There is a trend among some Reconstructionist Neopagans to dismiss Neopagans who are admitted Eclectics in their religious practice and philosophy. Recently, Sannion wrote an editorial titled “Defending Reconstructionism” to address the conflict and to present some of the arguments from a Reconstructionist’s viewpoint. Sannion’s editorial can be found on the web in the September 2002 issue (#27) of the Cauldron and Candle email newsletter, available at http://www.ecauldron.com.
Sannion begins by saying that those who challenge Reconstructionism are “fluffy.” It must be pointed out that Neopagans who are not following specifically Reconstructionist paths are not necessarily “fluffy” by default. The term “fluffy” has come to mean Neopagan practitioners who are largely ignorant of their own religion’s history, sources, and often core issues. “Fluffy” Neopagans are thought to be involved in alternative religions for shock value or as a fashion statement rather than out of a desire for spiritual understanding and discipline. “Fluffy” Neopagans are those who accept any claim at face value — apparently lacking critical skills to distinguish objective reality from fantasy. “Fluffy” Neopagans generally lack credibility except amongst other “Fluffy” Neopagans, because they often can’t provide any evidence to support their claims. By clarifying what “fluffy” Neopagans are, it’s easier to recognize that there are indeed Neopagans who aren’t Reconstructionists who are also not “fluffy.” Doreen Valiente, Janet Fararr, Vivianne Crowley, Margot Adler, Starhawk — are these Neopagans “fluffy” because they aren’t specifically Reconstructionists? They are all Wiccans, and Wicca is outside the Reconstructionist category by most determinations.
There are undoubtedly some individuals who are new to Reconstructionist traditions who pick up a single book and then declare themselves “experts,” which easily puts them firmly within the “fluffy” category. And likewise, there are Neopagans who do not belong to Reconstructionist traditions who are thorough scholars, who are realists, who can provide extensive evidence to support claims they make. Being a Reconstructionist does not make you immune from being “fluffy,” and not being a Reconstructionist does not make you “fluffy” automatically either.
Let’s clarify the issue more by making clear distinctions between the two groups that Sannion describes as being at odds, and give them general labels: Reconstructionists and Eclectics. Reconstructionists are those who are basing their religions as closely as possible on a specific historical model. Eclectics are those who do not limit themselves to one specific historical model, but are apt to select influences from a wide range of cultures and historical periods. Eclectics are also just as likely to invent new concepts or practices for inclusion as they are to draw from established systems.
Sannion presented five main objections that Reconstructionist Neopagans hear from Eclectic Neopagans, and attempted to refute each of these. Let’s start by looking at those five objections and Sannion’s arguments and see where they take us.
1. “All Reconstructionists do is study; they don’t actually live the religion.”
Sannion argues that Reconstructionists do tend to be predominantly book-based, but this doesn’t mean they don’t pray to their deities or perform rituals or devotions.
The argument comes across as based on a rather shallow taunt — “my religion is better than yours because we do more ritual than you do.” It also misses the perhaps more subtle point — that a religion is a way of life, a living and breathing part of existence that isn’t experienced primarily through the study of the written word. Study of mythology and history can help us get a better understanding of our ancestors, and hopefully will shed light on ourselves. Eclectics acknowledge that things change, that the things written down in the history books are just the start of the story. The present and the future are just as important as the past. Perhaps the Eclectic complaint is that Reconstructionists are not focusing enough on the present, on their individual and current relationships with the Divine, in favor of focusing almost exclusively on what people did long ago.
It doesn’t really matter who is doing more ritual or more devotions as part of their religion. It doesn’t really matter if the religious practices are strictly individual and private, or public and communal. It does matter if you are living in the present or sacrificing the present for a mythical idealized past.
2. “Reconstructionism is too restrictive and doesn’t allow for personal expression.”
Sannion argues that Eclectic Neopagans are uncritical, that they accept everything without distinguishing good from bad. It is also pointed out that within specific Reconstructionist traditions (for example Greek paganism) there is a lot of room for creativity: Greek Reconstructionism includes Minoan, Myceneaean, Homeric, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods spanning roughly from 1500 BCE through 400 CE. “And yet [Eclectic] Neopagans still want more freedom,” Sannion says.
