Heathenry's Authority Problem

This week, I’m taking a break from my examination of ritual. I’ve spent the last 10 days on travel back home to Georgia, and between wedding, working remotely, and social obligations to family and friends, I had to let a few personal projects slip. But I want to take this week to discuss something that has been on my mind for the last few weeks.


Heathenry has an authority problem. Not a problem with authority, though many heathens might be guilty of that, but rather an authority problem. With no central doctrine or dogma, people advance ideas or practices that are at best only tangentially related to Heathenry, and at worse, actively subversive and dangerous. When the inevitable confrontation occurs, and the person advancing these ideas are asked to provide their evidence for their idea, the following two options are taken.

First is to claim a lack of evidence for anything in the lore,1 which requires the claimant to essentially try and fill in the gaps. This argument is not substantive; while gaps do exist and things will have to be crafted to bridge or fill those gaps, there is plenty of evidence within the lore to judge whether the solution proposed fits within the overall worldview of our elder heathen forebears. Again, while there is probably no one right answer to fill this gap or bridge that one, there are plenty of wrong answers to do so. Proposing a bridge or a gap-fill will have to be scrutinized and the opportunity given for differing opinions to respond to it. You will be called on to defend your thesis, and if you cannot, or refuse to, your thesis should not be accepted. This friction is both necessary and welcome. We cannot allow an over developed sense of politeness or a hyper-sensitive concept of civility hold Heathenry hostage.

The second response to criticism is to invert the Argument from Authority fallacy, and claim that since there is no authority in heathenry, the practices the claimant is putting forward is just as valid as those put forth by others, usually in opposition. This argument fails for several reasons. The first, that there exist no Authority in Heathenry, is one I will be attempting to refute below. The second, that any practice is valid is so vapid as to descend into meaninglessness. In this view, two practices both can be valid, even if those practices are diametrically opposed. This is a viewpoint that cannot last long in any organization, especially when questions of existential import are in play. I may find your practice repugnant. While I cannot physically prevent you from comporting yourself in a way that I find repugnant (and I truly have no wish to do so) outside of the reach of my own hold and property, neither do I have to respect that practice, nor hold my tongue when it is performed or discussed in my presence. Again, we see the call to politeness a mask, or dodge, where politeness ceases to be a social tool designed to prevent social conflict from escalating to physical, instead becomes a tool of social oppression, preventing people from expressing and engaging in any kind of conflict at all. At that point, politeness ceases to have all social utility.

In both cases, above, the presence of conflict, and the unwillingness or inability of one or more parties to engage in that conflict that becomes detrimental to the overall ability of people to have conversations. This is the nature of discussions online. The only thing worse than a flame war is the constant avoidance of flame wars. Discussions can and do break down. People entering a forum, or a group, or a discussion need to understand the rules, both written and unwritten (to understand both Law and Thew), before they can successfully participate in the group dynamic. The Eternal September phenomenon is not just a tongue in cheek bit of internet trivia. The dynamic is real, and understanding that dynamic is probably the first step to figuring out a solution.

While Heathenry has an authority problem, that is not to say that heathenry lacks authorities. That is patently false. Each group of heathens create for themselves an authority, with varying degrees of success. Some heathens seek their authority in national organizations, with varying degrees of failure. Still others reject all authority but their own, with pretty much universal degrees of failure.

In existential philosophy, the concept of authenticity means staying true to the inner nature of the self. As Heathens, we tend to reject the self insofar as it can exist outside of the community. This does not mean that the philosophical idea of authenticity has no place in Heathenry. Heathen Authenticity, as I propose the term, is the way in which the modern expression of heathenry remains true to the inner being, the soul for lack of a better term, of the elder heathenry. This rests on there being a concept we call heathenry, that exists as unique expression of religious identity, that derives and provides meaning from and to its adherents. That such a thing exists, I have no doubt. We wouldn’t be having these constant acrimonious flame wars over it if in the end it didn’t exist.

The problem with authenticity as a source of authority is that it is difficult to engage in, and easy to fool those who have not yet developed a sense of the authentic. Someone who eats Chinese food in America might believe what they are eating is authentic, but unless they have gone through the difficulty of researching, travelling, and/or developing relationships that gives them the opportunity to experience authentic Chinese Food, they have no real concept of knowing. Harder still for the person who is just beginning.

The only way to prove authenticity is the same way one pursues it. By research, experimentation, and sharing the results. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, to share your ideas and perhaps get it wrong. When you are wrong, you look for why you might have been wrong. You have to be ready to give up your ideas, and confront them when they are proven not to work. You have to be willing to put them into practice. You have to find other heathens and try to make it work. If your heathenry ends when you shut down the computer at night, you’re not pursuing authenticity. Lastly, you have to be willing to engage with criticisms of your work, publicly.

And sometimes, that gets ugly. And sometimes, that ugliness is going to be your fault. Other times, it won’t be. In either case, you just have to accept it and move on. No one is immune to it, I certainly am not. But the ugliness isn’t the point, shouldn’t be the point, and if it is the point, then it’s probably time to take a break from public heathenry for a while. Because authenticity is the point. Because authority should rest on authenticity, and not the other way around.

NOTES:

  1. The Lore is a nebulous term. For purists, it is the extant poetry and poetical thesis by Snorri, or perhaps the secondary sources from post conversion (for example, Saxo). In these essays, I propose the following definition of the Lore: “A body of knowledge consisting of primary and secondary historical sources, physical evidence, folklore, experiential and experimental knowledge, and academic theorizing from History, Art, Anthropology, and other schools of knowlege that heathens can draw from when making claims about the world view and religious praxis of the Elder Heathen.”

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