Going Down A Well Trod Road? That Old Faith vs. Reason Argument
Article ID: 12778
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: January 18th. 2009
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This morning once again my wife had read first thing when the latest batch of essays were posted on Witchvox, and when I came down for my morning cup of blood (coffee) , said, “You have to read today’s article”. So I read another article in the ongoing debate between what is touted as formal and Eclectic pagan spiritualism.
After finishing the article, I shook my head and then said, “I guess it is time for me to join in the conversation”. All these articles and essays have raised some good topics, yet I still felt all of them missed important points from a discussion with a sound theological and philosophical basis.
I’m not sure my own attempts at adding to this is going to settle the debate, nor that I’ll even do a good job of bringing up some of those important issues of faith and its practice. I don’t want to cause anybody outrage, but a few choice words of though to make them think for themselves is always a good thing in my mind. I guess I should start off with my own point of view and background, because it matters in where I’m going to take this essay. However, the debate definitely needs to go on, so here goes:
Well this is where I’m coming from personally. If I have to accept a label to describe myself I ‘d have to say I’m rather of Gnostic Universalist. No, I’m not a deist, and definitely not an agnostic. I was baptized into the Eastern Rite of Catholicism, raised Roman Catholic (in the usual sort of modern lax way) and over the years have studied widely (maybe too much so!) , being initiated into both eclectic and Gardinarian covens, and modern Druidism before realizing that no specific path created by others would ever truly work for me. I also am professionally trained as a scholar, have one of my master’s degrees in intellectual history and on top of it all am a freemason.
So my personal worldview is to celebrate any tradition that worships the divine in a spiritual way without touting itself as the one and only true way of becoming closer to the divine. In that I’m definitely on the side of those folks who sides with the eclectic forms of paganism, even if I’m not a person who would be labeled an Eclectic.
Personally I hate labels. I recently read one essay where the author labeled orthodox covens as the “Wiccans”, while the Eclectics as merely “Neowiccans”. It is bad enough when I see pagans badmouth the mainstream Judao-Christian faiths for being so narrow minded (which to me is being exactly what they say they are against) , but if we start even implying that some aspects of paganism are legitimate while others are less so, it is ultimately taking all of us down a road I don’t think we even want to contemplate.
So first off... What is at stake here?
The issue of modern paganism encompasses a huge range of practices, traditions and even at times, definitions. So where are the Wiccan pagans going right now? Can a valid comparison be made between, say modern Christianity with what is happening with the pagan movement? I’d say, in a word “yes”. As it all boils down to the fact that people will be people, and religion is a most human of systems, I’ll use as my example Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in all its diverse forms as a point of comparison.
How many practicing pagans know the history of the Reformation and Counter Reformation? I am serious here, so bear with me. The reason I’m using the historical parallel is because in a number of significant ways this bears on the whole orthodox pagan vs. Eclectic discussion. I feel that a lot of people in the modern pagan movement are unconsciously reinventing a process that has a long and well-studied history, so I’m going to draw on some of the logic and see how it applies to our current issue. People will repeat themselves, even if they try to avoid repeating the mistakes of history.
To repeat a really good quote:
Let me start with comparing the way Roman Catholicism and Protestants view their way they go about interpreting their faith. Now I can’t take this line of logic too far, because I’m sure a number of folks are already screaming that Christianity is about interpreting the words of the bible… and you are correct when you say that there is no parallel to this singular body of writing in paganism, however for the purposes for the comparison I think you’ll see what I’m getting at.
The Roman Catholic faith claims it is the one true faith Christian based on its long tradition of well-defined dogma and educated scholastic tradition that stretches back to the founding fathers of the faith. While hardly that old, I think it is a valid comparison the by now well-established traditions of Gardiner and Alexander and their fellow traditional Wiccan paths. All have their focus on mysteries passed down by an elite high priest/priestess hood, and emphasis on specific deities being worshipped in proscribed ritual.
Does this make the traditional based Wiccans right and others wrong?
Well, how about the other side of the coin?
In Christianity, Protestantism began as in reaction against two things: the excesses of a faith based on a hierarchy with all the keys to the kingdom, and an absolute stranglehold on all revelation based on interpreting the divine message. Protestants are to this day still attacked for their emphasis on personal interpretation of the divine without having the guidance of a caste of elites to interpret the message for them. They say in turn that each individual must find their way to the divine. To him or her, no priest or ritual in itself can do if for you.
In the end, is either side really correct? Who is really wrong here? Considering the long history of strife and conflict over such a simple divide in interpretation, do we have to ultimately go down the same road of religious intolerance with celebrating being pagan ourselves?
The point of all this here is Eclectics are pretty much following a well trod path with their insistence on a personal path to their faith, and this is a tried and true way to do things for all the pitfalls it entails. Do Eclectics sometimes get it wrong? Absolutely. Each of us comes to our spiritual path through the aggregate of our educational background, reading choices, study, upbringing, and personal quirks.
So if you want to mix your liking for Bast since you are cat person, with Thor because one of your ancestors was Norwegian, you get a weird blend of cultural resonances that may not be completely complementary in practice Badly researched books published by authors with their own personal paths to faith compounds some pretty fuzzy pagan practices out there.
Of course, look where our own cultural history has been. No question about it, some of the cultural stew that the modern pagan movement inherited in the last 60 years has been pretty fuzzy. As the pagan movement has matured over the last couple of decades, so have many thoughtful pagans begun asking for work that reflects a more sound and mature awareness of pagan Gods and Goddesses to base their faith upon.
Do we really need to do it from within covens though? Are all the keys to the kingdom held by a few who hold their secrets for those worthy of learning them in the secretive mysteries of the traditional covens?
It is a big question that I cannot personally answer. However what I can say it is at this time, the field is pretty wide open for interpretations of pagan worship and being within a coven is but one path of Wicca, and Wicca is just one form of legitimate pagan worship out there. Which is the right path? Well, that’s way to big a question for me to even try to answer. I can say for certain that history is littered with examples of different forms of cultural and spiritual paths.
Some will choose to follow paths that seek spirituality through forming and following groups that teach a conformist path, others must find there own way. Of course in both examples there are paths that just don’t pan out with time, and posers who pretend to be masters.
We live in a time where the sheer range of published and accessible thoughts, ideas and notions are extraordinary. No question about it, a lot of stuff out there is junk. However, there have been just as many gems published as junk put out there, and all I can say in the face of the many diverse paths is for each person choosing the Eclectic path to choose their personal course carefully. I for one choose to find my way and choose my masters in the open, without putting myself into a group where the lessons are carefully controlled by someone who might not turn out to be all they claim to be.
So to rip a page from the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and take the idea to ourselves, it is through faith and reason that the modern pagan should explore the world. Orthodox religion has always had a bit of an advantage since a trained hierarchy is better equipped to filter through some of the crap out there, but people are not infallible no matter how well educated or how much knowledge they have.
To approach the divine takes many views, many approaches. There is room for those who choose to do it through a singular path, just as there is just as valid a path for those who do it through a more formal path of orthodox study and dogma.
Tolerance, diversity and open-mindedness should be a hallmark of modern paganism if we are going to truly be a break from the same problems of the past that have bedeviled just about every other religion in the world.
ust watch out for the trolls that lurk out there, both in the Eclectic and within the secretive mysteries of the coven path of paganism.
Quote cited from The End of the World. edited by Lewis H. Lapham and Peter T. Struck. St. Martins Press., NY, 1997.
Copyright: Andrew I Mychalus, original writing 2008
Location: New Park, Pennsylvania
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