Count Us Out!

A new movement has sprung up in Hellenic Paganism, one that calls itself a reform movement, but to us seems a lot like the same old power politics, carried out by the same kind of would-be power politician. It describes itself as being a return to the purity of Hellenic Reconstructionism. How would it return us to that purity? By calling on us to exclude those who engage in any religious practice which is not a Hellenic Reconstructionist one, deeming this brand of intolerance a matter of "principle".

We would not mean to suggest that exclusion is invariably an intolerant act. Sometimes, it can be a necessary response to intolerance, such as when, in our area, a number of Hellenists started refusing to accept Wiccan visitors. Was this done because Wicca was disapproved of? No, it was done because in our particular community, we had the problem that a number of Wiccan elders would show up to a non-Wiccan, Hellenic shrine, and start acting like they owned the place. "Do you know WHO you are talking to" would be their attitude, as the moderator would politely ask them to stop calling quarters in the middle of what was supposed to be a Reconstructionist gathering. The sad reality was that we were left dealing with a specific group of elders whose parents should have given them a few more time-outs when they were growing up and, very sad to say, with a kind of racism that is all too shamefully widespread in the Midwest.

Despite the impression which one might get on the Internet, most of the local Hellenists were of Mediterranean and/or Latin descent, and to a substantial extent, from a Mediterranean (and/or Latin) cultural background. The local Wiccan elders tended to be from Teutonic Northern European backgrounds, and as much as we like to try to pretend otherwise around here, especially when outsiders are present, there is a definite ethnic pecking order in our region, and more than a little cultural intolerance. As far as the elders were concerned, certain people of the lower classes were meant to be seen and not heard, even when those 'lower class' people were far better educated and informed than their lighter featured 'betters', and when, in fact, the elders were guests in the homes of those 'lesser beings'.

Ever try reasoning with a bigot? Attempts were made to explain that Hellenism exists as an organic whole, with each of its parts being present for a reason, and that one couldn't just introduce the calling of quarters or other Wiccan practices into a Hellenic Reconstructionist observance without destroying the coherence of what was taking place. The offending elders wouldn't listen. They never listened, not to this or to anything else that came from those they had a birthright to look down on, and so eventually, as individuals, they wore out their welcome among many of the local Hellenists. After a while, a surprisingly long while considering how many generations of accumulated rage their arrogance was tapping into, these elders found themselves asked to never return.

Were Wiccans excluded in this case? Yes, but not as a matter of general principle, just as a specific response to a specific local situation, one which included acts of harassment by some of the followers of those elders who took their failure to "live and let live" so far, that the Chicago police ended up getting involved in a few cases. Wiccans were excluded, not because the local Hellenists were intolerant of Wiccan ways, but because far too many of the local Wiccans were intolerant of Hellenic ways, and as long as they stayed, the local Hellenic Reconstructionists would be unable to hold a gathering, without having it get disrupted, either by the civil disobedience of people who would not honor the character of the events that they attended, or by their uncivil conduct when they heard the word "no".

The response of what remained of the local Hellenic Pagan community was not to attack its attackers, but to merely walk away from the problem, and try to be left in peace. Some in the local Wiccan community understood these actions, which were taken with considerable regret and more than a small sense of loss. Some even earned enough trust that the exclusion wasn't applied to them. Others, however, had the actual nerve to complain that they were being discriminated against or even persecuted because they weren't being allowed the opportunity to continue disrupting the religious observances of those who practiced a religion other than their own, or to harass those who disagreed with them into silence. Indeed, some even tried to claim that they were victimized by the assertion that Hellenism and Wicca were not the same religion. As somebody characterized this brand of 'tolerance', "do your own thing, as long as you do it my way".

Exclusion, in this case, was not a matter of intolerance, because it was engaged in reluctantly, in order to make freedom available for those who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to enjoy it - our local Hellenic Recons. No attempt has been made to export this exclusion, because we have no reason to think that our specific local situation is anything but that - specifically local. Others have not been so restrained.

In our own area, we have a group of people who honor both the Norse and Hellenic gods, separately, honoring each pantheon in the manner it would have been honored in, in the past. Has it tried to push its ways on others? No. Strictly speaking, it isn't even entirely willing to share its ways with others. It has evolved, we're not entirely sure of over how long a time, as a "famtrad" or "family tradition" group. The only way one can become a full member of the group is by getting one of the members of the group to give birth to one. Were it not for a looselipped third cousin, we probably wouldn't have ever heard of it. Then there is a "Christo-Hellenic" group, which worships both Christ and the Olympian gods, which pushes its syncretism with such aggression that nobody outside of the group even knew any of its members were syncretists until they announced themselves to be such on their webpage. To this day, nobody has succeeded in getting them to even discuss the subject of Christo-Paganism in public, outside of their own gatherings, and more than a few have asked.

One can not reasonably compare the behavior of these reclusive syncretists with those of the evangelistic eclectic Wiccan elders that were mentioned earlier. The difference can be found in a few simple questions. Who is prying into whose personal practices? Who is attempting to interfere with whose attempts to give honor to the gods as his conscience dictates? Who is pushing and who is being pushed? Shame on us, if we can't see that last one as being a meaningful distinction.

