The feedback on last week’s post The Theology of Personal Experience was mostly positive. But one commenter on a soon-to-be-defunct social media platform called it an insulting name that’s no longer used in polite society, and then added:
UPG and wild claims can’t trump hard facts and evidence at all.
This, of course, demands a response.
But what, exactly, should I respond to? In conversation I hear and read a lot of “UPG is garbage!” comments, but rarely do I hear a reasoned argument as to why.
I went looking for articles and blogs explaining why we should ignore UPG. I asked a couple of friends who have strong feelings about the topic for their references. Virtually all of what I found was supportive of UPG (within proper boundaries), such as this very good post from The Rational Heathen titled Why Unverified Personal Gnosis Should Not Be Dreaded.
The anti-UPG arguments I found basically fall into two categories:
- We should do things exactly like our ancestors did them with no changes.
- If we accept UPG then we can’t criticize anybody’s ideas no matter how ridiculous they are.
The first argument is a religious choice that is neither right nor wrong, but it’s not the choice I’ve made. The second is blatantly incorrect.
My religion is an ecstatic religion and an oracular religion. The Gods and spirits speak to us and with us. Much of what they have to say is properly classified as UPG. So when people attack UPG – particularly in vague and unsubstantiated ways – I take it personally.
UPG is Unverified Personal Gnosis
Let’s begin by defining terms. UPG is Unverified Personal Gnosis – information and wisdom that comes to individuals through means that can’t be objectively confirmed. It’s things you learn in dreams, in trance, or through divination. It isn’t something you made up or something you think is true. It’s something you believe is true because you trust the source, even though you can’t “prove” it’s true to yourself, much less to someone else.
If multiple people get the same message, it becomes SPG – Shared Personal Gnosis. If enough people get the message and accept the message, then it becomes part of the religious tradition.
All supernatural elements of all religions were originally someone’s UPG or SPG.
There’s a lot of Protestant baggage in anti-UPG arguments
Some anti-UPG rants are first class examples of what happens when you change religions without examining your foundational assumptions. Even if you grew up Catholic or atheist, the mundane culture of this country is filled with Protestant assumptions. Things like treating ancient texts as inerrant scripture, assuming that if something isn’t literally true then it’s worthless, and assuming that any good religion should never change.
Ancient texts are valuable connections to our ancestors, and through them to our Gods. But like fundamentalist Protestants, many anti-UPG Pagans look at the book in their hand uncritically, forgetting that it was written by humans, translated by other humans, and interpreted by yet more humans. In trying to be absolutely true to their ancestors, they have unwittingly adopted the very methods the enemies of their ancestors used to wipe out the religions they’re trying to reconstruct.
Some traditions have very little “hard facts and evidence”
If you’re a Kemetic, you’re in luck. The Egyptians wrote down pretty much everything and they literally carved it in stone. Not all of it has even been discovered yet, much less translated and put into use. But our Kemetic friends have a lot of good source material to work with.
If you’re a follower of Greek or Roman religion, you don’t have nearly as much, but you’ve still got a lot. If you’re following a Norse or Celtic path, you’ve got a lot less. Some traditions have virtually nothing.
But even where we have reliable records of what our ancestors believed and did, the fact remains that none of us are Pharaonic Egyptians or Pre-Roman Celts. What was best for them may not be best for us. It may not even be usable.
Good religion is organic religion. It flows from Nature and from the Gods, into human culture. Good religion is local religion. It is filtered through the land where live, and the time in which we live.
Where we have “hard facts and evidence” let’s make good use of them. But let’s not ignore the need to build a living religion here and now.
Rejecting UPG avoids the hard work of discernment
When people say that accepting UPG means we can’t criticize anybody’s ideas, they’re setting up a false choice. The fact that I accept my own UPG and the UPG of people I know and trust doesn’t mean I accept just anybody’s UPG.I’ve seen Pagans whose approach to UPG was so flippant I ignored everything they said. I don’t think they were making it all up, but I do think they weren’t talking to who they thought it was. Gods are always virtuous and the Fair Folk either can’t or won’t lie, but other spirits can and will. If you tell me the Morrigan is a loving Mother Goddess I’m going to assume you’re not talking to the Great Queen Herself.
There is a middle way between mindlessly accepting what anyone tells you and dismissing all unverified gnosis – it’s called discernment. I wrote about it last year. That post wasn’t particularly well-read – discernment isn’t a sexy topic. But it is a necessary topic.
Good discernment is how we separate useful UPG from ideas that are mistaken or unhelpful.
Rejecting UPG denies the agency of the Gods
As a polytheist, this is the most frustrating part of the anti-UPG rants. The lore they claim to respect tells countless stories of Gods communicating with humans: in dreams and visions, through oracles, and occasionally by speaking directly to them. If the Gods could and would do that in ancient times, why should we assume they can’t do it now?
This may be more Protestant baggage. Protestants (the conservative ones, anyway) claim their God stopped speaking after the ascension of Jesus and now speaks only through the Bible. They also claim their devil talks to people all the time, to deceive them. Why they would make two such incongruous claims is an interesting question, but not one that concerns us as Pagans.
While our Gods speak when and how They choose and not when we command, there is no reason in any ancient or modern Pagan or polytheist tradition why we should assume They cannot or will not talk to us now.
Have these folks ever actually experienced the presence of a God?
I want to be very careful how I present this. Experiencing the presence of a God, much less receiving a message from Them, is a beautiful, powerful, and holy thing. But it doesn’t mean the recipient is special, or powerful, or chosen. It doesn’t mean they’re a “real” polytheist, or a higher level polytheist. What makes you a real polytheist is giving religious regard to one or more of the many Gods, embodying Their virtues, and doing Their work in this world.
But if you have experienced the presence of a God – even in a group setting where Their presence was certain but their purpose was not – the idea that UPG is garbage is almost unthinkable.
The presence of Cernunnos at our devotional rituals to Him was unmistakable. That He wanted people to know He was there is unquestionable. Is it really such a stretch to think He might have had something more specific he wanted us to know?
Good UPG is a serious matter
I see some people arguing over whether this deity likes chocolate or that deity will accept offerings of mass produced beer. I find these conversations interesting, but not exactly critical. If you’ve been told that’s important by all means follow up with it, but I’m not going to spend any time arguing about it one way or another.
When the Morrigan uses you as a messenger service, it’s usually because someone hasn’t been listening and She wants to speak with an audible voice. Those messages have never been pleasant to deliver, nor do I imagine they were pleasant to hear. So far nobody’s shot the messenger, for which I am thankful.
When a collective of deities tells you to do something and some of the people you expected to help decline, that’s frustrating, even though you respect their choice. And when those same deities come back later and say “why isn’t this done yet?” there aren’t any good answers.
If you tell me Lugh wants me to shave my head, I’ll tell you Lugh can come tell me Himself. But I can’t remember a time when I was presented with serious UPG and I ended up dismissing it.
Your gnosis – your choice
Too often people obsess over the G and ignore the U and the P. UPG is unverified (though not always unverifiable) and it’s personal. You have to figure out what to do with it. If your discernment leads you to conclude you should ignore it, so be it.
But the first-hand experience of Gods and spirits and communication with them is an important part of the Pagan and polytheist religion I practice. So is the gnosis – the wisdom, the information, and the marching orders – that comes from these experiences.
And I’m not backing away from that, no matter what insults some people want to throw at it.