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Defending Eclectic Neopaganism

Defending Eclectic Neopaganism

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Published by Priscila Frohmut
Defending Eclectic Neopaganism ***
by Ben Gruagach *** http://www.WitchGrotto.com *** This article may be reproduced for non--commercial purposes, providing that this original copyright notice stays in place at all times. *** There is a trend among some Reconstructionist Neopagans to dismiss Neopagans who are admitted Eclectics in their religious practice and philosophy.
Defending Eclectic Neopaganism ***
by Ben Gruagach *** http://www.WitchGrotto.com *** This article may be reproduced for non--commercial purposes, providing that this original copyright notice stays in place at all times. *** There is a trend among some Reconstructionist Neopagans to dismiss Neopagans who are admitted Eclectics in their religious practice and philosophy.

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Published by: Priscila Frohmut on Dec 13, 2010
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Defending Eclectic Neopaganism
 by Ben Gruagachhttp://www.WitchGrotto.com
This article may be reproduced for non--commercial purposes, providing that this original copyright notice stays in place at all times.
 There is a trend among some Reconstructionist Neopagans to dismiss Neopagans who are admittedEclectics 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 aReconstructionist's viewpoint. Sannion's editorial can be found on the web in the September 2002issue (#27) of the Cauldron and Candle email newsletter, available athttp://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 notnecessarily "fluffy" by default. The term "fluffy" has come to mean Neopagan practitioners who arelargely ignorant of their own religion's history, sources, and often core issues. "Fluffy" Neopagansare 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 whoaccept any claim at face value -- apparently lacking critical skills to distinguish objective realityfrom fantasy. "Fluffy" Neopagans generally lack credibility except amongst other "Fluffy" Neopagans, because they often can't provide any evidence to support their claims. By clarifyingwhat "fluffy" Neopagans are, it's easier to recognize that there are indeed Neopagans who aren'tReconstructionists who are also not "fluffy." Doreen Valiente, Janet Fararr, Vivianne Crowley,Margot Adler, Starhawk -- are these Neopagans "fluffy" because they aren't specificallyReconstructionists? They are all Wiccans, and Wicca is outside the Reconstructionist category bymost determinations.There are undoubtedly some individuals who are new to Reconstructionist traditions who pick up asingle 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 whoare thorough scholars, who are realists, who can provide extensive evidence to support claims theymake. Being a Reconstructionist does not make you immune from being "fluffy," and not being aReconstructionist does not make you "fluffy" automatically either.Let's clarify the issue more by making clear distinctions between the two groups that Sanniondescribes 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 specifichistorical 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 arealso just as likely to invent new concepts or practices for inclusion as they are to draw fromestablished 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 andSannion'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'tmean 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 areligion is a way of life, a living and breathing part of existence that isn't experienced primarilythrough 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 acknowledgethat 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 thatReconstructionists are not focusing enough on the present, on their individual and currentrelationships 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. Itdoesn't really matter if the religious practices are strictly individual and private, or public andcommunal. It does matter if you are living in the present or sacrificing the present for a mythicalidealized past.
2. "Reconstructionism is too restrictive and doesn't allow for personal expression."
Sannion argues that Eclectic Neopagans are uncritical, that they accept everything withoutdistinguishing 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 Reconstructionismincludes Minoan, Myceneaean, Homeric, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods spanningroughly 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 somethingthat 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 groupsare not selective, that they do not hold some standards against which philosophies or practices aremeasured. Eclectic Neopagans, individually and as working groups, can be just as critical as anyReconstructionist. The standards might be different, but different does not mean one standard isnecessarily better or worse than another.Eclectic Neopagans as an entire group can be said to accept everything, because if you look you'llsurely find an Eclectic Neopagan who does believe whatever specific idea is brought forth. Thesame can be said of Reconstructionists as a whole -- pick an idea, and you're sure to find aReconstructionist somewhere who believes that particular idea.The selection of a specific culture and period in history as the basis for a religion is itself artificaland forced. For example, the Celtic peoples were varied and far from homogenous, yetReconstructionists 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 withits 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 varioustribal religions from Italy, Greece, Egypt, and elsewhere. The idea of a "pure culture," "purereligion," or "pure ethnic group" is very artificial and arbitrary. Cultures adopt ideas and mythologyfrom 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 "allgods are one God, all goddesses are one Goddess," and often also believe that God and Goddess aremerely two gender aspects of a single, all-pervasive Divine that is beyond human understanding asa whole. They believe that we approach and interact with the Divine through distinct "aspects" thatappear 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 andunnecessary 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 thesame right to others whether they are Eclectic or not.Sannion presented an analogy of two musicians to reinforce the idea that limiting study to onecultural and historical period is best. Of course, there are other analogies that can be presented toargue to opposite.
Imagine that there are two chefs. One chef limits herself to just twelve ingredients, selected becausethey were native to one geographic area and period in history. She also combines and prepares thoseingredients 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, trynew dishes, and incorporate what she likes best into her own familiar menu. Because she is able toexplore and test, she invents some new dishes and methods of preparing ingredients that becomenew delicacies. Those experiments that didn't work out are discarded in favor of those thatsucceeded. She learns from her mistakes and sees exposure to new ingredients and methods as astarting place, not the final destination in her culinary life.Reconstructionists probably do see themselves in the analogy of the two musicians -- they are theones who apply themselves to learning one instrument, immerse themselves in the establishedunderstanding of that instrument, and strive to master it. Eclectics, however, probably seethemselves in the analogy of the two chefs -- they are the ones who allow themselves the freedom toexplore, 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 justa matter of opinion."Religion is a subjective thing -- it's far from objective in any sense. Reconstructionist traditions areworking from historical opinions that are based on interpretations of archaeological and textualevidence. Religion, like history, is always open to interpretation. New evidence is always beingdiscovered, new circumstances arise which force us to re-evaluate and reconsider.We humans can rarely agree about absolute determinations of "what really happened" in currentevents, so what makes us think we can do so for past history where we are often working fromfragmented evidence?There does appear to be a larger emphasis on scholarly standards within the Reconstructionisttraditions than in the Eclectic community at large. This does not mean, however, that there are noEclectic scholars, and that statements made by Eclectics are never critically examined. Religionsthat are more popular will invariably have more "fluffy" followers. There is a growing push withinthe Eclectic community as well towards critical scholarship such as the growing attention given toRonald Hutton's work, among others. To label a whole group "uncritical" while ignoring theincreasingly 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 fromtheir chosen cultural group and time period, ignoring elements such as slavery and animal or humansacrifice which are incompatible with modern values.This is one of the strongest arguments for Eclecticism, as it acknowledges that it is impractical andlikely impossible to recreate exactly what the ancients did. The difference is that Reconstructionistshave chosen to limit their inspiration upon an arbitrary cultural group and time period (which mayor 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 limitationto 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.

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