Reconciling Two Paganisms: Eclecticism and Traditionalism
Article ID: 9075
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,412
Times Read: 6,410
Author: Brendan Myers
Posted: March 27th. 2005
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In our community we have two main approaches to the practice of our Pagan spirituality. The first, deliberately or inadvertently started by Gerald Gardner, Alex Sanders, Doreen Valiente, and their respective associates, is the approach of the tradition, in which Pagan knowledge is passed on from some predecessor, through chains of teacher and student. The other, popularly attributed to Starhawk but also the creation of thousands of independent seekers, is the approach of Eclecticism, in which Pagan knowledge is obtained directly from people’s own experience of the divine. These two communities are often antagonistic to each other, and I think that may be because they do not understand each other. I’d like to get the process of mutual understanding started. Is one or the other to be preferred, or is some reconciliation between them possible?
Here is a description of how the proponents of each approach tend to see themselves.
The Traditional Approach: There are objective established techniques which enable powerful spiritual experiences to manifest. These objective techniques may be socially constructed, as in large measure they derive from certain traditional practices obtained through many generations of trial and error. But for that, they are no less objective. These objective techniques are also a matter of psychological reality, for they also include techniques of trance-induction, hypnosis, and the creation of physical and psychological conditions which better enable the seeker to obtain the spiritual experiences which are her own. Many generations of experimentation have taught practitioners of the sacred what works well and what works poorly. There are certain songs, certain melodic phrases, certain rhythms, certain patterns of colour and light, and so on, which work better than others, for reasons that are not completely understood at this time but are known to have something to do with they way they affect the physical and electrical structures of the body’s blood circulation and central nervous system. And for that reason, they have made it into the permanent folklore of the movement’s young and fragmentary oral tradition. It is the job of each seeker to learn them from certain teachers or elders, and eventually to become a teacher or elder to pass them on to the next generation.
The Eclectic Approach: This view does not necessarily claim that everyone has their own mysteries, but it claims that everyone will have their own different way of approaching them. No person will have precisely the same experience as any other, and that one’s experiences from time to time will always be different in greater or lesser ways. “Book knowledge, ” which is information obtained through research sources communicated by written (and sometimes spoken) language is to be distrusted. One’s own experiences are to take priority. One should likewise trust one’s feelings, instincts, and emotions, in preference to one’s own intellectual conclusions. It is up to each person to discover what will work for her (where “what works” is that which results in the production of a spiritual experience, or the realisation of a spiritual insight, for the seeker). Any claim about how things “ought” to be done, or what people “ought” to believe, is a command which no one has the authority to give. No one can provide or interpret another person’s spiritual experience, and by trying to do so one may cause great harm. At the level of interpersonal relations, this may translate into a moral requirement to “harm none, ” and in that single respect the eclectic school may admit of a principle to limit or constrain how one may live one’s life. But the main purpose of such a requirement is to force the seeker to focus upon her own experiences, her own discoveries, and her own decisions about the meaning and purpose of her life and how it shall be lived.
If it is a reconciliation of the two schools that is sought, which might be in keeping with the general Pagan belief that polarised oppositions like these should exist in balance with each other, then it must be realised that no reconciliation can be possible until the nature of each school’s objection to the approach of the other school is properly and critically assessed. The two strongest objections each approach levels at the other is the claim that eclectics are undisciplined, and that traditionalists are stagnated. Let’s look at each of them in turn.
“Eclectics are undisciplined.” Traditionalists occasionally deride the eclectics for approaching their practice in a kind of random, scattergun way, and for contributing to a general decline in the intellectual quality of Pagan culture. Of course this may also be the result of the representation of our Paganism in popular culture. Like it or not, agree with it or not, but it is the case that many people become attracted to Paganism because they want to live in the world portrayed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or some similar show. That world exists only on television. The general point here, however, is that eclecticism, by its nature, borrows ideas and techniques from a variety of sources and there need not be any guiding unifying principle behind the borrowing. There need not be any functional distinction between an idea portrayed in a television show just last week, and an idea recorded by a Renaissance occultist three or four hundred years ago. The eclectic seeker might not be interested in any productive synthesis of the different ideas she borrows; she may be interested only in what is emotionally gratifying at that time. In my judgement this criticism of Eclecticism really does hit the mark. However, if there was a guiding and unifying idea behind the borrowings, for instance if the seeker focused her interest on one broad cultural group (i.e. Celtic, Middle Eastern, Classical Greco-Roman, etc.) that might provide a sense of coherence which would allow great depth to be obtained without sacrificing the desire to always be learning something new.
