Those Days are Long Fucking Gone: Dredging Toward Positive Differentiation
Once upon a time there was a thing called knowledge, and lo, it was a fabled and treasured thing, which many amongst the provincial masses would pursue at great personal cost and labor in order to obtain.
In the present 21st Century days of cobwebbed darkness and dazed-and-blunted cudgeling ignorance-to-the-workings-of-the-world, we have the total sum of all that human knowledge ever resting ever in back-pocket or shoulder-strapped reach and powered by rechargeable lithium, yet the modernity-promised Utopia-of-Knowing seems not so readily grasped. Humankind innovated unto itself the ability to harness this Knowledge, and strike it into binary storage behind glowing screens of illuminated word things and pictures of cats and videos of wrecking balls and this achievement was great and grand and it has been taken up by the masses with intense, addictive and glossy-eyed fervor.
But to what end?
Now, obtained, this fabled knowledge can be ignored— for it was achieved, and so there is no more effort required to engage it, and so what purpose is to be found in glistening pursuit?
Once upon a time, those who obtained a certain level of knowledge and subsequently learned to apply that knowledge through the development of skilled discipline (experience!) and were greeted by the masses as treasured experts in their given fields of know-how and blessed doing. In those days, a person was rewarded for their pursuits and their Heraklean labors and all of that time put into the obtaining of the knowledge and the skills and the disciplines; hours spent at study, learning, and thousands more spent at practice, experiencing that which they had studied. Chiseling themselves, at great personal expense, into adepts or masters of a given area or subject. In those days, one’s obtained expertise was treasured, for they could further educate others, through writing, speaking, training, teaching, or merely doing that which they had learned so that others focused elsewhere could communally and collectively benefit from the glory of those trying hours, weeks, months, years, spent in the tempering process.
Those days are long fucking gone.
There has been a lot of discussion, in the blog sphere and in private dialog, around the subject of the “death of expertise” in our 21st Century Western Culture. It is an interesting age that we live in, wherein we popularly idolize the idea of experts and paragons — Einstein, Tesla, Jesus, Jung, Pythagoras, Artemisia I — without the burden of needing to acknowledge, respect, or defer to them in the magical realm of the really-real world in day-to-day life. We post memes showcasing quotes and attestations uttered or suggested or otherwise attributed to some romanticized “Greats”, while berating, dismissing, and politicking in fabricated clique and Koolaid brigade against or around or behind the living and breathing experts and adepts amongst us. It seems that everyone who puts one damn word after another (out loud or on the mystic interweb box) is free to consider themselves an expert, or be considered such — after all, how else could those wordsounds be bubbling up and out of them so? — and similarly it follows that this expertise should be measured in some stratified fashion.
One such expert, who is hailed rightly as such by both rigorous academic measure as well as clergical deployment and inspired prophetic submission, our own Bithynian Doctor — P. Sufenas Virius Lupus — recently wrote about the subject of stratified acknowledgment in an essay addressing the subject and spectrum of religious laity and religious clergy, in which e poses examples of a category of persons in our communities who, though not clergy in proper fashion, are still deserving of deference and respect for their expertise and specializations as theologians, philosophers, or activists in our Polytheist and Pagan communities. The comments section is full of important replies and discussions, as well as debateful disagreements from colleagues and coreligionists.
These discussions represent, to my sociologist eye, a collective interest in hashing out some of our communities’ needs for positive differentiated deferential stratification. I am constantly hearing of and consulting around issues of hierarchy, chain-of-command, position and titular role as assessed through various lenses in religious and spiritual social affairs. Throughout PSVL’s blog post I perceive a repeated theme — amongst many others, surely! — around calling for specific, nuanced language to discuss (and offer lived experience of) differentiated models of deferential regard; e.g. laity must be deferred to as the reason that some clergy exist to serve (especially clergy whose job is to minister to or lead trained specific ritual on behalf of the untrained laity) while clergy should be deferred to around (and indeed offered respect for) their specialized knowledge and training in their given responsibilities. E goes on to discuss non-clergy members of our communities — philosophers, theologians, writers and researchers not otherwise “titled” as clergy — who are proposed as deserving of deferential regard as well, by virtue of their contributions.
