Monday, January 4, 2016

Devotion and Discernment

As I noted previously, I have a lot of misgivings about self-proclaimed oracles, especially those on god-spousery, "horsing", and so forth. But that's not to say that I think they're all frauds, or deluded, or anything of the sort. Quite the contrary, I think that such sibyls and völvas are essential to the revival and growth of Asatru (and indeed my thoughts doubtless apply to Heathenry and Paganism in general). But they must be heeded with discernment*.

By that, I mean that we as a community shouldn't take everything such a völva says at face value. That's not because of any lack of faith in the Gods; quite the opposite! It's because of the quite practical and reasonable fear that they might not be faithful transmitters; some people might take advantage of being in a position of spiritual authority, where they are seen as speaking on behalf of the Gods, and might either color what is being said with their own interpretations and filters, or even invent things out of whole-cloth, whether consciously or unconsciously.

And the yardstick against which we can measure the words of our völvas? The lore.

The role of the lore in devotional practice

It has been (correctly) stated that ours is not an uninterrupted religious tradition. Obviously, it is an indigenous European faith that has been stamped out as deliberately and thoroughly as many African, American, or Asian faith has been by Christian or Muslim missionaries have been over the last millennium and a half. But it was never completely erased from history.

Records survive; of contemporaneous outsiders describing the Heathen Germanic peoples (like Ibn Fadlan and Publius Cornelius Tacitus); the efforts of Christian ecclesiastics and political leaders trying to stamp out the public and private beliefs and rituals held by their targets and subjects (like the various law codes, penitentials, sermons, and ecclesiastical letters from the conversion era); accounts of antiquarians writing not too long after the official conversions, when the legends of the Gods were still alive in peoples' minds (like Snorri Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus); and even in later (sometimes partially) Christianized forms, where folklore, superstitions, folk-customs, songs, rhymes, spells, and so forth. Not to mention the various archaeological, numismatic, and linguistic evidence, or the insights to be derived (carefully) from Indo-European studies.

When you look at what we really do have, it's not quite as paltry as some might have us believe. It's not nearly as complete as, say, Pagan Roman or Greek religion, but it's certainly not as if all we had was "a piece of broken stained glass, half a hymnal, and a Saint Francis medal to re-create Christianity" (paraphrasing from some wag on an email list many years ago, lamenting as to the paucity of the evidence available to us).

Am I saying that our völvas should do nothing but parrot what we know from books and other sources? That anything new should be suspect and thrown out as evidence that the völva in question is pursuing some sinister agenda? Of course not.

But there's a difference between repeating what's in the lore, and contradicting what's in it, or adding to it in such a way that is a radical departure from the patterns that had gone before. And therein lies the sort of "discernment" I'm talking about.

Revealed religion vs. folk religion

A useful delineation in the taxonomy of religion is that of revealed vs. folk religion. The teachings, beliefs, and practices of revealed religions are, as the word implies, revealed to a prophet (or prophets) through some divine agency. As these revelations are said to come directly from a divine source, they are not normally subject to change through earthly mechanisms, such as slow and natural cultural change. They are, however, subject to reinterpretation (as has been seen throughout the history of Christianity and Judaism, much less so in the history of Islam), or subsequent revelation that adjusts previous revelations (like Christianity claiming to be a further revelation to Judaism, and both Islam and Mormonism claiming to be further revelations to Christianity, and Baha'i claiming to be a further revelation to Islam, and so on and so on and so on).

Folk religions, on the other hand, are much more flexible and less subject to dogmatic interpretation, because they are borne out of the indigenous cultural/religious/social complex that most cultures stem from in prehistoric (and preliterate) times. These folk-beliefs usually don't discriminate between ideas that are religious, social, or cultural, are usually more willing to be eclectic than revealed religion, and evolve through the unconscious process of social change. In this way, the Religio Romana (Roman Pagan religion) that was practiced in the 5th century BCE was quite different from the Religio as it was practiced in the 2nd century CE, but both are easily identifiable as being the Religio. The same process applies to Germanic Heathenry, and explains the well-documented religious differences between Germanic tribes. The Continental Wotan is very different in character from the English Woden, who in turn is very different from the Norse Óðinn. But nobody had to come down from a mountain to tell the Germans, or the English, or the Norse that Odin had changed for them. They just knew, instinctively, slowly, over the course of time, because those changes were right for them at that time.

Now, an argument has been made that, at some point, all folk religions must have been revealed religions, because that is the way that those pre-historic, pre-literate cultures could have learned about the supernatural and mystical truths those religions impart. But, however true that might be as far as it goes, what that argument fails to recognize are the literally thousands of years of cultural trial-and-error that went into evaluating the claims of those revelations, and later on, adjusting them to make them more relevant to the needs of the peoples to whom they applied.

