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Pagans and Print: problems arising from learning Pagan religion by monotheistic means

It used to be simple. Wiccans and NeoPagans in general were polytheists in contrast to Christians and other mostly monotheistic religions.  NeoPagan polytheists usually spent little time on theology and considerably more creating and practicing rituals.  Most of us became Pagans by virtue of personal attraction enriched by our involvement with a teacher or a coven or similar group.

Today many NeoPagans first learn about our traditions from books or the internet.  The net in particular has expanded easily available information about our religion but at a cost.  That cost is to be severed from NeoPagan history and practice except as available through pixels or the printed word.  Instead of starting with learning and practice with others and then studying written sources, many NeoPagans now go from the study of texts to practice. They hope to interpret experiences they anticipate having through the texts they have read rather than judging whether the text illuminates or contradicts the experiences they have had.

Monotheistic biases

This modern text oriented approach is comfortable for most of us, and its dangers are hidden by this very comfort. It is a monotheistic way of seeking to learn a polytheistic religion. I think emphasizing the written word as a reliable guide to our practice is at odds with the logic ofPagan religion and carries a very real cost if we are not aware of the problem.

Historically Pagan religions focused on practice rather than texts, let alone theology.  Texts were relatively unimportant and theology nonexistent for more than a tiny elite, if that. Plato, from whom philosophy and theology largely derive, emphasized he never wrote down his most important teachings.  Socrates, the man he made famous, never wrote anything down. Many later philosophers participated in the popular practices of their day even while interpreting them differently from the average participant.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were held for about 2000 years.  Many of the leading figures of Classical civilization were initiates, including Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Cicero, and many Roman emperors. Slaves and women were also allowed to participate.  No one publicly discussed the rituals in any detail nor explored various interpretations of their meaning. No theology arose over them despite their probably being the longest practiced formal ritual in EuroPagan history. Their truth, a truth that powerfully attracted people for almost two millennia, was experiential and personal.

As with Paganism in general, the core of most NeoPagan religion is not grasped through dogma or theology. NeoPagans seek to connect with the more-than-human as it manifests in and through our world.  To pick Wicca, the tradition I know best, the cycles of life to death and rebirth; the equivalent cycles of the seasons honored during the Wheel of the Year; the same cycle as manifested in the phases of the moon; and the basic sexual duality that dominates human existence; are the frameworks by which most Wiccans seek to participate in and honor the sacred. We do this through ritual, not reading or listening to sermons and talks about the Wheel or the Goddess.

These Wiccan themes are not universal.  The Wiccan Wheel does not fit an arctic or tropic environment very well. Today the borders of what were once considered well defined sexual distinctions have become less so.  But Wiccans have never claimed to provide the only way to honor the Sacred.

The other major stream within modern NeoPaganism consists of reconstructionist efforts to revive pre-monotheistic traditions driven into extinction or nearly so. Here scholarship plays a stronger role, but I suspect the truth of these efforts is not in reading good papers but in experiencing powerful rituals. 

Within these generous limits NeoPagan practice flourishes in many directions, and each tradition is usually respected as valid by others within the broad NeoPagan umbrella.

Of course Pagan traditions have myths and myths can be written down, but mythology is not the same as theology. Myths often contradict themselves.  This does not become a major problem because what they address ultimately cannot be put into words. They are more like poetry than prose.

Theology vs. practice

Today this primordial Pagan sensibility is being unintentionally challenged.  Recently many of us have encountered Pagans claiming Wicca is “not polytheistic, it is duotheistic.”  Some even argue a “true polytheist” can not recognize the reality of any divine unity of any sort.  Some non-Wiccan Pagans have described how they were told Wicca is the authoritative Pagan voice for our time, and non-Wiccan traditions are inferior. When I encounter such views my first thought is “Where on earth did they pick this up?”

When these and other ideas are confined to personal interpretations of people’s Pagan practices they do not cause any problems. Pagans have always had personal interpretations of their religious and spiritual experiences. My first Gardnerian coven consisted of people who worked amicably together with markedly different ways of interpreting what we did.  Some considered Gardnerian Wicca as Celtic. Others saw it as ultimately Classical. Some interpreted our deities as Jungian archetypes.  Others treated them as independent entities. Some of us were interested in other religious traditions such as Santeria or Buddhism, others were not.  Some of us had long experience in ceremonial magick, others had none.  We almost never discussed theology, and when we did it was from curiosity about others’ views rather than an effort to “get it right” or correct the others’ errors. When conflicts arose among us they generally involved clashing personalities or styles, not matters of doctrine and belief.

Today among some Pagans something new is happening.  Other traditions and other Pagan practices are being criticized from the outside.  When this happens we find ourselves in the same swamp of feuding theologies that has been such an intractable problem for monotheists.  