Where PSVL and I (seem to) disagree is around what that deferential regard should look like. I am absolutely and fervently in support of our communities and cultures offering up and invoking into themselves a lived deference for those whose contributions and insightful expertise so greatly shape and influence discourse and community development. However, I don’t see one’s contributions in philosophy or theology to be related to their “place” on a “Laity — Clergy” spectrum, or a “Clergy — Laity” measurement for that matter, but on an altogether different spectrum. After all, we can have clergy who are philosophers and clergy who are not at all given to those directions of thought or study, just as we have laity who are professors of theology or authors in the field of philosophical thought. To be clear, I am in no way at all calling for a dismissal of the “laity or clergy?” classifications, as some have suggested, but instead quite the opposite: we need more classifications and differentiated forms of religious engagement and spectrums of experience, which are specifically constructed in a manner that rejects competition and instead embraces respect, in every direction of differentiated deference.
I have long been calling for examinations of some of what I consider to be clearly differentiable lenses of experience, training and literal process or principled paradigm in our Polytheist and Pagan communities and conversational parlance. By way of example, a huge amount of Pagans today draw their backgrounds from teachings derived from Western Esotericism and ceremonial magick (whether they realize it or know it by those terms or not), whereas others (for example Heathens, Celtic Reconstructionists, and Kemetics) are not (as religious traditions) drawing from those sources at all. “General Paganism” seems to draw heavily from the Western Esoteric tradition(s), whereas Polytheisms at the very least cannot be assumed to do the same, as religious traditions.
Many Polytheists in America also have Western Esoteric magickal occult practices, but these are generally — and in my opinion accurately — separate from their Polytheist religious traditions and pursuits. The Lesser Banishing Ritual has no place in Gaulish Polytheistic religion (so far as I know…) for example, but a devoted layperson or priest within Gaulish Polytheism may also be a magickal practitioner who utilizes this esoteric technology elsewhere. The affirming positive differentiation between these two things — religion from the occult/esoteric — in background and paradigm platform is astoundingly under-discussed and virtually unexamined so far as I can tell, in the popular Big Tent movements of Neo-Paganism. There is clearly nothing wrong with occult practices, but these should be differentiated from strictly speaking religious pursuits, for the same reasons that one should not try to fuse African Ifa-Orisa with Haitian Vodou and Cuban Palo and Hebrew Kabbalah: each of these is its own tradition, and even where they may overlap or share common lineaged descent, they are self-contained and differentiated structures.
Positive differentiation is important. As modern Polytheists, many of us are proceeding with an acknowledgement of the multiplicity and plurality of pretty much everything. We are striving to move away from popular reductionist methodologies, proliferated in our current (and recently preceding) age, which seek to string things together as a meta-connected singular narrative, as if all things can just telescopically fit together in one unified form. Differentiation — individuation, if you will! — of ideas, traditions, movements and collectives allows for the full and unrestrained expression and exploration of the religious, animist, spiritual and devotional structures we are called or thrust into by our gods, and by our blessed ancestors. We fought hard through many debates to clarify to Humanists that when we were discussing our gods — and, for that matter, our mighty dead — we were discussing literal beings of intelligence and agency, external and apart from our unconscious minds. Understanding those differentiations — abstract concepts, archetypes, and autonomous gods-of-consequence — allowed for arguments to end before they began, but allowing for the nuanced clarification of what a given writer or speaker was engaging with (since many fields and lenses draw from similar or even shared vocabulary).
Differentiated spectrums of spiritual and religious and ritual engagement, and the developing of both language and social structure to accommodate such is an ongoing and vitally important focus for all of us in the myriad Polytheisms and Paganisms, newly hatched from inspired egg or continuing from older traditions unbroken in our age. Differentiation, however, is only the first step, for next must follow systems of nuanced deference, and a matured and nurtured respect for (and acknowledgment of) specialization, expertise, and varying levels of engaged contributory efforts.
Of course, all of this would require a certain level of (gasp) critical thinking, self reflection, social awareness, and — perhaps most troubling of all — measured (non-relative) competence assessment. To acknowledge that a master electrician might know more about electrical safety measures than you first requires that you understand enough about a) yourself, b) other people who are not you, and c) electricity, to see that you are probably not a master electrician, and therefore on the subject of electrical safety owe a certain level of deference to your fucking better. Our religious movements and traditions are not alone in their cultural besiegement by these issues of critical assessment and popular awareness and attacks on structures and systems of expertise, of positive differentiation, or of useful and ordered stratification; there is a greater social issue of reductionist paradigms and process… a pandemic of permissive armchair ignorance.
