On Religious Reconstruction within Paganism: A Methodological Defense
Posted on May 19, 2016
It seems the winds of argumentation within the blogging sphere have once more swung around to the topic of Pagan reconstructionism. Again people are regurgitating the tired rhetoric about the failings of the practice of reconstructionism; the apparent unyielding, archaic, attitude that reconstructionists have towards proper religious expression, their quality and countenance as individuals in public discussion and fora, and a seemingly inexhaustible list of other such critiques based on individual interaction.
The largest misunderstanding in regards to reconstruction within any of the Pagan religions is that it is somehow a religious practice in its own right, or otherwise a religious belief system. It is not, and this cannot be articulated enough. Reconstructionism is a methodology. It is not a religious practice in its own right. One cannot be a “practicing reconstructionist”. It is not, for a lack of a better word, a denomination within Heathenry, or Religio Roma, or any other Pagan religious tradition . Reconstructionism is a series of attitudes towards empiric and factual interpretation. It is the investigation of scholarship and scholastic endeavors, revolving around (but not limited to) historic, archaeological, anthropological, literary and linguistic, or other such academic studies.
It is a process, pure and simple. It is the study of fact which is explored in an educated, critical, context in order to further our understanding as best as possible in order to more fully flesh out the historic practices of the religion that is being studied. There is no presupposition of belief. There is no doctrinal approach to orthodoxy. The only “belief” that reconstructionists have is that critical thinking, rooted in scholarship, is one of the ways which the collective “we” can come closer to an understanding of historical belief. The understanding of the history is crucial to promulgating why people acted the way they did, which in turn can help us better understand how we should act in regards to our respective religious traditions.
Reconstructionism absolutely cannot give us the whole picture, and anyone who argues that it can is naïve at best, and presumptuous at worst. The majority of reconstructionists will admit it; there is a recognition that a religious tradition must be living in order to sustain itself, else it is little better than a reenactment. The picture is skewed because there is simply not enough information available to us, for too much has been lost to time and lack of proper recording. Historically-informed Pagan religions are jigsaw puzzles which are missing pieces, which have enormous blank areas. What reconstructionist methodology enables us to do is to make informed, educated guesses to fill in those blank areas, based off of the study of the data that we do have. This lets us direct ourselves properly in order to apply those themes in a contemporaneous sense to fill in the blanks for the present application of the religion.
Thus, reconstructionism is a stepping stone to contemporary development and living tradition. It is a means to an end, not the end itself. The horse is dead and beaten if this gets repeated much more.
The majority of problems that people seem to have with reconstructionists appear to fall into a few categories. The first is the application of elitist attitudes in regards to the accumulation of knowledge. There most assuredly are people who flaunt their wit and education, utilizing reconstructionist methodology as a weapon in order to enforce a sense of superiority. In these cases, it becomes less about factual accuracy and critical debate and instead is devoted to the buttressing of the individual intellect over his or her peers. This was particularly common among the earlier days of Roman reconstructionism, where a sizable amount of scholastic understanding was (and still is) needed for a thorough understanding of the practice. That community still has a reputation for being toxic, and it is not entirely undeserved.
Yet this is hardly something indicative of reconstructionism itself, and more broadly applied as representative of elitist tendencies. Professionals and educated laymen have long run the risk of being accused of elitism and elitist-intellectualism, in many cases due to the perceptions of people they are debating. Unfortunately, one’s feelings are very rarely a consideration to a movement. Individuals can be rude, contrary, and terse. The onus on taking critique personally falls on the individual feeling offended.
There are right ways to do practical things, right ways to approach methodologies which provide correct foundations to build upon. Not everyone is correct in their actions, nor should every action be permitted or construed as “correct”.
And this is the crux of the emotional reaction which characterizes the majority of negativity towards reconstructionists, which has most recently been found in the blog post “Reconstructionists are Idiots” at the Rational Heathen blog. Devolving little into an emotional appeal against strawmen and relying on ad hominen attacks based on anecdotal experience, these claims are very rarely anything more than personality conflicts between individuals.
A second critique is that reconstructionists are needlessly precise and anachronistic in their emphasis. There is a belief that reconstructionists do what they do in order to bring back the religious identity in situ, and that whatever is cobbled together is simply not relevant. That the religion is to be fixed to the 8th century CE or the 1st century BCE or some arbitrary time period to the exclusion of perpetual development, societal progress, or some other form of advancement. These attitudes often commingle with misinformation, that individuals are attempting to ascribe a purity of religion . This is not the case, although it can perhaps be pardoned in the instance when people who are unfamiliar with reconstructionist methodology think such.
