Tag Archives: religions of the ancient world

Curious Antipathy: The Ongoing Struggle to Define Modern Paganism

Modern Pagan belief is largely founded on personal spiritual experience. Though there is, sadly, a great deal of infighting about what constitutes authentic experience, and near constant accusations of cultural appropriation, Modern Paganism marks a return of spiritual authority to the lay practitioner. Each Pagan has a unique and personal relationship not simply to the divine, but to discrete deities and spiritual beings. Paganism allows us not only to worship God as we choose, but to choose which Gods to worship. Essentially, Paganism is about building our own relationships with Divinity distinct of church structure. I am not, of course, saying, that everyone is therefore correct, no matter what they do, merely that Modern Paganism allows us much more spiritual freedom than many of us have ever experienced. There are still rights and wrongs, those concepts have simply been recontextualized.

From that basis, I find it baffling that so many of us spend so much energy trying to dismantle Christianity. We are all familiar with the various arguments against the authenticity of the Bible, with the historical malfeasance of the various churches and of the contemporary issues which many Christian faiths continue to struggle with or blatantly ignore. However, none of this says anything about the authenticity of the spiritual experience of Christians. How many of our source texts can evade the critiques which we level at the Bible? None. Not a single one. We talk about the lack of historic references to Jesus and the absence of archaeological evidence for the events depict in the Hebrew Testament, but how many trustworthy historical references and archaeological proofs are there for our own beliefs? Why do we require this kind of evidence from Christians, but not from ourselves?

I myself was raised in what I casually refer to as a cult. I personally understand the desire to distance ourselves as much as possible from Christianity. My experience was difficult and painful and I am still recovering from a lot of the trauma that I experienced. However, the reason why I eventually left that church had almost nothing to do with my personal struggle. The more I spoke to my fellow church members and to people of various faiths, the more I came to realize that my personal faith was simply not strong enough to justify my continued identification with that church. That itself was a traumatic experience. I had used that identification as a badge throughout much of my childhood. I hid behind it and used it to excuse my alienation from my classmates and peers and to disguise the things I found shameful about myself. That breakage was just as affecting as the religion itself. For years, I felt as though I had no solid identity. Eventually, this spurred me to do a great deal of personal reflection, and to figure out what I myself needed to foster and support my spirituality, my faith. I emerged from Christianity, and am emphatically not Christian, but that history had a profound effect on me and played a vital part in my spiritual development. While Christianity caused me profound pain, I know that without that experience I would not be the man I am today, a man that, for the most part, I am proud to be.

I think that we, as Pagans, need to accept our personal histories and understand the ways in which they continue to influence not only our personal progression, but also our progression as a culture. We need to resist the urge to attack the faiths with which we cohabitate. Of course, we feel persecution and alienation in contemporary culture largely as a result of the high saturation of Christian faiths in the Western World. That said, we do ourselves no favors by placing ourselves explicitly at odds with the people to whom we are trying to prove our authenticity, our equality. It is especially problematic when we, as a faith community, co-opt the strategies of the Atheist movement to attack our perceived enemies. We cannot require hard evidence of faith. We cannot demand proof which we ourselves cannot provide.

If we are willing to accept people who claim to have deep spiritual relationships with deities who have not been properly worshiped for close to a thousand years as speaking the truth, why do we refuse to recognize the deep spiritual relationships which Christians have with their God? We simply cannot denounce Christianity as false because it makes us uncomfortable.

The fear of Christian persecution has been built into the foundation of Modern Paganism. The Wiccan Rede reads as it does as an attempt to make Wiccans appear less threatening to their Christian neighbors. How many times do we hear random Pagans at Pagan events miscellaneously bad-mouthing Christians with little to no provocation? Our Christian antipathy frequently seems to be incorporated into Modern Pagan culture itself. That is problematic for so many reasons. Some of this, I believe, is a result of our continuing struggle to define our community identity. The simple question, “What is Paganism?” is notoriously hard to answer to everyone’s satisfactions and the current fuss brewing over at Patheos about polytheism versus nature worship is a good example of the constant back and forth bickering that has come to define the question. Pagansisms, and the plural there is intentional, are so varied from person to person, from practice to practice that any single rubric fails to account for all of the various forms of worship and theology that the Pagan community has incorporated into itself, or which have blossomed out of the occult and spiritual revivals of the first half of the twentieth century.

