Steel is tested and shaped on the anvil. Here, we try every Pagan idea on the anvil of history, hammered by insight and intellect, to forge a Pagan Future.
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.