Babies, Bathwater, and the Reclaiming Community

Of all American Witchcraft traditions, Reclaiming seems to be the most prone to self-criticism. Perhaps that is because, as Anne Hill writes in her brief blog-memoir, The Baby and the Bathwater, there was always much conflict over different visions for Reclaiming.

What started with one foot in the Faery/Faerie/Feri Witchcraft tradition of Victor and Cora Anderson also co-existed with a social vision of growing organic vegetables in a solar-powered paradise fueled by consensus decision-making, pushing the boundaries of gender-theory and overcoming enemies with the power of  love and passion.

Hill, one of the original group’s long-term members, writes things that only an insider could say. The Baby and the Bathwater combines blog posts that she wrote from 2006 to 2010, including the comments that readers left on her Blog O’Gnosis.

We’ve seen good people come and go over the years, and have noticed that mostly the good people go after they realize that Reclaiming is a victim of its own idealism and there’s nowhere to “advance” once you have experience and skills. I said that I have been struggling to clarify my present-day involvement with Reclaiming, particularly trying to discern what is baby and what is bathwater and not throwing away that which is of lasting value.

My friend responded instantly: “But there is no baby in the bathwater,
and there never has been.” I was stunned at that, and have been thinking about it ever since. Can it be true that what started as a grand experiment in creating a spirituality that was Goddess-centered, egalitarian, politically and socially radical would have absolutely nothing to show for itself 25 years after the fact? Could it be that a community and religious movement which has been at the center of my identity for over two decades consisted all along of nothing but our intense willingness to believe our own promotional language?

The Baby and the Bathwoter sees an up side to Reclaiming too, as Hill visits groups seeded in other areas and savors their enthusiasm.  You can download the PDF file for $2.99.

13 thoughts on “Babies, Bathwater, and the Reclaiming Community

  1. Wow, I hope that’s (no baby) not the ultimate conclusion she comes to. Saying that Reclaiming has nothing to show for itself reminds me of the argument that some of the communal experiments of the nineteenth century “failed” because they didn’t last forever. I tend to feel like a community that provided an alternative model of living for a generation or two is a success that can inform other experiments and projects. And Reclaiming… I was originally trained in Reclaiming, and I still think it has the best introductory witchcraft curricula out there. I tend to agree with Hill that there’s not a lot of room for advancement, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t do introductory classes and inclusive rituals extremely well for an ever-shifting community of people.

    I’ll definitely be downloading the PDF. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. I wonder if the problem is that people are focusing on “advancement” to the detriment of “service”. It’s Service that should be the first priority, not “advancement”.

    • So many esoteric and magickal groups use the idea of “advancement” or “spiritual progress” — and not just in the West. It is the guiding metaphor.

      Having degree systems, for those groups that do, is just one expression of it.

      I too wonder if it is the must useful metaphor, but it is pervasive.

      • I don’t think this experience of “where do we go from here?” is unique to Reclaiming. I have seen evidence of it within other Wiccan communities as well.

        Is the emphasis on personal advancement part of a greater trend in Western liberal religion towards individualism and self-authority and away from community? This is not to suggest that there haven’t always been individualists out for their own glory, but it does seem as if the ability of a community to define the responsibilities and roles of its members towards a greater purpose has become anathema, with the result that one comes to the end of a series of degrees (or whatever) and finds that there is no attendant “place” because the driving force was never to fill a need within a group but was instead to consume an experience. Once the experience has run its course, nothing remains.

        I was recently reading about the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies and his concepts of Gemeinschaft (individuals in a group working primarily for the group over self-interest) and Gesellschaft (individuals in a group working primarily towards self-interest over the group). I think religion once firmly rested in Gemeinschaft and has — especially within contemporary Paganism — moved mostly into Gesellshaft. I think this is in part owing to the various discourses that contemporary Paganism has consumed: recasting of religion as spirituality with the addition of psuedo-psychological / “self-help” language, Anthroposophy and the concept of “evolution,” magic defined predominately as healing, etc.

