Arkadian Anvil: Hammering out a Pagan Future

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UPG: an ugly, misguided notion

“Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” as a term is dismissive and insulting, but worse it turns us away from the only spiritual reality…experience.

The only point in saying that a person has had a UPG, an Unsubstantiated (sometimes Unverified) Personal Gnosis, is to be dismissive and demeaning to them, and on examination the claim or criticism of UPG has no worthy intellectual basis. The Wikipedia entry is illuminating. I will start by taking the phrase apart, backwards:

‘Gnosis’ is being used here as a euphemism for knowledge acquired through intuition, insight, or a spiritual event, such as conversation with a Spirit or Deity. In another day this might have been called a revelation. There may be words or symbols involved, but it is not limited to discursive intelligence. Non-discursive communication or knowing (properly called noisis and contrasted with gnosis which means knowledge in the ordinary sense), is also included when people use UPG as a label.

The internal and private nature of this phenomenon leads to the ‘Personal’ clause in UPG. By not being ‘public’ or external and visible to all (or some) the ‘Gnosis’ is reduced to mere interiority without any claim on the public outside of the recipient. “It’s just personal” becomes a way of dismissing the insight into irrelevance.

For the third term, I’ll start with its inverse by asking what is ‘substantiated’. It could mean that the revelation was beheld by a multitude, sometimes called ‘shared gnosis’, but that would have made the Gnosis public and so out of our scope, although the critique developed below applies. What it usually refers to is that the data provided by the vision can be found in a known source, usually a book, possibly a myth, especially one treated as scripture. When that doesn’t happen we get told, “We can’t find your insight in a (our) book, therefore it is unsubstantiated.” Do you see the problems in this?

For one, the data we have about the past, the ancient cultures and religions from which we draw much of contemporary Paganism, especially the Reconstructionist part, is very poor. Admittedly it takes actually digging into the primary sources to realize how fragmentary it is. Worse, study shows how distorted the secondary sources are, rendering judgements on the basis of the scholar’s culture or ignoring data felt irrelevant because it was ‘merely’ ritual or magic, or women’s things. (For one example, take a look at Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine, which critiques the issues with Northern European Protestant scholars trying to study the ritualizing cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.)

As if this was not bad enough, there is a massively more important reason why the data that we have is such a small portion of what was. We come from a writing-driven culture; what is important must be recorded. The dominant religions surrounding us are called ‘religions of the Book’ because of their high valuation of text, and their scriptures in particular. They were given this title because of the peculiarity of this behavior in the ancient world. While most possessed writing, in ancient cultures orality, and with it memory, was esteemed far greater than text. You simply do not write down the important things. The Mysteries were not preserved, to our sad loss, because they were never written down. We know from Aristotle that Plato had unwritten teachings to be received after the written ones. Think of the loss in Ireland when the Judges and Poets died, sole preservers of law and history. The Norse were no different; how many sagas were not written down? The list goes on in all of the ancient peoples. What we have today is a fragment, not even the important part, and so much of it was written down by Christians as the older culture was suppressed. Yet more filtering…

What we are left with is the bias of our culture that privileges text. Because it is ‘in a book’, it is considered valid. Publication is to us consciously and unconsciously the standard for substantiating all other knowledge. And this is a delusion.

Books are derivative; someone wrote them down. They are not their subject, the thing itself. If they were, reading the recipe would be as nutritious as eating the meal. The thing itself is experience.

All religiosity is derived from someone having an experience. Sometimes in company, but most times alone, someone had an experience and then shared it with others. Most of this is so far back in time that we have no idea about the person so started the cult or religious tradition or lineage of practice, but many times we do know. Never mind the great founder religions like Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, when we examine what record we do have, there is the often mythical tale of the founder of the cult or even the whole culture and usually it is based on them receiving some divine mandate or instruction. If you think about it how else can it be? Even if the God came down and delivered the text literally into the prophets hands, Moses for example, he still had to be there to receive the text. Most of the time in these stories the Deity transmits cult or even technology (agriculture is a favorite), but it is always to a human who then passes it along (usually orally).

Experience is the center of all spiritual and religious life. Text is at best derivative. By creating and using such a term as UPG, “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” we privilege text over experience. (This is a rather Christian move, and those who have been following my writing know how I feel about that. . .) Even more damagingly, by framing someone’s experience as a UPG we dissociate ourselves from the primary data of spirituality. We can then bracket and set aside the immediate real, and go back to our books. In the process we may have damaged both the knowledge we could have shared in, but also possibly the recipient of that knowledge, who could have been another culture bringer, but instead was told their experience was of diminished value, or of no value at all, simply because we can’t substantiate their insight in a book.

