“Post-Recon”? What happens next?
Posted on May 23, 2020
Thanks to the GPL. You grumps know who you are.
Contemporary Western polytheism, which broadly and most accurately described as a revivalist movement of the themes, ethos and beliefs, and ritualistic practices of pre-Christian religious identities makes use of some manner of methodology in order to build a cohesive foundation for further practice. Within Paganism this methodology is, perhaps unoriginally, known as “reconstructionism”, which I have in the past defended as a process of accruing and interpreting information to be employed, whether in personal or communal practice. At times it has been portrayed as a separate religious “tradition” or “denomination”, with people claiming they ”are a reconstructionist, not a (typically, but not always) Wiccan”. The process often gets used as a purity test for what is characterized and typified as the “most correct” practice, with the implicit assumption that there can only be a singular end-point to be attained.
This later point has even given rise to some people proudly declaring themselves to be “not-reconstructionist”!
One of the biggest advocacies within Contemporary Paganism which I have tried to engage in has been clarifying the “process of reconstruction” over the “belief of reconstruction”. An emphasis on the latter leads to an unnatural weight placed on the historic fact and a near sacrosanct veneration of the historic material, which I had also previously discussed in Episode IV of the Plough-Share (it’s still your fault that name is a pun, and no, I’m never going to let it go!). An emphasis on the former aspect of reconstruction, well, this is what gives us the tools which we can use to collectively sift through layers of historic strata for our nuggets of insight, which we can then apply to what hopefully become living, breathing religious traditions of varying types.
I heavily disagree with the notion of linear development within religion (that is the way to Hegel), but it’s pointless to argue against the broad themes of action-reaction developments within the wider Pagan history. A very rough timeline can be found in my discussion of Paganism as a multi-generational effort (and a greater, Heathen specific, history survey can be found at Lauren and Ben’s podcast Heathen History), but we can reiterate a few specific points here:
- Ignoring the philosophical fraternal Druidic orders, contemporary Paganism began with coven-based initiatory traditions.
- “Open” traditions spawned years after that, in reaction to those closed traditions. We see the first real inklings and attempts at developing non-Wiccan or Wiccanate identities, again, as a response to under-representation or wider dissatisfaction and a growing New Age movement. Eventually, open traditions resulted in the broad notions of self-initiated / solitary practices. This was a response to make practices more accessible and lead to the relative explosion of Pagan popularity post-Satanic Abuse Panic.
- Reconstructionist movements evolved and gained steam, especially with the development of greater networks of information and a wider interconnectedness. This was largely leveraged as a reaction to the growing sense of eclecticism with open/self-initiated practices and the enforced commodification of Wicca.
For a long time reconstructionism has been interpreted as a specific “denomination” of Pagans who were trying to be as historic as possible. This impression lead to mischaracterizations by both external observers and internal participants – the idea that this was akin to living history or reenactment and that these practices needed to be extricated with as much care from the history and replanted within the modern with no alterations, or otherwise as few alterations as possible. This became the governing image of reconstructionism when it was discussed, an exacting pendency which appeared to reduce the qualities of these religions – pietas, religio, worship – to a lesser status over historicity.
In some cases this is nearly successful, in this I am thinking of the attempts of various Roman groups to perform more exacting practices given their plethora of resources available from which to reconstruct their religious culture. However, even these always had a play-acting element to them, and several groups wrapping their identity up with the emulation of Roman civic processes spawned.
For the majority of other contemporary Western polytheists who do not fall in the sphere of peoples with literate histories, no such resource enables a wide majority of people to pick up and engage in anything remotely resembling their progenitor cultus. So reconstructionism in this case becomes a comparative practice in order to fill holes and develop theories which enable us to grasp a larger picture than any dedicated historic or literary remnants can paint.
Worst case, the source material is going to largely run out, or be tied to material behind prohibitive paywalls with a lack of accessibility to scholarship, making it effectively useless to laypeople. You’ve hit a wall with your reconstructionist source material and have a half-finished, ad hoc practice. A close comparison which I can think of is the falling-out-of-academic-favor that Stoicism had. As Katernia Ierodiakonou points out, the lack of prominent primary resources was, in part, responsible for the lack of interest in continued Stoic studies.
I feel this could be the same with many under-attested Paganisms.
Or, best case, you’ve laid a barebones foundation, but that’s all. It might have all the makings of a viable religion, but is not quite there yet. Or it might be viable in its own right, but it’s missing the “living” part of a living religious identity.
This is, actually, one of the reasons why I think there’s so many 101/entry-level guidebooks in publication and circulation – not only because it’s the most accessible to the broadest number of potential consumers but also due to there being no clear roadmap to entertain the idea of a future growth for the religious traditions. So it’s easier and, perhaps, more inspirational to go back and revisit older subjects.
To be fair, that is a necessary endeavor, as refinement and recalibration of ideas is always useful. But it’s not the purpose of this post.
The question that I am asking is: What comes after reconstruction?
Further questions I am asking are: Can such a thing be said to exist within a contemporary Pagan sphere? What does post-reconstruction look like? What does it mean to be “Post-Recon”?
Is it worth even discussing?
In this practice of action-reaction that appears to be a hallmark of Paganism, is a post-recon period inevitable in the sense that it reacts to the previous methodological “generation” and does it, as previous generations (both in Paganism and in academia) imply, constitute a rejection of the method of reconstructionism? And further, can any of us currently, rightly, claim the idea or mantle of being post-recon, especially those of us who are still considered to be “first generation” despite the amount of time we’ve put into developing our identities?