It is because of that difficulty that I suggest that many of us fall back on negative descriptions of ourselves. We are Pagan, and that means we are not Christian. Mallory and I have discussed this dilemma at some length, and she, quite rightly, asserts that people need something to define themselves against as a means of solidifying group identity. It is true that group identity is strongest in opposition, psychology has shown how deeply entrenched people become when challenged with an opposing idea, even casually. To a certain extent it makes sense that we look for things which differentiate us from the faith communities which surround us. The problem arrises, as I see it, when we solely define ourselves against other groups. Paganism cannot be defined negatively. Now, I know a lot of people have been doing a lot of work to produce positivist descriptions of Paganism, and yet it seems like a good deal of the community is content, in a practical sense, to simply identify as Non-Christian. There is, of course, the other pole of this wherein we end up saying things like “We’re just like you, only we worship the Goddess instead of the God.” Both of these definitions retain Christianity as the central term. Paganism is defined in relation to Christianity. These descriptions fall back on simple reductivism.

We simplify our identities to make them more palatable either to ourselves or to others. I firmly believe that if we are to continue to identify as a single community despite the broad variations which Modern Paganism contains that we need to do a lot of work as a community to build a coherent and cohesive definition. In doing so, however, we need to be willing to set aside our own identity defenses and end up in inter-community bickering, trying to establish ourselves as more Pagan than you. There is a large array of characteristics which combine and overlap to describe contemporary Pagan practice, and we need to be careful not to privilege anyone of those over the others. Doing so only leads to defensiveness and tension between different Pagans and Paganisms. We cannot reduce Paganism to Polytheism versus Monism, nor Nature Worship versus Deity Worship, nor thaumaturgy versus theurgy, nor any any other combination of polar relations.

Part of the difficulty in this discussion, I believe, is that may people see these polar relations as just that, polar and therefore incompatible. This dualistic relation, I do think, stems from the Christianity infused culture that Paganism has emerged from, at least in the United States. We as Pagans need to be able to release the dualistic world view of God against the Satan, of good against evil. At the very outset, Paganism has proposed a plurality of forces which act in the world with a variety of prerogatives none of which are necessarily good nor evil, nor even concerned with human activity. If we are willing to make that theological leap, why do we seem so hesitant to follow through with the appropriate ontological shift?

Hard and Soft Polytheism are not necessarily incompatible. Dionysus was worshipped across the Hellenistic World with a variety of guises and epithets, and yet each iteration still relates back to the same essential deity. Different regions, different villages would all have unique and idiosyncratic forms of worship and conception of Dionysus depending on the needs of the people, and yet, across these differences, the same God was being worshipped. We need to recognize that the Ancients’ relationships to their Gods was not as hard and fast and strictly defined as we would like. Our grade school mythology fails to describe the actual experience of these Gods and their relation to their devotees. Across cultures, the Ancients viewed their Gods as having profound control over their presentation and prerogative depending on the task at hand, on the social class of the supplicant, on the needs of society, and yet they still remained the same volitional beings, the same discrete Gods despite the variety of epithets with which they may be approached. We also seem to be properly terrified of admitting the role of syncretism in the Ancient World. The spread of Gods across Europe and Britannia should be sufficient to show that this was a strategy consistent with Ancient Worship which each culture had very little issue with. Would we really be willing to assert that the Isis worshipped in the British Isles is an entirely different being from the Isis of Ancient Egypt? What about the Isis cult of Rome? Are these not the same Goddess in different guises, in different aspects suited to the needs of the varied communities and cultures? Hard and Soft Polytheism begin to collapse into each other.

I recognize that I have provided very few strategies for moving forward and that, as it is, this sits as a rather harsh critique, and yet I feel like this is a necessary part of the greater conversation. Part of the difficulty with generating strategies is that it seems to me that we have a great deal of work to do both personally and as a community on coming to terms with the unique stresses that being Pagan in a domineeringly Christian culture has placed on us. A good deal of the time these stresses get ignored or externalized and the blame ends up getting passed around either within the Pagan community or pushed off onto our perceived foes. We need to be willing to do the work we need to do on ourselves before looking out into the community at large for all the answers.

Of course, not everyone wants to be part of the larger Pagan community, but those people need to respect the work that others our doing to build and foster the Pagan community, and if they are unwilling to do so, then they must simply keep themselves to themselves. We simply do not have the time nor resources to indulge in this petty sniping, these divisive and alienating more Pagan than Pagan arguments. We must be willing to approach the work of community building compassionately and intelligently, and foster understanding of our selves and our relations to others, as well as the roles which we play in the world at large. If Paganism is to survive as a community then we need to be willing to lay our personal issues aside and approach each other mindfully focussed toward the community, and finding that which makes us alike rather than that which makes us different. Only then will the community be able to serve broadly as a means of strength and support. Otherwise we are better off fracturing off into our own little schismatic factions and focussing our attention on our private affairs.