        The movement towards individualism in religion is well documented (Fritz Muntean has a neat essay on “the Protestanization of Paganism” that discusses how the concept of individual spiritual liberty was alive and well in the early Christian Revivalism), but its possible negative effects on Pagan communities and institutions have not been that I know of. I’ll be interested to read this bit of memoir in that light.

        What do you think?

      • The search for Gemeinschaft is always with us.

        Starhawk, a typical utopian thinker, wants to create it more or less from scratch, and she gives us her vision in The Fifth Sacred Thing.

        On the other hand, Western esotercism and the Pagan revival both have long been intertwined with an anti-modern longing for “organic community,” going back to the mid-19th century at least.

        This longing also pops up in the Anglo-Catholic movement and the Arts & Crafts movement, e.g., William Morris.

        You see it today in many Slavic and Nordic Pagan groups, as well as in such venues as the journal Tyr, which is proudly anti-modernist and “radical traditionalist.”

        The left-wing utopians, of course, love to bash such anti-modernism as “racism,” without understanding that it proceeds from much the same impulse as theirs.

  3. Really enjoyed this. As someone who wandered down the Reclaiming path for a while, but ultimately fell away from that path because it didn’t fit the need I had inside of me, I can’t wait to read the book. I hope that she actually comes away with a better vision of what her path means and that there is in fact a baby in the bathwater!

    And I do agree with the comments that there is a gap between advancement and service that gets lost in the mix, in any tradition because we are all too often raised to chase success at the expense of understanding. I’ve seen it in yoga, in academics and in paganism. It’s an internal battle to master that pose, get that grade and graduate, or find a group, degree, etc., instead of taking the time to really understand what we are learning and listening to.

    I often wonder if the idea of service gets lost in translation/teachings because we (myself included) don’t really understand what that means when the idea is first presented to us. It often seems like the focus is more on action (protests, magic, etc) instead of reflection, understanding, and devotion.

  4. Responding to Morgan’s comment which was a response to my comment:

    “the ability of a community to define the responsibilities and roles of its members towards a greater purpose has become anathema, with the result that one comes to the end of a series of degrees (or whatever) and finds that there is no attendant “place” because the driving force was never to fill a need within a group but was instead to consume an experience. *Once the experience has run its course, nothing remains.* And that is EXACTLY what the problem is, and why I suggested that training people to be in SERVICE to the community (which has always been my understanding of ‘priesthood’) is more important than “advancement”.

    • I would make one distinction, however. A priest/ess serves a deity or deities first and foremost. To serve a (human) community is to be a pastor or a minister or a social worker — all valuable, but not quite the same thing.

      To serve a non-human community, well, there are quite a few labels for that!

  5. Maybe it’s not so much that Reclaiming (or any other Pagan movement and/or community) followed some intertwined paths of intentional change and accomplishment so much as the greater world accumulated changes across more fronts and towards more ends than any of us could contend with. Including folks who put Reclaiming together and lived with and through it as it grew and changed.

  6. Morgan: There are plenty of examples in both Classical Paganism and, for example, Shinto, where the priest/ess serves the deity at a shrine, where the deity has manifested or continues to manifest — whether anyone else shows up or not.

    Now if you are Starhawk, for example, whose polytheism is so “soft” as to be almost non-theistic or metaphorical, you see “the Goddess” only in people, so the answer to your question would be “It’s the same thing.”

  7. Thanks so much for this, Chas. I’ve been getting a great response from many current and former Reclaiming folks, as well as a few notable silences. Ah well.

    I remember a discussion several years ago on an email list about why there wasn’t a market for books on “advanced” Pagan topics. I think the mistake publishers were making then is to assume that people wanted more skills-based material, when the hunger may be to read stories about how to walk through the fire. Everyone who has joined a spiritual community and started practicing with discipline and commitment knows what I’m talking about: it’s great, everything clicks, and then things get really hard—sometimes for a really long time.

    The great thing is that now we can publish these books ourselves, while publishers keep searching for the lowest common denominator.

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