That said, there’s another side to the question—the side just mentioned, where human social and cultural phenomena come face to face with powers that are not at all human: the powers that religious people call gods, goddesses, spirits, and the like. Religion can be most usefully defined as the toolkit of practices and theories that human beings use to interact with those other-than-human powers. Being human, religious people inevitably bring their own social and cultural background to bear on that toolkit, but it’s a serious mistake to assume that the social and cultural side is all there is.
Now of course this particular mistake is also extremely common, and potent cultural forces in today’s industrial societies not only encourage people to make it, but push back hard against anyone who refuses to do so. I’m thinking here, among many other things, of a religious studies class I took during my second pass through college in the early 1990s. The teacher, a brash young man with his eyes firmly fixed on the distant star of tenure, spent the entire quarter talking, not about religion, but about all the different things that other scholars had claimed religion was really concerned with.
It was quite a diverse panoply of theoretical analyses, stretching across a giddy range of possibilities, but one rather noticeable thing was omitted from the list: the possibility that religion might be what it claims to be, a way of dealing with deities. I was impolite enough to point out that omission, and got a classic slug-in-the-salad response. Most people would consider a class on botany rather odd if it refused to consider the possibility that plants might exist; most people, similarly, would raise worthwhile questions about a class on literary theory that took it for granted that there are no works of literature, and spent all quarter talking about why people pretend to read books. Somehow the same oddity passes unnoticed when religion is the subject.
The omission just noted might be less glaring if nobody had ever made that claim, but in fact—and you can test this by asking the ordinary rank and file religious believer of your choice—it’s the standard explanation you’ll get from most religious people if you ask them what their religion is about. That’s true across the spectrum of religions: a devout practitioner of Shinto will tell you that religion is about establishing proper relations with the kami, a devout Southern Baptist will tell you that it’s about getting right with Jesus, and so on through the colorful roster of the world’s deities.
Is it reasonable to consider the possibility that religion might be about something other than its apparent purpose? Sure—but it’s also reasonable to consider the possibility that religion might be exactly what it appears to be. Of course the difficulty here is that this latter option requires an additional step.
That step, for what it’s worth, doesn’t require believing in the real existence of at least one god—though of course that’s one way to approach it. Exactly what the word “god” means, and exactly what the phrase “real existence” would mean when applied to such a being, are questions that have kept philosophers and theologians hopping for a good long time, and we can leave them aside for now. No, the additional step I have in mind is simply that of accepting the possibility of religious experience.
Religious experience? In the broadest sense, that’s what happens when someone engages in religious practice and gets a response. The nature of the response varies with the type of practice, and it also varies with the deity to whom the practice is directed. Despite the efforts of the one-size-fits-all sort of monotheist to insist that every religion is directed toward only one god (i.e., theirs) and results in only one kind of religious experience (i.e., also theirs), the literature of religious experience suggests otherwise. It suggests, in fact, that there really is a difference between (say) the presence of the living Christ experienced by a devout Christian in prayer, the state of enlightenment experienced by a devout Buddhist in meditation, and the medicine power experienced by a devout Lakota Native American on a vision quest.
There’s a lot that can be learned from the diversity of religious experience, and I’ve tried to explore some of it in my book A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism. For the moment, though, I want to tighten the focus a bit, and in the process return to the issues central to last month’s discussion.
The one-sided dispute that Celtic Reconstructionists have carried on against the Druid Revival for all these years is—aside, that is, from the factors discussed last month—a quarrel over the validity of religious experience. To participants in the Druid Revival traditions, what gives value to the legacy of Iolo Morganwg and the other eighteenth-century British eccentrics who sent the Revival off on its merry way is that their rituals, practices, and teachings work—you can apply them and fairly reliably get certain kinds of religious experiences. To a great many Celtic Reconstructionists, on the other hand, that’s not an adequate justification.
Nor are the Reconstructionists entirely wrong. It depends entirely on what you want to justify. It so happens that back in the day—the day in question being the early to mid-twentieth century—some of the most public Druid Revival organizations claimed to be descended directly from the ancient Druids, and they were wrong. It really is that simple. The Druid Revival was invented in the eighteenth century, and the fact that the rituals, practices, and teachings get good results when put to work does not mean that it really is ancient; it means, rather, that its founders were competent eighteenth-century mystics.
Now of course trying to insist that the Druid Revival isn’t spiritually valid because it’s not ancient falls into an equal and opposite plethora of difficulties. If, as I’ve suggested, religion is a toolkit for dealing with other-than-human powers, the validity of a toolkit hardly depends on how old it is, still less on whether the tools in it have endured unchanged since Roman times. Granted, that sort of thinking makes no impression on those for whom religion is a roleplaying game, or a Society for Spiritual Anachronism in which people go around pretending to be ancient Celts or what have you—but we can leave them to those entertainments, and pass on.
The point I want to make here is that there are things that can be justified by reference to religious experience, and things that can’t. Claims about the spiritual validity and effectiveness of a tradition fall into the first category; claims about the historical origins of a tradition fall into the second. These two sets of claims have no necessary relation to one another. A tradition can be gray with the dust of centuries and still useless or harmful; a tradition can also be newly invented and wholly valid—every tradition, after all, was brand new at one point in its history.