The world is very different today, and so are we. We will NEVER be able to reconstruct the ancient world, and nor should we; there were plenty of problems back then we don’t want today: lack of disease control and slavery, for example. How are we to restore the worship of the ancient Gods? How are we to build a Pagan future? I am a historian and a priest. I deeply value the information we do have as a way to understanding the past, however imperfectly. But without recognizing that experience is primary, that one taste of honey is worth more that all the descriptions of it ever written, we will close ourselves off to the immediate and ever present Divine influence that is teaching us today how to find our way to It, and not just to some ink scratched on paper. Let us not chase the Word, but kiss the Speaker.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.

Comments

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    Although I have a much higher opinion of written sources and scholarship than you seem to, you might find one of my previous posts on UPG interesting as well... http://www.witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Culture-Blogs/upg-sucks.html

  • Christine L Berger
    Christine L Berger Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    Thank you Sam. this is a very complex issue to me. For example, I forget whose blog I was reading, but there was something along the lines that those who are experiences in this direct Deity contact don't talk about it, only the newbies do, because it is personal. Yet at what point do we share our experiences if they are receveived without the above mentioned bias? Certainly one of the benefits of something like a group dark of the moon ritual is that by our very collective experience, at least on some level we are sharing each of our personal ones at once. I very much appreciate this writing. Christine

  • Heather Freysdottir
    Heather Freysdottir Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    http://www.cyclonefanatic.com/forum/attachments/football/14616d1347300332-knott-named-big-12-defensive-player-week-applause.gif

    I have been mulling over a post along similar lines, actually, because having the U in UPG suggestions that verification is necessary, and I don't agree with that - personal gnosis may be just for you, and your personal path. I've written about it in terms of devotional relationships with Loki, and maybe I'll repost it here just for food for thought.

    The thing that gets me is that I don't discard written sources, and if I find a bit of personal experience that is linked to the Lore, I'm tickled to see how that's expressed in the modern day, but if it's not there, well, the Holy Ones grow and change, and much Lore's been lost, so if it's not there, that's not a reason to assume you heard them wrong. In vetting your own gnosis, asking whether it helps you grow in some way is a much better question to ask than "can I verify this somehow?"

  • Christine L Berger
    Christine L Berger Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    I was grateful for this blog because it made conscious to me my own struggle with acknowledging the reality of my own experience. Granted, I know that outside of the pagan/witch/polytheist community sharing my experience would cause me to be labelled insane at best. But today I realized that there are the same biases within the community. This should have been evident to me every time that meeting another with similar experience felt like such a relief to me. To me the reconstruction movement has been of most value in acknowledging there was a time when direct experience of our Gods was the norm. Certainly the Gods have and are evolving along with humans and the times, but I live for the day when all those who experience and share gnosis are appreciated, be they artists, musicians, poets and/or Priesthood. I am so happy to know that there are many more others doing the work to make this happen than I had realized before.

  • Eric Riley
    Eric Riley Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    I'm super confused, because I've never seen UPG used in a derrogatory sense. Every book I've read that has ever used that term has been in the context of Pagan faiths operating on revealed wisdom due to close communications with the Gods. The only thing that I feel that the use of UPG demands is that we recognize that our personal revelations may not be universally applicable, which is a guard against hubris.

  • Apuleius Platonicus
    Apuleius Platonicus Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    I am not certain what "culture" you are talking about, Sam, but American culture sure as heck isn't biased in favor of written sources. American culture is deeply anti-intellectual.

    The real problem with the whole UPG meme is that it is inevitably promulgated by half-witted pseudo-intellectuals who are in fact no more well educated or well-read than those they look down on.

    It would actually be quite refreshing if there was more attention paid to the serious study of written sources.

  • Heather Freysdottir
    Heather Freysdottir Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    "UPG...promulgated by half-witted pseudo-intellectuals who are in fact no more well educated or well-read than those they look down on."

    Many scholarly heathens take studying the sources seriously, myself included, because an understanding of the Lore helps one interpret personal gnosis. As I said above, I am quite tickled if it lines up with something in the Lore. I have gnosis that has nothing to do with the Lore, but I still find it useful in understanding why Loki wants certain things or otherwise behaves the way He does. It's a jumping off point, and sometimes a grounding point.

    Example: in the Hyndluljoth, there's a story about Loki eating a witch's heart (source http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe15.htm):

    14. A heart ate Loki;-in the embers it lay,
    And half-cooked found he the woman's heart;-
    With child from the woman Lopt soon was,
    And thence among men came the monsters all.

