Heresies I – Choice and Dogma

Socrates, the Heretic

By Jonathan Woolley

Introductory remarks

It is often said that if you ask 10 Pagans to define Paganism, you will receive 15 different definitions. It is certainly true that Pagans do not have a common body of literature or a single set of ideas that define the essence of what we think and say – although, there have been attempts to establish such a framework. Even so, priding ourselves upon how we celebrate differences of opinion, and over how we are prepared to open our minds to other truths; Pagans as a rule are highly resistant to orthodoxy of all shapes and sizes – indeed, for many of us, an overemphasis upon revealed, absolute truth is what drove us away from established religion in the first place. Even though certain traditions are strict upon what counts as their tradition, you must go a long way to find a Pagan who refuses to – at the very least – accept the right of others to differ in their views. What place, then, could heresy even have within Paganism? If the basic Pagan impulse is to be as disorganised and diverse in our religious opinions as possible, what usefulness is there in a word that serves only to describe forbidden, or controversial religious thought?

In truth, heresy is a vitally important concept – both in terms of its history, and in terms of its present-day usefulness – for Pagans to understand. Heresy – like many components of religious thinking – contains a fruitful paradox. Because what lies at the heart of this concept is not – as we might assume today – the intolerance of Inquisition, and the heat of a burning stake, but rather something that is vital for all Pagans to embrace; a firm commitment to truth.

On hairesis

It is well known that although the Ancients gave us many of our most rarified words, what is less widely acknowledged is the extent to which modern definitions vary from how the Greeks or Romans would have used those same words. “Evoke” for example – today used for the gentle act of calling something to mind, or in magical circles to bring a god or spirit present without it being embodied (c.f. “invoke”) – comes from evocatio; perhaps one of the most evil pieces of Roman War Magic, where the gods of an enemy nation were literally “called away” from the people they knew, and co-opted to the Roman cause. “Person”, a noun that refers to the very essence of who were are as living, social beings, comes from the Ancient Greek πρόσωπονprosopon – meaning a mere mask, for use in theatre. Heresy comes from another Ancient Greek word – αἵρεσις – or hairesis – meaning “choice”. It referred specifically to the process of deciding how one would live; by choosing between one of the various philosophical schools active in Ancient Greek and later Roman society. Would you seek happiness through the Epicurean quest for balance in all things, or would you opt for the Stoic approach of living in accord with Natural Law? Would you go mad for numbers with the mythical Pythagoras, or was union with the gods more your bag, like Plotinus? This choice was, largely, a free one – there was no one philosophical school that reigned supreme; each had their virtues, and the right of exponents to follow them, and seekers to choose between them was largely respected.

Over time, the moral authority of such considered choices started to wane. Such philosophical introspection was predominantly an elite activity – poor people, women, and slaves were almost always denied the opportunity. As the urban population grew and the Axial Age and the Empires that came after wore on, people lost their faith in the great thoughts of noble men, and started agitating for new, stricter, universal truths that applied to everyone – embodied by the faiths of Christianity, and Islam. Over time, truth became doctrine, choice became fraught, and αἵρεσις became heresy.

A not small question of religion

The impact of this shift in changing how Europeans thought about all matters religious cannot be overestimated. It didn’t just change the content of what Europeans believed, but it changed how they asked questions about and reflected upon that content too. To put it simply, Christianity introduced a compulsion in the realm of philosophy – a series of fixed points, that had to be reconciled with the facts and reason, come what may – that had simply not existed to the same extent previously.

But the transmutation was not total; there is a common thread that links Christian heresy and Pagan αἵρεσις together. Both are profoundly concerned with a commitment to the truth; to seeking it, exploring it, accepting it, defending it. What for Pagan elites was a personal journey, fueled by a singular desire to excel amongst one’s peers, for the Christian church is a matter of internal unity and consistency. The same push for political conformity and obedience that eventually killed Socrates – a controversial, and extraordinary event for its day – became far more developed, extreme and frequent in Medieval Christianity.

Over time, in order to distance itself from these compulsions (and avoid ecclesiastical censure) philosophy came to to distinguish itself from spirituality entirely; leaving the great Ancient Greek and Roman thinkers to be reclassified as fathers of various academic disciplines – with the clear and blatant theological and spiritual content of the work of writers like Aristotle and Plato being largely neglected in their secular hagiographies, despite it being well known to intellectuals.