Yet the fact remains that inaccurate claims about a range of subjects are routinely made using religious experience as a justification. Despite the enthusiastic efforts of Biblical literalists, for example, the geological and paleontological evidence simply won’t support the claim that a worldwide flood exterminated every person and land animal on earth except the inhabitants of Noah’s Ark in the fourth millennium BCE. Despite the equally enthusiastic efforts of some of the older Druid Revival traditions, similarly, the historical evidence simply won’t support the claim that the ancient Druids used Iolo Morganwg’s rituals. Clearly you can have powerful religious experiences and still get your facts wrong.
This is where I’d like to turn to a phrase used very often in Reconstructionist circles: “unverified personal gnosis,” or UPG for short. That’s their term for the kind of claim that runs, “I had a religious experience involving X, and therefore X is true in some general sense, no matter what the evidence says.” It’s a common enough phenomenon, in and out of modern American Neopaganism, but the point I want to make is that the phrase embodies exactly the mistake that defines so-called UPG.
The word that matters here is the last one, “gnosis”—for those who aren’t familiar with the word, it’s pronounced “know-sis.” People who know their way around the alternative religiou scene know that this is a Greek word for “knowledge.” Too many of them don’t remember that the Greek language is much better at sorting out the different kinds of knowledge than English is.
Bentley Layton, whose collection The Gnostic Scriptures is to my mind the best one-volume introduction to classical Gnosticism yet compiled, translates gnosis into English as “acquaintance.” That’s the kind of knowledge that gnosis is: not abstract discursive knowledge, but the kind of knowledge that implies and requires personal experience.
The distinction between gnosis and two other kinds of knowledge we’ll be discussing in a moment can be best understood through a metaphor. Imagine for a moment that you’ve just had a passionate year-long relationship with a woman who’s in the Federal witness protection program, and is living under a false identity. Literally every single “fact” you know about that woman is false—but at the same time, in another sense, you know her very, very well. The kind of knowledge you have about her, the results of your intimate acquaintance with her, is gnosis.
In ancient Greek, there are two other kinds of knowledge alongside gnosis. The first, doxa—that’s pronounced “dock-sa”—is opinion. This is something you know because you heard it from someone, or because you read it somewhere. It doesn’t matter how good or bad your source is, if you know it because you heard it or read it rather than because you experienced it yourself, it’s doxa. The world being what it is, far more often than now, when someone says they know something, what they’ve got is doxa.
The third kind? That’s episteme, pronounced “epp-iss-tay-may.” This is logical knowledge, the kind of thing you know because you understand the rules of reasoning and know how to proceed from premises to a conclusion. It’s also personal knowledge, because you have to do the reasoning yourself—if you trust someone else to do it for you, then for you, it’s doxa, not episteme—but it’s replicable personal knowledge. Most people, given patience and a willingness to learn, can be led step by step through a sequence of logic until they understand why the conclusion follows from the premises, and the moment they get it, they have episteme of it.
Notice that the same piece of knowledge can be doxa for one person, episteme for a second, and gnosis for a third—and for that matter, the same piece of knowledge can pass through all three stages in a single person’s mind. You learn a scientific fact in school, and simply commit it to memory: that’s doxa. Later on, in college, you major in that branch of science, repeat the relevant experiments, come to understand the logic that underlies that fact and gives it its meaning: that’s episteme. You end up working in that field, and experience that fact in action until you know it in your bones: that’s gnosis.
With that in mind, let’s return to the phrase “unverified personal gnosis.” That’s a double redundancy, because if something is actually gnosis, it’s personal by definition, and it’s also impossible for anyone else to to verify. At the same time, it doesn’t justify any other mode of knowledge; the mere fact that you have gnosis of something doesn’t mean that your claims to doxa about that same thing ought to be accepted at face value. As in the example of the woman in the witness protection program, you can have true gnosis and false doxa about the same subject, because there’s no overlap between these two kinds of knowledge.
And episteme? It occupies a middle ground because, as already noted, it’s personal but replicable. Your personal experience of episteme can be generalized to some extent, because you can show other people exactly how to have that experience themselves. The difficulty is simply that episteme is only possible in certain fields of human experience. You can have episteme about any subject that’s subject to objectively verifiable testing, but a huge amount of human experience can’t be tested in any objectively verifiable way. That means you’re stuck with doxa, on the one hand, and gnosis, on the other.
For about two and a half millennia now, intellectuals have tried to enlarge the empire of episteme: to find ways to have replicable personal knowledge about things that nobody has been able to know in that way before. It’s a worthwhile project, and it’s produced three of the half dozen or so greatest achievements of the human mind—mathematics, logic, and experimental science—but one of the lessons of that project is that there are massively important aspects of human life that can’t be reduced to episteme no matter how hard you try.