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Neoclassical Syncretism: A User’s Guide

At this beginning of this project I described myself as a Neoclassical Syncretist, and then briskly moved along without bother to properly explore what I meant by that. My interest in developing this idea as a practice has grown out of the deep wealth that we have in the Western Art History and Literary cannon that has been profoundly influenced by Classical Greek and Roman mythology and religion. For as powerful an effect that Christianity has had on Western creative production, the influence of Greek and Roman thought has been just as, if not more, profound. With my background in the arts, I had been immersed, from a very young age, in that tradition. Despite being raised in Christianity, I have travelled through my life with the presence of these Gods and concepts for the span of my living memory, and in many cases have felt much more kinship for the beings which have appeared in sideways references and allusions in the popular ephemera of my life than the concepts of the religion that I was raised in.

Syncretism has been a powerful force in religion almost certainly since its inception. I have spoken before of the strange ways in which the interactions of the cultures of Mediterranean led to fascinating blending and overlapping in the discrete traditions, and the difficulties inherent in trying to isolate and reconstruct particular belief systems. The impact of Greek thought on Egypt led to a radical reworking of the Egyptian religion, and vice-versa (consider the spread of Isis through Hellenistic Civilization). However, this in no way illegitimates the results as authentically Egyptian. Even before that, the Egyptian religion, generally viewed as an unchanging monolith (probably as a result of the power of the architectural remains) experience dramatic modifications over the course of Egyptian culture frequently tied to dynastic shifts. My method of Neoclassical Syncretism simply extends this procedure through to the modern era.

One of the great conundrums of Modern Paganism is lineage, as I have discussed before. We view ourselves, frequently, as competing with faiths which have extended in unbroken tradition back a thousand or more years and so feel the need to legitimate ourselves by making similar claims. Consider the claims of early Wicca, that it was merely the bringing into the light a religion which had existed for centuries hidden by a secretive sect of English witches. Despite the eventual debunking of those claims, many people to this day still assert that Wicca represents an ancient faith with just as much authentic lineage as Christianity. I do understand the necessity people feel to establish themselves on an unshakeable foundation, I just personally feel that this particular strategy in fundamentally flawed.

Part of the difficulty with accurately reconstructing the ancient Pagan faiths is that we have very little authentic first hand information on the actual practice and structure of those faiths. Most of what survives of Celtic and Norse tradition was recorded by Christian monks or Roman invaders. The struggle of reconstruction is to identify what elements of those writings are true depictions and what represents a Christian or Roman interpretation. Reconstruction is very much an art, and a very subtle and mindful one — it requires a great deal of familiarity with the concepts not only of the culture which one is trying to reconstruct, but also the concepts of the cultures whose lenses we are forced to look through. Reconstruction seeks to correct the distortion applied to the material by the invading cultures: like a plane of polarizing glass, it removes the wavelengths which obscure the desired image. Reconstruction avoids the problem of lineage by attempting to go back to the source and rebuild, as accurately as possible, now extinct belief systems from currently available data.

Neoclassical Syncretism, on the other hand, looks to the places where the traditions have been preserved. While it is true that as a spiritual system, the religions of the Classical Greece and Rome have died, they have continued to be developed in literature, art, and popular culture. Essentially, Neoclassical Syncretism is a way of approaching texts. With this strategy, the idea of holy text is reconfigured. This approach allows for new insights on traditional concepts by exploring the ways in which these concepts have been deployed through the arts, and the ways in which we as a culture have continued to build upon ancient cultures. While I myself am personally drawn to the fine arts and philosophy, this strategy works equally well with popular culture, and, when employed thoughtfully, can yield perfectly valuable insights into our relationships with the ancient gods.

Of course, I am not suggesting that this strategy be employed haphazardly. Like Reconstruction, it requires a strong understanding of the core concepts being explored, and the development of a sharp hermeneutic to cut away frivolous or inconsequential references. Not every reference will be of use, and many times the appearance of Classical Religions in subsequent culture betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts being deployed. By analyzing typically non-religious texts with an eye toward spirituality, Neoclassical Syncretism allows one to find connections with the divine spread throughout our culture.

As an example of the way this strategy may be realized, I recently read Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, a novella length retelling of the myth of Atlas and Herakles. The book itself is less than perfect, but it Jeanette Winterson’s handling of the interactions of the characters and their passage through into modernity is compelling, particularly the way in which Atlas conceives of himself and his relation to the world. Winterson explicitly preserves the strange dichotomy of Herakles, which the Greeks themsleves were never able to resolve to their own satisfaction: Herakles is emphatically simultaneously both human and divine, entirely and in equal measure. Herakles is a paradox. He himself does not understand his nature. He knows that he is more than human, though his relation to the divine is more problematic (is he more, is he less?). His own mortality is less than certain, he has been to Hell and back, quite literally, more times than bear mentioning, and yet quite probably can die, maybe. Herakles, by Winterson’s account, is simply emphatically other. His strength lies in his otherness, and the choice between the human and the divine is essentially his undoing.

