In which I am not the expert after all

A few days ago, a university student in Australia copied me on an email to an American Heathen reconstructionist:

Hail! I sent the following to [name] seeking advice; perhaps you could offer some advice as well?

It was about wishing to set up an Australian branch of the group, but the writer had some reservations:

I am indelibly Australian, and there are qualitative differences between the psycho-spiritual make-up of Australian people – not to mention distinct political and social predispositions – and that of other folk from far away. Perhaps to a singular degree in the Australian case, these different requirements and tendencies are an outgrowth of not only our historical experience, similar in some senses to America, but our unique climate and geography as well

All interesting questions. There seems to be some tension in reconstructionist groups between adapting to the present and Doing It Like The Ancestors Did, not to mention Dressing Like The Ancestors.

True, sometimes we go backwards in order to go forwards. (Ernst Kris, a Freudian psychologist, wrote of “regression in service of the ego”—a non-rational dip into the unconscious in the service of creativity.)  The weakness of the reconstructionist impulse is the need to find an ancient warrant or precedent for everything.

That way lies stagnation.

I was more impressed by a comment someone once made on the Julian Society listserv, which can be paraphrased as follows: How would the old Pagan religion(s) look if it/they never had been interrupted by Christianity?

Now there is a thought experiment!

If you look at ancient Rome, there was no one Pagan religion—and there were non-theistic philosophical schools, like the Epicureans, as well.  But you had everything from the simplest household cults to the most abstractly intellectual Platonic teaching. What would have prevailed?

My thought is that there would not be the distinctions we make between “religion,” “art,” “science,” and so forth, with people declaring allegiance to one but not the other, but rather much more interpenetration of all these realms.

I suggested that thought experiment to the Australian. He wrote back:

I do appreciate your response; however, I mixed your email with someone else’s during the sending process.

So much for being an international expert. Instead, you get this blog post.

6 thoughts on “In which I am not the expert after all

  1. Reconstructionists take up a chunk of the Minneapolis pagan population, and it seems to me that there is a struggle between the modern and the recreated. I’m not sure how far any group will take it, but it looks like there are new ventures daily. While some of us neopagans and Recons don’t like it, Christianity is part of our heritage, too and I sometimes think we need to pass through it on the way to the really old pagan practices.

    While I personally think there’s much to gain from learning from history and little to gain by reliving it, it does seem like a lot of the locals at least in Celtic and Asatru Recon communities in my area definitely want to relive it to the best of their imaginations.

  2. Funny story! But I still think you gave excellent advice re: the thought experiment. And unless those Australian reconstructionists are indeed Epicureans, they should realize that it was not merely by chance that you received that email and responded to it!

  3. Pitch313

    Another thought experiment: Who would YOU be if your ancestors had not departed the old home land(s) and immigrated to new lands?

    The older I’ve grown, the more I realize that I would much rather be who I am here in the new land than whoever I might have been in those old lands. Call me content to be a Californian…

  4. Cara

    “How would the old Pagan religion(s) look if it/they never had been interrupted by Christianity?”

    That question has been rolling around in the Hellenic community for, well, before my time.

    The attitude behind that question is why many of us no longer use the term “reconstruction” and instead say that we are reviving or restoring the religion. Reconstruction was needed, but it encourages thinking that places the religion in a museum. We are moving past that into making it a living (which also means evolving) relevant religion.

  5. @Diana — Don’t you think that some people just want to be part of an identifiable tribe? It’s all part of the anti-modernist reaction.

    @Apuleius — Hey, maybe so! At least the exchange is immortalized in this blog.

    @Pitch — It’s hard to think of “going back,” except for a visit, isn’t it.

    @Cara — I am with you about the museum, but I see Hellenists, too, looking up in old books to see what festival they should be celebrating next month. 😉 It does take a long time to evolve “relevant religion.”

  6. Oh, absolutely it’s about being part of a tribe. I have no problem with other people doing it and connecting to each other through it even though it’s certainly not something I personally want to do, ever. I also see it as a situation where history and ancestry is like your blood family: it’s pretty much an all-or-nothing deal. You can’t deny the Christian part of your ancestry anymore than you can the Norse (or Greek, or Sumerian, etc.) part of it.

    I also admit I tend to view anti-modernism as escapism, and on my personal track I find that personally frustrating. (That’s how I tend to see it, I know it isn’t always the case.)

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