The standard intellectual responses to that awkward lesson are, on the one hand, to find some way to pretend to reduce those non-epistemic aspects of life to episteme anyway, and on the other, to insist that the non-epistemic aspects of life don’t exist. Religious experience is subject to both of those gambits. My readers will doubtless be familiar with all the claims that religious experience can’t exist because it can’t be proven according to replicable quantitative tests. That’s one way of dodging the issue—but the response of the angry Celtic Reconstructionists discussed in last month’s post here is another.
To insist that religious experience can’t be real unless it conforms to some historical model verified by officially sanctioned scholars, after all, is simply one more way of trying to flatten out gnosis into episteme: to drag religion out of the uncomfortably personal realm of acquaintance and try to slap it down on the lab bench for dissection. That this maneuver inevitably misses what it’s trying to find is only one of many ironies in the situation.
Now of course there’s another factor, which is that certain kinds of spiritual practice are epistemic—that is to say, people who do them systematically, with the proper preparation and attitude, reliably get the same results. To understand that, and the immense challenge it poses to the entire history of rationalism, will require a great deal of discussion in posts to come.
On a theme by no means distant from the concerns we’ve discussed over the last two months, I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new book of mine, The Coelbren Alphabet: The Forgotten Oracle of the Welsh Bards. It’s about one of Iolo Morganwg’s many inventions, a 24-letter alphabet of vaguely runic pattern with its own distinctive and quirky symbolism. Is it authentic? You bet; it’s absolutely authentic eighteenth-century Druid Revival stuff—I give all my sources, including the obscure 1856 Welsh book where, after years of searching, I finally found the key to the Coelbren’s symbolism.
It turns out in practice to be a lively and accurate oracle and a very useful addition to the already rich realm of Druid symbolism. What’s more, because Iolo invented it and the Druid Revival adopted it, if you use it, you’ll annoy the stuffing out of some impressively pompous jerks. So what’s not to like? Copies can be ordered from the publisher here.
Finally, as promised earlier, I have some announcements to make about my future blogging. My new blogging platform is mostly up and running at www.ecosophia.net, and I plan on starting regular posts there around the summer solstice. I’ve also established an account on the social media site Dreamwidth at ecosophia.dreamwidth.org. The main site will get substantial essays, at least one of them a month; the Dreamwidth account will feature book reviews, announcements of new publications, wry commentary on fatuous media articles, and other shorter bits.
While my blogs always tend to have a mind of their own, and head off in directions I don’t expect, my intention is to focus from here on out on a theme I’ve discussed only in passing here and on The Archdruid Report: the emergence of a new fusion of ecology and religion in our time, not simply as an abstract worldview but as a way of life and a system, or system-of-systems, of spiritual and esoteric practice.
I make no apologies for that change of focus, though I know some of my readers will not find it to their taste. Over the eleven years I spent writing weekly posts on The Archdruid Report, I said pretty much everything I can think of saying about the decline and fall of industrial civilization; over the few years that I’ve spent doing monthly posts on The Well of Galabes, I’ve sketched out some of the foundations on which I plan to build as we proceed—and now it’s time to move on.
I do have more to say about some of the topics touched, peripherally or otherwise, in the course of eleven years of blogging; among other things, I’m looking for a print or online periodical that would be interested in hosting further discussions of politics and culture in late imperial America from my jaundiced and idiosyncratic perspective—but we’ll see whether anything comes of that. In the meantime, there’s much to be said about getting out from under the crackpot fantasy of Man the Conqueror of Nature and relearning how to live as part of the Earth’s biotic community, and I propose to say some of it.
Please note the following, though: as of the end of June, both my previous blogs will be going away. The posts here on The Well of Galabes will be hosted as a read-only archive on my new site; the posts on The Archdruid Report will be going offline permanently—though they’ll be available soon in a complete ten-volume published edition, in print and e-book forms, from Founders House Publishing. Thank you all for reading my blogs, and stand by for the next giddy leap into new territory
Oh my, my, my, and I was just reading Not In His Image and wondering if it would be off topic for me to give a book report, or rather a report of a reading in progress, and you could not have written a better segue into it, including your announcement about the future blog.
Meanwhile, you are ending this blog also and only archiving it? Is that because the theme is too close to what the new one will be so no need for two blogs?
Also, I found this post to be one of your best.
Onething, the central reason I'll be closing both blogs is that some of Blogger's recent, er, upgrades will make it impossible for me to access any of my Blogger accounts once I relocate, and that's happening by the end of June. (More on that later on.) I plan on discussing some of these same themes in posts on ecosophia.net, from a more ecological angle, so there's going to be quite a bit of continuity. Glad you liked this post!
Thank you for the update on the blogs' movements. I started reading here in earnest when The ADR stopped, and I've not quite caught up (but am riveted). I may get up to date before the end of June, but I'm not sure.
My question: Will these comment threads be preserved in the new archive? (this is why I'm going a bit slow; there is much to mull over in the many conversations).
Not surprised at all you are going in the direction of some sort of eco-spirituality, you've been pointing to those ideas already.