Reconstructionist methodology has been likened to establishing a museum display, reassembling an artifact of no practical value in day-to-day use, yet holding that triumph as a milestone. The Rational Heathen utilized this analogy, likening it to a chipped cup. It certainly can seem that way in online discussion and in secular debate, that reconstructionists pursue these intellectual exercises to stoke their intelligence and egos. But we must absolutely remember, religion does not take place online. Discussion of traditions in an online, secular space, does not and flatly cannot encompass any sense of religious totality. It is beyond presumption to assume that these discussions amount to little more than museum displays, or that reconstructionists only do what they do in order to have a trophy piece to look at from time to time.
If we want to continue with the cup analogy, reconstructionism allows us to reassemble the cup, study the cup, and then reproduce it ad infinium for future use, knowing what purpose the cup was for in ritual activity. But periodically, the cup needs to be revisited, reassessed, and potentially re-designed in order to fulfill it’s intended or hypothesized use. And so the inquest never truly is done.
We are speaking about religion and religious theories, not actively engaging in it, when we are discussing reconstructionist theory. There is a significant difference which is overlooked.
A third criticism tends to edge around the idea that we simply “don’t know” how the elder polytheistic culture would have acted or what they believed. And that is true. But there are inferences made, defenses of theories and beliefs which continually will need to be made in order to find that “best guess”, which do not necessarily invalidate these ideas. Doubts used as a defense to undermine the best-guess reconstructionist evidence amount to little more than dishonest anti-intellectualism. It is the same, tired, argument against scholastic understanding which is perpetuated by the ignorant, for whatever purpose. Whether a complex driven by inadequacy issues, or a confirmation bias, it seems that when a reconstructionist theory does not line up with the gut instinct of someone else, the theory must be wrong.
Specialists exist at every juncture – individuals who have dedicated a sizable number of time and energy into the exploration of their chosen topic. I would also point out that these men and women exist without “formal” accreditation. One of my former supervisors, from when I worked as a cultural resource management archaeologist, was considered a top authority on Benedict Arnold, despite not being “formally” educated in Colonial and Revolutionary American history.
But denying the work that they have done, without suitable counter-evidence to support a dissenting view is a useless tactic of invalidation meant to emotionally sway other likewise uninformed readers. Appealing to the lack of evidence is the resort of someone who has nothing truly engaging to say. It is insulting, and we should be better than that. And if it is an issue with one’s pride, then that needs to be checked.
Characterizing reconstructionist efforts as an intellectual “elitist club”, or an “anachronism” is a fundamental misunderstanding of the position of the scholars who are performing this work. It is mischaracterized as pseudo-academic “gobbledygook” with the assumption that it is nothing more than an intellectualist exercise. Reconstructionists can engage in intellectualisms and intellectualist exercises, but it is not the goal of those who promulgate the method. It’s not the intention of the methodology, no matter what is believed by those who sit outside.
And that’s an important point: the “issues” that people seem to have with reconstructionists and reconstructionist methodology appear to be entirely one-sided. Critique is raised when people who are not familiar with the scholarship or process of reconstruction are either too prideful and cannot accept that there might very well be other individuals with greater knowledge and more energy spent on a topic, or because those people simply do not care enough to understand what is going on. The ebb and flow of the subject matter and the discussion which is being spoken is simply not accessible, and it is taken personally. That is the fault of the individual, not the method. When asinine leaps of logic are invented and levied against reconstructionists, it doesn’t find basis in empiric fact but in ignorance. Claiming that reconstructionists, all reconstructionists, are “tainted” by holding on to anachronistic moralistic values which the overwhelming majority would agree happen to be reprehensible is a self-serving smear campaign. When no moral outrage exists, it is best to fabricate it, no?
And so instead of decrying the method because of an emotional appeal to irrationality, it is perhaps best to sit back and think to oneself how much of the day-to-day practice of a Pagan religion which is not Wicca (Heathenry, Roman Practice, etc) is indebted to the actions of reconstructionist methodology.
Because chances are, without all that ‘anachronistic’ humdrum, the foundation which the religion has been built on would not exist. And if you argue otherwise, I encourage you to open your history books.
 I am making the very important statement that I am only speaking to Pagan reconstructionist practices, here. Judiac Reconstructionism and Christian Reconstructionism are very different things, and consist of very different approaches to what is concerned here. I can accept that there many be some confusion by people with an understanding of either of those two religious practices, but I highly doubt it is very well known to the wider Pagan community.
 This is not a “not all reconstructionists” moment. People absolutely co-opt reconstructionist methodology with the expressed attempt to find some kind of racial and religious purity, often conflated with nationalist extremes. This isn’t a problem with reconstructionism, but is indicative of the larger problem with racialism and cultural romanticism. Anyone who argues a cultural vacuum is a fool.