When a follower of one of these less pushy syncretic traditions arrives at our door, experience has taught a number of us that as we pursue our orthopraxy ("correct practice" as opposed to "correct belief"), they'll be right there with us, not trying to change a single thing we do, often being more conservative in their Reconstructionist practices than most 'true' Reconstructionists. Their nonconformity is something that they do on their own time, as somebody put it on the home mailing list of one particular rabble rouser. In no way does what they are doing, on their own time, affect our ability to be practicing Hellenic Reconstructionists while they are present, and yet we find ourselves called on, if not pressured outright, to exclude them from our observances and try to get others to exclude them as well.

Why? Because, we are told, they are engaged in religious practices which aren't historically justified by what we know of ancient Hellenic religious practice. Of course, as somebody pointed out, much to the annoyance of said rabble rouser, the practice of demanding exclusivity in worship as the price of attendance at the religious festivals is something that very much was not an ancient hellenic practice; presence at those festivals was not only not an exclusive matter, but one that was considered to be a matter of good citizenship. Consequently, were our rabble rousing friend true to his principles, his first duty would be to exile himself from the very gatherings that he was hoping to organize, for that very act of exclusion would itself be a historically unjustified religious practice, under his own terms.

Aside from that ironic conceptual inconvenience, one had the question of how the future of Hellenic Paganism might best be served, especially once one put Political Correctness to one side. We are, in the view of some, required to believe that ethnicity is irrelevant, that we should all "just be Americans", but the fact of the matter is that ethnicity does tend to make a difference, because it tends to have an impact on our cultural backgrounds. Even if not a single member of one's family knows one's ancestral language, and far too much of one's ancestral culture has been forgotten, there is usually a core of normative values that remains, one that often tends to make one's ancestral culture seem strangely familiar and others like ill-fitting borrowed garments, lovely to gaze upon, but never feeling quite natural. There are exceptions, people who never feel at home in their own cultures and start on the hard work of truly becoming part of another culture, one that resonates for them, becoming part of that culture on more than a superficial level, but these people are few and far between. Far more will take the easier path, and remain part of the culture of their birth, and perhaps this is for the best. Were it otherwise, would we have cultures at all?

While there will be people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds who will take an interest in Hellenism, as indeed there were in antiquity, the closer one's own cultural roots are to those of Greece, the less culture shock will be involved in practicing this culturally specific religion, and the more likely one will tend to be, to be interested in Hellenism on more than a "taking a dare", superficial level, to truly pursue it as a way of life. As our dissenter in the land of the rabble rousers explained, to be practical about this, if the appeal of Hellenism is lost on the Hellenes and their cultural/ethnic kin, then Hellenism (and the honoring of the Olympians) is not going to have much of a future, because most of the likely converts to Hellenism are going to be knocked out of the picture.

This realization, our dissenter argued, brought us to the central problem with our evangelistic purist's campaign - he was demanding that Hellenism be built on un-Hellenic terms. The notion that a culture evolves through a series of radical breaks with the past, with all of the accumulation of the ages being swept away and replaced with the undiluted creation of the moment, is a peculiarly Protestant, Teutonic North European fixation, one found in almost no other part of the world, aside from those settled by Protestant, Teutonic Northern Europeans and still dominated by the cultures of those settlers. (Eg. Much of New England, outside of the North End of Boston). This is not how Mediterranean (or Latin) cultures have ever evolved; throughout Southern Europe and Latin America, one will find one layer of tradition dropped on top of another, and this is what feels natural and right for those from these traditional societies. It is how they approach tradition itself, and some might argue, at the heart of the Catholic concept of "nonimpediment to faith" - it is expected that the people, even in the midst of being converted to a new religion, will maintain a connection to their own history, by retaining what they can of that which came before they converted.

Conversion, then, becomes a process of evolution, not revolution. Those who ignore this difference in outlook will accomplish nothing other than angering those one tries to reach, because what one is telling them is to stop being difficult about it all, and discard the core of their own culture, for really no better reason than the fact that they are being pressured to do so. This may seem a minor issue to somebody who comes from one of the cultural deserts that Fundamentalist Christianity draws much of its support from, but to somebody from a culture with some real depth to it, that's one massive imposition, and it's going to be resented. It is essentially an expression of Anglo-American cultural imperialism. "We'll graciously allow you to hold onto some of the forms of your traditions, but the spirit that gives life to those forms must be ours, not yours" - and so one begins to see that our rabble rouser, far from being an alternative to what those hyperagressive Wiccan elders represented, is really just more of the same!