I'm going to say something that will probably make no sense to you and may also irritate you: you don't have the maths to do it right. You'll probably think: what does maths got to do with it? As far as religion goes, if you can count, and, at a stretch, you know something about sacred geometry, that's all the maths you may ever need, right? And probably most mages you know would agree with that.
Well, I don't think that way. Because one of the reasons we've been doing biology wrong, and ecology didn't come too naturally to science, is because for a while the maths that was being applied to it was more or less the same maths you need for astronomy and physics. And the maths that actually give you powerful explanations in biology aren't those. Some new branches of statistics and systems dynamics do give you powerful explanations.
And what does that have to do with religion? That I think a successful religion based on ecology would incorporate those concepts at the heart of it. As for how that fits with previous religions, because after all, you will have to include things that people are already somewhat familiar with, in fact, you'll probably have to include just about everything people expect to find in it, it would take a lot longer than a simple comment to explain. If I had a completely clear picture in my mind, which I don't really, at this point. But I do have a strong impression that it can and should be done. In fact, the only good description I have for what some mages call the Holy Grail is “an emergent property of magic”. Which is, at heart, a mathematical description of what it is. (Philosophers have taken the concept of emergence and, as far as I can tell, fail to really “grok” it. Or, using your terminology, “gnose” it.) Magic is actually more suited for ecological metaphors than for the astronomical metaphors are often used for it. Not that I would want to eliminate the astronomy entirely – the Sun and the Moon are important in the environment, for sure.
Hi JohnMichael.As my neighbor used to say,'Book learnin or gitcha' hands dirty' knowledge. I'm glad you'll be online as a source of wisdom.
Pearce M. Schaudies.
Minister of Future
Falling Skys &
Wolves at Door
Hi JMG – like Matt I am keen to learn what will happen to the comments – though particularly on ADR? They add great depth to each essay.
@Luna … said- And the maths that actually give you powerful explanations in biology aren't those. Some new branches of statistics and systems dynamics do give you powerful explanations. END.
I disagree. People that can see and listen to stories will be able to figure things out from there. They do not need careful analytic analysis giving answers to three decimal places. Understanding comes from witnessing events in nature and their consequences. That should be sufficient in my opinion.
Pearce M. Schaudies.
Minister of Future
Falling Skys &
Wolves at Door
Luna, it's a little presumptive to assume that Mr. Greer is unaware of the branches of mathematics you're referring to. From what I can tell, he's a bit of a bookworm 🙂
As for your central point, I would say that the greatest power of dynamic systems theory (to name the most well known of the maths in question) is the way it utterly destroys the mechanistic model of a “clockwork universe”. We used to believe that the universe could theoretically be known in its entirety. But now…
Well,actually, we still seem to believe that. Dynamic systems theory, or chaos theory, had its roots way back in WWII and the general public still hasn't absorbed its implications. On Jeopardy the other day, they used chaos (in the context of the theory!) as an antonym of order. Boo hiss.
Maybe you're right in that the symbolism found in dissipative structures and strange attractors and such could help spiritual seekers to shake off the destructive worldviews we've labored under for so long. But it hasn't had much luck so far.
Good post. I have checked out your new website. Very interesting. I am also very much looking forward to learning more about your new project. I have long harbored the suspicion that it would take some kind of earth centered spirituality/region to get our species back on some kind of sane pathway.
As for the new story contest, do you plan one based on the Retrotopia story sometime in the future?
I'm so glad ADR will be in book form. It's quite difficult to find a particular thing that dates back to 2008, but is suddenly very relevant to a conversation. I hope your volumes will have some good indexes. That would be very much appreciated. And thank you for both of these blogs – they've informed my approach to homesteading and working on lodge issues. They've also been helpful to my spiritual well-being through some difficult and turbulent times.
I'm delighted to hear about the new blogs, which I will be following.
That's a very interesting distinction between the three kinds of knowledge discussed here. My first thought is that art, my calling, might be considered an attempt to convey gnosis from person to person through emotively potent compositions. I seem to recall Tolstoy saying something like this in his essay “What Is Art?” IIRC, he regarded art as a means to convey an emotional state, which like gnosis is surely a subjective experience. If it can achieve the one, perhaps it can attain the other.
I also perceive that the world view I've developed over the past decade or so is probably some kind of doxa. Reading the ADR, and materials from people like J.H. Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, Richard Heinberg et al, I've been converted from a believer in the ever-onward-and-upward Star Trek future of infinite progress to, ah, not believing in all that. But I can't claim to have done the research to confirm my (relatively) new world view. I haven't personally gathered the climate data to prove the reality of global climate change, or crunched the numbers to show that world oil production has peaked, or that the economy is inexorably tanking. I pretty much rely on other people to do that, so that I can spend the bulk of my time doing other things like painting or designing astrolabes. I fancy it would really be a life's work to know right down to the ground the things I think I know.
The best I can say is that one can observe quite a bit of decay going on even in a wealth bubble like the SF Bay Area. Which story to believe – the one affirmed by thousands of huge automobiles surging across the brand new billion dollar bridge to a city filled with equally new and vast gleaming condo towers – or the one suggested by the explosion of homelessness, the appalling decay of many roads, and the anecdotal evidence of things that are happening to friends, acquaintances & neighbors, not to mention to oneself? Does all that qualify as epistemic knowledge? How would you test for that, other than waiting for the region to assume a stronger resemblance to Detroit?
