So instead of posting my first C post for the Pagan Blog Project late, I thought I’d post it early. I wanted to talk about the idea of conservatism in religion and how that relates to both reconstructionism in general and Hellenic reconstructionism in particular. Keep in mind throughout though, that I’m talking about religion, not politics (though you can infer/extrapolate what you will).
Now, for starters, I’ll come out and say it: I’m religious. I’m not spiritual, I don’t get the tinglies in the presence of the ineffable, and I certainly don’t get into the idea that religion is something “someone just made up, man.”
Religion is inherently conservative. That is to say that religion is systematic (follows rules or guidelines[aka traditions]), resists rapid and unnecessary change, and establishes or provides a cohesive and continuous narrative for a group of people. So what does this all mean? Well, let’s break it down, bit by bit.
All religion is systematic. It has structure, and often a rather old one at that (more than just a couple generations). This means that a religion has certain definitions, values, behaviors, and expectations; they are a culture unto themselves. As a religious movement, paganism and its subsets represent a shift, both in terms of worship and overall culture. However, within paganism, recon movements such as Hellenismos, Heathenism, Romuva, etc. represent a more conservative strain of religiosity than other paganisms. In particular, recons have a wealth of culture and tradition, both material and immaterial (artifacts and text/intellectual material); this is not to say other paganisms do not have this–recons simply have more, both in quantity and in terms of antiquity and concreteness. Recons have an advantage because they can, with a certain degree of academic certainty, understand what our spiritual ancestors did and thought, because they left that culture with us.
This is especially true in Hellenismos. Comparatively, we have more knowledge of what the ancient Greeks did, religiously, than we do about the first generations of Wicca. The Greeks (with maybe the exception of outlying colonies and the Spartans) were prolific writer and chroniclers. The mild climate of the Mediterranean meant artifacts did not deteriorate as fast as they might have in places like Britain or the Holy Land. Even Christianity wasn’t as harsh on the physical remnants as Islam was in the Middle East. Scholars even used classics like the Iliad to teach Greek (and why paganism was inferior to Christianity, but that’s a different story for a different day).
In addition, Hellenismos contains a principle that stretches back to the most archaic times, that of Nomos Arkhaios, which translates to the “ancient way”. While the Greeks often switched governments, technologies, and laws seemingly at the drop of a hat, religion was one thing that stayed relatively consistent across the board. While the cult of a single god may differ from location to location, even then were the behaviors normative. Animal sacrifice, libations of wine, the tossing of barley–all these behaviors were standard, and most still are.
This brings us to our next topic. With rare exception (mostly neopaganism and church schisms), religions are resistant to unnecessary, rapid, or arbitrary change. For instance, once Christianity cemented its doctrine following the Arian controversy and the subsequent Council of Nicaea, it went through a rather homogeneous period that lasted until the Great Schism 600 years later and then the Protestant Reformation about 400-500 years after that. Islam split at the very beginning into two factions, and since then, the two have remained doctrinally and practically (the five pillars, etc.) the same, with exception being the various schools of jurisprudence.
This is not to say that change doesn’t occur. Reconstructionism is not a methodology in which one “copies” the past; it recreates practices based on what one can academically and logically deduct a people would be doing had the advent of Christianity not interrupted the evolution of a given religion. For instance, we could deduce that, given time, most cultures would abolish slavery. A good example for this natural progression of change is found in Judaism, which is one of the oldest continuing cultures. The Hebrew Bible fully condones slavery, and yet it is not practiced by Jews today. Times change, and religions do, too. However, there are groups that even resist change from within. This can lead to schisms, which are natural. In Hellenismos, I personally differentiate between Hellenes based upon the amount of rigidity in their practice and the time period they focus on; “archaic” Hellenes might focus solely on historic offerings and allow less syncretism, while a “Hellenistic” Hellene might allow for a high degree of syncretism or improvise more in their practice.
The most important role of religion, however, is the creation and propagation of a shared narrative for a group. Through myth, doctrine, shared values and behavior, and history, religion helps to create an identity to which people can belong, satisfying one of the strongest urges of the human animal. Take Judaism for instance. They begin, in their eyes, as chosen by their god and suffer trials both divine and mundane. They celebrate the Exodus, mourn the diaspora and holocaust, and even though they may live in many nations of Gentiles, their shared stories, values, and behaviors make them a separate culture. This is something of a weakness for paganism, which has no common narrative, and struggles to create one due to valuing the individual over the group (my observation and opinion). For Recons this is less so, because we can fall back on the narratives of our chosen cultures, but there are still huge gaps, both chronologically and in evidence. Again, Hellenismos is luckier than others in the amount of material it has to fall back on, but this may still not be enough for some cults (like that of Ares).
That is, folks, why I am religious. While I see why people may ascribe to the description of “spiritual but not religious”, I can see no value in it for myself, or the continuation of paganism as a movement. I suppose that is why I left Wiccan-style neopaganism; for me, it had no real structure, no narrative, and too much fluidity. I’m religious, not spiritual. It’s not about me, it’s about the Gods. The way, in my opinion, religion should be. That is what I think lies at the heart of religion, the answer to why religion is conservative: it has order.
I pray that Ares, the Stern Governor of the Rebellious, can help bring religion back to the masses. Maybe then we can achieve our goals of erecting permanent, physical temples for the gods, where we may worship them as they require and deserve. I hope that we can then pass our religion, our traditions, even (dare I say) our rules to our children, and them to theirs. We need to embrace religion and continue creating our narrative, but we can only do that if we stop changing things simply to suit our fleeting preferences and settle on at least some basics (which is the sage we’re currently at, even if it pisses everyone off). May Ares, the Rallier of Men, rally us to achieving this goal. May we have the courage and prescience to pass down our traditions instead of setting yet another generation spiritually and religiously adrift. Ares, and the other gods, can help us get there, but we have to do this for them. The gods help those who help themselves; no amount of wishing will get us there. If we don’t agree, we have to realize we don’t have to. As the past shows us, schism is natural. If you can’t find voices that harmonize with your own, sing louder sing softer, or sing somewhere else. The gods, in my experience, despise indecision, Ares most of all. Ares will guide you, you just have to have the courage to let him.