohesive "Pagan" movement? Or even creating a centralized "Heathen" movement? More political representation? The exploding of "myths" about "us"? A solidification of "our" identity as a suffering minority faith, persecuted and here to fight for our rights? (That's the idea I get from most new-agers, though not from many Heathens, thank the Gods).

There is a reason that even the "liberal" media doesn't take Paganism of any stripe seriously- because they can't codify it, present it in a way that the average red-blooded American can understand on the news, and because a lot of the "pagans" today have to take silly-sounding names, dress in tie-dyed Celtic knotwork robes, and make a spectacle of themselves on television or Youtube that is immature by any measure of maturity that I can personally think of.

Beyond maturity, it's undignified. These people are definitely trying to express something spiritual and important to them, but cut off from the needed education on what the real old ways were about, their "new old ways" are nothing short of embarrassing.

I can say that it would be nice to have more political protection/representation, and more friendly portrayals in media. It would be nice if the positive and useful perspectives that the Heathen way actually contains could reach the people outside of Heathendom- I believe many problematic social issues could be addressed by giving Indo-European rooted cultures in the modern day (and the people of Indo-European descent, whether genetic or cultural descent), a sense of heritage and pride in the accomplishments of their true Ancestors.

People cut off from their past and their source cannot truly flourish, nor find real purpose in this world. Perhaps the "cultural stagnation" that we've seen for centuries has a deeper origin than most people imagine!

We all know how much the world could benefit from people today adopting a spiritual-ecological approach to nature, and the ancient religions often experienced the sacred in terms of the natural world, so there is a natural advantage there, too. For most Pagans of any stripe, becoming "Pagan" is a return to seeing this world as ensouled, or full of spirits, or Gods; and that sort of reverence for nature is a powerful basis for dealing wisely with the environment.

I think that nothing but good can come from people respecting the Old Gods, for I have seen their might, kindness, and wisdom in my own life.

But how would Heathens- or even the non-Heathen pagans- go about introducing these things about themselves and their religion to the world, without falling into the dreaded trap of "evangelicalism"? Even neo-Pagans don't tend to be this narcissistic or this far gone- even they don't want to be going door to door playing the "knock knock, ever heard about the Great Goddess?" game. And Heathens, with very, very few exceptions, aren't actively seeking members in that manner. At most, Heathens will put some posts on the internet in various places advertising their community, with a polite invitation for "interested" people to come by for a beer or a blot.

Don't Look Down on Small Teams

The New-agers are, generally speaking, more willing to accept flashy personalities to speak on their behalf: they have a small corps of best-selling new-age authors with high dollar websites, busy blogs, and a lot of "public rituals" done at conventions and spiritual merchandising gatherings. But Heathens?

The few umbrella organizations of Heathens (and the oldest) that boast across-state lines members are still quite small, and aside from crossing paths with media every now and then when some issue related to racism comes up, or helping local prison wardens to "understand" Asatru among the inmates, these (sometimes very honorable) men and women cannot speak for the Heathen movement as a whole. They never have, and never will.

This is not a rebuke of those men and women; it's just an observation on the nature of Heathenry.

So how are we going to "grow"? Do we need to? Speaking directly to Heathens now, I must say, even the "big boy" Heathen organizations are still small- splinter small- compared to even a moderate-sized Methodist church in any American town. The membership in the "big boy" Heathen organizations tend to be more quality- more faithful, more tied to the heart and spirit of Heathenry, but they don't surge in numbers. Are their members all the sires and matriarchs of huge families of new Heathen children? No, not really. Even their Heathen children (like my own) may find Christianity one day, thanks to a boyfriend or girlfriend or husband and wife, and leave the Old Ways, due to the miracle of "love".

We all know it. The movement is beautiful, powerful, the Gods are real, and powerful- but the movement, as much power as it has, does not have fire for rapid (or even steady) growth. I'd like it to, actually; as I said, I think it could help this world and many people in many ways. But Fate has the final word on these matters.

As things stand, it seems Fatefully allotted for us- for all of us, Heathen or otherwise- that we will see our population of adherents remain about where it is now, for many years or generations to come. Hey- it's not all bad; Christianity was also once a tiny movement of a few people gathering here and there in backwater Roman towns, and alleys in big cities, or on their couches in their homes, and after 300 or so years of that, they managed to subvert politics and bring about the greatest social change in the history of the West.

So, I don't mean to be down on a small movement. Maybe it's time to admit that we are still young; even if we feel the ancient power of our ways, and even if we feel very old in spirit, at times, we're young as a reborn, revived movement in the Christian West.

