Philosophy and Institutions

Brendan Myers

Episode 120 of the long-running Wigglian Way Pagan Podcast is out and it features a lecture by Dr. Brendan Myers on the history of Pagan philosophy.  It’s a preview from his new book The Earth, The Gods and The Soul – A History of Pagan Philosophy: From the Iron Age to the 21st Century, currently scheduled to for release on November 7.  The podcast is well worth the almost 2-hour running time.  In addition to Brendan’s talk, there’s new music from Bekah Kelso, Sharon Knight, and Kellianna.

I’m not going to try to summarize Brendan’s talk, but I do want to expand on one of his conclusions.

In 590 CE the Emperor Justinian closed the schools of philosophy in what remained of the Roman Empire because he thought they were a threat to Christianity.  Pagan philosophy (Brendan specifically cites pantheism, humanism, and Neoplatonism) didn’t suddenly disappear, but for over a thousand years it was stagnant.  There were no truly new Pagan philosophical ideas until the introduction of feminism and environmentalism in the 1970s.

At about the 1:35 mark of the podcast, Brendan says:

One of the things I was looking for when I was writing the book was to know if Pagan ideas could flourish as an independent critical tradition without the support of institutions, without the support of organized communities.  I think it’s safe to conclude that the answer is no.

There is a strong anti-institutional element in modern Paganism.  Because so many of us have had bad experiences with institutions, we’re leery of letting them into our religions, much less willing to financially contribute to building and supporting them.  Institutions are seen as promoting orthodoxy and causing stagnation, or worse, creating dogma.  Yet as Brendan shows, it was the lack of Pagan institutions – and the overwhelming presence of Christian institutions – that led to stagnation in Pagan thought.

You don’t need philosophy or theology to howl at the moon, to gaze at the stars, or to dance in a circle.  But if you want to worship or work with the gods, you need to have some idea of who and what the gods actually are.  If you want to refine your soul, if you want to become more god-like yourself (or just more fully human), you need to have some idea of what you want to become.

And if you want to communicate your religion beyond “here, try this – it’s great” you need to be able to articulate what you do, why you do it, and why it all makes good sense.  Call it theology, call it philosophy (they aren’t the same thing, but in modern Paganism it’s not always easy to tell them apart), call it “what I think about the Big Questions of Life,” we need good, rational, helpful, meaningful ideas.

These ideas aren’t formed in isolation.  One person proposes an idea, but in order for it to flourish, it must be developed, vetted, refined and communicated.  Doing so consistently and effectively requires institutions.

These institutions need not look like the Catholic church or the modern university system.  The most widely-used institution we have today is the Pagan internet.  Put a big new idea on Patheos Pagan or PaganSquare or on the website of a major author / teacher and within a few days it’s on The Wild Hunt and all over Facebook.

Sometimes discussions generate more heat than light, and it’s very easy for these democratic debates to get derailed by those who can’t separate attacks on ideas from attacks on people.  But when the dust settles, a few more ideas have been explored and the whole of Pagan philosophy has been expanded, if only by a little.

We’re helped by publishing institutions like Llewellyn and Weiser and smaller organizations who publish books with sales volumes far too low for the major houses to touch.  We’re helped by festivals that give people the opportunity to immerse themselves in Pagan life for a week or a weekend and discuss ideas while they’re there.  We’re helped by Druid orders like OBOD, ADF and AODA, and by similar organizations in other traditions.

There are lots of Pagan institutions that are doing the work of spreading and refining Pagan ideas.  Are they enough?  I want to see the day when every major city in the Western world has two or three or ten Pagan temples of various traditions, but we’ve got a long way to go before we get there.

For now, it’s enough to recognize that institutions aren’t the enemy, they’re a necessity.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Henry Buchy

    “There is a strong anti-institutional element in modern Paganism. Because so many of us have had bad experiences with institutions, we’re leery of letting them into our religions, much less willing to financially contribute to building and supporting them. Institutions are seen as promoting orthodoxy and causing stagnation, or worse, creating dogma.”
    There’s that. and then there’s the 40 or so years that Modern Pagan literati have stressed the solitary, do it yourself, don’t need an institution idea. heh.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I have to wonder how much of what you describe is due to those literati genuinely believing that, how much is due to them being damaged themselves, and how much is due to telling their book buying customers what they wanted to hear. Some of all, I imagine…

      • Henry Buchy

        true, no accounting for motives….yet that message created in itself a dogma, lol, of anti institutionalism. So maybe it will take the literati another 40 years or so to switch gears.
        another thought… if one considers the premise of the modern pagan movement as evolving from Gardnerian Wicca, an ‘institutional’ structure was already established. That model was minimalized over that same 40 year period.

