22 May 2012

Posted by in editorial, philosophy, politics | 14 comments

Reconstructionism, Orthodoxy and Why HUGINN Isn’t Peer-Reviewed

The HierophantOver and over, before and since Huginn‘s inception, the issue of reconstructionism (or tradition) and UPG (or active mysticism) in Heathenry has reared its head. A healthy religion has both: a religion without mysticism or UPG is dead, an empty husk of a spirituality; a religion without tradition lacks structure and group cohesion. Together in the right balance, people can forge a religion that is vibrant, personal and spiritually satisfying while maintaining group customs and a sense of shared identity. Reconstructionism has a valid place in Heathenry, as a way to redevelop traditions and derive context. But even at a glance, the trouble in attempting to reconstruct an accurate earlier form of any religion is obvious: in Heathenry, we have to address the fragmentary nature of the lore, the date of its recording and the fact that the people recording it were Christians living well after the Conversion. It’s impossible to be able to definitively sort out all the Christian influence from the recorded lore; even with a time machine you’d have trouble, given that there were extended periods of Heathen/Christian cohabitation, which would likely have had an effect on the oral culture. With strict no-UPG reconstructionism, you are left with disconnected fragments that don’t add up to anything on their own, like trying to make a necklace all beads and no string. (And that’s assuming that we are charitably ignoring the speculative aspects of cleansing the lore of Christian influence). You have to string the fragments together with UPG to get anything usable.

Ergo, everyone practicing a functional, viable form of Heathenry is practicing their own personal cocktail of reconstructionism and UPG (or tradition and mysticism, if you prefer). If you’re doing reconstructionism but no UPG, you’re a medieval reenactor (and a very careful one at that). If you’re all UPG and no reconstruction, you lack the connective rituals and traditions of Heathenry and arguably you’re not Heathen (Neopagan, certainly, but not distinctively Heathen). I’m not terribly interested in policing other people’s usage of the word, I’m just making the point that everyone who’s actually doing Heathenry is in the same boat — a mix of some tradition and some mysticism. Naturally there is vicious internecine semantic bickering, the same in Heathenry as in any other politics: people picking one side and doing their damnedest to kick the other side out, or at least piss them off. It’s not surprising, given how humans are programmed to think in ‘us vs. them’ patterns and how Heathenry’s notions of innangard and utgard reinforces those patterns, but it’s not useful.

So I, like most people, find myself somewhere in the middle. Which is where I situate Huginn‘s editorial stance: pro-UPG but with a non-racist Northern Tradition worldview. When I publish work from outside that Northern worldview, it’s because I think it’s relevant and interesting to Heathen readers anyway.

Which is where we come around to the main point: Huginn isn’t peer-reviewed and isn’t ever going to be, because it would be pointless. Peer-review suggests that there’s Official Right Answers to all of this. You can peer-review history, you can peer-review science — not that any of that has ever stopped really gross fuck-ups from being published and widely accepted — but you can’t peer-review theology or magic or mysticism. You can make sure an essay on mysticism is well-written, with good grammar and an engaging style; you can make sure the science and history cited are conventionally accurate; you can agree with or disagree with their social and political conclusions; you can even observe that their experience agrees with or contradicts tradition or your own experience (leading to PCPG), but there’s no way to ‘peer-review’ mysticism in a way that proves anything’s accurate. All you can peer-review is orthodoxy, which is poison to innovation and original thought and new revelations. Additionally, peer-review as a practice is built on a foundation of credible authority and replicable results. Establishing who constitutes a credible authority — and therefore how much weight to give their opinion — is difficult at best in a small religion without a strong orthodoxy. Replicable results are haphazard when it comes to magic and personal affinity and skill matter for so much that it makes it impossible to judge the quality of a piece of writing simply because the magic didn’t work for you.

