North American Paganism is being slowly choked by exceptionalism. There, I said it. If you’d like to skip ahead and scream at me now, just scroll down to “comments” and say what you need to say.
First, let’s talk about the Lord of the Rings. Of all the characters who inhabited Middle Earth, there were but a handful who could potentially subjugate the ring. As a reminder, the ring was enjoined with the spirit of Sauron, the most powerful servant of evil. He is both the master of the ring and the spirit to which the ring wants to return.But the ring — we learn — has a will of its own, and so it begs the question: could others within Middle Earth control the One Ring? It seems clear that despite their power none of the races — dwarf, elf, or human — could do it. It’s implied in the opening poem describing the Rings of Power. But there are two characters who might. The first is Tom Bombadil, who seems to be a manifestation of Middle Earth itself, but who also seems uninterested or even oblivious to the ring’s power or its consequences for other sentient beings. Even still, there is mention that he might not ultimately withstand it.
The other is Gandalf. As a fellow Maia (the equivalent of a demigod in the Lord of the Rings universe) equal to Sauron, his will is as powerful. Tolkien suggested as such. Gandalf could possibly overcome the will of the One Ring, subjugate it and destroy Sauron. But Gandalf would then have become the Ring-Lord and Tolkien adds that the ring “would have been the master in the end” (see “Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien,” letter 246).
What would follow from Gandalf’s control of the One Ring would be oppression through righteousness, executed to the point that peace would be weaponized. Gandalf would enforce his will to create a lawful harmony by dominating all free thought while acting as a wise and gentle saint. The free peoples of Middle Earth would live in eternal peacetime, enslaved with feather collars.Gandalf, however, never gets near the ring. He knows it is treacherous. He knows it will corrupt him. He recognizes that the path of corruption opens the moment you believe you can control the ring. That insight gets me to my point: believing one can dominate the ring is the path to corruption. Despite his power, Gandalf does not believe he is special. He recognizes himself as no different — again despite his status as a demigod — as equally and resignedly susceptible to the ring’s corruptive power.
Exceptionalism is that same path, and it is a simple concept: nothing more than the belief or perception that a group or institution is extraordinary in some way. That we, or some of us, have some type of unique insight into justice, civility or spirit, and it haunts us. It’s not a poltergeist constantly seeking attention and manifesting with clarity. It’s a shadow that we can glimpse, but takes time to recognize. It wants to not be seen, so where is it?
Well, it’s there when leaders victimize followers by claiming special insights into spirit, but it’s also there when someone uses ancestry to justify spiritual identity.
This is troubling. It makes the key to religious training and spiritual access based on descent, and I think it needs to be called out every time, all the time. It’s why I recoil when someone claims that they have a special witch’s mark or are special because they are the seventh child of a seventh child. It’s why I lose confidence when someone states that their hair color gives them spiritual authority, and it’s why I reject that a lineage of witches makes you a witch.
Sure, it’s great you have teachers in your family, and yes, it’s great that you avoid the coming-out-Pagan experience, but you have to learn the Craft. You have to practice the Craft. You have to work the Craft. It’s about spiritual attainment through work and merit not an occult lineage. To suggest otherwise is to create a Pagan aristocratic class that is at best oligarchical and at worst racist.
We can’t seem to get away from it. Have a look around in our introductions, especially at spiritual gatherings, where we learn that a presenter comes from a “long line of priests” or is “a native Irish druid” — really, pick any country and insert it there. It starts off as a marketing ploy and then a justification for expertise. If it were true, then children of doctors could perform surgery.
If the inherent racism were not enough, it also leaves us open to spiritual victimization. Like the One Ring, spiritual predators will lure with exceptionality. They will use lineage and personal gnosis as a means to justify their superiority and ultimately, they focus on a single objective: to create spiritual debt. Because the great thing about spiritual debt for these people is that it can be commoditized.
That debt can be turned into loyalty, work, even cash. It can be used to demoralize individuals and it can make them surrender psychologically, emotionally, and even sexually. Just ask Jim Jones, one of the most famous perpetrators of the strategy. It’s why I have all my students watch the documentary Jonestown. Yeah, it’s creepy. I think it’s also required watching. It won’t immunize one from spiritual predation, but at least it opens one’s eyes to what it can do.
In many ways, the modern Pagan movement involved a rejection of the spiritual authority of religious leaders from other faiths.
What I think is most sad about exceptionalism isn’t about this narcissistic control and superiority. Rather, it is how it blinds us to the strength of the ordinary. You are special because you are you and that is all that’s needed. We are all born with the same spiritual toolbox. No one’s is shinier, bigger, or more effective than anyone else’s.
There are no human mediators to the gods. There are no priests to grant you access. We are all equally ignorant and equally capable.
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