“Unverified personal gnosis” you couldn't make this stuff up. I find it hilarious that these experiences can then become “confirmed gnosis” when some 'expert' says they tick the right boxes. I originally trained as an archaeologist and am only too aware of how contemporary attitudes inevitably filter our 'reconstructions' of the past. Celtic reconstruction seems to have a very 21st century feel to its underlying ideals and preoccupations. Also could we not argue that Iolo Williams was an Eighteenth century reconstructionist mining the historical record to recreate what he believed the past looked like?
Oh dear, there is a lot of valuable information in the comments part of the ADR, book recommendations, lore on how to do things, etc., and it sounds like none of that will be available to read anywhere at all after the blog is taken down. Unless you are publishing the comments in your ten volume set?
So must I download the entire decade-plus of that blog and its comments onto a flash drive or something while it's still online?
Many years ago I had a “mystical experience,” or a “Subjective Existentialistic Experience (SEE),” as one psychologist labeled it. I am pretty sure it wasn't a “flashback” from my liver releasing traces of some previously ingested psychotropic flora because it was a totally different experience. Many years later, the experience was artificially induced with an elaborate “mind machine,” though, while it was recognizable as the same experience, it was not nearly as powerful. The experience itself could not be put into words. However, in trying to describe it, I found myself using a series of clichés, which had the effect of making the experience sound less than it was. When I was reading your essay, I was reminded of my SEE. Thank you for writing this wonderful essay. Warmest Regards, SC.
Matt, I'm not sure about the comment threads on Galabes — I'll have to talk to the hosting company. The comment threads on The Archdruid Report will not be saved, partly because it would double the size of the print edition, and partly because copyright law doesn't give me the legal right to publish anybody's comments but my own in a print format.
Luna, if advanced mathematical knowledge is necessary for an ecological worldview, then we're basically doomed, because only a fairly small fraction of people have the capacity (to say nothing of the education) to make sense of advanced mathematics. Fortunately, you're mistaken — mathematics is only one way to approach the task of modeling whole systems, and while it's a particularly powerful way for those who can follow it, there are other ways of comparable power that can appeal to a much larger fraction of the population.
With regard to your comments about magic — er, have you actually studied magic in any systematic way? I ask this because magic is as demanding a subject as mathematics, and I know what kind of nonsense I'd be uttering if I tried to make sweeping generalizations about mathematics without the relevant training…
Sandy, thank you.
Darren, as noted above, I don't know about the comments on Galabes, and I'm quite sure those on ADR will not be saved. Sorry.
Kayr, hmm! That's an interesting possibility. I haven't yet settled on the theme of the next story contest, and I'll consider that one.
Roberta, neither I nor the publisher has had the time to create the kind of massive index that would be needed for the ten-volume set. If someone else is interested in doing that, perhaps as an additional volume, I can readily arrange to have it published.
Kevin, the thing is, doxa isn't “bad.” For a lot of things, it's the only kind of knowledge we can have, and there are many ways we can doublecheck our doxa about various subjects and try to make sure it's as accurate as possible. With regard to the decline and fall of a civilization, in particular, you can have some degree of gnosis — in that you can experience decline happening — and you can understand the episteme that underlies it — for example, the impossibility of infinite economic growth on a finite planet — but most of your knowledge about it's going to be doxa until the process has completed, and weeds are growing up through the broken pavement of Telegraph Avenue…
Mr. O, bingo! Iolo and his merry band of Druid Revivalists were in fact the Celtic Reconstructionists of their era, doing their best with the information available at the time to revive traditional Celtic spirituality. One of the reasons the more dogmatic Reconstructionists go into a Donald Duck frenzy when you mention him is that he's a reminder that in the future, their reconstructions are going to look just as offbase as his do now…
Unknown Deborah, as noted above, I really don't have a choice in the matter.
SC, you're welcome and thank you!
I've gathered that the distinction between unverified personal gnosis and the more verified sort is that many different people have the same type of experience, or receive the same information through their experiences. Like if many different worshippers of the same deity are independently told by the deity the same thing about that deity's preferences, goals, or wishes. Is that a sort of fairly reliable doxa then?
After taking some time off from reading both of your blogs (and writing, and much else) while coping with a long winter of serious, sad upheaval in my own life, I've come back–only to find you have new plans. What a surprise–but perhaps not really, I think, to an attentive reader.
I look forward to visiting Ecosophia and Dreamwidth–such apropos names!–and to reading your essays as I have for so many years now. Especially since your proposed theme, “the emergence of a new fusion of ecology and religion in our time, not simply as an abstract worldview but as a way of life and a system, or system-of-systems, of spiritual and esoteric practice” chimes so strongly with my own life focus. The time for this really is now.
Other folks I know have been switching away from blogger for reasons both similar and different to yours. Your reorganization–long monthly essays here, shorter posts and reviews there, seems much more practical and less cumbersome.