I think that we will get to a period where we are rightly considered “post-reconstructionist”, which would not act as a reaction to previous tendencies but continue to embrace research and exploratory inquests into the source materials. There will be a wall that many polytheistic religious traditions hit, but the idea that reconstructionism is the end goal of the contemporary polytheistic project must necessarily change.
As with many other experiences in life, I believe that if one stops learning they will wither, and my approach to religious identity is no different.
I very often think that there is a not-insignificant group of people who are attracted to reconstructionism and its applications to Western polytheism because it expresses an intellectualist challenge for them. It’s a challenge which can pass the time and be busy, a challenge for them to direct their energies in areas that may be under-developed or be an extension of previous interests, a challenge to uncover or argue new points of view, and it is in these challenges that their energies are often poured, with less emphasis on due faith and the enactment of religion.
I am speaking from personal experience here, since my writings on religion and research into polytheistic paganism had their genesis in me trying to stay busy while developing my own views. But that “busyness” led me to where I am now: an active home cultus, a growing interest in theological and philosophical reasonings, the advocation of identity building, realignments of effort, etc.
But where does the winding down of the reconstructionist project fit in the wider discussion of polytheistic paganism in the West? Is it something that just disappears and organic growth and development takes over? Toss the seeds to the winds and hope for the best?
I don’t think that’s the best way to approach it. Contemporary Western polytheisms and paganisms need stewards to protect and cultivate them, because of the pressures exerted upon them by external religious and secular forces. Globalized information exchange facilitates the exposure to new ideas or makes it easier to engage with them, and there is never going to be one uniform religion of whichever polytheistic practice we’re speaking of (like Heathenry). Thankfully, no polytheistic Nicene Creed or any other form of ecumenical council to establish doctrine, but the trade off is purposefully cultivating an identity as new conditions or situations emerge in an organic group.
Reconstructionist Jews have a saying, “The past gets a vote, not a veto”, which I have come to adore, and I feel that needs to be embraced more widely in polytheistic reconstructionism.
Post-Reconstructionism is going from a process of foundation building, of the reconstruction of the religions as best as possible to a general process of renovation. A friend brought this up in discussion, where Post-Recon should necessarily go full circle. Not back to where we’ve started with regards to reconstructing religions, but the essence and vitality of those religions being encapsulated in a new millennium of practice and worship.
History has had three concepts which I feel could be employed here, although taken out of context. Throughout the course of post-Roman Europe, the concepts of renovātiō (renewal), resitutiō (restitution), and reparātiō (restoration) were put forward by various government polities in order to contextualize their attempts to restore the essence of the Roman imperial state
Perhaps we can say that we’re going from reconstructionism to a process of renovation, or more accurately engaging in a form of renovātiō. Renovātiō (renewal) and its related concepts of resitutiō (restitution) and reparātiō (restoration) were employed throughout the course of history, largely in the context of the idea of the restoration of the Roman imperial state and the virtues which it allegedly espoused. It does not really have much to do with paganism as a whole.
But I feel that it serves our purposes to discuss an application of them for our uses here. Not, of course, as an application of Roman themes to the whole of polytheism (unless, you know, you’re into that), but the idea behind them.
I view these themes along with reconstruction or, if you’ll indulge a bit of Latin pretension, perhaps recōnstructiō, as a holistic totality and broadly reaching approach that we need to take with regards to our religious identities. We have engaged in and will be continuing to engage in recōnstructiō, the reconstruction and foundation laying of our religious identities and, as written above, I believe that this will be an ongoing process.
We must then collectively begin our processes of renovātiō, renewing the virtues and lifeblood of our religious paradigms through individualization, group engagement, and social views. We must engage in resitutiō, some manner of restitution to the world around us, the numinous and the ethereal, for though we are independent beings we are still products of a system that has eschewed propriety for this world and our gods. And we must reach and have as our goal reparātiō, the restoration of our religions in a self-sufficient, vibrant, and living groupings of entities that recognizes the worth of the world around us, the gods themselves, and seeks to better the relationships between humanity and the other world(s).
Are these checklists? No, we can’t look at a list and decide that “yep, we’ve reached resitutiō status! Good for us!”. Instead it’s a multifaceted approach towards some beneficial end that those of us who act as public pagans, ambassadors for our faiths, or theologians must necessarily account for and reach towards. There is a need to plan for the future which I often do not see being discussed in various circles. Admittedly, I am not privy to the inner workings of such dialogue, but I firmly believe that this is a group effort and we should endeavor to prop up like-minded individuals and their religious exercises.
Am I saying there aren’t people or groups that are engaging in these processes? No. But collectively, it must be considered.
I feel that accepting that individuality, contemporaneous development, and regionally specific interpretations is necessarily the way of the future, and not all encompassing, bounded-togetherness of national-spanning initiatives or strict doctrinal bonds between people so geographically distinct. Just as our religions in history were not codified and were mutable, so too are the modern descendants of them. We can play to those wonderful varied strengths, assisted by our collective historic hindsight.
I do think that we need to discuss the idea of a “Post-Recon:” status, because we’re reaching a saturation point where it will be inevitable to do without.
Renovātiō deōrum pāgānōrum has a wonderful ring to it, doesn’t it?