Where Are the Pagan Fundamentalists?
In my last article, some readers brought up the issue of fundamentalism and how it might relate to the problem of Christian Dominionism as well as whether it can apply to Pagan spirituality. I was traveling, and the issue is complex, so I said I'd return to it. It deserved an article of its own.
Fundamentalism is a claim to know the Truth for a tradition based on a supposedly literal reading of its scripture's supposed "fundamentals." Fundamentalism is usually confused with conservative religion, but they only partially overlap, mostly in their opposition to liberal interpretations of their tradition. In a deeper sense, far from being conservative, I consider fundamentalism a religious malady that takes its practitioners ever farther from genuine spiritual insight.
The distinction between fundamentalism and conservative religion is similar to the one I made a while ago between conservative and right wing politics. Neither the contemporary political right wing nor fundamentalism are truly conservative. They are both toxic expressions of the modernity they often believe they are rejecting.
Many Pagans are religiously conservative. By this, I mean they try and practice their tradition as they believe it to have been practiced in the past, before the traditional knowledge they now seek to regain was lost. I am a Gardnerian Witch, and in this sense many Gardnerians are conservative (although I am only partially so). Reconstructionist traditions also look towards what is known of past practice as providing a reliable guide for rebuilding long dead traditions. They are also conservative in this sense.
Fundamentalism is different.
Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God is a study of contemporary fundamentalism. In it Armstrong argues, and I agree, that fundamentalism is a largely modern phenomena because it is based on modern ideas about knowledge. To make her case, Armstrong distinguishes between logos and mythos, two ways of knowing both once recognized as valid within their appropriate spheres. Logocentric knowledge consists of valid premises generating chains of reasoning ideally leading to a logically compelling conclusion. It is generally what secular moderns consider knowledge in its entirety. Scientific explanation is a logocentric ideal.
Mythos by contrast deals with inner meanings about the more-than-human, meanings that require stories and symbols to take us to insights that cannot be logocentrically stated. The Roman Pagan Sallustius wrote that mythic accounts never happened and are always happening. They are not objective in the modern sense (they never happened) but they illuminate another kind of truth (they are always happening). Myth seeks to illuminate the inner fabric of existence as filled with meaning.
An example from daily life helps me clarify this distinction. You can get a better grasp of a person you have not met if I tell you good stories about them rather than handing out their resume. The resume is not wrong, but it deals with externals. Mythos seeks to explicate the inner meaning of the more-than-human. Logos, like a resume, cannot give much insight here. Stories, poetry, symbols, and metaphor are the tools of mythos.
Gus diZerega is a Gardnerian Elder with over 25 years practice, including six years close study with a Brazilian shaman. He has been active in interfaith work off and on for most of those 25 years as well. He has conducted workshops and given presentations on healing, shamanism, ecology and politics at Pagan gatherings in the United States and Canada. Follow Gus on Facebook.
Gus blogs at Pointedly Pagan.