I have heard far too many Heathen reconstructionists voice opinions that marginalize personal interactions with Gods, with UPG, with unpopular (in main stream circles) views on giving at least respect, if not offerings and outright worship, to Loki, the Jotun, Hela, etc. This, regardless of the fact that one can find instances of most of these heatedly debated practices in the lore, or in archeology. I have even heard recontructionist Heathens make the statement that those who do seidr work or act as volvas are mentally ill. I have had actual personal interactions with heathens of exactly the type that said blogger is griping about. I don’t think it is an unreasonable appeal to emotion that motivates me to say that. It’s personal experience of interactions with heathens.
Secondly, I have read and heard heathens speak of ancestors and ancestral belief as “arch heathens” as though they were somehow better, more perfect, than we could possibly ever be, and about the importance of cultivating the ‘arch heathen worldview’ in order to be a good heathen. Which, to me in many respects, is ridiculous. I don’t know where these people grew up, but I grew up in two areas, both of which are heavily settled and dominated by those of Germanic ancestry. The world view of the Germanic mind is rather ingrained at this point, even if the Gods were not.
The idea that the only way to understand the “arch heathen mindset” is to study the lore for years on end (and be a peon compared to said lorehound who is all too happy to lord his/her knowledge over a newcomer) seems a little over the top to me. The idea that heathenry has initations/degrees is seemingly what is in play here.
You want to know what the arch heathen mindset is? Look at the Germanic countries, the places away from the cities and you will see it in its modern development. Look for it in small communities in the US that were heavily settled by those of Germanic descent, it’s right there in front of you. Do I have an interest in archeology? Oh, absolutely. Do I have an interest in seeing the seeds of what is the modern culmination? Defintely. Do I read articles based on history and archeology every day? Voraciously. Do I think my ancestors were somehow more pure or simply ‘better’ because they lived a long time ago? Nope.
I have come to believe that, while these people do believe in the Gods, it’s on a archetypal level – not a personal level. I don’t think, even if they did have any sort of a personal interaction with a God, that they would EVER let it influence them, nor would they tell anyone about it. I think they are very, very uncomfortable with the logical next step in heathenry, which is to take the ground work of the reconstructionists of the last 40-50 years and create a real, living religion complete with personal interactions with Gods/land wights/ancestors/elves/disir/etc. and move onward. Personal scholarship should never ever ever take the place of actual devotion to the Gods. It should exist as an outgrowth of one’s desire to understand the Gods.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m a polytheist heathen because I actually believe in the Gods, I’ve heard their voices once or twice, and the lore is important to me in order to understand them – not as a hammer to beat others over the head with. Which it seems to be used as all too often. Like a heathen bible or something. They gave up Christ but they didn’t give up their need for dogma and the superiority that comes with being convinced you have the correct dogma.
Oh I absolutely agree that there are some really, pardon my language, *bitchy* reconstructionists out there. But that’s indicative not of the methodology, but the individuals and the medium in which the discussion is taking place. Online discussion (which was the motivating factor of the Rational Heathen piece) is always problematic, always far more terse, and is most definitely not religious experience. And this is a far cry from the cattiness of the academic world, believe me.
I honestly think that a lot of the problems that people have with the approaching of divinity has to do with cultural baggage and NOT reconstructionist methodology. An overwhelming number of people come to Heathenry from a Protestant cultural worldview, especially in the US. It makes it difficult to appreciate or to accept concepts which are derisively considered “woo”, because of five hundred years of ritual sanitization, the stripping of most forms of folk practice, and the establishment of excessively stringent views on religious structure. When you add this to the fact that reconstructionism is primarily based in empiricism and other facts, one can’t really articulate subjective personal experience. So it’s easier to diminish and demean it, based on those two influences.
Not saying it’s right, mind.
I find that most people who have problems with reconstructionists have problems on an individual level, when a great deal of the methodology is not intended to speak towards the individual. There’s an emphasis on the communal aspects of the religion, not at the expense of the personal, but with the understanding that the house cult and private practice of a polytheistic individual is largely inviolable and unable to really be explored in much of the same material record.
But I really think there is a great deal of misunderstanding as to what reconstructionists do and how they do it. No reconstructionist I know (which, admittedly, ventures into the anecdotal and hardly indicative of the whole) would claim that the Lore could teach anyone anything to do with the worldview. Many of them tend to place “the Lore” at a secondary or tertiary level of importance in understanding the worldview of the ur-heathen/arch-heathen. Because it has pitfalls, because it doesn’t show the whole of the matter, and specifically because it runs the risk of being treated like some kind of doctrinal scripture by people who have not yet shed themselves of the overcultural view of central tenets and works. Myself, I throw anything resembling the “Lore” out entirely.
