Exploring the overlap and relevance of Modernist philosophy, literature, art, music, culture, and modern life with paganism.
Making Sense of the Modernist Reconstructionist (Part 1)
Before I address the title, let me first address a fact that was illuminated in some fairly recent conversations: I am old. Chronologically, I'm just a bit over thirty, which isn't really anyone's idea of old --and contrary to the prevalent misconceptions of ancient longevity (which is an average) generally speaking, people who could survive past the age of 15 all through the Archaic and Classical eras could typically expect to live into their sixties, so this isn't even "old" by historical standards, but I'm old. I'm old because I retain this stubborn identity of "Hellenic reconstructionist" even though many people my age and younger, even (sometimes especially) if they practise by the same general methods I do have long eschewed the term because of reasons. I all get to those reasons very shortly. I'm old because I've acquired greater measures of both patience and cynicism in my approach to dealing with others, largely because of persistent misconceptions of who and what I am and am about, and when I don't have the patience to explain it, I don't get angry, I just shrug and think oh well, this isn't news and frankly I don't think they're worth explaining it to, and then I ask the other person "Hey, let's agree to disagree?" But the good thing about being an ageing cynic (but not really a Cynic, though I do appreciate some of their teachings --my philosophy is based largely on Kyrenaic Hedonism with equal parts Empedocles, Democritus, Kirkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Crisp, and Jarman filling in the gaps, and also a huge stress on aesthetic arts bringing joy and meaning taken from famous Dandies including, but not limited to, Beau Brummel, Oscar Wilde, and Lord Whimsy)... [coughs] Yes, the good thing about being an ageing cynic with a blog, is I get to make things as clear as i need to, update and revise as I need to, and point people to said blog when I don't feel like dealing with them right now.
I want to make clear what religious reconstruction is and is not, because in spite of being pretty active for about the last five years in trying to promote this method of practise as both a perfectly valid and relevant "pagan path", it seems I've been met with more gross and appalling misconceptions in this last year than the previous four combined. Now, I have some suspicions on key players who may be a large part responsible for this, but this isn't about naming names, this is about using the position afforded me on PaganSquare to clarify, perhaps even educate. In this, I also want to stress (though I doubt that I could ever stress enough for some people) that identifying with a reconstructionist method is not synonymous with being ultra-conservative, traditionalist, neo-luddite, or regressionist.
Religious reconstruction is a method of practise, not a religious doctrine in and of itself.
The metaphor that I've been using for years is thing of reconstructing a house after a fire. The foundation of the house is there, the blueprints for the house have likely been filed with the city and available to you in this task. But if the house is of a sufficient age, you're not going to be able to find lead paint, the original electrical and plumbing are probably no longer up to code, and even if care is taken to find, say, the first generation of furniture at antique stores, and reproduction wallpapers can be found, it's still not exactly the same house as before. It's had a Renaissance, a rebirth, and the necessary updates that were made will assure that house will be relevant for the current and next generations, but in another forty years, things are probably going to have to be brought back up to code again.
Religious reconstruction isn't about making the exact same thing that existed in ancient times, because face it: You just can't, at this point. Maybe in a few generations, the religious communities will be big enough to have something more closely resembling those big old festivals of years past, but it's still unlikely that every one of those festivals is going to have every single element exactly like it was in the BCE except with modern clothing. And considering the extreme reluctance to animal sacrifice, even among recon communities, I'm sure few will strongly disagree with me on this. Religious reconstruction is about taking the knowledge that the ancients have left us, and adapting it to modern realities.
There is no such thing as [recon] Orthodoxy.
I'm a Hellenist. One of the most important things I've learned in the almost-decade I have been is this: There is no single set of beliefs in the Hellenic polytheist religion. Is there a Hellenic mainstream? Certainly. There's also a pretty clear basis of practise and history and realities that come with that (including implications of belief), which is generally assumed to be shared by all Hellenists, and significant deviation from which may bring one's dedication to the religion into question, but there is no single "right way" to practise or believe in Hellenism.
As I described above, I'm a Hedonist, philosophically, at the core. The Kyrenaic school, in the ancient times, was also clearly at odds with much of the Hellenic mainstream, to which Plato's school appealed more broadly. Indeed, Aristippus and Plato, both students of Socrates, deviated in teachings on many points, to the extent that each seemed to often-enough accuse the other of completely misunderstanding Socrates' intent. If two men, both sharing a teacher of philosophy, can have to wildly divergent schools of philosophy, I find it incredibly hard to believe that all Hellenes everywhere, in ancient and modern times, are going to be in agreement on everything.
On the other hand, there are clear defining points of Hellenism that those applying a reconstructionist method can be very quick to point out:
- The gods are timeless and deathless, even if Their mythologies may not be literally true. Even the "atheist" philosophers of Hellas were more in line with Carl Sagan's agnostic pantheist definition of deity1, or the deistic beliefs of Stephen Hawking than the staunch anti-theism of Penn Jilette or Richard Dawkins.