How can we not feel ancient?
Our ways are as old as human culture, and yet, our ways and Gods and symbols and religious impulses are alien to the eyes of people who see us- people whose own Ancestors once did and believed much the same things as we modern Heathens do now. It's a strange amnesia, a strange denial, a strange lack of memory. It's also a perilous loss of wisdom, and a crime against honor, to see the Ancestors' ways so forgotten, sometimes butchered, and even mocked, in some circles.

No Fire Burns Forever

But the impulse to believe in the Old Ways is (clearly) still here- in each one of us. We didn't choose to have it, and it isn't going anywhere. It was always here. But where will it lead? Who can say?

I can say this, with some certainty- as people become more and more disaffected with Christianity, they will seek alternatives. This is the destiny of organized, revealed religions- they begin on a flimsy basis, and thus, have no destiny which is worthwhile. Take Christianity, as an example: it began in a desperate, grasping need for a "savior" to come and fix the poor, lost, helpless humans- it began and still begins in a desperate need for "love", for holiness, for an identity to hold on to, and to have manufactured certainties that life doesn't tend to offer people. They needed to know the "truth" about things... and didn't want to go through the many difficulties that the truth requires before she will unveil herself. They preferred to have a book and other people just tell them the answer.

And Christians back in the day (as well as now) settled for their quick answers, no matter how harmful or absurd those answers were. This dim psychology only knows one thing: it's better to believe something, anything, than to be uncertain. There is a deadly pride here that will not allow some people to just admit that they don't know the answers to every question life poses, and that no one does.

Then, after 16-17 centuries or so, the fire of the initial massive burst of zeal finally blazed out. It ends in the same place it began: in uncertainty, fear, and in need for something to hold on to.

Truth be known, the fires of Christianity blazed out long ago- centuries ago- only rote tradition and custom has kept it going this long. This is why "revivals" are always being attempted by the most hysterical of Christians- always that killing need to "revive" the corpse. And the answer is always disappointment and silence and guilt after the revival fire dies out, which it always does.

Islam's turn is coming soon, and even sooner, now that they have encountered the marvels of Western culture, which invalidates their worldview in countless ways, and introduces them to different ways of thinking and living, more liberated ways. Even the false prophet's ravings must go back to the same silence they emerged from, as the world cycles and discards yet another religious movement. They come and they go, forever.

So, as these revealed religions come crashing down, their adherents look around with a "what now?" look on their faces. If we are there, presenting a mature front, with a solid basis for what we believe, born in the world's oldest truths and spiritual beliefs, we may see our numbers begin to grow. Half of what keeps people from really being open-minded about modern Heathenry or Paganism is the disapproval of Christian society for these things- fear of disapproval from family, community, friends, and the like. When our society no longer accords religious groups major air-time, and when the voices screaming for ten commandment tablets in all government buildings and (christian) prayers in school all go quiet, that pressure will be gone.

The Only Missionaries We Need

Wow! Doesn't that sound like a vulture's approach! Wait till their corpse goes silent, then start picking the meat off! It may seem that way, but it is not. Organic religions like Heathenry, and even the well-meaning attempts at Paganism on behalf of the new-age kids, are not vulture religions; they are the ancient land and sky that these revealed monotheistic religions have been throwing their 17 century-long fit upon. When the temper tantrum of the revealed religions finally calms down, when they lose their breath, and vanish, as they must, land and sky will remain.

Land and sky welcome any to come home to them again, they give all, take all, and give again, without moving even a bit from where they were. Natural peace and sanity is always possible. What shall we do in the meantime? Make Heathen missionary teams? No. But making a more serious and mature presentation of ourselves in public is a must. Insisting on boundaries between ourselves and the Non-Heathen who lack the needed maturity, insight, education, and depth of spirit to be a credit to the revival of ancient European religions in the modern day is also a must.

Every person who finally gets fed up with the ephemeral promises of organized religions, and the politics, and the madness, drifts on seas of uncertainty for a while, seeking better horizons, greener lands. And Heathenry is certainly a good, green country, full of rest for those whom the Gods still watch over, even though generations of their families before unconsciously fell into ignorance about the Gods.

In this age of rapid information sharing, we can reach people in incredible ways- but not necessarily "missionary" ways; by simply and honestly presenting a spiritual maturity and extolling the dignity of the Ancestral Way to the public, we can attract precisely the sorts of people that will be a credit to us. In a sense, the only "missionaries" we need to help our cause are Christian missionaries- the more people they insult, badger, use fear-tactics on, and in general harass with their nonsense, the more appealing non-Christian religions will seem to the discerning.

And we should seem more appealing, because we aren't insane. We're doing what the Ancestors were doing before the religious hysteria of revealed, organized religions spread like wildfire through Europe, and subverted the sanity that was before. But fires burn out, always. Let it be, Gods, let it be. Let the old growth forests return, and let us have peace in their dark, sheltering boughs.