The question is, were Hellenism to return to the Hellenes (and their brothers and cousins in the Mediterranean basin) in a serious way, as being more than an occasional curiosity, but in fact a real cultural force, then how would it be likely to return? One need only take a look at the number of Pagan survivals, both in forms of the gradually more and more Christianized festivals, and in the borrowings from Pagan philosophers (esp. Aristotle) to see the answer to that - the change would most likely be a gradual one, the new Hellenism arising as a folk religious movement beginning in a Christian setting, which would become more Pagan with time. Note the proliferation of quasi-Pagan Christian "heresies" during the early Christian period in Greece, including at least one (Gnosticism) in which Aphrodite is mentioned by name as one of the supernatural beings! Christo-Paganism, from a Hellenic Reconstructionist point of view, one that showed enough respect for Hellenic culture to respect its need and its right to evolve in its own way, might be seen, not as a competitor to Hellenic Reconstructionism, but a bridge to it. If it should suit Dionysos' purposes to don a crown of thorns and carry a cross for the historical moment, for a particular group of worshippers, who are we to tell Him that he may not do so?

What we are left with, then, is a vision of our rabble rouser, who was spoken of in far more respectful terms than he deserved, acting in a way that is likely to help hinder the return of full, undiluted Hellenism, this obstructionism being defended on the basis of a standard that the ancient Hellenists would have viewed with dismay, and on which even historical Hellenism itself would have had to have been rejected. Aphrodite, Ares and Apollo - all deities who became important figures in Greek religion, all entered Greece as foreign imports, showing that the Greeks did, indeed, allow one to worship both the gods of Greece and foreign deities, long before Alexander forced them to accept such things at swordpoint. If we are to return to the "original" Greek religion, and additions are always just simply wrong - then which "original" religion would we return to? The religion of which year, that year being chosen on what basis?

The truth is that if this religion is to be more than a fantasy role playing game, we have to accept that it will eventually take on a life of its own, and evolve into something that we can not forsee, something other than what it once was. Reconstructionism can only be a matter of current intent and practice; when we speak of what the future must be, as opposed to what we're trying to help it become, we must accept that past a certain point, we must surrender to the will of the gods instead of imposing our own will with such a fierce tenacity, that the future can never escape our grasp. We must know when to let go. Our individual convictions may leave us with a solid picture of what we'd like that future to be, but if we're out there trying to get worshippers isolated and ignored because they personally include practices in their own personal faith that we would not be interested in ourselves, then is the history that follows being guided by the will of the gods, as they touch each individual heart, or our own will, as we try to herd people in directions in which they would not naturally go, by isolating those who will not take directions from us and seeing to it that they do not have a chance to influence others? Would this subtly coercive approach, this spiritual restraint of trade, be either pious or honorable, or even really particularly Hellenic?

As we've pointed out, the very way in which Hellenism came into existence shows that purism, in the exclusivist sense of our rabble rouser was never required of the faithful; indeed, the very attempt to push it in the manner he has would arguably have been considered an act against the state, as it would have consistuted an attempt to drive people away from community life. But there is a religion which, eventually, did introduce such exclusivism into worship, where it was not traditional: that would be Orthodox, Pauline Christianity, especially in its later, Fundamentalist form. This leaves us with the greatest irony of all - our rabble rousing friend's pet cause, the change he would introduce into Hellenism in the name of purity, is itself a Christian import! He has done precisely what he railed about others doing, in the very process of railing about it!

What, then, is a Reconstructionist to do? Lie down and let the Neo-Pagans have their way with Reconstructionism? No. But there are honorable ways and dishonorable ways of winning others over to one's own point of view, and using social isolation as a tool of debate, as fashionable as it may have become during the golden age of Political Correctness, is not honorable because one's success becomes dependent on one's aggressiveness, not one's rightness. What is honorable is to make one's case, through one's words and deeds, to an audience that is truly free to say yes or no, without fear of social reprisals, acting aggressively only toward those who've acted aggressively themselves, recognizing that one of the best guides to how to do so can be found in four simple words:

Mind your own business.

That will be the standard this list runs by. I do not have the time or inclination to track down the people on this list and find out what their extra-curricular religious activities are, and I won't be amused if somebody tries to fill me in on that, in connection to another member of the list. Yes, we welcome syncretists here, and purists as well. What we don't welcome is evangelism or intolerance.

As for our rabble rouser, what was his response when presented with these arguments? Much what one would expect from somebody whose program seems to consist largely of an effort to manipulate the masses into believing as he does, by closing off alternatives he doesn't want to see them explore. He deleted the posts, along with all of the posts in a flamewar carried out at the expense of the dissenter, with moderator encouragement. All but one - one in which he took a quote from the dissenter out of context, and scolded him for it, as if the dissenter had grown hostile without provocation, creating the illusion that the dissenter had done nothing but troll. It pays to hold onto the posts one sees in any flamewar one find oneself in, because that cute little trick seems to be becoming more popular among a number of moderators, these days. We were particularly amused to note that the rabble rousing moderator now lists as one of his main objective an attempt to introduce ethical standards into Hellenism. We wish him luck with that, and hope he starts by applying them to his own behavior, where they have been the most sorely missed.

We will certainly expect a higher standard here on Hellenic Pagan Midwest. Let's go to the list. (This page is part of my new homepage at 1Hwy. I'd like to thank 1Hwy for the free space, and to Yahoogroups for hosting my mailing list (also for free).