    Personal gnosis: I have offered Loki hearts, cooked on the grill, half-cooked. He adored the offering. Now whenever I do seidhr work, I offer Him hearts.

    Note: to my knowledge this has not yielded any monsters, witches, or trolls. Experiment with Himself at your own risk.

  • John Beckett
    John Beckett Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    Sam, I'm in strong agreement with you about the need for experience. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, and fundamentalist ideas (you're going to hell!) troubled me long after I rejected them intellectually. Once I had a few direct experiences of the old gods and goddesses, those troubling thoughts went away. My experiences remain a source of inspiration and belonging.

    But I've come across my share of folks who believe their religious experience is a Message From God/dess and the whole world should therefore recognize them as some sort of supreme prophet. Those are the people for whom the term "Unverified Personal Gnosis" is quite helpful.

  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    This topic makes me uneasy because I can see several ways where UPG could be used in an 'us vs them' argument, or to split hairs over who deserves more attention.

    I will just have to trust in the goodwill of people in general to make sure that doesn't happen.

  • Apuleius Platonicus
    Apuleius Platonicus Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    Candi: "... I can see several ways where UPG could be used in an 'us vs them' argument, or to split hairs over who deserves more attention.... "

    Although I disagree with the idea that there is a cultural bias in favor of written sources (as I said in another comment), the point that Candi is making is what, at least in my opinion, makes Sam's overall point worthwhile.

    The label of UPG is inevitably used in an arbitrary way. That's because we all, without exception, rely on our own intuitions and insights in religious matters. It is only when someone else does it, and, more especially, when their intuitions and insights lead to some conclusion that strikes us as wrong-headed, it is only then that the whole issue of "UPG" raises its ugly head.

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    As one of the misguided Recons referred to in the post, I would like to explain my take on UPG (which I was taught to mean Unverified Personal Gnosis -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unverified_personal_gnosis) ;). I put a lot of stock in the Hellenic (Greek) ancient sources, scattered as they may be, because while these were the accounts of one man or one woman, they were copied repeatedly, used in religious settings by many, and traveled the whole of Hellas. These weren't documents stuffed away in some guy's drawer that happened to be preserved for 2000 years; these were copied, copied, and copied again, and one of these many copies has survived to the present day (generalizing, of course). Luck of the draw. As such, we can assume that some of the documents (say, for example, the Orphic hymns) were read and repeated by many, and that is what makes them valuable. Homeros was a best-seller of his time, an that is why we still have access to his writings. People must have identified with what they read, or they would not have read it and carried it on.

    That said, I take no issue at all with UPG, and that is a sentiment I see reflected in the Hellenistic community quite a lot. What I have an issue with is people passing of UPG as fact. To me, it's wonderful that you have discovered Hermes likes libations of rum, and more power to you for giving it to Him. When you start insisting that I need to give rum libations to Hermes, we have an issue, because I will always take the 'opinion' of the ancient writers over the opinion of a modern practitioner. That is why I am on a Recon path. If I were on a non-Recon path, I might run off to the nearest liquor store in search of rum.

    It's not a matter of who is right, or who does it 'better', it's simply that Recon means following the ways of the ancients as much as possible, and even if no one in ancient Hellas would have agreed with the ancient writer whose work has survived to this day, it is still a description of one ancient person's practice--and for me, ancient trumps modern every single time. So that is why at least the Hellenistic community will always ask for sources when you make a statement; they need to be able to differentiate between ancient and modern--not to instantly dismiss the latter, but to make a well-informed decision if they should or should not.

  • Chris Richards
    Chris Richards Thursday, 11 July 2013

    So . . . in other words, all the voices in your head can be rationalised as "Unverified Personal Gnosis" according to polytheistic reconstructionism, provided you give them the right spin.

    One thing we can learn from actual hard science is that if a hypothesis-based experiment can yield repeatedly identical results under controlled conditions, then the hypothesis is true. However, if the results are internalised to a specific set of conditions (ie the inside of one's own head), that kind of gives the lie to any notion of 'true'.

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Thursday, 11 July 2013

    From the wiki link I posted above:

    " Ideally the term is used to label one's own experience as a new and untested hypothesis, although further verification from the spiritual interactions of others may lead to a certain degree of verifiability."

    Personally, I try to go from Unvarified Personal Gnosis to Shared Personal Gnosis to Confirmed (Personal) Gnosis. This is why we--in the Hellenistic Community are open to the sharing of UPG (generalizing here), because others may have had the same experience (which lends credibility to the experience) or references to source material with which the UPG can be confirmed. There is a certain degree of science about it, when viewed like this--if viewed as the Holy Word and Ultimate Truth... Well... More power to you, but in the Recon community, it will not get you far.