“Stratification” is as frightening a word as “difference” for a lot of people, and certainly in some contexts it is a potentially disturbing concept. For many it speaks of abusive patriarchal tyrannies, for others the bludgeoning and crushing weight of the few (the takers, the bourgeoisie, the 1%, the ivory towered ivy leafed privileged) upon the backs and limbs of the many (the workers, the makers, the underprivileged, the common folk). Many in alternative religious traditions found in Polytheism and Paganism are coming from a challenging background in mainstream Monotheistic culture, with experiences of abuse and trauma and persecution fresh in mind and heart, and so words like “stratification” and “status” and “hierarchy” are strung together as triggers of these remembered wrongs and relived hurts. However, those wrongs and hurts are the result of an out-of-balance power dynamic, not the result of such dynamics in general, and it is important to know and see that if our communities, lineages and traditions are going to survive moving forward, outliving us as gifts through our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and further still, to our gods and to our beloved blessed dead, and to the living earth on which we live which desperately needs us as a global population to get our collective acts together, we must have some semblance of structured order to our engagements.
We all know that there is something very very wrong in our world. A world that is dying. Not just ecologically, or environmentally, but morally and socially and politically and economically and fucking spiritually. We stand on the precipice of disastrous collapse. There is virtually no way to ignore or deny this.
It is my belief, based upon the words and wisdoms of my gods as well as the reasoned observations and critical examinations that They have given me the mind to process and analyze and assess, that our traditions — our myriad Polytheist traditions — are one of the answers to the myriad crises our world faces.
“Hierarchy” is similarly a bad word in many spiritual communities; so is the idea of eldership, of leadership, of authority. And yet we worship gods of sovereignty, gods of kingship, gods of queenly might and gods of non-binary authority over sphere and dominions of influence, such as life and child-birth and grizzled death and battlefield medicine and ecstasy and madness and music and dance and fucking beautifully under the crescent moon while stars light up as keyholes in the heavens. What are these spheres, if not integrated expressions of hierarchal divide? What are these relations, if not systemic layers of divinely deferential, deifically demonstrated expressions of positive differentiation? Of stratification?
There seems to be a misguided, but emotionally affirmed through experiences of hurt and abuse, sense or belief that to differentiate is to intrinsically and irreparably divide. To this I say, it could not be further from the truth. To be artificially unified, for the sake of unification alone, is to be muddied and muddled as all the colors and pigments of a painter’s pallet, which any kindergartener will tell you results only in a beautifully unusable grayish brown sludge that does very little to create the many hued masterpiece that surely we all of us have in mind for the future of our Polytheisms, Paganisms, and our godsdamned global societies and our fucking planet. Certainly when we pause to envision a strategically achievable image of what our efforts in our religious developments might produce, we do not see the shitty muck and toxic mire that one dredges from the polluted waters of petrol-spewing yacht-yards sitting against once majestic natural coves.
To achieve the masterpiece that our gods deserve, which They have entrusted us to paint by our own hands with Their guidance and wisdom, we must differentiate our pigments and systemize our understanding of colors [proverbially speaking, as this is not an advocation for segregation of any kind] in order to enstrengthen and enliven the use and deployment of each. Instead of focusing on philosophical hypothetical unification and/or “Oneness” (whatever the fuck that has to do with worshipping many gods…) we should all of us (collectively) and each of us (individually) be encouraging a sense of positive differentiation, which allows for the untold beauty of individual expressions of collective praise and diversely devotional union and communion and reunion with, and at, and before, and beneath, and within and fucking inside of the untold many fucking gods and goddesses and deities and spirits and guardians and guides who make up the structures and sequences of our many paths of religious expression.
By acknowledging our positive differences, instead of trying to negate or erase said differences, we can arrive at systems of engaging and modes of being and methods of relating at all sorts of levels that carry renewed respect (gasp! deference!) for the specialists and experts in our communities, and therefore also for the communities themselves, and every level within them, measured on every spectrum and through all of the different lenses that there are to gaze through in our assessment of and navigation through the complexities of social and religious process.