It should be stressed that this divide – between (religious) theology and (secular) philosophy – is a varyingly porous one within the academy. But the former gulf between the two can still appear, particularly in wider society: where theology is imagined as a space where absolute truths are defended intellectually (descended from the entirely religious Abrahamic tradition), while philosophy is construed as a forum where all truths are systematically questioned (descended from the totally un-religious Indo-Hellenic tradition). In short, theology is felt to disallow heresy, while philosophy is seen to celebrate it.

On Paganism and philosophy

Paganism, of course, with it’s commitment to free choice in matters religious, appears to subvert this dichotomy. Considering how a free choice in how one leads one’s life is intrinsic to the ancient meaning of heresy – as αἵρεσις – one might imagine that contemporary Pagans would be as drawn to philosophy as their Ancient predecessors. Now that literacy is a near-universal skill, and that now a much wider swathe of society has access to the sort of learning the Ancients reserved for the few, there seem to be few obstacles to such an endeavour. And yet, with a few exceptions (including some excellent articles on this very blog), there are very few Pagans out there doing philosophy. Emma Restall-Orr’s Pagan Ethics, which also highlights the ancient origins of heresy in notions of choice, is one such exception. But Restall-Orr neglects to explore why – despite the profound commitment of many Pagans to a diversity of opinions, the doubtless intelligence of many Pagans, and our common roots with academic philosophy in the Classics – the fact that she is one of the few authors to write explicitly in this genre.

One reason – I suspect – is the imagined divide between theology and philosophy. There is no established landscape – outside of the ivory tower-guarded, academese-ridden morass of “interdisciplinarity” – between the two. Into this chasm, I fear, Pagans have dropped the concept of heresy – and therefore lost all sense of what it is about. Although this discarding of heresy has put an end to religious persecution, despite the various controversies that have erupted over the years regarding historical authenticity, reconstruction vs. syncretism, gender binaries, and the ontological status of divinities, it has also blunted our commitment to truth. We don’t do philosophy as much as we might do, because as a community we’ve lost sight of why philosophy – and truth itself – might be important or useful.

In the next series of articles, I’m going to write on a variety of philosophical topics. I do this not as an academic, nor as an expression of absolute truth, but as an intellectual exercise – for the reader, and the author. Pick apart my ideas, dig holes in what I have written. Reflect, ponder, and rebut. Hone your commitment to truth; for it is the pursuit of heresy – motivated by our desire to know – new discovery abounds.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

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15 thoughts on “Heresies I – Choice and Dogma

  1. I suspect for the American pagans who come from Protestant and possibly evangelical backgrounds that there remains a strong distrust of the intellectual engagement with divinity and our religion. We strive for a personal engagement with our faiths (UPG, etc.) and downplay the intellectual side of our faiths. I look at written notes in places like, “Oh, that’s Talker talking” when questions of philosophy and theory come up, which always strikes me as an anti-intellectual response. Our talking selves may be caught up in old habits and structures of language/belief/perception, but we can retrain and reshape those “talkers” into new forms better suited to the lives we’re choosing to try to live.

    Looking forward to seeing more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The other end of the scale is likely also a tendency for many to resort to ‘I don’t need to think about it because its my faith’ styles of reaction when questions of philosophy arise, more so when questions of philosophy arise that are closely or directly tied to what are essentially theological subjects.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Exactly…and this resistance to theology and theological thinking on the part of some of the older big-name pagans really is ridiculous. They have said, including recently, that it does nothing, that it’s based on Christianity, and that it has no effect (positive or otherwise) on one’s practices or experiences, which I find to be so self-evidently nonsensical that it staggers me that one of the proponents of this considers himself an academic and an intellectual. Theology isn’t just intellectual residue on religious experiences; it can profoundly shape them (in positive ways), it is useful in interpreting them and then making use of them in one’s larger context, or in refining one’s practices in order to become more effective, etc.

      Anti-intellectualism is for suckers. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It occurs to me (and there’s more in a comment further down here) that Jonathan’s earlier piece on the market-logic within Paganism, especially with BNP’s, elucidates the problem here.