Likewise, I can’t speak to the whole “ancestors are perfect” thing, since I have not run into that mindset.
I do not believe it is fair to guess the level of their belief in the deities and the holy powers, especially because a great many reconstructionist groups and traditions are actively creating living traditions. Theodism has forty years of tried and true experience, for instance. But for those groups there is a certain level of sacredness and interaction with the numinous that isn’t discussed in public, because it is not something which the public needs to know. So what is tends to be in the realm of philosophy, in anthropology, and in the best proscribed acts as we can deduce.
There ARE proscriptions to ritual and rite and practice. Roman religion is replete with this. I find that people simply do not want to be bothered to try to learn those. In Roman religion, to not perform properly is to risk the wrath of the gods, and to do things so drastically different is *not* to be performing the religio Romana. That is not to say that what isn’t religio Romana (or other practices) aren’t viable in their own right. But there is a baseline which makes the tradition what it is. I think problems occur when people just don’t leave well enough alone.
I hope, at least, you’ll see that not all reconstructionists or advocates of the methodology are assholes.
I can relate to what Rational Heathen is griping about, because it sounds like the kind of people I ran into when I first got into Heathenry, though that was like 10-15 years ago, and I don’t see them around as much anymore, though it could be that I’m just not looking in the right (wrong?) places.
I think Rational Heathen’s main mistake is that he’s taking a negative experience with some Heathens and generalizing to the clickbaity “Reconstructionists are Idiots.” It looks like both of you agree that reconstructionism is a method, not an end in itself, but back in the late 90’s to early 00’s there were definitely a lot of Heathens around who didn’t get that. At least not in Texas. Maybe I can blame Stephen Flowers for that, because I do remember a lot of people acting like you had to have a degree in Germanic Studies from the University of Texas at Austin to be a good Heathen.
As a newbie Heathen back in the 00’s, I did get a lot of advice with the attitude that if something’s not in The Lore, you *shouldn’t* do it. Ask about a lesser known deity that doesn’t have a lot of mythology about them? Forget it. We don’t know enough about them, so you can’t worship them. Rather than using The Lore as a foundation or jumping-off point, it really did seem to me that they were limiting themselves to it. I remember bringing that up one time, and being told that it’s too early in our development to add anything new to Heathenry that’s not in The Lore. We can’t do that until another *couple of generations* have passed and we’ve had people who have grown up with a completely Heathen worldview again. Then maybe those future generations can innovate.
I think this was all mainly a backlash against Wicca. Back in the 90’s/00’s the Neopagan scene was having a lot of angst over whether Wicca was just pulled out of Gerald Gardener’s ass, and not an ancient cult as people had originally assumed. (I think that it was neither, and I think that Ronald Hutton showed that, but that’s what the debate online seemed to consist of.) So Reconstructionsists were really, really into distinguishing themselves from Wiccans by having to prove that our religion is most definitely NOT MADE UP and look at all our scholarship to prove it! And then they took it a step farther to look down on any modern Heathens “making up” anything new that’s not in The Lore.
But it does seem to me like Rational Heathen’s rant is about ten years too late. Most Heathens I encounter now (both online and in person) have gotten over all this. But again, it could depend on where you look. There still might be some message boards online somewhere that are populated by people like that.
I agree. I think the reaction has “fizzled” out as people broadened their horizons and become more confident within their methodology. I have no doubt that there are still some people that treat it as an elitist playground where they do attack you with their education – the Roman reconstructionist community is so notorious for it that they STILL have the reputation. It most assuredly does not make things easy.
Comparing Reconstructionism in 2016 compared to 2000 is a vastly different thing, and I think it’s interesting to see how much it has changed. I remember it was just the new thing(tm) that everyone talked about, and found pride in, and many of their attitudes were elitist and presumptuous. But I definitely believe they’ve cooled since and, in my experience, there’s been yet another shift in paradigm with the differentiation between a communal religious building exercise and “house cult”, which is generally seen as inviolable and afforded a lot more leeway in practice. I’m excited to see what the next 16 years brings.
I think, too, there’s still a push back with the idea of a codification of tradition. People don’t like being excluded. They don’t like being told what to do / how to do it. And it’s not perfect. I routinely butt heads with other reconstructionists about certain ideas. I have massive problems with the still overwhelming idea that individuals didn’t have personal relationships with the divine. It will be solved, at some point. There’s a lot of overcultural baggage that is still hanging around, that needs to be worked through on both an individual and on a collective level.
But Rational Heathen’s entry isn’t going to do anything but irritate people. And the argument against reconstructionist methodology on emotional grounds is silly.
Thanks for your thoughts, I enjoy them as always.