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Rethinking Pagan Heterodoxy

Author: YB"N
Posted: August 22nd. 2010
Times Viewed: 2,080

I have heard a lot of arguments against honoring scriptures, rules, and hierarchies from Pagan people. Some of them make sense. Scriptures have a tendency to generate fundamentalism. Too many rules oppress the general body of a spiritual community. Hierarchies allow power hungry people to get a lot of power. These are fine arguments until they become accusations against the people who utilize these elements in spiritual work. Broad, sweeping generalizations attacking those Pagans who do honor a holy book, observe their morals carefully, or recognize human spiritual authorities are harmful and offensive. The heterodox Pagan is reared in the assumption that doing these things is somehow below true Pagans; that spirituality is really about going out and finding what works for you with no concern for tradition or any person who is supposedly more learned than you. Those who would claim to be better educated than the average person or who believe that their experience qualifies them to take on certain leadership roles are really just fishing for followers. They are messianic personalities and probably dangerous.

The trend toward heterodox philosophy in Paganism is, I think, linked to how Pagans have addressed doctrinal differences with Christianity. As Christianity looses more and more adherents to liberal, Pagan spiritual traditions, there is a rising tendency among those people to criticize Christianity for its power play through history and in the present. This criticism often extends beyond history and political corruption to include the structure of Christian organizations. The idea that education and recognition of spiritual power are necessary to instate someone as a priest or minister is abhorred by Pagans as a result of their abhorrence of Christianity. They are called patriarchal and oppressive. Those elements are then censored from Pagan thoughts and fewer and fewer Pagan publications feature articles and chapters on the importance of listening to your High Priestess and considering carefully the words of the Oracle. In fact, very little is written at all on the formation of traditional Pagan organizations. Covens, Groves, and Temples are for a minority among Pagans who can afford to establish them and those who do so are subject to harsh criticism and even ridicule.
But what if following works for some people? Is it not possible for a Pagan to feel a need for a human teacher, a human intercessor that bridges the gap between him and the gods, a human author of scripture, a prophet? Other Pagans really have no right to criticize those who choose such spiritual paths and they also have no right to accuse Pagan leaders of manipulation. We have forgotten our roots. In working so hard to avoid developing fundamentalism and orthodoxy around the older Pagan religions, Pagans have stripped their spirituality to the bone. Gerald Gardner is labeled ‘a pervert and a liar’. Aleister Crowley is now ‘a madman and a comedian’. Janet Farrar is ‘a “Feminazi” and too full of herself to be an effective teacher’. What is left once these influential and foundational authors are dismissed is a pile of sun bleached and worn out beliefs which were once abandoned just the same as they soon will be again. As Pagan spirituality looses gusto, it will also loose interested candidates for inexistent initiations.

In 2007, I began to lay down the framework of what would become the spiritual tradition called Nvuah. I was 17 and I had been practicing Paganism for little more than a year. At first, I wanted to found my own tradition of Wicca. It was, after all, the Pagan religion I was most familiar with. I did not, however, like the structure of Wicca and, instead of becoming an eclectic Wiccan and ignoring the whole point of Wicca’s existence to begin with, I figured I would just do something a little different. I changed how the hierarchy of my tradition worked to make it slightly more centralized but still ultimately democratic. I designed it to be capable of holding a membership higher than the traditional Coven number thirteen. I designed several levels of education that would lead the Seeker toward Ordination but not obligate him to any predetermined commitment. Nvuah is structured basically the same way now. It is not the same religion as it was three years ago (it has members now) but it is the same organization.
From the outset I experienced resistance from fellow Pagans. I was told that I was too young, hungry for power, egotistical, and learned. Since Paganism is an experiential tradition and most of my experience came from books, I could not possibly lead a Pagan tradition. They were right. I spent the next two years learning how to teach spirituality and collecting the pieces of my tradition that were missing but I never lost sight of the book paved path. To this day, Nvuah is steeped in the mysteries of Kabbalah and the Grimoires of old.
When Nvuah started developing as a working group last year, I experienced harsh feelings of resentment toward those who had held me back. It grew to a point where I began to lose spiritual focus – not a good sign. When I considered carefully what I was feeling and meditated on my emotions, I realized that the pain was not from being dismissed as a fraud or a charlatan; it was from feeling like one. I allowed the attacks on my conventional way of practicing and teaching to make me feel below those who used newer methods and adhered strictly to the “have it your way” attitude rampant in Paganism today.

I have never taught my students that they should not experiment with their spirituality. In fact, my response to their meditative experiences is always positive and accepting. I am often heard saying, “whatever you experience is right, even if that is nothing, ” and even the outrageously liberal, “do what works for you.” But when it comes to ritual in Nvuah, I teach that there are certain ways of doing things. Sure, Nvuah as a structured organization is only about three years old. Our traditional Founding Days are August 17th, 18th, and 19th of 2008! Our power, however, comes from four generations of spiritual work and our methods are designed to evoke that power until it can stand in front of us in a vehicle of flesh. Doing what works for one person does not get us there as a group, we need a collective memory to power our collective efforts.
That is the definition of a spiritual tradition: the harnessing of power through the expression of collective memory. These ancient rituals applied to our new Pagan lives inspire something within us that is powerful for everyone, not just anyone. There will most certainly be people for whom Nvuah does nothing. Some are even afraid to come to our rituals. But why would we restructure our tradition, which works really well so far, for those people? They will either do what works for them alone or find another group.
The point is we are a tradition now. The members of Nvuah and those who are studying to someday become members recognize that they have entered into a system that already has a framework and that the primary point of engaging that framework is not to change it – though this does happen over time – but to be changed by it. This is the whole point of rites of passage, of tradition in the first place. Perhaps some of my members will be ridiculed for following my tradition. For listening to the teachings that come from my mouth. After all, most of them are older than me; some have had years more experience. But they recognize that in my traditional methods of training, which is utterly possessed by Sefer Yetzirah, the Goetia, the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, and 777, there is a powerful system which evokes great power for them.
This is a power that cannot be found in solitary work or even eclectic group work. There is certainly power in those things and high “levels” of power can be reached, but it is not this power. For those who sneeze when they open moldy books, or shudder when they hear the voces magicae, Nvuah will probably never be home. For that matter, nor will British Traditional Wicca, Ceremonial Magick, or Asatru. For some of us, a yellow page is the Holy Grail and hundreds of Grails line our shelves. The mysterious words of ancient manuscripts evidence a language from heaven and these come alive in trance. I am not writing to accuse eclectic or “liberal” Pagans of having no substance. Certainly, there are uninspired practitioners in every practice. I am, however, calling to the attention of whomever will listen, the hypocrisy in pagan heterodoxy which says that whatever way works is the right way and then trashes those who have found a way that works and stick to it. Perhaps there is such a fear of power in some that they can not receive it from another or give it to anyone else that leads to this tendency in Paganism. I cannot imagine letting all the wisdom and majesty of Gardner, Crowley, and Farrar wither and fade because I am afraid of Pagan fundamentalism.

Copyright: Copyright Rev. Joshua WM Berkowitz 2010



Location: Easton, Massachusetts


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