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.