  • Miss Lynx
    Miss Lynx Thursday, 11 July 2013

    The term UPG must be used differently in different communities, for certainly most of my experience with it has not involved it being used dismissively or derisively.

    The point of the term, as I understand it, is to distinguish between experience and insight that is specific to an individual, and that which is shared with others and/or congruent with some kind of established historical fact. That in no way implies that personal experience or insight is wrong - just that it's personal.

    The reason the term exists is that the pagan community(ies) have spawned an unfortunate number of people who are firmly convinced that their own personal spiritual experience is authoritative - not just for them but for everyone else. People who declare themselves to be the child of $deity* and therefore qualified to tell everyone else that they're doing it wrong. I can't count how many times I've heard people - usually relatively new pagans, but unfortunately not always - get into pointless pissing matches along the lines of:

    "$deity told me that s/he likes X better than Y, so clearly you've never really worked with him/her!"

    "Oh yeah? Well, $deity told me that s/he likes Y better than X, and that you're an asshole and I don't have to listen to you!"

    "Oh yeah? Well, $deity told me that you're both wrong and s/he likes Z better, and furthermore than $culture were all peaceful matriarchal vegetarians, and I shall now edit the Wikipedia pages on both accordingly, because obviously my insight as the real child of $deity trumps all those silly historians!"

    It's not always that over-the-top, but the phenomenon of people deciding that their own personal experience or insight is The Way It Is and therefore everyone else is wrong is distressingly common. It's also the basis of tons of popular pagan books wherein material that is, at best, rooted in the author's personal intuition or experience (or at worst, randomly made up in order to crank out yet another title for Llewellyn) is presented as if it were historical fact.

    The concept of UPG exists as a way of saying "So, you had a spiritual insight/intuition/experience? Great! But please remember that other people have them too, and that theirs may differ from yours, and that doesn't mean either one of you is right or wrong. Until such time as you've confirmed that what you experienced is shared by anyone else, or consistent with what's historically known about $deity or $culture, whatever you learned through it is specific to you, and while it might be very personally important to you, it is not necessarily binding on anyone else, nor should it be assumed to be objective fact."


    * Putting $ in front of something, in computer programming, denotes a variable - something that take any of a variety of values. So in some circles, it's a common shorthand for "insert deity (or whatever variable is being used) of your choice here".

  • William O'seland
    William O'seland Thursday, 11 July 2013

    This is an interesting look at The Cave. I teach the Allegory of the Cave in Freshman English and Composition and I wonder if it would be permissible to use this article in class?

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Thursday, 11 July 2013

    William O'seland, you may use this article in your class with proper citation. Thanks!

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Thursday, 11 July 2013

    Cheers, Everyone. Thank you for such a wonderful range of opinion and discussion!
    )O+
    sam

  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Thursday, 11 July 2013

    I agree with Miss Lynx, and I chuckle at the "$" variable-it could be humorously misconstrued as a Money God argument :P

    I have UPG's myself every so often, and there are some experiences I'll keep to myself, and others that I'll fight for. It all depends on how deeply I am affected by it, and what context it has. I once had a UPG in a dream about someone I had just met. That person happened to be 'very important' in their group and when I mentioned the UPG to them, they shrugged it off. Later on, though, my UPG turned out to have some truth to it. The good UPG's don't need to be pushed on anybody. I prefer to just share what can be shared, and leave it at that. I don't push hard unless it's a matter of principle.

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Thursday, 11 July 2013

    I hope you understand that I'm very much in favor of experience, in fact as the primary datum of knowledge. What I'm doing here is problematizing the term "UPG".

  • Scott
    Scott Monday, 15 July 2013

    My concern is that you're problematizing it without addressing the real question that the term (and others like it) were meant to address: in a world where we *do* take religious experience seriously, how do we distinguish between forms of experience which can be generalized, and those which, for whatever reason, cannot? Chris Richards, above, seems to have the concept of UPG exactly backwards: UPG is a term for an experience for which we *do not* have verification through replication, either by text *or* by independent experiences (in contradiction to your seeming argument that only textual evidence is ever used to generalize UPG). The experience might be an actual contact from a Deity, or it might be a communication from what Raven Kaldera so evocatively terms "the sockpuppets in our heads." If it's an actual contact from a Deity, it might be intended solely as a direction for that practitioner, or it might be more widely applicable as (for example) a general preference for a particular offering for that Deity. Bracketing that experience with the term "UPG" until it is independently verified is a method by which our community negotiates our understanding of this material. Your criticism substantially ignores this actual context of the term's usage.

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