Here is my blog for Moon Books’ blog page – I write the monthly essay. Check out some of their other blogs as well – really good stuff there!
I remember, quite a few years ago now, reading Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon. I had always known, vaguely, that modern paganism was just that – modern. After reading that book, and finding out just how modern most of our rituals and celebrations are, I had a bit of a religious crisis. I was having a really hard time coming to terms with the fact that the spiritual path I was following was essentially made up by two guys in the 1950’s and 60’s.
For a couple of weeks I toiled with this issue, until it finally dawned on me that all religions, at some point, were made up by some people. Simply because someone made it up 200, 2,000 or 20,000 years ago didn’t make it any more valid. I realised that authenticity did not equal validity.
There was no way of tracing pagan roots back to what we would imagine to be a more “pagan time” – ie. for most this would be before Christianity. Paganism didn’t write or record much down in words, though we can catch remnant in snatches of old folk songs, rhymes and the like. If our paganism is inspired by an even older spirituality, such as our Neolithic ancestors, then certainly we have no written records – a few artefacts, burial mounds and sacred sites to draw inspiration on, but nothing of their words to live by. We still do not know, and can never be certain, what they actually believed, how they lived their lives and how they communed with their gods, if any. We can only speculate.
And so, two men, Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols pieced together a spirituality as best they could, after looking into folk traditions and seeking inspiration from the natural world itself. This evolved into what is recognised as Wicca and Druidry today. These paths are not hundreds of years old, though they have been inspired by older traditions. This does not invalidate them in any way.
I would personally have a harder time believing in the validity of someone’s path who told me that they were following a “thousands year old British tradition” than someone who told me that they made up their own spiritual path. Why? Because the need for justification of a tradition bothers me – why do we need to justify our paths? Our good Druid friend, Iolo Morganwg, made up a lot of stuff when he couldn’t find any reference to it a couple of hundred years ago, and yet the stuff that he made up has great resonance and beauty for some druids. Yes, he passed it on as “real”, and was only caught out fairly recently in his forgeries, however they still remain beautiful and meaningful forgeries nonetheless for many. It bothers me that he felt the need to forge these documents, but it doesn’t make his tradition any less valid for himself and others with whom it inspires. The question of lying about the authenticity of a tradition is what invalidates it for many.
Why do we feel the need to authenticate a religion or spiritual path before we embark upon it? Does this have anything to do with the Age of Enlightenment vs the Age of Reason? Why should one be more valid than the other, simply because it has hard facts that it can draw upon?
A religious and spiritual path is such a personal thing, that I find it hard to believe that any one path is good for more than one person. We can certainly be inspired by it, but the path must be walked by us, and us alone – no one else can do it for us. Buddha said “Be a light unto thyself”. We have to find our own ways of communing, our own relationship with the world in order for it to make full sense to our hearts, bodies, minds and souls. Oftentimes the words and teachings of others can come close, and yet they are still not quite as personal as a one to one relationship.
Protestants have a more personal relationship with God, for the most part, than Catholics when it comes down to it. That in an inherent part of Protestantism, one that is explored and made quite poignant in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Protestantism placed a great emphasis on personal, individual reading of the Bible, thereby increasing the personal relationship with God – no other could really do that for you. Sadly, within history and especially after the birth of Calvinism, fundamentalism became de rigeur.
How much of our paganism today is influenced by this Protestant way of thinking? It’s hard to tell, but it’s not something I have a problem with. I like the idea of everyone having to find their own personal relationship with God, or a god, or goddess, or the spirits of place, their ancestors or the three worlds of land, sea and sky. This idea is, of course, not solely attributed to Protestantism (remember Buddha’s quote?) but it is one of the more recent religious institutions in the UK, of which we are currently exploring the legacy.
How far back the tradition of personal relationship with deity goes is, to me, of no consequence. It’s nice to have historical authenticity, but it does not a spirituality make. It is within the personal relationship with whatever it is that you are communing with, and which changes you, inspires you or moves you that is really what matters in this life. Whether you pray using a prayer that is a thousand years old, or one that you made up on the spot, it is in the feeling and intent behind it that matters most, not in the words themselves. It must connect you with what it is you are trying to reach, else what is the point?
So, to all those out there who are making it up as they go along, who find spiritual validity in what they do, I give a hearty hail! To those whose find the words of others resonate deeply within their soul, and blend their historic traditions with personal experience, again I give a hearty hail! Life is too short to follow a path simply because others have trodden it – we can learn from that path, but ultimately it is we who are doing the walking, no one else, and in that is our own validity and personal experience found and blessing us along the way.