That's something that we modern Asatruar lack. Especially in our media-driven culture, we're used to change happening at such a breakneck speed that the sort of slow, steady, measured, cultural change that was normal to our ancestors, where changes happened over the course of generations, is completely alien to us today, where we're used to change happening over the course of days, if not hours. As such, we're quick to glom on to the latest most fashionable trend, and (worse) try to bend our ancestral folk-religion around those alien concepts that are so appealing to us as modern people at the moment, until our fancy leads us to look at some other glittering object.

Which brings us back to the need to put a break on that break-neck speed. The need to slow down the pace of change, and to evaluate changes by using discernment in the light of the lore.

Practical application

In fairness, thusfar I've only discussed those sorts of devotional practices that attempt to impact the direction of Asatru in general. The ones that attempt to introduce new (and dangerous) concepts like Loki- or Fenrir-worship. The ones that try to insist that the latest political fad, like "social justice" or feminism, or radical environmentalism, should be embraced by Asatruar as a core concept. The ones that want to banish those of the Folk who have doubts about the reality of the Gods. The ones that bring in practices that are foreign to our ancestors, like God-spousery (which is not the same as being a "friend of" a God!) or inviting possession by Gods or other wights or astral travel by mortals to other worlds like Hel or Vanaheim. Those would fail the discernment test, as they want to impose radical change in a short time based on personal revelation. The Romans called that "superstitio"; the sin of taking religious credulity too far.

When one is "filling in the gaps" in what we know from the lore, though, I'm absolutely inclined to give such a thing preference over someone who is quite self-consciously inventing things. One person has a blót outline that they claim was recited to them by Freyr, and someone else has a Freyr-blót they wrote themselves, and both seem adequate to the task and don't contradict what we know? I'll go with the God-gifted blót.

But, and this is a subtle but vital point, I am not slamming the door on Gods-inspired innovation and experimentation, either! By all means, our völvas should constantly be experimenting and reporting on the results of their experiments. (Ideally, I would also like to see the development of a database of such communications, maintained blindly to prevent a "me too!" effect, in order to see what patterns develop; it would also be most useful in terms of determining the validity of predictions of future events.) But the expectation that their radical conclusions should be immediately (from a generational perspective) adopted is what needs to be tempered. Some of our völvas get positively bitchy when their (radical) pronouncements are questioned even in the mildest manner, let alone not become mainstream instantly.

Give it five, ten, twenty, thirty, fifty years, depending on how radical a departure it is from what we know our ancestors did. If there is value within it, and it stands the test of time, it'll naturally filter out to the folk and be adopted. But acting as an evangelist for one's own oracular pronouncements is rather... off. I'll leave that to the folks who trust prophets coming down from mountains with commandments on tablets.

But where our modern-day völvas should (and, indeed, many do) shine is on the personal and organizational level. Should I take this job in another city? Should we buy this piece of property for a new hof? We'd be foolish to avoid this source of wisdom when it's right there for us.

Conclusion

I'm all for reverence of the Gods, and I'm certainly for holding those with a deeper connection to the Gods in high esteem. Our ancestors absolutely held sibyls and völvas in near-awe and deep reverence, and I believe we should as well. But without the continuing tradition of hundreds of generations to fall back on, we must be extra cautious in taking what they say at face value, and measure it against what we know our ancestors, who had much more direct experience on the subject than we do, knew about the Gods and the religious tradition that grew out of serving them.

Our ancestors had a hundreds of generations head start, figuring out what worked and did not, and I'll defer to them. But our modern völvas and others who are in contact with the Gods and wights are a vital element to the Asatru revival, and they must be listened to and heeded with discernment. If they speak in line with what our ancestors believed, I'll absolutely give them the benefit of the doubt. But if they advocate radical change, it should be absorbed slowly, over time, to see if it fits the needs and gut instinct of the Folk.

It's possible to value our völvas without slavishly obeying their pronouncements, just as it's possible to believe in the individual reality of our Gods without being their spouses.

There are many pieces to the Heathen puzzle. We do best when we realize that no one piece is more vital than any other. Lore, devotion, Folk, innovation... they all have their place.

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* I am aware of the connotations of the term "discernment" in some corners of Christendom, where it is used to describe the process of judging spiritual matters by comparing them to what the Bible says. Not having been raised in a Christian household, I don't have the same sorts of associations that some might, so I can only assure you that my use of the term here is merely because it is a "term of art" that best describes what I'm talking about, and is not some sort of sub rosa attempt to Christianize Asatru or any such asinine idea.

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