And now I'm off to tend to a rain garden I've been tasked with rejuvenating… 🙂
Breanna, that's certainly one way to transform gnosis into a less chancy sort of doxa.
Adrian, I'm sorry to hear you've had a difficult time of it! Best wishes for a happier and more peaceful time to come. As for the refocusing — yep. As Charles Fort said, it steam-engined when it came steam-engine time, and the time to return to a saner relationship with the planet, spiritually as well as practically, is now.
RE: relocation. Are you moving outside the US, JMG? Just curious, though I understand if you want to wait until the announcement to let us know…
John Michael Greer: For clarity, the term “Unverified Personal Gnosis” or “Unverifiable Personal Gnosis” was developed in the Germano-Scandinavian Reconstructionist community (commonly called Ásatrú), and from there transferred to other Pagan/Polytheist Reconstructionist groups and individuals. I've advocated against its use for years, but a lot of people seem to like it. My preference for a similar concept is the Irish word aisling “dream, vision”. In fact, Erynn Rowan Laurie, a couple of others, and myself once developed in conversation a description of the Reconstruction process, in suitably triadic form and in Irish, as aisling, ársaíocht, agus agallamh “vision, antiquarianism, and discussion” (with “antiquarianism” standing in for all sorts of historical, archaeological, folkloric, and similar social science processes), from one of Erynn's original phrases, “aisling and archaeology”.
Mr. O: While it is true that some Ásatrú folk and some other Pagan/Polytheist Reconstructionists refer to “Confirmed Gnosis”, that is actually a fairly rare term. I agree that it would be a difficult one to justify. Most such people make use of the term “Shared Gnosis” instead, which refers to groups of people who have come to have the same understanding independently of each other, though no doubt some people develop it through a shared Doxa, or as one might say in English, orthodoxy. I imagine that that last would be vigorously denied by most people in those communities, of course. An example I could point to in the Celtic Reconstructionist communities would be the fairly widespread experience that particular Irish deities approve of offerings of chocolate or tobacco (I forget offhand which ones have shown a Shared Gnosis of this – I think that Brighid has a pretty widespread chocolate cultus, if I am recalling correctly, at least in North America; I don't participate in this specific Gnostic understanding, so I can't say for certain myself).
kayr writes, “I have long harbored the suspicion that it would take some kind of earth centered spirituality/region to get our species back on some kind of sane pathway.”
Around 1971 I came to the conclusion that Western Civilization, despite its many achievements, was marching straight towards a cliff and like to take a lot of life on earth with it. (This was around the time I graduated from college but before I heard of global warming–I thought we were in a normal interglacial period.) My analysis was that politics wouldn't turn this around because politics shared the blind spots and imbalances that were the root of the problem. I thought we needed great changes in our values and our understanding of human beings' place in the world. By the maxim that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” I decided that the most effective ways of introducing better ideas and values into culture (both popular and educated) would be via art and religion. (I overlooked philosophy).
Since I was in a position to earn a basic living and do pretty much what I wanted with the rest of my time, I have devoted much of it to learning about popular religion and changing it, via Neopaganism, Wicca and the Women's Spirituality movement. I have had the good luck to live in a region that was a hotbed of those movements, including a lot of bright, creative and emotionally mature people, so I've had decent, inspiring colleagues and we have done some decent, inspiring work.
The aforementioned movements have had more influence than you might expect on ministers and rabbis of the moderate to liberal denominations, on popular culture, and on national and international interfaith organizations. The influence comes from personal relationships; from sharing chants and meditations and stories; by modeling grassroots, distributed ways of organizing that we have had decades of practice with; by reminding folk that ordinary people, not just saints and madmen, experience religious gnosis; by giving polytheists a direct voice; and by trying to treat the natural world as sacred in at least part of our daily living.
I agree with JMG that these Twentieth Century religious movements, though they made a good start, are not adequate to the tasks we face. Deeper, broader, more communal, and dare I say it, more intellectual spiritual undergirding is required. Immediately if not sooner.
One facet about doxa that tends to get overlooked by rationalists is that it is subject to evolutionary pressures. Some ideas just work better than others and those tend to get preserved. It's an imperfect process, but hardly something to scoff at.
Another thing I thought about tonight is that just as there is an attempt to reduce all knowledge to episteme, there's been a parallel tendency since at least Ludwig Wittgenstein to try to reduce all knowledge to doxa. In its more sophisticated and helpful forms, such as that championed by Richard Rorty, the focus is on the natural selection of ideas over time—what I mentioned in the last paragraph. In its less helpful forms, such as Foucault's, the focus is on artificial selection and there's a tendency to see all systems of thought as orthodoxies being forced on the less powerful.
The endgame of this latter line of thought seems to be the weaponization gnosis—or “lived experience” as it goes by these days—as a tool to corral attention away from issues of class. Unfortunately, too many voices reacting against this development are simply reasserting the older (though perhaps less destructive) idiocy of episteme-only thinking.
Best wishes for the new blogging platform and content!