So peer-review for magic and theology only works when everyone involved in it is interested in reinforcing an orthodoxy, which only benefits conservative Reconstructionism. It’s people sitting around, regurgitating the same thoughts, while their buddies clap them on the back and congratulate them for not thinking too creatively. It ignores the fact that magic is reliably weird, that deities can be contradictory and demand one thing from one person and the exact opposite from the next, that we should be spending more time figuring out how to embrace the 21st century instead of pretending we’re living in the 10th. And even after all that, even after you’ve sanitized every new thought and cited every reference, there’s still no assurance that whatever you end up with is going to be true. The universe is a perennial wilderness and everyone has to explore it alone, armed with their wits and what skills they can learn. Enforcing a similarity of thought isn’t going to make that easier. It’s not going to clarify the reality out there. We’re religionists, not historians. Peer-review is for academics, not adventurers; there’s a map, but there’s uncharted territory and dragons in the deep parts.

As Huginn‘s editor, I actively reject the concept of editing by committee, of even attempting ‘peer review’. I want to keep things interesting. I want to keep things dangerous. I don’t want the really interesting ideas shouted down because the majority of people can’t or don’t or won’t understand them. I look for what’s interesting. What’s thought-provoking. What’s meaningful. What’s needed.

  1. Brilliant.

  2. Nancy Rune Believer Wall says:

    Thank you for the views in this article. They are quite refreshing, and quite frankly, it’s the first time in ages I’ve read something that ‘felt’ right…aside from one other author who concentrates on the point of the Lore as a ‘guide’ to personal accountability.

  3. While this article is mainly directed at the Heathen population, I have to admit that there are those in Celtic circles that also try this – conformity via public outcry. It’s good that there are those willing to speak out about this, no matter what path they follow

    Keep up the good work

  4. Thank you. Thank you for being a religionist, for wanting to keep things interesting and even dangerous.

  5. “… people sitting around, regurgitating the same thoughts, while their buddies clap them on the back and congratulate them…”

    Pots. Kettles. Black.

    • Talas Pái says:

      Sorry, I don’t follow.

      Considering Huginn‘s emphasis on personal experience and mystical gnosis, I don’t think it’s possible for every one of our readers or contributors to agree on everything. Certainly some of what we’ve already published runs counter to conventional Heathen thinking, and once you take a slavish adherence to Christian-recorded late-period lore out of the equation, all you’re left with is the entire realm of human experience as filtered through a Heathen worldview: that’s definitely going to improve originality. Huginn‘s contributors as well come from a variety of different groups and situations, so you can’t really call it partisan in that sense.

      Unless you’re criticizing the fact that Huginn‘s readers appreciate Huginn‘s editorial stance? I’d be fascinated to know if there were other organizations or periodicals with a similar philosophy.

  6. Umm…so wait–you bash (in a sidelong manner) the folks at Odroerir for “creating an orthodoxy”, while creating an orthodoxy of your own?


    If I want adventure, I’ll fire up a video game. In the meantime, I think I’ll stick with actual scholarship, whether I agree with the results of that scholarship or not.

    • Talas Pái says:

      Oh, please. Disagreeing is not bashing and Odroerir is the product of orthodoxy, not the creator. In that Odroerir promotes ‘right’ or ‘trú’ thought, of course it’s orthodoxic; it revels in its orthodoxy. I can’t possibly be creating an orthodoxy of my own, since I reject the practice of policing people’s thoughts. The closest I come to orthodoxy in practice or in this post is “let’s have some moderation” and “don’t be a racist”.

      But you seem to have missed the point of my post. You want scholarship, fine. But Huginn has never claimed to be an academic journal. As I said before, it’s pointless to try to back every single experience of religion up with a scholarly citation and it’s unclear who’d be qualified to peer-review such a thing. Which is why Huginn doesn’t.

  7. “So I, like most people, find myself somewhere in the middle. Which is where I situate Huginn‘s editorial stance: pro-UPG but with a non-racist Northern Tradition worldview.”

    I’m curious, could you make this statement more pejorative if you tried? Because once you invoke the Godwin rule, I mean really, where can you go?

    Seriously, if you are attempting to be above board why set up these straw men and ridiculous comparisons?