Book learning

I think this development arises from importing transcendental monotheistic thinking into a immanent polytheistic context. Our culture encourages such styles of thinking. The problem is made worse when Pagans learn the basics of their religion through books or online because this reinforces cultural assumptions that on matters of religion, wisdom comes from the printed word.

We have grown up in a society where people usually regarded themselves as fundamentally separated from the sacred.  In the Christian West the world was fallen and often seen as dominated by malign powers.  Deception was everywhere and only certain texts could be trusted.  Occasionally, we were taught, inspired prophets would write down their teachings, or Jesus arrived and his words were preserved. Our only access to spiritual truth was in reading and understanding these words of others.

While written teachings have their strengths, they tend to teach two destructive lessons. First, we can never rely on our personal experience if they do not confirm what the texts, say. Second, only some interpretations of the texts are correct. 

The more we accept this framework the more hypnotized we became by the text and its claim to be a superior form of knowledge. We become blind to what the text does not say or what interpretations we regard as ‘authoritative’ ignore. Our expectations become blinders.  Worse still, since all texts require interpretation, when we regard the interpretation we accept as correct we raise our judgment and will to equality with what we think is divine will.  The results have been and continue to be horrible.

Fortunately we Pagans have no texts claiming to be sacred in the way the monotheists do, but we are still biased towards taking texts and the style of thinking they encourage very seriously.  They get between us and our spiritual experience.  As Joseph Campbell observed, such an approach is 'like diners going into a restaurant and eating the menu.”

They also encourage us to judge others’ religious practices and beliefs by the texts and interpretations we take as authoritative.  Everyone should go to our restaurant and eat its menu.

The problem is inherent in the medium.  The solution is not to stop reading, but to be aware of how the media fits monotheism far better than it fits Pagan religion, and so be forewarned about problems inherent in it. The best book is nothing more than a training wheel on a bicycle, and you are nowhere much until you have freed yourself from dependence on it because you have learned to ride.

“But diZerega, you write all the time.”

I am not criticizing book learning, I am criticizing relying it uncritically.  I am criticizing those who use their favorite texts to criticize others' practice as insufficiently Wiccan or polytheist or whatever the issue of the day might be.  I am criticizing treating it as more than an adjunct to other kinds of learning.

Written texts are vital to the modern world.  Modern science in particular depends on publications and interpreting and investigating the meanings of those publications.  But science differs from religion in that it requires those texts and papers to be rooted in repeatable explorations of the physical world.  The texts are ultimately subordinate to scientists’ experience.

Even then texts can blind scientists for years as to what is in front of them. My favorite example is Eastern Washington’s “scablands,”   where the largest floods ever to have happened in North America raced through a mountain valley to flow out onto the Columbia Plateau, carving strange canyons and leaving ripple lines of large boulders.  These happened multiple times when a glacial dam that created a lake as large as one of the Great Lakes repeatedly broke, reformed, and broke again. People studied this strange landscape for decades wondering how it came to be, and almost unanimously denied floods had anything to do with it. 

One maverick, Harlen Bretz, stood his ground, was ridiculed, and in his 90s  finally recognized as having solved the puzzle. Now the evidence that spoke to Bretz is obvious to anyone who looks and knows how he interpreted it.

Modern science assumes the universe is open to human understanding, and seeks to take our understanding as far as it can.  Competing interpretations are inevitable because we all bring different perspectives to studying these issues.  At least all but one will be flawed.  Being people, we often get it wrong, but insofar as we are scientists people can gradually whittle away the most visible errors. Science’s strongest point is its ability to eliminate faulty theories. Our understanding of physical phenomena will likely never be complete, but it gets progressively better. Wise scientists never claim to discover truth, but rather to have increased the reliability of our knowledge.

Religion is different.  Religion deals with what is superior to human understanding. The assumption that the world is amenable to understanding by human minds, so basic to science, cannot apply to religion and spirituality and so tools suitable to one may be insufficient for the other. Myth, so central to religious traditions, is never a part of a scientific theory.

There is another problem with relying too much on the printed word, even in science. To pick a mundane example, we can never learn to ride a bicycle by reading about it.  Instead we try to ride it, tip over, fall off, get back on, and eventually “get the hang of it.” In fact, keeping the formulas for balancing while riding in mind gets in the way. of learning. Better to try, tip over, fall off, and try again.

The same is true in doing science rather than reading about it.  One becomes a scientist by working with other scientists, gradually learning how to use the instruments of the field, and getting a sense of how the field fits together.

This same insight holds for religions emphasizing spiritual immanence and personal contact with the Sacred, only much more so.

Texts separate us from the world.  We focus on the words and what they reveal to our understanding and imagination.  They interpose themselves between us and experience.  This makes sense when the world is regarded as deceptive, fallen, or secondary to transcendental truths revealed by inspired writers. But when the world is regarded as a direct manifestation of the sacred it does not. 

