Hard to believe the first month, and thus 1/12, of the calendar year 2013 of the Current Era is already over. Did it go too fast for anyone else? Not fast enough for others? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on that!
But, meanwhile, I’ve read the thoughts of some others as well recently, and I’m rather surprised at it. Let me try to explain.
Over at The Wild Hunt, a post covering the 2013 Conference on Current Pagan Studies went up yesterday, written by Patrick Wolff and expressing his experiences in and synopses of the remarks of the two keynote speakers: Sabina Magliocco and Peter Dybing. While some of Dybing’s ideas might bear further discussion at some point, I’d like to focus on those of Prof. Magliocco, since they’re much more relevant to recent discussions at this blog (and controversies related to it).
It appears that Prof. Magliocco addressed two forms of rising modern pagan fundamentalism: the adherence to the literal truth and factuality of claims about the origins of modern witchcraft traditions (particularly Wicca) as given by Murray, Gardner, and others (as well as counter-revisionists who don’t like the work of Ronald Hutton); and, hard polytheists who believe in the reality of the gods.
Crikey…this again, ALREADY?
Based on the traditional understanding of “fundamentalism” (i.e. people from creedal religions that emphasize the literal truth of their scriptures), I’d certainly agree that those who, in contravention to what is known and factual, see the origin myth of Wicca as literal and historical fact rather than mythical truth (which is not dependent on factuality for its truth-value) are most certainly fundamentalists.
However, I think it’s pretty odd that Prof. Magliocco is defining an actual belief in the divine beings of a given religion as “fundamentalism.” In every other religion, such an acknowledgement is called…well…religion.
What Wolff gives of her remarks, though, doesn’t fit what I’ve seen in practice, and what I’ve both experienced and provided for others in practice. I make explicitly clear at the beginning of every ritual that I’ve done that “belief” is not required, instead respect and openness to experience, and that as long as one has that in one’s own self, and doesn’t inhibit the experiences of others, all are welcome. I’ve never seen any “tests of belief” that have been issued at the beginning of any modern pagan or polytheist ritual, even in cases where I know the individuals putting on the ritual (which would include myself) acknowledge the actual existence of divine beings outside of themselves.
To give Wolff’s actual wording on his understanding of Prof. Magliocco’s views:
The second tendency that has emerged in Pagan Fundamentalism is a belief in gods and goddesses as literal spiritual persons, formulated as a reaction against the emergence of humanistic paganism and panentheistic or archetypal interpretations of the divine. However, Magliocco argued, historically Wiccans have varied greatly in their theology, and found unity not in right belief, but in common practice. Against this non-dogmatic tradition of finding shared identity through ritual, Pagan Fundamentalists seek to exclude those who do not hold to their “orthodox” pagan belief in the nature of the gods. This is problematic, Magliocco argued, because it imported a criteria from the dominant Abrahamic faiths that was ill-suited to the ritual-focused nature of Paganism.
Again, I’m not aware of any religion that has ever existed that assumes only provisional acknowledgement of its theology as a valid, expectable, or “normal” position, and which would regard those who fully acknowledge their theological understandings as true (whether or not “true” is the same as “factual”–which is, again, a very important difference for which to account).
I can also say, with certainty, that this hard polytheist stance has been around much longer than humanistic paganism has–the latter is not a bad thing, and I don’t by any means oppose the existence of nor promulgation of humanistic pagan viewpoints and theologies (or non-theologies, as may often be the case), but instead I’m concerned with the historical viability of the assertion on Prof. Magliocco’s part. Just as equally as there have been modern pagans for decades who have had a more archetypal approach to deities (as many humanistic pagans do) despite the named phenomenon of “humanistic paganism” being relatively recent, so too have there been modern pagans who for decades have also acknowledged the gods as real and actual divine beings separate from humans and with individuality, volition, and so forth…and that theological tradition extends back to the furthest reaches of antiquity. Setting up the accused polytheist “fundamentalists” as “reactionary” rather than, perhaps, the humanists who have coalesced and articulated their viewpoint in contradistinction to polytheists relatively recently (which would also be a reactionary stance, even if it is not conservative in the traditional sense…though it is more theologically conservative to suggest “lesser” divinity rather than “greater”…but this gets into some tough semantics!), not only gets the historical priority incorrect, but it also creates a bias inherent in the understanding of “reactionary” (and therefore “conservative,” which is also often “fundamentalist”) that doesn’t actually serve to illuminate this situation, make it more sensible, or accurately portray it, in my view.
I think the assumption is complicated by the understandings of “belief” that are creedal in basis, which Prof. Magliocco is assuming are in operation here amongst polytheists, and the more experiential understanding of it, which I have advocated at length, including recently, is being lost in the process. When polytheists say they “believe” in the gods, they don’t generally mean it in a creedal way, and yet it seems Prof. Magliocco is interpreting it in that fashion purposefully. As Prof. Magliocco is an anthropologist, I find it odd that she’s missing this important nuance in how a given population understands these terms.
But, since everyone knows that I’m a Nazi fundamentalist, I suppose I would have a problem with this, wouldn’t I.
In any case, there it all is…I’d be interested in knowing what your own thoughts on the matter might happen to be.
And, with any luck, as January ends and the other months of the year come in their procession, we can leave this set of arguments behind and get on to more important things. (Hopefully.)