Well, yeah, people try to utilise useful tools in inappropriate circumstances all of the time. I see a lot of that. And abstractions, well, they appear to me to be one of those overused and misused tools. I mean, what are you meant to say when you see that gear going on? Oh well.
“some impressively pompous jerks” – Well said! There's a few of them around… ;-)!
Am I mistaken, or did you just write that your next blogging efforts will be directed along a journey of gnosis? If so, then, respect!
I did some indexing for publishers years ago, and would be interested in creating an index for the ADR . Great way to review and reabsorb everything you wrote! One gets very close to the text when indexing…
Well worth having as a companion to a ten-volume set!
Thanks! Those definitions have gone into my journal, along with “aisling.” I note that for dreams and the like, Old English insists on the subjunctive – most people I know except for the grammar nazis don't know a subjunctive from a subway sandwich, and care even less. (Word's grammar-nanny even corrects every use of the subjunctive because the noun and verb don't match!)
“gnosis” and “episteme” compare fairly well to “conocer” and “saber” – pity that English has lost that distinction.
As a side note, after struggling with the tarot cards for decades, I dug out the runes and matched them to the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem (a few differences with the Norse, not enough to matter) and am off and running. The Rune Poem has a pawky sense of humor. '”Rad” (road trip) is pleasant to those sitting in the hall, but a lot of trouble to the man making miles.' (Rough translation.) Nice dig at your armchair adventurer!
For the senile over-analytical type, simple is best.
And do let us know where you intend to settle. Checks will be forthcoming when I get my head out of the housecleaning.
I have been thinking about all of this, so the post is timely. I need to read World Full of Gods, as the literature in this area seems a bit limited. If, indeed, the gods are real, what they want and what obligations to them we may have are far more important than recreating some imagined past.
I have read the revision to the Catholic mass after the second Vatican council was based partially in an attempt to return to older forms. One could argue this went poorly. With Christianity, as with other religions, what works may be better than what is (allegedly) old. Slow, organic change over time seems better for humans, all around.
If I may borrow from Stirling again, I think future Americans will mostly be a mix of Catholics, Pagans, and Mormons.
Lately I have been delving into the pre-history of judeo-christian religion as part of a life-long project that started with the question, “Where did we go so very wrong?” Reading the work of Margaret Barker next to that of Nissim Amzallag has been eye-opening, to say the least. To my surprise and delight, they have led me to a point that converges with what JMG has announced as the focus of his new blog-“a new fusion of ecology and religion.”
Amzallag presents evidence that in the Bronze Age, the worshipers of YHWH were ecstatically practicing the technology of metallurgy as a path to divine power [can we say “alchemy”?] with even more hubris and enthusiasm than latter day true believers in atomic power and the human destiny in the stars.
Barker marshals evidence that at some point in the first millennium BC, the Hebrew religion reacted strongly against that Bronze Age technological hubris, and organized a religion focused on upholding the divine Covenant that kept the ocean in its bed, the heavenly bodies in their orbits, the seasons in their proper times, and society in harmony.
Myself, I suspect that the turn toward upholding and repairing the covenant with god and nature had a lot to do with the collapse of the Bronze Age world order. In that disaster ecological collapse, climate change, and an arms race leading to perpetual warfare, dislocation of populations, and social chaos, all converged to usher in a dark age. Sound familiar? When humankind no longer upholds The Covenant, as the poet William Butler Yeats foresaw, “The center cannot hold . . . Things fall apart.”
In what Margaret Barker calls the tradition of Solomon’s Temple, human beings were assigned a cosmic status and responsibility beyond toiling and consuming in an economic machine; the faithful were groomed to become points of intersection between the finite realm of nature and the infinite theosphere, in the belief that we were put on the Earth not so much to subdue it as to complete the Creation and to uphold, restore, and repair the covenant that holds it all together.
The weekly Sabbath day of rest, the sabbatical year in which all agricultural land was allowed to lie fallow, and the consumer-debt jubilees every 49 years, would have been practiced as ways to uphold the Covenant.
Although the focus on that particular Covenant was superseded in Hebrew religion by other concerns, some of it found its way into early Christianity. But Christianity, in its turn, was soon edited to fit into societies that had other priorities.
Whether or not that was actually at the root of the religious tradition I was raised in, I find the idea of upholding the Covenant enormously compelling; and it whets my interest in that “new fusion of religion and ecology” JMG envisions.
Margaret Barker speaks of upholding the Covenant in a conversation that can be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlz-uABib3g
Nissim Amzallag’s writings are freely available on the website https://www.academia.edu/
I cannot say how very excited I am about your chosen direction! It is the direction of study and practice that I have been slowly heading in, in addition to becoming much more involved in my local area Druid and Heathen communities.
Glad to have you as a part of my regular reading once again. I asked late last week (so you did not likely see it). Will you be issuing all of your works in hard back? I've decided I am going to try to have a complete collection of JMG to hand down to the ages and hard back would be preferred.
I chime in with all the others who brought it up – having the comments at ADR would be awesome. But I understand the legal realities. I am sure some enterprising souls will go to the trouble of collecting them in electronic form (maybe even privately printed) for the future.