“Traditionalists are stagnated.” Eclectics frequently claim that the traditional approach is a form of oppressive dogmatism whose inevitable outcome must be “stagnation” — an opinion I have received in personal communications again and again, in my contact with Pagans in four different countries on two continents. If ritual and ceremony were always performed the same way, at the same precise times and with the same words, gestures, symbols, and so on, the eclectic seeker would claim that we would spiritually stagnate due to a lack of creativity and inventiveness, and lack of variety in the experiences that the ceremony produced. Furthermore, many Eclectics believe that Traditionalists require seekers to learn and to practice unnecessarily elaborate, or even demented, techniques and rituals, for no other reason than because “it was always done that way.” In that respect the eclectics score a point in their favour. There really are some traditional techniques in Paganism that really ought not to be continued. For instance there is (at least) one tradition that requires would-be initiates to lie naked on their backs on the floor, with their arms up above their heads, and with a sharp sword balanced over their rib cage in such a way that if the initiate tried to move, the sword might slip and draw blood. This initiatory ordeal is supposed to be a test of trust and of physical discipline. But there are other less silly, and less dangerous, ways to test these qualities.
The complaint that the traditionalist school is dogmatic and stagnated is, otherwise, quite exaggerated. It has itself become dogmatic in its own way. But it is easy to understand why it arises. Many people enter Paganism because they find that their spiritual needs are not being met by mainline Christian churches with their centuries-old traditions, scriptures, and doctrines. They feel held back, or even imprisoned, by doing things the same way over and over again. Some may even feel that they were hurt or abused by the authority figures in those churches. Sometimes this assessment of Christianity is justified, and sometimes it is a projection of the seeker’s insecurities or fears, and a manifestation of the need to feel empowered and free. In Paganism such people are looking for a spirituality that will liberate them. Eclectics tend to transfer the rejection of Christian doctrinal authority into a rejection of the “authority” of certain Pagan traditions, especially certain British lineages.
But the traditionalist seeker would claim that the repetition connects one with other practitioners who work in more or less the same way, especially including ancestors and predecessors in the tradition. Our traditions are a large part of what constitutes our identities, and so they cannot be ignored by anyone on a quest to “know yourself.” Furthermore, the ceremonial repetition builds up astral structures which strengthen over time, enabling the seeker to obtain more intense experiences, deeper truths, and better results. This argument is strong, and it is something that Eclecticism, with its emphasis on spontaneity and the moment, cannot ignore.
Similarly, however, the Traditionalists cannot ignore the general attitude of Eclecticism that spirituality demands of us to always be learning something new. The Eclectics are undeniably right in that the deep exploration of one’s inner life must be part of what it means to “know yourself.” This exploration, however much it may be influenced or shaped by traditions, is also constituted by the seeker’s freedom and her power to choose.
This debate can continue to go back and forth like an endless tennis match. For it is essentially an “in-house” debate. There is no reason for anyone outside the movement to be interested in it. It has little or no relevance to life outside the Pagan community. That this debate occupies so much time and attention is, in my view, testament to the provincial, insular, and limited navel-gazing vision of the Pagan movement at this time. If the whole debate on the topic of ethics in Paganism was contained within the mutual antagonism between the traditional school and the eclectic school, the debate would surely be horribly closed-minded and entirely irrelevant to any matter that arises outside of the confines of Pagan culture. This self-absorbed insular attitude has got to end. It is that attitude, more than any other, which will cause our community to become both stagnated and undisciplined. But I can see a way out of it.
To my mind, what matters most is the pursuit of a worthwhile life. With this aim in mind, we can bring the insights of all the different kinds of Paganism together, and use them to create a grounded spirituality linked to nature which is appropriate for our own needs and our own time. A spiritual seeker is not an anachronism, nor is she a child. She does not wish to live in the past, nor in a fantasy world.
An enthusiasm for tradition, historical re-enactment, and community life can and should be a part of that. For one thing, it can be loads of fun! And it can help to bring history and mythology to life, and so make the origins of our traditions real to us. Similarly, a capacity for imagination and creativity should be part of one’s path as well. Without it, we may not be able to change our lives for the better, for we may not be able to see the world as it could otherwise be. Whatever Paganism we eventually settle upon, it will be shaped by our own intentions and interpretations, and so it will inevitably be different than ancient Paganism. Yet the connection to the past cannot be ignored: What we inherit from history and tradition is a large part of who and what we are today. What, then, is the solution to the problem of history? As far as history and tradition go, we should preserve in our traditions the practices which help bring out the best in us. How much eclectic invention and borrowing should be allowed? Again, the answer is that which will help us become the best human beings we can be. Where the tradition seems incomplete or incoherent, and where imaginative creativity seems disconnected from reality, we may always refer back to the eternal mysteries as revealed to us through honest and open perception of the world, coupled with clear thinking and right intentions.
Copyright: © 2005 by Brendan Cathbad Myers. All rights reserved.
Location: Gatineau, Quebec
Author's Profile: To learn more about Brendan Myers - Click HERE
Bio: Brendan Cathbad Myers has been on the Druid's path for twelve years. Originally from Canada, he now lives in the west of Ireland where he is finishing his Ph.D in environmental philosophy. He is the author of Dangerous Religion (see Witchvox listing) published by Earth Religions Press.
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