Constant Redefinition and the Paradox of “Tradition”

When engaging in discussions of what Modern Paganism “is,” it is important to remember one salient fact: the verifiable history of the various contemporary Pagan movements dates the emergence of its prototype forms at roughly a century ago. Concrete, self identified Pagan groups of any broad significance show up around the end of the Second World War. In terms of the history of religion, this is a very very short time span. The Christian tradition took about four hundred years to really coalesce into something resembling the forms we recognize today. Thinking this way, any “is” statement about Modern Paganism really ought to be prefaced as a characterization of an emerging phenomenon, rather than as a statement with final authority. The implication of this is that a “definition of Paganism” in this context is actually an attempt, either deliberate or unconscious, to define the tradition that we will be passing on to the next generation.

It is interesting in this context to consider the “anti-fluffy” meme and its assault on, say, Murray-derived Craft narratives. For while historical accuracy has its place, the follow through on the manifest implications of that history needs to be a priority. If we recognize the authority of current scholarship, scant as it may be, the idea of Modern Paganism being an ancient survival is highly questionable. We actually know the real names of the founders of The Golden Dawn, Thelema, and their offspring, Wicca. And we know the sorts of people they were. I feel safe in saying that none of these people had the degree of wisdom and foresight that I would need to see exhibited on their part before I would accept their authority as anything close to final or definitive.
This is one of the problems with being a New Religious Movement. We’re simply too close to the original sources to romanticize them and follow them to the letter. If you live five hundred years after Saint Peter, you can see him as the Rock upon which the Church is built. It your grandfather was the fellow who had to block his naked ass from view of the road while he took a shit, this wounds stupid. Of course, there are Wiccans who will tell you that heteronormative initiations are the only way to be “Wicca” and not “neo-Wicca,” but I suspect they know somewhere that this is a questionable position. Or, as so many Thelemites effectively worship Crowley, they may have elevated Gerald Gardner (of all people!) to the status of infallibility. One hopes not.

A tradition like Christianity, having been around long enough to have established patterns of practice and theological discourse, resist one of the more controversial aspects of Modern Paganism: constant proliferation of multiple definitions, many of which contradict one another. It should be pointed out, before going further, that it does so only to an extent. There is a Christian “Tradition” in the sense that there is a “Tradition” of music known as Classical. Out of that Tradition come numerous Christianities that have a common source book (or two, really, the Old and New Testaments) but vary widely in terms of how they relate to that book.

I don’t think multiplicity, in itself, is all that unique or problematic. But Modern Paganism has developed what I consider a great deal of “static on the line” when it comes to thinking about what, in general, it means to “be Pagan.” It is possible to so loosely define it that it becomes meaningless as anything other than a collection of specific techniques for mental masturbation, and so narrowly that it excludes everything but a specific institutional lineage. I don’t think either of these is desirable. There are reasonable ways to indicate boundaries without creating absolute dogmas.

One of the ways to do this is to consider a religious movement as a reflection of the needs and desires of individuals in a given social context. In this, I think needs should come first. That is, I think the objective socioeconomic context needs to be clearly and accurately understood. Otherwise, the tendency will be to drift off into fantasies that are either so divorced from reality that their impact on society at large is minimal, or so rooted in divisive garbage that they lend support to regressive or even fascistic cultural forces.

This would help us resolve a number of “issues,” such as the current tedium surrounding the question of whether or not Paganism is an “Earth” or “Nature” based belief system. We live in an age of vast ecological crisis. This is fairly well established, arguments to the contrary being largely the product of PR campaigns originating with polluting business interests. Seriously, follow the money and you will find the interest being served. Given this, I would assert that any emerging religious movement that does not, at the very least, recognize the need to live in actual balance with the planet, is irresponsible. You simply cannot ignore a pressing reality of the magnitude of our current environmental problems and expect to be considered anything other than a joke.

Also, the notion of anything in Modern Paganism being “indigenous” should be abandoned, simply because it is not true. There may be surviving pre-Christian cultures that fit this category, but they are not the same as Modern Paganism. This is a very specific religious movement with contemporary origins. The degree to which any one element may be traced back to previous existing religions is beside the point. The superstructure and the motifs of the movement are the product of Late Capitalist society, with known origins in Western Hermetic practices dating from the Romantic period and later.

This gives us lines along which meaningful definitions can be drawn. It is not so much to exclude, but to focus. A belief system that cannot decide on what it is will not survive. There is no way to pass down a collection of half-understood homilies and strange practices. Over time, they will simply become mangled and become absorbed into whatever the next version of the New Age is.

Modern Paganism, considered in terms of an objective social phenomenon, is a new religion. There are echoes of the past, but the main voice is that of the Late Capitalist West, with all of the baggage and opportunity that brings with it. It is my opinion that, if its various strains do not come to terms with this, it will vanish at the first sign of a shift in society, or morph into something ugly that serves the powers of social regression.


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