      • kenofken

        Most of these authors were dealing with a different but related question: “Can you BE a pagan without institutions?” Of course you can, and they made their bones offering instruction and inspiration on the how-to.

        Clearly one doesn’t need a group to make one pagan or to live it in a rich and meaningful way. Virtually all of us will spend at least some time in that mode during our lives. I don’t know that that’s something to place either credit or blame on anyone. It’s simply the reality for a lot of reasons. Gardnerians and other old-line oathbound forms of witchcraft were never in a position to instituionalize neo-paganism in any widespread way.

        At their height, they were only able to absorb a tiny fraction of seekers. Even if you had one in your region, you had to have serious counter-cultural connections and persistence to find them and then to get an in. Then there’s the reality that not all pagans are called to Wicca. The infamous “witch wars” of past decades with their personality conflicts and fights over who had the “real” lineage and doctrine certainly did nothing to allay fears of organized religion either.

        In any case, traditional covencraft works only on a small scale. I don’t know if anyone hews to the storied limit of 13, but I know firsthand the dynamics fall apart when it gets much larger than that, and there’s no way it would ever work with the 200 families or whatever needed to run an actual walk-in church building sized temple.

        The question we and Myers are grappling with has more to do with whether we need institutions to do certain things as a movement. I think it’s clear we do and we will.

  • kenofken

    I think we are developing a modest base of pagan institutions as we speak, and they’re arising out of many years of experimentation and failure and evolution of who we are as a people, or many peoples. We don’t see pagan temples in every city, and I don’t think we will in the foreseeable future, for a variety of reasons. Some of that is due to an anti-institutional bias arising from bad memories of Christian churches. Some, though, arises from seeing those same failing re-enacted in grand style in pagan traditions.

    More fundamentally, it has to do with how many of us understand our religions, the nature of ritual and our relationship with our gods. The vast institutional infrastructure of Christianity which we envy in some ways is the product of a religion which places a great importance on the intermediary roles of priests and pastors, a separate caste of professional clergy without whom ritual does not happen. They also place a great emphasis on congregational style worship and even on the buildings themselves.

    The economics of that as John and I and others have pointed out, are daunting. It requires a fairly concentrated population of believers willing to put out serious cash, every month, a smattering of very rich and generous benefactors and the use of both serious proselytizing and cultural/family pressure to maintain the faith over generations to minimize attrition.

    I know there are exceptions, but in general, we have exactly none of these things in our contemporary pagan culture. Most of us don’t need or want clergy as our sole or main link to the divine, and many of us see indoor ritual as a vastly inferior alternative to a good grove under a full moon. Evangelizing is repugnant to many of us, not only from our faiths of origin but also because we experienced our spiritual journeys as something intensely personal that had to come organically, without any nudging or pitch from anyone. Our community’s relationship to money has been….challenging. We’re getting much better, but historically “broke” was an ethic as much as an economic reality in many circles.

    The good news? We’ve discovered that institutions are quite useful outside of routine worship use. We don’t want temples (in general), and the “build it and they will come” generic community center is dead, but we have some excellent centers of learning and scholarship (Cherry Hill, the New Alexandrian Library). We have some powerful centers of advocacy and outreach and programming like Circle Sanctuary.

    We have people doing work on prison chaplaincy and international interfaith work. We have numerous professional and fellowship groups for a wide variety of areas – emergency responders, veterans, you name it. We have news organizations and publishing companies with some serious gravity. Things like Pantheacon and PSG should be counted as institutions as well. A lot of cross-pollination of ideas happens at these things, and they spawn innovation far beyond the few days they publicly manifest each year. We have an institutional presence in academia. We’re enough of a phenomenon that scholars like Myers and others can carve out a career making a serious study of us and the concepts that inform us.

    Are they enough? Are we where we “should be?” I hope we re-frame the issue so that we evolve and adopt institutions that reflect and serve who we really are rather than building institutions to “mainstream” us or at the other extreme, avoiding consideration of all institutions.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Excellent commentary – thank you.

      Pagan religion is evolving, and like biological evolution, there will be things that survive and things that go extinct. This is a period if high diversity. We’ll see what makes it and what doesn’t.


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