In thinking about faith systems like Druidry, Asatru, and (Neo)paganism in general, the issue of Reconstructionism comes up. It seems to me that there is a kind of dogmatic rift among Neopagans between the Reconstructionists and the whatever-you-call-the-others. In Druidry the term is usually Revivalists, but that has a specific meaning to Druidry that doesn’t necessarily correspond to other branches of Neopaganism. For the sake of discussion, I am going to call them Contemporists.
Reconstructionism as I understand it means a good faith attempt to actually reconstruct an ancient religious belief system. In practice it probably isn’t completely possible (since most ancient peoples didn’t leave detailed written records of their theological bliefs and a how-to-manual for their rites and practices). Therefore, Reconstructionists are generally willing to “fill in the blanks” with contemporary or invented practices or ideas, with the understanding that such a practice or belief is a provisional place-holder and is subject to change as more historical information is uncovered. Reconstructionist religion tends to go hand-in-hand with a keen interest in history. Good examples of reconstructionist Neopagan faith systems are Asatru and Ár nDraíocht Féin Druidry.
On the other hand, Contemporist faith systems (like Wicca or Revival Druidry) are those that are inspired by ancient belief, myth, and practice, but that have (relatively) contemporary origins. Their practices and beliefs seem more likely to be syncretic, and Contemporists seem generally open to innovation in both theology and practice.
Reconstructionists often accuse Contemporists of having a “made-up religion.” As a teenager, my Neopagan interests were strictly reconstructionist, and I looked with serious disdain on belief systems like Wicca. The irony of course was that I was raised Mormon, which by any measure other than that of the hardcore true believer is a contemporary “made up” religion as well. Nevertheless, I was raised to believe that Mormonism was an ancient faith that had een restored, and my preconceived notions about absolute truth precluded me from accepting religious innovation as valid in any way.
Now, I see things differently. In fact, these days I have no interest in reconstructionism whatsoever. I understand that it floats some peoples’ boats, but not mine. Here’s why:
1) I don’t believe that full reconstruction is really possible, and that some things are simply lost to the mists of time. Thus, a reconstructionist, no matter how zealous, will always be complementing his “authentic” practices with contemporary innovations or borrowed material. So for practical purposes, only his attitude makes him different from the Contemporist.
2) That attitude means the reconstructionist must be willing to abandon what may be useful and meaningful spiritual practices and belifs when they are later discovered to not be in conformity with ancient religion. To me this seems a pointless waste: if something works, don’t stop doing it. A spiritual practice’s validity has nothing to do with age, but with whether or not it works. Every religion was “made up” at one point or another, and the fact that it was made up a long time ago or its author is anonymous doesn’t make it osmehow more real or more valid. Granted, if a spiritual practice has been in continuous use for a long period of time, you can infer a high degree of validity because it has stood the test of time. However, an old practice/belief that is not longer held or is long abandoned may no longer be useful–that may be why it was abandoned in the first place. Either it was no longer useful, or it was supplanted by something else more useful.
3) I’m not an ancient person. I don’t live in the Bronze Age. My life isn’t the same, my concerns may not be the same, and the world I live in may be very different from that of ancient people. What they practiced and believed may have been relevant to them, but that doesn’t mean it is relevant to all people in all situations, and that means it may very well not be relevant to me. Although I have no problem with drawing on ancient sources for beliefs and practices, I see no reason at all to assume that the ancient practices will always be better for me than a more contemporary alternative, especially when the study of history means that that ancient practice would itself be provisional, subject to change, revision, and even dismissal as our historical picture is fine-tuned.
4) I personally see no real need to believe in a Reconstructionist religion if I don’t believe that said religion was absolutely, objectively true. And I don’t believe that any existing religion is absolutely, objectively true, or that it’s even possible for human beings to ever be compeltely sure of what absolute, objective truth is. I will grant that it probably exists, but it seems to me that the nature of epistemology means that asically everything must be subject to doubt.
5) I feel no personal pull to practice or believe in a Reconstructionist religion. I haven’t had a mystical experience with ancient deities where they commanded me to take back up the old ways (and as I don’t really believe in literal personal gods anyway, I don’t really think that such a demand on the part of the gods is likely). I am not a historian who specializes in one particular ancient people to such a degree that it fills my life. Honestly, if I practiced a reconstructionist religion, I think I’d always feel like I was LARPing.
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