Intellectualism and Pagan Pedagogy

The following started out as a comment to be made on Star’s Nov. 9th post, “Elitism: The Intellectual Path in Paganism.” Because what I was writing grew and grew into a pretty wide-ranging little article, I thought I’d go ahead and publish it as its own blog post. So, the references to “you” below are to the author of the original post! Enjoy.

. . .

Interesting thoughts! I must admit that I’m pretty confused, though, since it seems that you’re seeking a few things which, to me, seem at odds with each other.

Via Tom Murphy VII via Wikimedia CC license

First, you imply an elitism that comes with intellectualism. Then, you seem to imply that intellectualism is bad, being “an attack,” and “a cold dissection.” So too, then, elitism is bad, yes? And yet, instead of arguing against intellectualism and championing a more intuitive approach, which I would have thought (given your introduction) was the direction you were going to take, you say that pagans need more access to books, even going so far to as to suggest that the aim of pagan education should be to create scholars. So, which is it? Are you asking for less intellectualism (= less elitism) or are you saying that pagans in general should seek to become an intellectual elite?

On the subject of books, I agree that there is a lack of material concerning certain theological concepts like “polytheology,” especially in a neopagan context, but I disagree that this is synonymous with a lack of access. On the contrary, I think that the problem is that such works haven’t been written yet! In my academic life, I find myself deep within the bowels of one of the country’s largest research libraries every single day, and I can tell you that I’ve scoured the bookshelves (and ILL) and a large corpus of books on contemporary pagan theology, especially written by-and-for pagan audiences, doesn’t exist. There are plenty of works by historians, religion scholars, NRM scholars, sociologists, etc., but those are about paganism, not from within paganism. It’s etic scholarship, not emic theology. What we do have from within paganism is, I think you’re right, too often aimed at “beginner” levels; this makes it frustrating for those of us who have been at all this for a while!

But even this talk of “levels” points back toward the broad topic of over-intellectualism in paganism. Don’t we often talk about ourselves in terms of “levels”, Beginning, Intermediate, Advanced? This seems me to be a typology foreign to other traditions, or at least foreign the lay members of other traditions. (Have you ever heard of an “Intermediate” lay Muslim?) Why do we organize ourselves in this way, and, if we’d like to lessen intellectual elitism, wouldn’t it be best to rethink this organizational structure?

I think the answer to the question “why” we organize ourselves hierarchically in such a way is a vestige of the degree-oriented, esoterically-minded European Christian mystery traditions of which Wicca (and thus much of paganism in general) is a descendant. Let’s not forget that Wicca started out essentially as a training ground for esoteric philosophers: At Third Degree, you’d have been exposed to the philosophical concepts, states of consciousness, etc., that would allow you to comprehend the mysteries of the entire Western Mystery Tradition. So, now, all of us are left with the (tacit) expectation of undergoing a lot of training—esoteric education—in our religious pursuits. This takes the form of all the correspondence charts, Kabbalistic material, and talk about “Will” that I’m sure is familiar to all of us.

What I’m getting at is that, in the main, most of us have imposed upon ourselves a pretty steep and long learning curve that leads to bookishness and, perhaps, elitism. The reason pedagogy is so hard in such a situation is because Wicca/paganism’s religious language is a highly developed philosophical language meant to be understood by would-be philosophers and esotericists, not our pagan-festival-roaming nine year-olds or those of us who (you’re right) don’t have access to De Occult Philosophia or The Theology of Aristotle. And yes, today’s family-style American Wicca is not Gardner’s Wicca, that’s true, but in my opinion the Wiccans among us have not yet successfully translated Wiccan teachings for young and, let’s not forget, uninitiated, audiences.

Recons have got it a little different, though on the ground running a lot of the same historical tangles apply. Let’s keep in mind that “The Recons” aren’t a single coherent community, and that, rather, reconstructionism is essentially a methodological stance. Therefore, my point is that those attempting reconstruction of ancient practices have set before themselves an essentially—at its outset—academic task, since reconstruction by its nature requires historical materials. Reconstructionist parents, then, won’t be teaching their children all the ins and outs of reconstruction (i.e., their methodology), but instead the traditions that they (the parents) have already reconstructed. I think we’ll see the trend of folks who practice reconstructed traditions being perceived as (overly?) academic ending with time, since the reconstructionist projects will come to a close and the traditions will enter “Phase II: Revived Living Tradition,” if you will. (Of course these practices will be modified by children brought up in “Recon” families, should they stay within the faiths, but later!)

And so paganism at its various “cores” has a tendency toward intellectualism, and it’s up to us to decide how we want to deal with that. We can choose, on the one hand, to think that philosophizing is still the heart of our religious practices, maintaining the primacy of “teachings”, and then we’ll have to deal with the elitism that that would potentially breed. Or, on the other hand, we can choose to forgo esotericism and work toward building a religious culture that is more… and I struggle to find the word here… experiential? embodied? pious? communal? We’d have to work out what to call it once we’d developed it! In either case, contemporary paganism has a long way to go before any of this becomes routine. Until then, let’s keep up this conversation about the role (and nature) of pagan education!

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