        Consider. Many Brand Named Pagans have built careers upon their teachings, but many of their teachings have been unquestioned. Witness the vast disparities between a certain famous Gaywitch (with a large school, publishing business, and festival-appearance business) supposedly sponsored by The Morrigan, versus a certain leader of another tradition involving The Morrigan. Both have written books, one unquestioned, the other well-researched. One’s making a lot of money off their ‘UPG’ and repeatedly avoids ‘divisive’ political topics; the other takes an oppositional stance to racism and police brutality without care to what others think of her.

        One’s running a business, the other’s worlding-in a goddess. And we can’t talk about knowledge and education without talking about money, and I think that ‘anti-intellectual’ current that worries you is both generated by academics who belittle the uneducated and ALSO encouraged by those who stand to make lots of money from unquestioned belief (just like, say, FOX news, or climate-change deniers).

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Absolutely…couldn’t agree more.

        A post a few months back by a certain Goose-Goose (who never lets anyone forget he’s a credentialed social scientist) that pretty much said theology never did anything for anyone and never made anyone’s experiences better or deeper is part of this anti-intellectual matter I am particularly railing against…and given he’s someone who frequently accuses others of not being able to read, it’s especially unconscionable to be as anti-intellectual as he is when it comes to theology and intellectual engagements with religion.

        I also think there’s a factor that comes up with Magliocco, Hutton and a few others that doesn’t apply to me, even though I’ve got the same level of advanced degrees that they do and so forth: tenure. They are quite comfortable (maybe not “rich,” but they don’t have to worry about where their next rent check is coming from), whereas I can’t afford to attend many academic conferences any longer because I can’t spare the $1500 (plus lost work time) that it would take to get there, pay for registration, hotel, and transportation, etc.

        [When I see you this week, remind me to tell you about something that will actually kind of demonstrate that one doesn’t have to have tenure and institutional support and be financially well-off to contribute positively and enduringly to some of the studies they’re engaged in…and will actually invalidate several categorical statements they’ve made on the history of witchcraft! It’s exciting…!?!]

        In any case…!?!


    3. I apparently want to check email far more often than I have this week, as I zombie this thread.

      I’ve spent my time in grad school, and I remain in the academy, and I sometimes find myself reminding myself that I have an education that far exceeds most people I engage with on a daily basis. I’ve seen the tendency for academics to treat people without “qualifications” much as Rhyd relates about that one party: if you are not in the system, then your views don’t matter.

      The academy has its own indoctrination factor, and I count myself lucky that I had mentors who helped penetrate the pretentious haze of academic BS. However, I also know that grad school did a number on me in more ways than one, and I’m still reclaiming myself from its more pernicious effects. But as someone interested in teaching, I’ve had to think about how I frame complex ideas for people without my education, let alone my worldview (that includes Gods & Radicals, etc.). Sometimes it’s even a matter of “How do I convey my thoughts and how I think about this subject without turning off an entire audience with grandiloquent and laureate sesquipedalians or without having to tediously lead them through the internal tangled chains of logic and experience that have led me to where I am?” Sometimes it’s about knowing the scope of the conversations.

      Otherwise, yes, the educated should try to avoid spurring anti-intellectual responses, and be willing to penetrate our own BS and not take ourselves deadly seriously. But we should also call out in a courageous but civil manner anti-intellectualism when it does appear.


  2. I have two quibbles/suggestions:

    1) Have you read any of Edward Butler’s work? He’s a polytheist Platonic philosopher, and he’s written some really excellent and important stuff. He’s one of the very few actual philosophers–trained and credentialed and likewise practicing–in all of modern paganism and polytheism, and his work is splendid.

    2) I have to take issue with your statement, “despite the various controversies that have erupted over the years regarding historical authenticity, reconstruction vs. syncretism,” since I am a reconstructionist-methodology-utilizing polytheist who happens to be working on traditions that are historically syncretistic. (And, even those that aren’t in a recognized fashion are also syncretistic, whether people want to admit it or not.)

    But, in any case, bring on the heresy–in the classical sense–otherwise! 😉


    1. But you wouldn’t deny, dear friend, that there’s an almost puritanical and fierce ‘tear down the idols’ current in reconstructionism, yeah?