Eclectic Neopagans mostly work under the idea that they use what works for them. It’s something that varies from group to group, and often from individual to individual. If something doesn’t work for an individual or group, they’ll drop it or ignore it. That does not mean that individuals or groups are not selective, that they do not hold some standards against which philosophies or practices are measured. Eclectic Neopagans, individually and as working groups, can be just as critical as any Reconstructionist. The standards might be different, but different does not mean one standard is necessarily better or worse than another.
Eclectic Neopagans as an entire group can be said to accept everything, because if you look you’ll surely find an Eclectic Neopagan who does believe whatever specific idea is brought forth. The same can be said of Reconstructionists as a whole — pick an idea, and you’re sure to find a Reconstructionist somewhere who believes that particular idea.
The selection of a specific culture and period in history as the basis for a religion is itself artifical and forced. For example, the Celtic peoples were varied and far from homogenous, yet Reconstructionists will just as happily blend different clan or regional deities, myths, and practices. Ancient Greece, as another example, was a land made up of very independent city-states, each with its own set of deities and religious practices. Rome, on the other hand, did its best to institute a “state religion” or collection of religions, and to do this it consciously absorbed and adopted various tribal religions from Italy, Greece, Egypt, and elsewhere. The idea of a “pure culture,” “pure religion,” or “pure ethnic group” is very artificial and arbitrary. Cultures adopt ideas and mythology from each other all the time. To pretend that a religion or culture is “pure” is rather naive.
Many Eclectic Neopagans (although not all, of course) also work under the philosophy that “all gods are one God, all goddesses are one Goddess,” and often also believe that God and Goddess are merely two gender aspects of a single, all-pervasive Divine that is beyond human understanding as a whole. They believe that we approach and interact with the Divine through distinct “aspects” that appear to human perception as independent individuals. To expect an Eclectic Neopagan who believes “all gods are one God” to limit themselves to an arbitrary group of deities (whether selected by geographic region, historical period, or whatever criteria) is an artificial and unnecessary limitation. Eclectics allow themselves the right to decide how to approach the Divine, which names they feel most comfortable using when speaking with Them, and usually assume the same right to others whether they are Eclectic or not.
Sannion presented an analogy of two musicians to reinforce the idea that limiting study to one cultural and historical period is best. Of course, there are other analogies that can be presented to argue to opposite.
Imagine that there are two chefs. One chef limits herself to just twelve ingredients, selected because they were native to one geographic area and period in history. She also combines and prepares those ingredients only in ways that are historically supported for the time period and location selected. She becomes highly proficient and is satisfied with her achievements in the kitchen. Perhaps she becomes famous for a particular “speciality” dish.
The second chef, however, does not limit herself to a specific set of ingredients, methods of combining, or methods of preparing those ingredients. She feels free to explore other cultures, try new dishes, and incorporate what she likes best into her own familiar menu. Because she is able to explore and test, she invents some new dishes and methods of preparing ingredients that become new delicacies. Those experiments that didn’t work out are discarded in favor of those that succeeded. She learns from her mistakes and sees exposure to new ingredients and methods as a starting place, not the final destination in her culinary life.
Reconstructionists probably do see themselves in the analogy of the two musicians — they are the ones who apply themselves to learning one instrument, immerse themselves in the established understanding of that instrument, and strive to master it. Eclectics, however, probably see themselves in the analogy of the two chefs — they are the ones who allow themselves the freedom to explore, borrow, and invent, and strive to contribute something vibrant and new.
Is one right and the other wrong? Or are they just different approaches for different kinds of people?
3. “Reconstructionists are mean.”
Sannion argues that Neopagans who are not part of Reconstructionist traditions are not critical. “And they [non-Reconstructionist Neopagans] tend to believe that everything is subjective and just a matter of opinion.”