I can't help but wonder at the timing of these past two posts; since (un)verified personal gnosis seems to be a big deal, not only in the Reconstructionist circles, but especially in regards to The Morrigan. I remember (close to two years ago now) when I first found Her, and there was so much infighting in the community as to what was a “true” experience with The Great Queen. That was really discouraging in my early days.
I can't wait to hear what you have to say at the Morrigan retreat in a few weeks; it's bound to be great! And, also happy to say that I've finally stopped procrastinating and finally joined the AODA!
Shane, nope — just changing locations within the country.
Faoladh, fair enough. Most of my contact with the Heathen community has been at blots and sumbels, where everyone's by and large been busy offering ale to the gods rather than arguing about authenticity, so I didn't happen to know that — and the majority of the times I've heard the phrase “UPG” bandied about, it's been by Celtic Reconstructionists. Should somebody fuss about cultural appropriation? 😉
James, that's a good point — and it's particularly useful when it's remembered that the doxa that wins out in a Darwinian competition needn't be true, just useful.
Cherokee, thank you. I tend to think that the usual rule for tools applies even more forcefully to abstraction — you don't actually know how to use it unless you can list three ways to misuse it, three ways to break it, and three things it can't do at all. As for a journey of gnosis — well, that's part of it, but gnosis is so irreducibly personal we're going to have to talk about a lot of doxa and episteme as well…
Myriam, okay, I'm definitely interested. Put in a comment marked “not for posting” with your email address, and we can work something out.
Pat, the subjunctive! Would that it were still in use! 😉 My current PO box will forward for the next year, but yes, I'll let you know the address once it's firm.
Christopher, ding! We have a winner. Exactly. Blind faith in the past is no more constructive than blind faith in the future.
KKalbert, interesting. You know, it hadn't occurred to me before that the Torah's system of jubilees and the like is another example of the kind of anti-usury legislation that so often pops up after a debt-based civilization crashes and burns; thank you.
Aubrey, glad to hear it.
Avalterra, sorry to say it'll be in paperback. It's not likely to sell enough copies to justify a hardback edition — though I'll talk to the publisher and see if a POD hardback version might be possible.
Daniel, I've been typing away frantically on my presentations for the event, so yeah, there's probably some connection… 😉
Brother G. (offlist), you do realize, I hope, that you've turned into a broken record on the subject of the difference between religion and magic. As the note above the comment box says, repeated attempts to hammer on a point already addressed will be deleted; if you want to quibble about the definitions of religion and magic any further, please go have a conversation with the Oxford English Dictionary. Thanks!
I'm really excited about your new projects. I had been a reader at The Archdruid Report for a couple of years now, but only within the last couple of months have started working my way through your posts here on Galabes… as a complete newcomer to the topics discussed here, I've found this site both fascinating and very accessible for the novice reader. For someone like me, whose only knowledge of the occult, magic, druidry, etc. is what I've read here, which of the books that you've written would you recommend reading first to learn more?
Thanks for this great site, and I look forward to learning more from you!
It could be possible (just requiring a time outlay) to delete the body of the posts on ADR (rather than the blog in entirety), substituting a message and a link pointing to the new versions (pdf and print), thus keeping the integrity of the comment section. With a little check of a box on blogger to disallow comments on all posts, the site could just stand, then, with comments intact. Readers of the new versions could be informed that the comments section still exists for browsing only.
It does require some effort, but if our host also thinks they're worth keeping, that's a simple fix that doesn't mess with the copyrights of the comments, doesn't add to the publishing burden, and lets folks maintain connectedness with the greater commentariat.
Patricia Matthews: Another term from the Irish which we use in this context (which I had intended to include, but for some reason forgot) is iomas (Old/Middle Irish spelling imbas), which dictionaries give as “intuition”, but is a much more complex and intricate concept than the English word implies. The mythological image that is relevant is of a well with five streams coming from it, the sound of which is more melodious than any human music. The well is surrounded by nine hazels, the nuts from which fall into the well and stain its waters purple. The water in the well is described as so pure that it burns. In the well reside five salmon who live off of the nuts, sending the husks down the five streams. It is said that a poet (= magician) must drink from all of the five streams, and also from the well itself.
There's more, such as the bronze castle with four houses within built of silver wattling and thatched with the wings of white birds that contains and protects the well as well as various characters and vistas around and about, but the core image of the well surrounded by trees is the main component.
Iomas is, as you may surmise, the pure, fiery, purple water of the well, while the five streams are the five senses.
Another way to come at an understanding is noting the divinatory practice of imbass forosna “kindling/illumination of imbas/iomas“, which is discussed in some detail in Nora K. Chadwick's article, “Imbas Forosnai”.
Also Patricia Mathews: Please forgive my misspelling of your surname.
>>Daniel, I've been typing away frantically on my presentations for the event, so yeah, there's probably some connection… 😉
For those of us who can't make it to the Morrigan's Call, is there any chance you'll be publishing your presentation? I'm quite curious about what you have to say in that regard.
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