Future of Paganism
Future of Midgard: Heathenry Reaching Out for a Dynamic Future
Essentially, American Asatru has its roots in the Odinist Fellowship, a socially conservative religious organization founded in 1968 by Danish ex-patriot Else Christensen. Christensen is a troubling figure and there was certainly a racial slant to her politics. Early adherents viewed Odinism as a means of overcoming the influence of Christianity and hearkening back to the assumed vitality and vigor of proponents' Nordic roots. (See Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's Black Sun, p. 259.)
Simultaneously with Christensen's work in the early 1970s, Steve McNallen created the Asatru Free Assembly (AFA), which focused more on religious practice than identity politics; membership, however, in the two organizations often overlapped. There was a strong movement in the 1980s to separate Asatru once and for all from its ethnocentric roots, which led to much more focus on the spiritual end of the equation: it was finally beginning to come into its own as a religion. Differing ideological factions founded several distinct national organizations, including The Troth and the aforementioned Asatru Free Assembly, each with their own diametrically opposed ideological stance on the subject of the importance (or lack of importance) of racial identity.
By the end of the ‘80s (after a period in which there was substantial cross-pollination with other Paganisms, largely through the influx of converts), I think it's safe to say that Asatru had lost its political overtones and the focus was primarily on restoring the religious practices of our pre-Christian forebears. The debate then became (and largely remains) on how that ought to be accomplished. It was at this time, I believe, that we began to see the development of distinct denominations within this religion. Because not every adherent focuses predominantly on the Aesir, one of the dominant families of Gods within the tradition, many found themselves preferring the more neutral term "Heathenry" to Asatru, and things just blossomed from there.
Today, contemporary Heathenry is in a state of tremendous debate and flux. Ideological debates over theology, self-definition, and the role of personal gnosis in general and liminal practices in particular (including but not limited to ecstatic mysticism, Deity possession, shamanism, and even such common activities as prayer and devotional practice) have come to dominate public discourse within these religions. This ongoing discourse has served to highlight the major ideological fault line within Heathenry: the conflict between a body of scholarship that Heathens term "the lore" and the validity of personal gnosis. For this reason, it is difficult to speak of one homogeneous Heathen community. It is far more accurate to refer to the Northern Tradition as being comprised of multiple communities that simply happen to share a common core cosmology. Approach and belief surrounding that cosmology may be dramatically and often radically different between denominations, particularly within the United States. This is the religious world that modern Heathens have inherited today.
So the question remains: what is the future of Heathenry? I don't know. When I first became Heathen in the early ‘90s, the idea that one could have a direct relationship with the Gods and receive inspiration and wisdom from that relationship was all but verboten. Very few were willing to discuss the personal side of devotion and those who did often faced tremendous community opprobrium. Since then, that has changed. Now, even if the topic evokes debate and disagreement, people talk about it. There have been numerous devotionals to various Gods published, and a thriving mystical tradition is slowly developing within the community. We're moving beyond debating the minutiae of lore and into the development of a core theology. We may not agree on all points (we definitely don't agree on all points!) but we're debating, discussing, learning, and growing. This, to my mind, is progress.