Intellectualism and Pagan Pedagogy

Intellectualism and Pagan Pedagogy November 11, 2010

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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  • Cara

    A bit OT – many of us in the various “Recon” faith families now refer to ourselves as being part of a revived religion. We see ourselves as already ‘there.’

  • Honestly, I wrote that post with several half-formed thoughts in my head that I hadn’t quite untangled.

    My first idea was that intellectualism does not have to be elitist, although the two terms go hand in hand in current political rhetoric. Today we have access to information like never before.

    Yet when I tried to apply that same train of thought to Pagan studies I realized it wasn’t true. There is a lack of materials, and as you so rightly point out, part of the lack is because many resources haven’t been written yet!

    You bring up many good points about hierarchy and building traditions and when I have more time I may come back to comment on them.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post!

  • This post, and the one it is responding to, both illustrate one of the biggest problems with the idea that modern Paganism is somehow a newly invented religion unrelated to ancient Paganism.

    You want some high-grade Pagan brain candy? Try Homer, Plato, Plutarch, Vergil, Cicero, and Seneca. Classical Pagan scholarship, which was emic before being emic was cool, is widely available, often for free on teh interwebs.

    Cicero’s “On the Nature of the Gods” and Plutarch’s “Isis and Osiris” are especially good, and quite accessible. Both are available in cheap paperback editions in English translation. I would personally recommend GRS Mead’s annotated translation of Plutarch, and even more highly recommend P.G. Walsh’s Oxford Classics edition of Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods.

    Cicero and Plutarch are to Paganism more or less what Augustine and Jerome are to Christians. Good scholarship lasts for centuries.

  • Sara A.

    I agree with Apuleius P., and I also disagree with the assertion that there are NO emic writings from modern Pagans. The fact that they aren’t on a university library’s shelves reflects the purchasing priorities of the library, not necessarily what’s available. It’s also possible that one of the results of the Pagan fondness for immanence and embodiment (not to mention the realities of the market) is that it can be hard to recognize them for what they are.

    Most of Starhawk’s books contain quite a bit of philosophy and theology, grounded in practice (as it should be). Thorn’s second book “Kissing the Limitless” likewise. Yngona Desmond’s book on Seidr is dense and a bit difficult to read, but it definitely has the intellectual, philosophical and theological “stuff;” she taught Philosophy at Emory.

    There are also books by non-Pagan authors that feed my theological ideas; “The Spell of the Sensuous” by David Abram is one of them.

  • Jason

    A quick google gives this link for a translation of the Cicero. I haven’t read it before in any version, so I can’t speak to the quality of the translation.

  • @Jason: That translation is OK, especially since it is freely available online. However, Walsh’s Oxford Classics paperback has a great deal of very useful supporting material: an extensive Introduction, a Summary that is extremely good, footnotes and a glossary. You can get it from Amazon for <$10 new, and even less for a used copy in "very good" condition.

    Also, the translation at ThriceHoly.Net is mislabeled as the Tusculan Disputations, which is a separate work of Cicero's.

    Whichever translation you use, it is essential to realize that whenever you encounter the word "God" it has nothing whatsoever to do with monotheism of any kind. The title of the work in question, after all, is "On the Nature of the GODS".

  • A major problem with the whole “etic v. emic” issue is that emic writing is very much out of vogue among scholars, and engaging in it can be quite dangerous to one’s career. The sad fact is that being an academic is, at best, only a “day job” for a practicing Pagan. Genuine religious scholarship is unlikely to thrive in that kind of environment.

    Also, there is a major difference between (1) etic scholarship produced by individuals who are personally hostile to Paganism or who are otherwise agenda-driven in a way that makes their work less than worthless, and (2) scholarship on Paganism that is objective but nevertheless sympathetic to the subject being studied.

    I will leave aside, for now, going into specifics about category #1, but in the second, positive, category there are some truly extraordinary world-class scholars, thank the Gods. One in particular is Sarah Iles Johnston at the Ohio State University. Each of her book-length studies on topic in classical Paganism offers a wealth of material for thoughtful modern Pagans, while at the same time being objective scholarly works of the highest quality. Another scholar who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Johnston is Julia Annas at the University of Arizona. Her work on ancient Pagan philosophy (especially on ethics, psychology, and Platonism generally) is magnificent.

  • OK, now, I realize that I’ve only got 10 credits under my belt so far in my belated college education, but now I have to go find out what etic and emic are about.