And so we encounter the silliness of long discussions about supposed Wiccan “duotheism” as opposed to polytheism, carried out mostly by non-Wiccans.  Or arguments about what is "real" polytheism, carried out by people who put their experience  above everyone else’s and assume their grasp of logic is equal to the task of grasping the super human.  Or of Wiccans who treat other NeoPagan traditions as inferior or in extreme cases treat their Book of Shadows as divinely inspired instructions true for all time. All these attitudes arise from applying transcendental monotheistic approaches to religions that emphasize neither transcendence nor monotheism.  The problem is made worse by Pagans learning their Paganism from books and the net, and so I think it needs explicit addressing.

What might the spiritual world be like if we put practice and experience ahead of dogma and logic? My next post will explore this.

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Gus diZerega is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca. He studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

Dr. diZerega has published widely on the social sciences in the academic press as well as on spirituality.  His second book Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources.  His third, coauthored with Philip Johnson, is Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue. His art frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter.

DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing.

His next book, Faultlines: The Culture War and the Return of the Divine Feminine, will appear in 2013. 

Comments

  • Kristina Galbraith
    Kristina Galbraith Thursday, 22 May 2014

    Thank you for writing this. There are so many times I have been told I am not a "real" Druid because I havent been approved by some council and haven't read or studied their books. I think many Pagans are put off by these types and there are far more of us that are solitary practitioners simply because we can't or won't follow someone else's path. Books are nice if you are searching for information and want to look it up, however, if I wanted to literally follow a book I would not be a Druid. Blessed Be :)

  • Heather Freysdottir
    Heather Freysdottir Friday, 23 May 2014

    *applauds* I agree, and I look forward to your next post.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Friday, 23 May 2014

    As a resident of the Eastern Washington scablands I can relate. I have often complained about the bias of "educated" men who dismiss any knowledge that is not written, and the history of an oral tradition is not written, not intended to be written, and really cannot be written. As Marshall McLuhan observed, "the medium is the message." A participatory oral tradition cannot be converted into writing and still be a participatory oral religion. Over the years we have gotten numerous requests for on-line teaching from people who read our web site. No, we always tell them. If you want to learn you come here and learn with your body. Blessings.

  • Rebecca Kinney
    Rebecca Kinney Thursday, 05 June 2014

    Just to point out, as a fairly new Pagan(in my thirties, not a teen), finding those who are willing to communicate in person is tough. I live in a bit of a pagan 'desert'. I want to learn in-person, I believe that books should be complemented by doing, preferably with other who have already done. Books give me the theory, but not the experience....but as soon as I would tell someone that I am a) new and b)looking for community, I would be told to read more as they slowly withdrew.
    Something that wasn't addressed in the article was the fact that newbies are very often dismissed as dabblers. You must be very determined to find your path if you are a seeking pagan today.
    Thankfully a friend of mine (from a different state) put me in touch with another woman, who helped guide me through the "self-knowing" that I needed to do to find my path. It was from this that I discovered druidry and eventually the ADF. I am still learning if there are any local groves, but I am so happy to have found a path that resonated with me. I would never have found it if it wasn't for someone taking a chance that I might be a dabbler and showed me how to find what I was looking for, answered my (sometimes painfully naive) questions and held my hand a little bit before letting it go and sending me on my way. I have yet to attend a ritual, but now I know where to start.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Thursday, 05 June 2014

    Hi Rebecca-
    I agree with you. I tried to make it clear that there are not enough qualified teachers and that hopefully the growth of our numbers will solve that problem in the future. Consequently for now we HAVE to rely on books and the net. If that wasn't clear let me emphasize it.

    BUT especially when coming from a monotheistic culture many of us end up giving the printed word more authority than is in keeping with a Pagan spiritual outlook. The point is not to dismiss books (I've written some myself and am working on another) but to see them in their proper place and to be aware of how they can shape our knowledge in ways reflecting a monotheistic reliance on texts and the revelations they show.

    Ultimately books are like training wheels on a bike, and you are a competent rider after you have learned to ride securely without them. To make the same point with regard to teachers, years ago I was talking with a Sun Dance priest on the Crow Reservation in Montana. He told me that if I asked him to teach me how to conduct a Sweat Lodge ceremony there would come a time when I'd change it. I waited for his criticism of White guys appropriating and changing traditional ceremonies. It never came. Instead he said "And that would be good because that's how you make it your own."

    This attitude is 100% alien to a monotheistic sensibility where we always subordinate ourselves to the text. (Or the teacher as an authoritative interpreter of the text.)

    That is the point- do not let the text, or even eventually the teacher, be the authority that narrows and constricts your own spiritual understanding. We each have our own path to walk. That does not mean teachers are not important- I think they are enormously important - but a student does not really 'get it' by seeking to become and remain a carbon copy of his or her teacher.

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