A Plainly Declared Position
June 5, 2010 6 Comments
Every time recently that I have sat down to write here at The Great Tininess, I have been caught at an impasse. I wish to speak of issues pertaining to contemporary paganism, and yet the bulk of what I want to say is that “Paganism” is itself a faulty notion, a mis-nomer. How can I write about something whose reality I deny? Thankfully, I have found a passage from the late great French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, one that I think addresses my predicament pretty well:
“To accept as a theme for discussion a category that one believes to be false always entails the risk, simply by the attention that is paid to it, of entertaining some illusion about its reality. In order to come to grips with an imprecise obstacle one emphasizes contours where all one really wants is to demonstrate their insubstantiality, for in attacking an ill-founded theory the critic begins by paying it a kind of respect. The phantom which is imprudently summoned up, in the hope of exorcising it for good, vanishes only to reappear, and closer than one imagines to the place where it was at first.
Perhaps it would be wiser to let obsolete theories fall into oblivion, and not to awake the dead. But, as old King Arkel says, history does not produce useless events. If great minds were fascinated for years by a problem which today seems unreal, it is because they vaguely perceived that certain phenomena, arbitrarily grouped and ill analyzed tough they may have been, were nevertheless worthy of interest. How could we hope to tackle them for ourselves, in order to propose a different interpretation, without first agreeing to retread pace by pace an itinerary which, even if it led nowhere, induces us to look for another route and may help us to find it?”
Lévi-Strauss sought to debunk the anthropological construct called “totemism,” and, regarding totemism, he immediately goes on to say this:
“It should be emphasized that we employ the term totemism, skeptical though we are as to the reality of what it denotes, as it has been understood by the authors whose theories we are about to discuss. It would be inconvenient to put it always in quotation marks, or to prefix it with the word “so-called.” The requirements of the argument authorize certain concessions of vocabulary. But the quotation marks and the adjective should always be understood as implicit, and a reader would be ill advised to raise objection on the ground of any phrase or expression which might appear to contradict this plainly declared position.” (From Totemism chapter 1, “The Totemic Illusion” trans. Rodney Needham)
From now on on this blog, I would like to stick to a similar “plainly declared position” regarding contemporary paganism: As became clear to my readers over the last few months over a prolongued discussion concerning what constitutes contemporary paganism, I have come to regard this so-called “movement” or “path” as an illusion. I maintain that there is no such thing as a “pagan community,” because those who call themselves pagans are too-often dissimilar in terms of potentially unifying theology, custom, values, and culture. I maintain that “Pagan” can not be used as a meaningful religious identifier, because it denotes nothing specific about an individual or a group’s religious practice or belief. I also maintain that no religious community or communities can hope to form without a group of people first making the effort to ground themselves in a common Unitive Story, a theology and a practice.
I have decided to make this declaration now because I believe that it will allow me to move beyond the block that has kept me from writing for the last several weeks. Given this position, I hope you’ll look forward to an upcoming series of posts regarding what it might mean to begin developing “pagan” theology and values.