So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

03 June, 2008


The reconstructionist paganisms have some hard problems; which problems they have of course depend significantly on the culture-of-origin, but the entire problem of reconstruction is not a simple one.

The core problem is the same across the reconstructions: it is the problem of building a coherent, consistent, and sustainable religion based upon the incomplete and varyingly interpreted surviving information which is adequately adapted to the cultural changes that have happened since that religious structure was supplanted. The specific problems for each one can be rooted in what sort of information is available, where the assumptions of the cultures are clashing, how much effort an individual practitioner has to go to to find something that is functional for them, and so on.

As an Egyptian recon-leaning pagan, I'm dealing with an origin culture which was urban, heavily agricultural, isolationist (except when it wasn't), ethnically mixed, smug, theocratic, intensely heirarchical (to the point that only one person was technically capable of performing the full rituals to the gods), very local, nationalistic, and collective. I somehow have to make this work in a context of my own urban, post-industrial, isolationist (except when it's not), ethnically mixed, smug, nominally secular, socially egalitarian with submerged privilege heirarchies, global, nationalistic but to a different nation, individualist culture; I have to figure out which of those values and traits are essential to the religion and which are reasonable adaptations to the intervening couple thousand years of history.

There is a straightforward historical model of priesthood in Egypt: these are the servants in the house of the god, granted the power to act for the king (the sole official god-servant). For the majority, it was a part-time job taking a quarter of the year. It was not associated with personal piety; while there were certainly pious priests, there were also those who considered it a happy sinecure that provided food and respect to their families. The temples effectively owned a great deal of land, and the circulation of the agricultural products of that land into the community was a major portion of the local (and national) economy; the influence of the temples helped to support a variety of artisans, in addition to their roles as repositories of knowledge, medical skill, and similar things.

There was no pastoral service. The responsibility was first to the care of the gods; care of the people was a distant secondary concern. Ordinary people were not even permitted into the temples, though there were occasional individuals allowed in for particular festivals. The ordinary people's religion was held in the streets, in their homes, on the outskirts of the temple grounds, at small shrines given the intermittent attention of a priest or tucked into niches along the walls. Sometimes there were rooms in which people could hear a priest speaking through a statue, or the god would give oracles in procession; other times, dream interpreters and beggars with skills at divining the future were granted a corner of the outer temple grounds.

This is obviously not a workable model in the modern world, and not just because of the shortage of prophetic beggars. (This does not stop people from trying.)

We don't run our economy through the temples, or anything remotely like it. We don't have centralised or centralisable worship. Moderns expect some kind of access to the counselling and support of their clerics. The work of sorting out what is a sensical practice and what isn't is not a simple one, nor even approaching complete, especially if one doesn't want to participate in the organised denominations (which give all impression of guarding their research and developments and resenting outsiders using it). We have no populations large enough to have city-wide festivals, nor much in the way of localised groups that will do things like finding the local city celebrations and marking them.

... which is all background stuff to what I'm trying to talk about.

WordK wrote about the problem of discerning a call to the ministry recently, particularly in a context in which men are axiomatically defined as having one and women are axiomatically defined as not having one.

And I'm sitting in a space where "discerning a call to the ministry" means needing to define the entire concept. A different puzzle, but still, discernment is a big word.

There are no temples that need servants; those are worn stone, and tourists and archaeologists peer into the holy of holies without caring that it was forbidden space. There is no king to deputise the priests, even if the temples were full of people. And those temples are in another land, in any case. The old priesthood is defunct and unrevivable; the people who might care are scattered, not a nation.

There is a great need for scholars, people with vision, people who will dig through the knowledge and research and build something live of it. Something accessible to scholars and people who want an ordinary life with the ability to honor their gods and everything between. Something that respects the people who feel the need to do the work of religion and the people who have other work. And maybe that thing will, eventually, have priests, in the ancient sense, but I don't think that's likely; I think the time of priests is done, the kingship they represent long passed. And I know that there are people who disagree with me, and name their leaders 'king' and their deputies priests, who even travel to Egypt to hold coronations, and ...

... some years ago, I was told that to be a whole person I needed something that I couldn't find in this religion, and where to find it. And there is a vital thing there, decentralised, creative, energetic, and I wonder if, to have a whole religion, I need this syncretism, whether the one suggests the other.

... or I dig into the transition from Temple to Diaspora, in the hope of finding some admittedly utterly ironic understanding of what changes that wreaks on a system.

I am no temple servant, by common ways of looking at things. I am a scholar and a theologian and someone people have turned to in time of crisis for support and wisdom. I minister, haphazardly, running on faith alone. And my faith in myself is ... not one of my dominant traits, shall I say.

What is discernment? What is the call? How can this stuff be sorted out into something plausible and workable and real, not just the playacting of scholars and people who put blind trust in the words of scholars?

And the persistent whine of the godbothered, too: Why me?

And then I go back to working on it.

1 comment:

Daisy said...

This is a fascinating post, and I'll have to come back to it several times.

In short, I've had to do exactly the same thing(s) with Catholicism. The difference would be that there is an American mainstream that subscribes to a version that I don't. (I won't even get into the syncretic versions of Catholicism that I like, such as Voodoo or the theology of Bede Griffiths.) However, there is an underground of people (always have been, one group became Protestants) that is sort of "parallel to the church"--practicing and participating, yet not totally and with reservations. Some just drift away, some formally convert to other faiths, and some are like me--in and out of mainstream church for sacramental and/or social reasons, but remain apart on particular theological, philosophical points of doctrine.

It's a tightrope, and I'd give you advice, if I had it.

Or as the Grateful Dead so memorably put it: If I knew the way, I would take you home.