Reconciling Reconstructionism

If, like Tiro and I, you’re a reconstructionist, we have a discussion point for you. Actually it’s not one exclusively for reconstructionists, but it’s perhaps most relevant to them. Chances are that your gods once walked this world and were a daily part of ordinary lives. Back then, certain values and practices were accepted and encouraged as the proper and right way to conduct yourself. As a reconstructionist, you will probably try to emulate that style of living, and reflect those values as closely as you can.

For example, the ancient Norse put great store in the ultimate goal of an honourable death in battle, which they hoped would ensure that they came to the favourable attention of Odin All-Father. There are relatively few opportunities for such an end in the modern world, and society would likely frown at someone who expressed an ambition like that. The Egyptians would be called to account when Ma’at, the Goddess of Justice, weighed their heart against a feather. If the heart was lighter, indicating purity, the dead spirit was permitted into the Duat, the Field of Reeds; and there’s the innards-in-bottles thing from the Book of the Dead: not the sort of thing your modern undertaker would likely entertain. The Romans followed a strictly prescribed religious practice, ordained by the state and supervised by a complex network of priests and temples. In particular, the latter revolved around sacrifice to the gods – mostly blood sacrifice of animals; which is a little tricky in modern western society…

Thing is, the world has changed since their peak of popularity; as the human race, we have developed technology. created political borders and hold the ability to use a thousand gadgets which we take for granted, such as a telephone, train, computer, car, and so on. We work and pay tax — nothing new — but we also pay National Insurance, and probably into a pension.

So, having been called by a particular pantheon or deity, which existed before the modern world, how do you reconcile this difference in your own life?

Do you:

  • Understand the gods as unchanging eternals — they will forever uphold the values and practices with which they are associated;
  • Understand that the world has changed and so the gods — being the essence of the world — have adapted to this new place? With people still praising them, the gods will survive and adapt. The values are the same; the methods by which they are achieved have changed.

To what extent do you see your reconstructed religion as separate from the state to which it belonged? Can you properly reconstruct as a lone individual without the benefit of a state infrastructure? If you are in touch with others who hold the same belief, do you research and grow in knowledge together? If the religion you follow once was indifferent to, or actively hated, another, do you adopt that value or replace it with a tolerant view?

And this applies to you Druids, too; and Wiccans, for that matter.  However accurately modern Druidry might reflect the practices of the pre-Christian Europeans, changes have happened.  Society isn’t what it was.  It doesn’t necessarily appreciate the role of the Druid as the ancients would have.  And Wicca, too, however well it might reflect the practice of European rural witchcraft, has dealt with significant shifts in social outlook even since Gardner’s time.

What do you think?  How do you deal with this?  Answers on a piece of batter pudding to anybody but us*.  Goodnight.


* All right: we want your answers.  But sometimes there are Goons and you just can’t help yourself...

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One thought on “Reconciling Reconstructionism

  1. Righto. The first problem here, I think, is what constitutes ‘reconstructionism’. Now I’ve always said that I’m a “reconstructionist who doesn’t reconstruct”. That probably doesn’t make as much sense as I’d like to think, but the rough idea is that while I feel a very strong affinity towards a particular historical culture, and to the gods of its pantheon, I don’t actually engage in much of the religious activity that that culture would have considered obligatory.

    And I’m not sure I can think of a very good excuse.

    The Roman approach to religion was very simple: the gods can hurt you, so it pays to keep them on side. Neglect your duties to Ceres and watch your crops wither. Pay insufficient attention to Neptune and you’d best not try any ocean crossings for the time being. And so on. To the Romans, the way to keep a god happy was to keep paying them. Sacrifices, feasts, dedications, and so on. Let the payments fall off, and just wait for the trouble to start.

    So, in effect, the Romans thought their gods ran a protection racket.

    As deeply as I feel a part of that people (for what reason I’ve never been able to sort out, but there it is), I just can’t seem to share that attitude towards deity. For one thing, I can’t practise as the ancient Romans did. There are no more flamines: the priests and priestesses of Rome have essentially become the priests of the Vatican, and the complex social structure that supported the ancient Roman idea of religious observance no longer exists. There are a few reconstructionist groups who work to rebuild the old ways, but they’re just a handful and despite their vision, there is no religious state, no Divine Republic, to invest in them the authority they’d need to do it.

    This in itself would seem to rule out a full and true reconstruction of civic religious practices in Rome. Which leaves private or domestic practice – and that confronts me with another question: why do I not offer regular sacrifice to the gods, as the ancient Romans would have expected me to? Why do I not practise the prescribed household rites?

    An obvious, and probably honest, answer would be: I’m too lax, and probably deserving of at least twelve good, powerful divine kicks in the backside. But that seems a little simplistic. As anyone who knows me will know, I’m tediously passionate about religion and spiritual matters. A good friend of mine once, quite amiably, told me I was a “fanatic”. I was a little taken aback at first; not sure how to react, since I always associated that word with belligerent idiots who think it’s good and logical to murder someone for not sharing their faith. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realised she had a point: my religion, and spirituality in general, is probably one of the central pillars of my life. A day does not go by without it occupying my thoughts. And because I’m entirely open about my beliefs, I do talk far too much about it (although like many pagans I reject the idea of deliberate proselytisation). So yes, I suppose I am pretty fanatical, in a sense. But that being the case, it doesn’t make sense that I’d be ‘just too lazy’ to fulfil my obligations in terms of sacrifice and ritual.

    The thing is, for me, as I’m sure for many other modern pagans, the gods exist in the systems and mechanisms of Nature, and in the various aspects of human experience. Neptune sees to it that the waters and the oceans do as they should do; Venera (Venus) presides over love and the beauty of the world; Jupiter rules over justice and order; Minerva governs knowledge and wisdom, music and magic. And so on. These are not threatening beings with attention issues (although they can certainly be dangerous); they are stewards, if you like – wardens ensuring that everything works as it should. At whose instruction they do it (if anyone’s) I don’t pretend to know: that’s a mystery I’m happy to keep mulling over from time to time.

    The ancient Romans might not have shared this perspective on divinity; but at the risk of making an objectionable comparison (it’s not supposed to be), I think it’s a little like the shift in perspective that the monotheists have undergone over the centuries. To the first followers of the God of Abraham, judging by the Old Testament, the Lord must have seemed dangerous indeed. A wrathful smiter of those who don’t pay Him enough sacrifice. To the early Christians, though, He’d become something much more subtle and, frankly, spiritual. He didn’t threaten: He just held out a hand for those who wanted to take it. And the god of the Christians became the chief god of Rome; so it seems consistent that as the Christian Church has adapted its attitude towards divinity over the centuries, so would Roman paganism if it had remained the powerful institution it once was.

    So without wanting to give the idea that my beliefs are founded on comparisons with someone else’s, I approach my gods in a way that makes sense to me, but perhaps wouldn’t count as ‘proper’ reconstructionism: I pray to them from time to time, I chat with them, I try to maintain a personal relationship with them, and I still do it all very badly indeed.

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