- The heroes were real, once-living-and-breathing people, regardless of whether their mythologies were literally true. This is evidenced by the fact that, with very rare exception (such as Herakles, who Plutarch outlined was heros theos, both mortal hero and immortal deity), the centre of hero cults were centred around the purported tomb of the hero in question, and said hero often had few, if any shrines outside the city, town, or village where said hero's remains were interred.
- Ancestor worship is a part of Hellenic polytheism.
- Household practise is central to personal practise, especially if one is head of a family.
- Nymphai, or nature spirits, are real, even if their relevance to practise is easily debatable.
- Philosophy is a part of Hellenic polytheism, but may not be restricted to any particular school, nor is it assumed to be a compulsory element of the religion.
- Hellenic culture is hard to divorce from Hellenic polytheistic religion; some degree of educated acculturation should be assumed, but is subject to greater variance than the above points.
This outline is based on what is known of the religious practises of ancient Hellas and the "gold standard" set by the earliest fragments of the Hellenic community from approximately the late 1970s to mid-1990s. What constitutes "significant deviation" from these points is certainly debated within the community, but generally there's an accepted degree of variance of belief within these perimeters, even amongst those who choose to employ and identify with the reconstructionist method.
Religious reconstruction is different from "historic reenactment" in that religious reconstruction stresses modern relevance and timelessness.
There are generally two "big tents" under this; those who stress traditionalism as some bastion of saving modern people from themselves, and those who stress modernism, or the progress of human experiences, scientific knowledge, technology, and shaping of the human environment.
The modernist camp may seem to contradict the mere idea of applying a reconstructionist method to religious practises, but we see that the ancients were largely progressive, making huge strides in technology, science, and philosophy that wouldn't be revisited again until the Renaissance. The remnants of the ancient aqueducts certainly stands as a testament of the human ability to shape the environment with our technology for centuries after the fact. Furthermore, where "modernist philosophy" is often described as lacking the remnants of certainty possessed by the Enlightenment philosophers and stressing a critical eye, ancient philosophy was full of sceptics, if you know where to go. The assertion of the Kyrenaic school that one cannot possibly have a complete knowledge of everything outside oneself that affects one's experiences is practically in line with being a prototype for Existential Absurdism.
Indeed, ideals since labelled "modernist" were already in play in the years BCE, and are just as relevant now as they ever were. By modernist pagans looking to the reconstructionist method of practise --even if one chooses not to stick to it strictly, even if one chooses to throw it away shortly after-- the timelessness of the human condition becomes illuminated. It's very easy for myself to reconcile the paradox of "traditionalist religion" with a clear identification with "modernist" philosophies and lifestyle, because through years of reading and learning, it's absolutely clear to me that this is all very timeless, like my gods.
The method doesn't even strike me as "traditionalist" anymore. It just IS. How can it be? This was the same method employed by proto-modernists of the school founded by Aristippus. The outline of beliefs was shared by Cynics and Hedonists, who were scandalous in the staunchly "traditionalist" cities for the practise of putting women, women who were not hetaerae, on equal intellectual grounds with men (the elder Aristippus apparent star pupil was his own daughter). This is the same basic outline shared by Sparta, where women practically were equal in all areas but the military, and the Aeolic tribes of Hellas, where the inheritance still today is traditionally passed down to the eldest daughter. This is the basic practise outline of the original sceptics, and the inventors of a prototype steam engine (though they were at a loss of a practical application for said) and elaborate clockworks that rivalled even the impressive and precise Victorian automatons. (And, doubtless, Germanic / Scandinavian, Celtic, Kemetic, Semetic and other tribes made other contributions, but eh, I can be a specialist in my knowledge to a fault, sometimes.) The notion that these ancient people, who shaped their environment for better and for worse, certainly had a form of industrialisation, and sought to enhance their experiences through the accumulation of technology and knowledge, both scientific and philosophical, somehow weren't "modernised" by their own definitions is barbaros to me; it's unintelligible blabber that doesn't apply.
At one time, Paul Weller once proclaimed Mod, as in the subculture, to be his religion. When i look at the ancient concept of religion, the sacred rituals practically inseparable with one's everyday lifestyle, I sort of want to give him a pass, but I question what rituals he has that graduates this lifestyle for him to religion. In myself, I have no question that I'm a Mod who's religious, and has absolutely no trouble trouble incorporating my religion, as ancient as it is, into his lifestyle, as thoroughly modernist as it is.
1: Sagan is often incorrectly described as an atheist by others. In fact, his famous "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", contrary to common belief, WAS NOT about the concept of deity. It originated with an episode of Cosmos (which I have on DVD) about the topic of alien contact. In a different episode of Cosmos, Sagan defined his personal concept of deity pretty clearly, which was basically in line with pantheism. Furthermore, Sagan himself, if pressured, personally identified as an agnostic, and clearly disliked being called an atheist or being associated with atheists.
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