Recently I find myself increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated by reconstructionist Paganism. This is a bit of a turn-around for me from earlier years when I was very much impressed by the apparent scholarly acumen of people willing to dig into medieval and ancient history to retrieve bits of information about pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices that could be built upon anew. I still respect the scholarly enterprise of investigating the past, but I have become increasingly suspicious of certain aspects and implications of the reconstructionist enterprise.
First of all, the attitude of a good many reconstructionists seems to be to privilege the past over the present, to judge that those living in the good old days of medieval or ancient wherever were really in touch with spiritual truth whereas we moderns and post-moderns are sadly misguided creatures cut off from primal reality. And so, we must strive to emulate the wise ones of the past as much as possible. I see a major problem with this, in that we don't know enough about the past practitioners of Paganism to make such grand statements about their superiority. We have some of their traditions in fragmentary form; that is all we have. I enjoy those fragments of myth and belief and take inspiration from them, but it seems intellectually dishonest to assume that we today can know past traditions completely or how to follow them just as the past masters supposedly did.
I also note that in America, many modern followers of Paganism, at least Norse-Germanic Paganism/Asatru, interpret the Norse-Germanic traditions in ways that are suspiciously similar to American conservative views and values. I have commented on this many times before, so I will just give the short version, with just two key points: (1) emphasis on machismo, war and militarism, equating modern soldiers in places like Iraq and Afghanistan with Viking warriors or Odin's einherjar, and making this the most holy of holies, as if Odin and Thor were employees of the Pentagon; (2) interpreting medieval eddas, sagas and texts describing small-scale, pre-modern, pre-industrial communities through the lens of typically American conservative anti-government attitudes that prioritize rugged individualism and small-town living, and disdain modern government attempts to provide for collective welfare, as if Ayn Rand were the reincarnation of Freyja. This is a thoroughly American conservative version of Norse-Germanic lore, with some parallels in right-wing European thought, and is by no means the sole possible or self-evident interpretation that can be applied to Pagan traditions. It is not the "one true faith," in other words. I am not saying that this is not a viable interpretation for those with such conservative views and values, but it is an interpretation that rises out of a particular ideological viewpoint, and it should not be imposed on those of us who do not share such conservative ideology.
Reconstructionist Paganism, by prioritizing the world of the past over the society of the present time, lends itself to conservative political interpretation and manipulation, because the fundamental conservative impulse is to fear and hate the new and the modern. For those of us of more liberal or progressive ways of thinking, who believe that the society of today is better than the society of the past because there has been steady progress in such areas as human rights, respect for women, appreciation of cultural diversity, and the use of government programs to provide for human needs and to not simply leave the old, sick and disadvantaged to wither and die, strict Reconstructionism is a spiritual and political dead end. What we need is an open-ended Paganism that has affection and respect for traditions of the past, but realizes too that we live in a modern world and must not be bound and gagged by the ways of the past.
This means accepting that religions, like any other aspect of human life, will necessarily evolve over time. A great injury done to the Pagan traditions of Europe by the process of Christian domination is that they were not allowed to naturally evolve in a healthy manner. Therefore we are stuck with medieval tales and myths that do indeed feature a good bit of slashing and smashing with swords, spears and other medieval weapons, along with other aspects that speak to other areas of human endeavor, such as family, fertility, beauty, art, agriculture, love, laughter and mystical experience. If Christianity had not come along with its harsh and oppressive influence, how might the religions of Europe have further evolved?
This is an open question that no one can answer definitely, of course. It is hard enough to know what was but impossible to know what might have been. However, I see one analogy that we can at least consider: the case of Hinduism. The earliest forms of Hinduism, the Vedic traditions recorded in such texts as the Rig Veda, are something rather similar to European Paganism, which is why we can talk about Indo-European connections between pre-Christian Europe and early Hindu India. In the Vedas, we find nature-centered polytheism, veneration of ancestors, tales of war, animal sacrifice, gods of many functions.
If India had followed the same trajectory as Europe, and Hinduism the same sequence of events as Paganism, with Christianity coming in and freezing development of this religious tradition, this could have been the end of the story, and Hinduism would be associated with meat-eating, animal-sacrificing, wealth-loving, nature-worshipping warrior tribes. Hinduism however continued to evolve, most spectacularly in the period of the Upanishads. These were philosophical texts from the first millennium BCE that move Hinduism from simple polytheism and a somewhat materialistic view of life to ideas of karma, reincarnation and transcendence. Later came another stage of intense devotion of personalized deities, known as bhakti. All three of these stages still exist and are still respected as spiritual options within the larger fold of Hinduism.
Perhaps if Paganism had been allowed to evolve, it might have undergone some such further stages of development. Well, there is no time like the present. So, let's evolve! New horizons are waiting. You don't have to keep living in a thatched hut, sharpening your axe!
I find exactly this kind of open, progressive attitude among my Scandinavian and German Pagan friends. They are inspired by the Pagan traditions of the past, such as these can be known, but they are not prisoners of the past. They embrace the modern world, and this is also seen in their politics. They are grateful for modern government programs that can provide a better life and better security than in ancient or medieval times. They are not looking to retreat into the past but to build a better future. They have evolved. Can American Pagans do the same? I hope so.