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