      In fact, it’s part of the reason I’ve had to formally distance myself from CR, despite working primarily with Welsh gods. The severe and very un-addressed racialist currents, the condescending belittling of syncretic belief from ‘armchair academics,’ and a general snobbery in even many of the nicer folk within the movement rightly distances most people from reconstruction. You, Coru Cathubodua, and Christopher Scott Thompson are not the norm of CR, but really the only redeeming influences within an increasingly racist and dogmatic movement.


      1. Oh no, I agree completely.

        I also think that the term “reconstructionism” should be understood as a methodology, first and foremost, and many who use it as a primary descriptor do a variety of things which make it utterly useless and have given it a bad name.

        Most of the CRs I’ve been around, ever since I found that such a thing existed, have not been racists, and have avoided many of the excesses you mentioned…but, I had to stop associating with some of them for gender essentialsm, fundamentalist readings of small bits of the lore, and so forth…


  3. The one comment I frequently feel is necessary to interject in these conversations – as important as they are – is to keep privilege in mind. For many people, they do not have the education which enables them engage and consider these philosophical discussions on the level that people expect. They engage at the level of UPG because that is where they feel comfortable and like they can have a voice in the direction of our religions.

    So let’s try to do better at having these discussions without bashing “anti-intellectualism” and such. Its not for suckers. Its for people who engage in the ways that feel the most appropriate for them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have lots of thoughts on that matter–thanks for bringing it up.

      As you know, I don’t have a college education and am utterly an auto-didact. I remember being at a party with a former partner, a graduate-program history department party. There was a moment where I suddenly found myself ‘holding court,’ discussing many of the books they’d been reading, until I was asked where I was getting my PhD.

      When I laughed and said, “oh–I never got my bachelors,” the crowd dispersed like I’d just told them I had Ebola and sneezed.

      Simultaneously, there is an anti-intellectualist current within Paganism, but I place most of the responsibility for that on academics, not on the people who hold those views. I read Derrida and Zizek and Deleuze with high-school dropout punks at a coffeeshop in my early 20’s–it’s completely possible (and probably more fun) to learn that way. Unfortunately, our absence of certification from an institution means we’ve ‘nothing to say.’

      Furthermore, there’s an intellectual current that opposes and belittles belief. Sabina Magliocco, for instance, and even some of Ronald Hutton’s work, opposes their esteemed learning against the lived experience (what we call UPG) of belief.

      But one of the reasons why people like Kadmus, Edward Butler and Jonathan Woolley are so fucking awesome is precisely because they stand against that current which generates anti-intellectualism (as opposed to standing against anti-intellectualism). In other currents, there are folks like Angela Davis, deep intellectuals who don’t buy into the the self-aggrandizing privilege-machine of academia and thus bridge those gaps, like I think Kadmus, Butler, and Woolley are also doing.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Couldn’t agree more.

        I’ve had so many of those types of interactions that I’ve distanced myself almost entirely from the communities that have them.

        Multitude and the myriad. It takes influences from all and bridging worlds to affect change.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Though, to clarify, I’m not bashing those who don’t have education (and I would actually like to engage the notion of “education privilege” at some point, because I don’t see it playing out in many cases…); it’s actually not them who are often the ones riding the anti-intellectualism train. One doesn’t need education to be intellectual, and to intelligently engage in conversation.

      I take a rather literal view of theology, i.e. it is “discussion of Deities,” and thus people who are engaging on the level of UPG and talking about their own experiences, in my view, are actually doing theology, even if they don’t call it that and some people don’t reckon that it is.

      Philosophy is another matter entirely, granted, and it often does take a great deal more specialized knowledge…and, speaking for myself, I can’t always follow a lot of it.

      The anti-intellectualism that I was railing against and saying was for suckers is the kind which basically states that one doesn’t need to think about one’s religious experiences, or interpret them, or that there is absolutely no value in doing so, or in reading further on something to understand it, etc. As much as there is an awful lot of talk and agreement with statements like “pagans aren’t people of the book, they’re people of the library” and so forth, there is a great deal of resistance (again, even amongst some of the big-name pagans who have advanced degrees and such) to even considering that theology has any value whatsoever on a practical level.


  4. Do you know the work of Brendan Myers on the topic of Pagan Philosophy, particularly The Earth, the Gods, and the Soul:A history of Pagan Philosophy, from the Iron Age to the 21st Century and The Other Side of Virtue. He is calling for and working toward a more rigorous Pagan philosophical academic tradition.

    Liked by 2 people

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