Saturday, December 19, 2009

Reconstructionists or Reactionaries?

The reconstructionist project of trying to painstakingly determine in detail how the ancestors lived is not only an important anthropological project, but an important religious one as well, by allowing us to connect more closely to our ancestors by knowing their ways. Now, in most traditional religions, one can connect to the ancestors quite fine without much knowledge by simply attuning to them. However, the reconstructionist project allows us to tune in to the exact frequency of their old lifeways with much greater accuracy, and many of the writings that have come out of the reconstructionist movement have been both edifying and educational. I have every respect for the project as such.

But there's a difference between wanting to know how the ancestors lived in all of their function and dysfunction, and turning them into some sort of paragon which ought uncritically imitate. The response of some to critique of ancestral ways is, "Well, it may not work for you, but it worked for them, in their society and their time." But that is to beg the question. That is the very question to be determined : what worked for them, and what didn't? We cannot assume complete functionality. We all know that all social systems, from the smallest unit of couples to the family to clans to tribes to nations to international organizations all have a differential mixture of function and dysfunction, so an analysis of function and dysfunction is of the very greatest relevance, especially to determining what would be of value to us in the present, and what would be of no value to us, and what, if it were to be of value, would need to be healed.

If we take a functionalist perspective, we don't need to be lost in the cultural relativist position that whatever a group of people did at one point in time was ok because they did it. No, we can ask, what worked, and what didn't work? And then, we need to ask, what do we mean by "working"? Does something "work" merely because one got away with it? Does something "work" because it was able to last and stand for a time? But corruption is able to last and stand for a time. Injustice is able to last and stand for a time. Various niding acts are perennial in the history of humankind.

Heathenism is a tradition which strongly emphasizes the pragmatic. That's one of its virtues. But we must remember that a monolithic emphasis upon pragmatism approaches cynicism, because principles and pragmatism must work hand in hand. It is an inherently conformist, uncritical stance to say, "This is what the ancestors did ; therefore, we should be doing it. This is what the ancestors did ; therefore, it is of value." For one thing, this freezes the customs of one time and one place, and turns them into a museum-piece. Real life is always evolving. Now it may be evolving gradually and in tune with its own values, or it may not, but it is still evolving. Each people take the heirlooms that are handed down to them, and they develop them in new ways appropriate and relevant to their time. We aren't living in the early Iron Age.

There's also a second fallacy here, which comes up frequently, and that's the confusion of the spiritual realm of the ancestors, and the archaeological examination of how the ancestors lived when they were alive. You see, in an ancestral tradition, the ancestors that one is communing with are not the people living in the past. It's the living ancestors now, the ones who have had time to figure out what numbskulls they were, and we're all numbskulls, each us of in our own way, and each of us as groups in our own time. Being ancestral gives the ancestors a different perspective on life. The ancestors love the traditional ways. They want to see their creation that they got from their own ancestors continue to be passed down as an act of love, as an act of caressing their own creativity, and acknowledgement of the richness of those heirloom ways, and as long as the essence and the heart of that which is best and that which is most meaningful continues to be passed down, they are happy.

But they are not such fools as to think that it's going to be passed down precisely, exactly, and with no modifications or betterings, as if we were robots whose only purpose was to pass on some code foreign to our own lives! They've gotten some perspective on their narrowness. So the archaeologist may very well say, ah, this is how the ancestors lived, and that voice, accurate, may differ entirely from what the ancestors in communion now are advising.

Let us not turn the ancestors into some sort of paragon of perfection. We're all numbskulls and misers, each in our own way. Every one of our lives is textured with the times that we listened to the voice of Loki and to the voice of Gullveig, versus the times when we actually listened to the call of Odin, or the call of Njord or Freyr or Freya, and so forth. Many of the ancestors will say, "Be human. Enjoy yourself. Make your mistakes, yes, but please don't be as much of a numbskull as I was." They've had their evaluation at the holy doomsteads. They saw the times that they were fools and pawns for unwhole forces.

And if we're going to listen to Iron Age peoples, then perhaps we ought to listen to their poets, who were speaking their heart, and the poets of every Iron Age people knew that that was not their Golden Age! They declared it loudly and strongly! So it's not only foolish, it's somewhat insulting to turn what for them was an Axe Age into a Golden Age. They remembered the Golden Age. They passed that on. That's what they wanted to pass on! Those of us who blow and brush aside the Niflhellish smoke that has shrouded the times of Baldur for so long are the ones who are fulfilling the deepest desires and longings of the ancestors.

Remember our Gods are not static Gods. They are Gods of Becoming. We are still in the process of developing the gifts the Gods gave us. We are in our process of fruition. We have not yet come to fruit. There are many secrets the ancestors have to give us about how to nurture that fruit, and stand ready to share their spiritual fertilizers to help it grow. They willingly share if we listen and prove our worth. And the reconstructionist path, by rigorously calling our attention to the actual lifeways of those ancestors in the Iron Age, allows us to be in the flow of that Becoming, of which we are a further development. There is no Becoming without a Precedent, without a Past that is flowing into our Present and onwards into the Future. And so the reconstructionist path is important, because it connects us more thickly to that past.

To be a reactionary, on the other hand, is to wish to live a frozen moment in time that has had its day and is gone. We honor the ancestral tradition by dreaming it forward, so the heirloom ways may flourish on into the future.


Anonymous Kullervo said...

An excellent post, and one that is applicable to other pagan reconstructinists as well.

10:57 AM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Thank you!

6:26 PM  
Anonymous Thorn said...

Well stated. I write about process theology often and appreciate hearing it from others!

(btw, I wrote a bit about the Ainu today. You had commented you'd like to hear more.)

8:06 PM  

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