Warning: this blog entry will likely be offensive to some who read it.
Nonetheless, the subject matter is something I have deep feelings about and am eager to see how others feel about this.
When modern-day Pagan or neo-Pagan movements started forming some decades back, many of those involved were excited about creating a definite alternative to Christianity, which many European, Americans and others had come to feel was a seriously flawed religion that had had various negative impacts on western and indeed, world civilization. It was viewed as anti-natural, anti-female, anti-sexual, and intolerant and oppressive toward other forms of tradition and spirituality around the world. One form of Christianity that came in for particularly strong criticism was modern-day fundamentalist Christianity. There was a sense of optimism that we free-wheeling, open-minded, pluralistic, polytheistic worshippers of Pagan gods and goddesses would never succumb to the narrow-minded, closed-off, literalistic, authoritarian tendencies embraced by those we perceived as our Christian foes.
Well, after some decades of development, I detect signs that a kind of fundamentalism is creeping into Paganism. I see this happening at least in American Asatru/Heathenry, and I am wondering is this is an "only in America" phenomenon, or if it may be taking place in other regions too.
I see it in two areas above all. The first place I see it is in an aggressive conviction that the gods are REAL, that they are actual, eternal, living, supernatural beings who watch over us and may intervene in our world as they see fit. This point of view has no tolerance for other perspectives, such as the idea that the gods are psychic or psychological realities more than actual beings, or that they are archetypal symbols a la Jung, or that the gods of this or that tradition are but partial reflections of a larger spiritual reality, like the Brahman that transcends the various personal deities of polytheistic Hinduism, or the Buddha-Mind of certain schools of Buddhist philosophy. Having never met a god in person, nor seen any proof that the assertions by some Pagans that they REALLY have met their gods is anything more than a personal whim or fantasy or psychological quirk, I find myself uneasy with those who take the stance that Odin or Thor or whoever is REAL REAL REAL and if you deny it you are an idiot, a traitor, a loser or an apostate.
Another place I see this creeping fundamentalism is in the tendency to take old Pagan texts, such as Norse myths and sagas, as literal, perfect truth that can neither be questioned nor interpreted metaphorically. If the Eddas say that there are 640 doors in Valhalla, then by Gungnir, there are absolutely and only 640 doors. AND Valhalla is a real place, an actual physical place where warriors chop each other up every day and drink mead every night. AND every warrior who believes in Odin is really really going there. AND Ragnarok is really really going to happen. The world is going to end in a big battle, and so we must all prepare to fight to the death. Don't worry, it will be glorious!
Well, sorry folks, I ain't buying. The emphasis on the gods as literally physically REAL who are out there waiting for us is all too reminiscent of the fundie Christian belief that Jesus lord god is REAL and if you don't take JC as your personal savior, you are going to hell. I don't go for a Pagan equivalent of "I don't care if it rains or freezes, as long as I got my plasic Jesus" along the lines of "I don't care if I have to die in a war, as long as I got my hammer of Thor."
I'm sorry. I know this may be offensive to some who have a sincere desire to worship Freyja, Odin, Thor or others as personal gods. I accept that such an attitude and practice can be very fulfulling, just like a very emotional belief in the Virgin Mary or Saint Fill-in-the-blank may be very meaningful and satisying to many Catholics. I can't do it. I can't go down a road that I rejected long ago and pretend that the new road is different from the old road when it seems to me that it is really just the same road under a different name. Let me explain why.
I have a long history of spiritual exploration. In my teen years, reading books by such eminent thinkers as Carl Jung and Alan Watts opened my mind in ways that left me permanently unable to embrace any kind of narrow-minded creed that puts up road blocks and blinders for the sake of certainty and security. Rereading Alan Watts' autobiography "In My Own Way" recently stirred up renewed apprecation for what Watts and Jung gave me as a young man struggling to come to grips with the variety of religions that all seemed partially compelling to me and partially not. Thinking about the parallels between Christian and Hindu and Buddhist myths and beliefs as laid down by Watts, or the amazing proposition by Jung that we all share in a greater consciousness, unfortunately named with the somewhat pejorative term "collective UNconscious," my sense of religion was permanently altered. I became convinced that there can be no one true religion, only many versions of religious experience put into different words and symbols. I cannot say that one religious teaching or myth or holy man or mystic from one tradition is better than another any more than I can say that Bach is true and Beethoven is false. The reality is vast and words are limited. I accept readily the proposition that each religion has the capacity to carry us to a deeper view of reality beyond our narrow selves.
I see Odin, Thor, Freyr, Freyja as wonderful symbols of important, universal dimensions of reality. Odin on the tree like the Buddha under the tree or Christ on the cross: a symbol of mankind suffering through to wisdom and a glimpse of eternity. Thor with the hammer the eternal hero rising up again and again to quell disorder and injustice. Freyr the bountiful king and the lovesick suitor, with both roles well-known in world literature. Freyja like Aphrodite or Kali, a wild force of feminine nature. I love them all but I cannot see them as literal, real, actual beings who are going to be my personal savior.
I see something greater beyond, a greater spiritual reality that is the source and sum of all things, like the Tao or the Brahman or the interdependent ultimate reality of Buddhism, mirrored perhaps in the Wyrd or Orlog of Norse tradition. Think on this: the gods in Pagan myth are not supreme. There is always a greater order, a higher power of fate. We should be careful to not become the person who can't see the forest for the trees. Or the one who can't even see the tree because they are obsessed with one or two pretty leaves. I think religion should be something that impels us onward to the broadest possible vision of life, not a desperate search for security by clinging tightly to some new "ancient" dogma and shutting off the mind to larger issues of universal truth and meaning.
To lapse into narrow fundamentalism seems to me a terrible mistake, and I do see some of my American Pagan friends going down this road. I hope that in time something will move them to take a larger view. Otherwise, to be a Pagan would seem little different than being a fundamentalist Christian. You just change the names of the gods and the titles of the texts, but the attitude remains the same. After all, you don't even have to give up the fundie Christian belief in a future apocalypse; you just relabel it Ragnarok.
This can't be all that Paganism amounts to, trading in one narrow, literal belief-system for another.
What do you think?