Column: Air Sign

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Here is something true: I sat down to write an essay about education and kept typing out ‘authority’.

That’s not entirely surprising. Long-term readers will know by now that I spend a lot of time navigating the communities of Heathenry, where much is made of scholarship. Heathens have built their religion around the gods and traditions of long-gone cultures, drawing from archaeology, history, poetry, and a host of other scholastic tools in order to make sense of the fragments that they have access to. In theory, this sounds like they should be a thriving community of archaeologists, historians, poets, and other scholars coming together to cocreate a religion that is constantly shifting in response to the newest academic breakthroughs. In practice, that is seldom how it works out.

There are many reasons for this, but one is that there are few trained scholars in the community. Theoretically they aren’t necessary; one of the core tenants in modern Paganism is that, unless someone is inducted into a handful of specific traditions, they are expected to be the authority on their own experience. “Read the books yourself,” I was told, “and draw your own conclusions.” Being the last word on my own experience means that the skills I have right now, and the resources that are available to me should be enough. They have to be.

Scholars will explain that this isn’t how it works, however. Even the study of history, which might seem to be the simplest of the disciplines a Heathen should learn, takes years to really prepare for on a high level. Before a student even begins to work directly with a historical period, they need a framework of historiography, training in how to contextualize sources and discern fact from convincingly argued opinion, and access to the newest publications that are often unavailable to the public. Historians devote years of their lives and thousands of dollars to their studies, guided by people who have done the same.

I had the chance to be one of those people and I turned it down. Most Americans aren’t even offered that chance in a meaningful way. It simply doesn’t pay the bills – not even the ones that come from getting that level of education in the first place. Not to mention the fact that it is grueling, often incredibly boring work to anyone other than the specific sort of air-sign that really enjoys spending hours of their life reading small print about the proper way to read small print. Academia in this form is only available to people of an elite class. Asking everyone to pursue it is inherently classist.

Hablot Knight Browne, illustration to the poem “Student’s Song,” 1860 [public domain]

No wonder then that most Heathens are not academics. What we are – and I say this with all love and respect for our continued efforts – is dabblers. We have to work incredibly hard to get even that far. I have shelves of books on ancient Icelandic culture, the history of the modern movement, theological positioning in relationship to ancient poetry. I have traveled both across the U.S. and abroad in order to speak to the big names in Heathenry and to ground my practice as thoroughly as possible in the land the religion originally came from. I am incredibly lucky and blessed and privileged to have the ability to do these things – and I know that someone with the right degree and access to an academic library could level me in an argument. I am not an authority on the subject I’ve pursued for years. That will always be true.

I am trying to be fine with that. I am an academic by training and inclination (as this essay demonstrates pretty well by itself), but I believe there is a difference between the pursuit of religion and the pursuit of scholarship. Religious truths often draw on other sorts of knowledge besides the academic: lived experience, intuitive realizations, moral standards, and inherited tradition, for example. My current project is working on becoming comfortable with letting academia feed into these without overwhelming them, with knowing that I will never have a definitive answer, but that I may have a personal truth.

That is not something I have seen the people in my community being comfortable with. What I see is a valorization of academic forms of knowledge, regardless of whether the person producing them has any training. I see long arguments about the correct way to practice based on misunderstandings of flawed historical sources. I see people lucky enough to get a degree coming back and using it to claim leadership in the community, or people claiming leadership roles because it offers them a more impressive resume as they pursue their degree. Rather than a community in which different forms of knowledge add to and interact with each other, this can too often decay into intellectual bullying, self-aggrandizement, and claims to authority about the “correct” interpretation of Heathen practice.

This isn’t our fault. The structure of academia is so baked into American culture that it is difficult to imagine other kinds of knowledge. Most lives and livelihoods depend on this sort of education, its repeatable steps and fixed truths, authority that is based on access to more facts and more techniques. Even fantasy books talk about magic as something that is learned and taught like a technology, or a science that can be tested and graded based on performance. We have this model hard-wired into us.

Hogwarts Castle at Universal Studios Orlando [Gregory Varnum, Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0]

I am not even sure there is an alternative on offer. In a community where every member is asked to foster their own expertise, the process of building an education is constant and challenging. In Heathenry, where the gods have been used to justify the most virulent kinds of hate, choosing sources to trust is in and of itself a dangerous enterprise. Morals, traditions, and experiences are subjective – what standards should I use to judge whether they are safe and responsible, so that I can decide whether they’re a good fit to incorporate into my own practices? What do I even begin to base those choices on, if not a PhD?

What does it mean, considering all of this, to teach someone else about Paganism? That’s the question, more than any other, that makes me consider fleeing back to the academy. There are so many tools there that I feel like I need: pedagogy, rhetoric, exegesis and its attendant studies. These are the tools I can grasp and point to, hand to my students in a way that I cannot impart my relationships with the gods or the feeling of my magic. But they aren’t tools that help to create meaning. They aren’t, at the end of the day, the reason I am Pagan in the first place. They won’t keep my students from burning out, or being preyed upon, and they may not make their paths toward a deeper knowledge of themselves any easier. What can I offer instead?

I know that these questions are particular to the circumstance of Paganism and my experience with Heathenry, but I do not think they are unique. I know that there must be a vibrant, active world of theological scholarship out there somewhere, centuries old, that I could learn from. Someone else has to be doing the work of balancing experience and education to arrive at deeper truths, but that isn’t my background. I was raised in and am now reacting to a Christian paradigm, and we all know the approach mainstream Christianity has developed toward scholarship recently. The model I have is one of objective truth being imparted from the one true source, visited on me in a way that’s almost an imposition. I have no idea where to look for another model, how to learn from it appropriately once I’ve found it, or how to model myself after it. A large part of this problem is me, and I am too close to know where that problem ends.

So I am tempted, always, to gather up all of the pursuits that I will never master and chuck them off the edge of a cliff. Not because doing so would be helpful, or would ultimately lead to a balanced spiritual life, but because it would make me feel better about my own work.

“Don’t fall off the cliff!” [Tom Mrazek, Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0]

I know that this isn’t the correct answer. I know that my studies, as imperfect as they are, help to ground my practice and to open new opportunities for exploration. Synthesizing them with lived experience creates something new, a vibrant and growing theology that challenges me with its own contradictions and encourages me toward a better spirituality. At its core, I think that synthesis – academic rigor paired with emotional weight – is what creates a healthy religious life. I just have no model for how to create that on a community level.

I think these are the questions that have defined Pagan theology, and will continue to do so. What I would like to do is to draw them out into the open, so that the community can deal with them and go about the business of building a new theology. Rather than cobbling it together out of other things, it is possible to examine those pieces and set them aside. Experience and academia can overlap, but at the end of the day they are different practices that pull from different sources. We are allowed to learn and grow in both, without changes in one invalidating truths in another. We are allowed to be imperfect, and learning.

We are allowed to focus on the experience of religion, rather than its academic study.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.