Religion is a subjective thing — it’s far from objective in any sense. Reconstructionist traditions are working from historical opinions that are based on interpretations of archaeological and textual evidence. Religion, like history, is always open to interpretation. New evidence is always being discovered, new circumstances arise which force us to re-evaluate and reconsider.
We humans can rarely agree about absolute determinations of “what really happened” in current events, so what makes us think we can do so for past history where we are often working from fragmented evidence?
There does appear to be a larger emphasis on scholarly standards within the Reconstructionist traditions than in the Eclectic community at large. This does not mean, however, that there are no Eclectic scholars, and that statements made by Eclectics are never critically examined. Religions that are more popular will invariably have more “fluffy” followers. There is a growing push within the Eclectic community as well towards critical scholarship such as the growing attention given to Ronald Hutton’s work, among others. To label a whole group “uncritical” while ignoring the increasingly more prominent critical elements within that group seems premature.
4. “Reconstructionists are too focused on the past.”
Sannion argues that Reconstructionists are not Luddites. They base their traditions on the best from their chosen cultural group and time period, ignoring elements such as slavery and animal or human sacrifice which are incompatible with modern values.
This is one of the strongest arguments for Eclecticism, as it acknowledges that it is impractical and likely impossible to recreate exactly what the ancients did. The difference is that Reconstructionists have chosen to limit their inspiration upon an arbitrary cultural group and time period (which may or may not be accurate in its modern assumptions of homogeneity of that cultural group and time period). This is the gist of this particular argument against Reconstructionism — that the limitation to one group at one time period for the basis of a modern tradition is arbitrary. One group’s or individual’s choice in no way invalidates the choices of others to limit themselves or not in similar fashion.
If Reconstructionists admit, as Sannion does, “…we aren’t pretending to be ancient people… [w]e are moderns, and gladly accept the positive things about modern culture” then why do they condemn Eclectic Neopagans because they aren’t pretending to be ancient people either? If an Eclectic Neopagan isn’t claiming to be carrying on an unchanged tradition from a specific cultural group at a specific time period, then why should a Reconstructionist be concerned? Many Neopagans do not feel drawn to Christianity, Judaism, or Islam specifically because they feel there is no such thing as a “One True Way” for all people. Why should Reconstructionists object when other Neopagans choose to follow their religions with different cultural or historical sources of inspiration?
5. “Reconstructionists are just making it up.”
This argument is the weakest. Sannion attributes this complaint against Reconstructionists to the “fluffiest” of non-Reconstructionist Neopagans — those who claim to carry on a tradition when the historical evidence does not back them up. It becomes an attack on the poor scholarship of the “fluffy” non-Reconstructionist instead of an argument addressing the charge that Reconstructionists aren’t really following an undisturbed ancient tradition, either.
Sannion admitted that Reconstructionists are in fact eclectic in their careful selection of what to include and what to exclude as part of their traditions. They include modern ideas and values, where often the original culture and time period used as the basis for the tradition would have differed. Even the original cultures and historical periods selected are not “pure,” as ancient cultures borrowed, adopted, and changed myth and philosophy from their neighbors the same way modern people do. Some cultures, like the Roman empire, were quite openly eclectic. It is puzzling that today’s Neopagans, especially ones who pride themselves on their thorough scholarship such as Reconstructionists, should try and insist eclecticism should be sneered at. If the ancients did it, and the ways of the ancients are clearly good enough for the Reconstructionists to emulate, then eclecticism should certainly be acceptable for all Neopagans.
The entire argument appears to really be about scholarship within the Neopagan community — what constitutes credibility, and how credible are we to outsiders. There is certainly a problem with what has been termed “fluffy” behavior, where practitioners exhibit little or no attempt to critically examine claims. This is not solely found within the Eclectic Neopagan community despite what some Reconstructionists would claim. We should be encouraging critical thought regardless of the tradition (or lack of one) among all Neopagans. This means that Reconstructionists as well must critically examine their own assumptions and challenge their own beliefs that Eclecticism is suspect.