    • Talas Pái says:

      I don’t understand how that’s pejorative, but you seem to be taking it personally. All I’ve said there is three things: (1) that Huginn‘s editorial stance is pro-UPG; (2) distinctively Northern, that is to say, non-eclectic; and (3) and non-racist, that is to say, non-Folkish.

      Godwin’s Law states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1,” which is another thing you seem to be confused about.

      But okay, let’s discuss the thing I think you were angry about. Yes, I think Folkish Ásatrú is racist, ahistorical and counter to the native worldview of the Northern cultures. Yes, I think people who adhere to Folkish worldviews are either (at best) underinformed and (at worst) white supremacists. The Folkish movement of Ásatrú (‘neo-völkisch neopaganism’) is a direct offshoot of the Romantic nationalist ‘völkisch’ movement in the Germanic revival of the 19th and 20th centuries and I feel dresses up segregation, pseudo-science, and far-right or fascist politics in a pretty little apron dress. I think the Folkish movement has a stranglehold on the loudest section of Reconstructionist Ásatrú (who, I am quite aware, are not all right-wing, racist or Folkish). And I think that the Folkish folk try to justify their worldview by selectively citing scholarship of varying quality, inventing pseudo-scientific theories for ancestry and genetics, preying on people’s cultural prejudices and aggressively attacking everyone they disagree with.

      Anyway, I’m fine with people disagreeing with me personally or the content in Huginn. It’s not for everybody, gods know. All I’m saying is that peer-review is the product of and the enforcer of orthodoxy in this context, and that I’m more interested in free-thinking and free speech than in a committee deciding what’s ‘trú’ or not.

  8. Fantastic post!
    I’m so happy to have found this site, I was thinking that I was the only one who thought this way!
    Thanks for moving us *forward*.

  9. I just wanted to say that I think this post was well written and I agree whole heartedly. Also, thank you for putting yourself in the public eye and responding rationally when criticized, rather than allowing this page to degenerate into a pointless flamewar. The world needs more people of your caliber.

  10. The most important parts of the piece above are IMO “A healthy religion has both: a religion without mysticism or UPG is dead, an empty husk of a spirituality; a religion without tradition lacks structure and group cohesion.” and “If you’re doing reconstructionism but no UPG, you’re a medieval reenactor”

    The hardcore Reconstructionists who stifle any inspirational, shamanic approach are really going against the grain of historical authenticity IMO. According to Professor Martin Carver during a talk last year I attended near Sutton Hoo, the elder English Heathens had shamanic-type practitioners (and he used that very term – yes SHAMANIC!) who were very important to their local communities, who also probably had a shamanic worldview, which was expressed through material culture – bracteates, offerings, gravegoods etc. Carver has been chief archeologist at Sutton Hoo for many years, so I’m guessing he has to know what he’s on about, and knows lots of other people from related disciplines who can tell him stuff which doesn’t always appear in print etc. According to him, Anglo-saxon archeology of the Heathen period makes more sense when you incorporate a shamanic worldview into the mix to explain it, and I doubt I’d get any closer to the “horse’s mouth” in terms of Anglo-saxon academic credibility than this man (I’d trust him more than some of the recons I’ve met anyway…)

    So, if we’re wanting to be as authentic as possible as modern Heathens, this begs the question – where are these inspired, shamanic practitioners now in modern Heathenry? What’s happened to the shamanic worldview that was apparently important to our cultural forebears? One of things I’m proud of as a modern Heathen is that I always flatly refused to give up calling myself a Heathen, or my shamanic worldview and methodology, despite some nay-saying and childish name-calling from some members of the Reconstructionist community. Whilst I don’t dismiss the Reconstructionist paradigm completely because I’ve learnt a lot from it, it seems that my bloody-mindedness and refusal to conform has paid off now because I’m being proven correct (really glad I attended that lecture anyway – Carver is such an engaging speaker!)

    I’d therefor give three thumbs up for the above piece, if I had another one!:-)