After reading Weight, I returned to a book I had read much earlier this year, Grief Lessons, a collection of four of Euripedes’ plays recently translated by Anne Carson. Two of the four plays feature Herakles (the first being the eponymous Herakles), and the handling of Herakles there is just as stunningly ambiguous. Euripedes, filtered by Carson, builds up a Herakles who, while the greatest of all men, is bowed down and broken by the weight of the gods, by divine imperatives which he cannot comprehend and more often than not appear as mere catastrophe. Herakles is never given a moment of emotional stability, he swings through triumph, anguish, hope and hilarity and despair in just a few pages. Herakles is emphatically shredded by his nature. He does not have the luxury of semidivinity. He is fully divine and fully human, and because of that has earned the wrath of forces that he cannot understand or control. The Gods of Euripedes are frightening, not because of their power, but because of their prerogative. Herakles, the most powerful of men, the God trapped in flesh, cannot resist the divine, burgeoning within him and pressing down from outside.

Herakles represents an incredibly difficult relationship to the divine, and his struggle to fix himself at one point on his polarized nature is reflects that. Herakles’ nature emphatically “others” him, it queers him from the rest of society, from his peers. Herakles is made strange by divinity. Comparing these two texts allows us to see more clearly the ways in which Herakles works through his relationship to the divine.

Neoclassical Syncretism takes the first part of its name very seriously. Neoclassical here means that the work done is grounded heavily in traditions past. What differentiates it from simple modern eclecticism is both focus and scholarship. Theology is developed along lines of scholarship originating in the target culture. I apply Neoclassical Syncretism to Hellenistic Civilization, but it could just as easily be applied to Celtic or Germanic civilizations. Starting with an understanding of the parent culture, Neoclassical Syncretism moves forward examining texts spread throughout time, and assembles from them a growing theological/philosophical practice. Unlike Reconstruction, which has an end point in mind, the successful reconstruction of the target religion, Neoclassical Syncretism is entirely open ended.

Neoclassical Syncretism aims to provide a basic groundwork through which multiple personal experiences within a particular faith path can relate through their fundamental grounding in the same tradition and technique while still providing a great deal of room for personal expression and exploration. This approach thus removes the difficulty of unverified personal gnosis, as each practitioner will eventually establish a unique and idiosyncratic view of the parent tradition. Indeed, Neoclassical Syncretism prizes variation, as a plurality of voices provides more and more room for insight.

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Syncretic Electric

Practically, I have come to define my approach to worship as Syncretistic Classicism. The more I read about the culture and religions of the ancient world, the more I come to understand how interconnected they all are. I personally feel that we, as Modern Pagans, have this urge to find a pure line of descent for our religious practices. I think that a lot of this is a result of many of our upbringings in the Big 5 faiths, which, on the surface, appear to have strong single, unified narratives stretching back thousands of years. Though, it is important to realize, as even a brief foray into the history of the Early Christian Church will show, that this is certainly not the case. All of the major religions currently extent have suffered a series of dramatic transformations and schisms through their lifetimes, and their interactions with other cultures and belief systems had dramatic impacts on their development. Modern Christianity bears very little in common with the religion practiced by its earliest members. I feel that it is important, as Modern Pagans, to have an understanding of the fluidity of ancient religions.

The religions of the ancient Mediterranean, what we think of as Classical Antiquity, were deeply intertwined. Partially because of the literary and art historical narratives which have been built up over the passing centuries, we seem to have lost track of that. We do have these conceptions that the Gods of Ancient Greece were uniquely Greek, the Roman’s uniquely Roman (though adapted from the Greek, but still somehow discreet, as if they erased their predecessors with their emergence). This was simply not the case, however. Cults of various regional deities spread throughout the Mediterranean, drifting far from their origins and coexisting within the established structures of other religions, in some cases becoming integrated into them: the Isis cult seems to have spread as far as the British Isles. When we claim to worship the Old Gods, we need to understand that these Gods did not live in a theological vacuum. The Old Gods lived shoulder to shoulder with each other, their demesnes overlapping and interpenetrating. What is the true Roman Religion? Well, at what point historically do you decide was the most purely Roman of all of Roman history? Do we count only the early Etruscan faith that preexisted Greek contamination? Do we take the religion of the Late Roman Empire, with all its deified Emperors and Egyptian influence? Let us not forget, either, that Christianity became the state religion of Rome.

Therefore, in my practice, I try to keep myself intellectually honest, with an understanding that to the ancients religion was not necessarily an impenetrable unchanging edifice, but a fluid and syncretic thing, constantly absorbing, repulsing, and always interacting with its neighboring cultures. I do not mean to make an excuse to sloppiness in worship, however. A good deal has already been said about approaching one’s Gods in culturally appropriate ways. Research and cultural understanding are vital to any healthy spiritual practice. However, I do sincerely believe that it is important to allow oneself to maintain fluidity and adaptability within one’s practice and spiritual experience.

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