Reinventing the Wheel


Over at Pantheon, the Pagan Portal blog at Patheos.com, Cara Schulz shares her perspective on the value of reconstructed religion (and, in particular, Hellenismos). She writes:

But this is how we see it – why reinvent the wheel when you can put some air in the one you’re given and get back on the spiritual path? There were reasons why our ancestors interacted with deities in the way that they did. Because it worked. It’s spiritually fulfilling. It makes sense.

I’ve often wondered what the appeal of reconstructed religion is. I’ve enjoyed engaging Celtic Reconstructionists in conversations about authentic scholarship and the latest competing theories and interpretations coming out of the academic world, for instance, but I never felt the need to consider myself a “reconstructionist” as a result. To me, being informed about the history and evolution of one’s religious community is just a part of being a responsible member of that community.

More to the point for me is this question: why is the ancient “wheel” better than the modern one? For me, there are obvious flaws in the modern “wheel,” the approach that most contemporary religions take in answering the basic questions about life, the universe and everything. The most important and obvious flaw being their denigration of the earth and the natural world, or in many cases the mere fact that they haven’t much to say on the matter. They feel like “square wheels,” so to speak, that at best make for a bumpy, uncomfortable ride, and at worst get us stuck in ruts, our hard edges jammed firmly into the yielding earth and unable to move. And so I turn to ancient religions to learn how to soften those edges, refining the square into a smoother circle that rolls more gently and gracefully over this sacred planet. This, to me, is what it means to say that a religion “works.”

Compare this to the alternative: not starting with a square wheel and learning to refine and adapt it until it “works,” but forgoing the square altogether in favor of a relic, half falling apart, wood axel rotted away, time having taken its course and bent and worn and rusted the thing into something perhaps resembling a wheel to the trained eye, but perhaps more like a mysterious lump of archeological evidence. That is the state of much of what we know of ancient pagans and how they lived: bits and pieces, hints and suggestions, repurposed parts and whole chunks of missing contexts. Working to understand the principles of how such a “wheel” was originally made and how it was used can serve as a powerful and vital example about how to refine our “square wheels” of today…. but is it such a good idea to try to make use of such a thing itself?

Another metaphor that springs to mind is the sci-fi novel, Jurassic Park, where scientists “reconstruct” living dinosaurs, filling in the gaps with frog DNA… with horrific consequences. It’s a classic tale from a writer known well for his ambivalence about the power of science, but the relevant lesson here is that: we don’t always know how cultural artifacts will mutate or change when placed in new contexts. Christian missionaries evangelizing in Africa failed to anticipate how their duality of good and evil would express itself in a culture so different from their own, leading to tragic witch-hunts and killings. It is easy for us to blame the missionaries for this terrible lack of foresight, and just as easy for the missionaries themselves to fault the “superstitious” or “backwards” cultures in which the killings took place. But the truth is somewhere in between — in a world as complicated and interwoven as this one, it can be arrogant, even downright dangerous to assume we know exactly what and how cultures will mix and mingle with each other.

My criticism of reconstructionism — what very little criticism that I have for an otherwise interesting and valuable approach — is that trying to reconstruct ancient practices and customs in a context so vastly different from their original cultural contexts may not only be impossible, but foolhardy. Even the most hardcore reconstructionist needs to inject a bit of frog DNA into their dinosaurs to get them breathing and kicking — or, as Cara puts it, put some air into their wheels to get them rolling on the spiritual path.

Even the metaphor she chooses is steeped in modern cultural assumptions: that wheels are things with inflatable tires made from alloy steel and more than fifteen kinds of synthetic rubber. The pneumatic tire, invented just barely a century ago, has revolutionized Western civilization and made long-distance travel and communication possible in ways our ancestors could have hardly imagined. The very idea of “putting air into a wheel” to get it working would have made no sense to our ancestors.

I look at the ways we move about on this planet, and I see a lot of unnecessary destruction and abuse. Our inflatable tires have not given us the means to become gentler walkers upon the earth. And so, as a Druid, I look to the religions of the past to gain perspective, to avoid the sense of myopia and impotence that can come from feeling like there’s only one way to move, one way to roll. What can I learn from the “wheels” of my ancestors that can help me make the wheels of today better? What lessons did my ancestors know that my culture has since forgotten, like muscles that have grown limp and weak from disuse and neglect?

Yet this is not a movement backwards to recapture the past: this is just another kind of evolution. Evolution on a larger scale, evolution in which not only the present but the wisdom of history plays a role in shaping what’s to come. Evolution shaped not just by current necessity, but by the weight of memory. But evolution nonetheless. I do not make my dinosaurs out of amber and frog eggs — I become a student of the living frogs that thrive in the pond in the woods by my home. I watch how they change, adapting to the changes in the weather and the seasons. And I ask myself how these natural laws of adaptation and relationship have played out their songs throughout history to get me and the frogs alike to this place we share in the present, and how they will go on to unwind into the future, carrying the frogs and me along.

There is a certain nebulous aspect to the claim that a spiritual path “works.” Cara comes very close when she says:

It makes sense. It allows for a deeper connection with deities and the world around you. It has meaning and depth and beauty.

A religious tradition is something that helps us to make sense out of the cacophony of the crazy-beautiful world we live in. But when is a spiritual practice “working” on these deeper levels of connection and meaning-making, and when is it merely providing a certain degree of psychological satisfaction that allows us to go along with our everyday lives comfortable and unchallenged, protected by routine and tradition? And how do we tell the difference?

Reconstructionism at its best acknowledges this ambivalence and uncertainty, grounding itself in the present in all its complexity without sacrificing the wisdom and traditions of the past. Reconstructionism at its worst can become just one more pick-and-choose that people use to justify their own pet vices — violence, sexism, worship of the state or tribe, racial and ethnic discrimination — by citing the evidence of history as though the future, as well as the past, were all but written in stone.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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