Heathenry's Identity Problem

I have often said that the biggest problem I have with Heathenry is unfortunately my fellow co-religionists, which is to say Heathens. We’re a ridiculous pastiche of testosterone and wounded feelings, unable to abide even the mildest of rebukes or challenges to our understanding. I’d blame the over-culture, but in reality, it’s just humanity being stupid fucking apes. And the problem with being stupid fucking apes is sometimes we’re just a little too clever for our own good. We constantly observe, and search out patterns, latching onto patterns that are at best superficial, when they aren’t actively being made up. We confuse what a thing has for what it is. We confuse the dopamine rush of validation for the satisfaction of being valuable. We confuse value and worth. We allow ourselves to buy in to ideas that sound great when delivered with charisma but fall apart under even the gentlest of scrutiny.

One quality of Heathenry is its diffusion of authority, the way in which each region and group is starting to have its own identity and make up. This is a good thing. The downside to this lack of authority is that that lack is perceived by some not as a feature to be husbanded but rather as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a cultural movement, and latch on, leech-like, as that cultural movement explodes. And it will explode. We are, in many ways, experiencing the same kind of religious churn that occurred in the late Roman empire when Christianity exploded and supplanted Religio Romanum as the primary religious expression across Europe. We are experiencing similar levels of dissatisfaction and disconnection from our traditions, and are seeking meaning in a thousand different ways. Heathenry is just one of a number of different answers and if it is to be a serious answer, we should probably, at some point, take it seriously.

It is for that reason I am seriously fed up with a lot of what passes for Public Heathenry. So much so that I am extremely sympathetic, if not yet in agreement, with a lot of my friends who have largely given up on the label Heathen and seek to leave it behind as we had left the label Asatru. I am not quite ready to do that but I certainly understand it. However, I cannot help but believe that this will lead to an ever escalating series of re-branding that will lead us into the kind of factionalism lampooned in the Life of Brian:

Reg: “Right. You're in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f**king Judean People’s Front.”
Stan: “Yeah, the Judean People’s Front.”
Reg: “Yeah. Splitters.”
Stan: “And the Popular Front of Judea.”
Reg: “Yeah. Splitters.”
Stan: “And the People’s Front of Judea.”
Reg: “Yea... what?”
Stan: “The People’s Front of Judea. Splitters.”
Reg: “We're the People’s Front of Judea!”
Stan: “Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.”
Reg: “People’s Front!”
Francis: “Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?”
Reg: “He’s over there.” [points to a lone man]
Reg, Stan, Francis, Judith: “SPLITTER!”

While the ironic hipster part of me relishes the chance to embrace my identity as an enthusiastic supporter of the Theodish Front of the People’s Army, in opposition to both Icelandic Asatru and the The People’s Front of the Theodish Army, I find myself in the rather unenviable position of having to advocate for a common Heathen identity to those I am both temperamentally and ideologically well-disposed to, and against the (superficially, at least) same idea to the mouth breathing Asatards that make me want to throw my hands up in the air and go back to Christianity, where at least the argument between Faith Alone and Good Works towards salvation has some intellectual rigor. No, I still find myself, against my better judgement, believing in something called Greater, or Public, Heathenry. It is, at best, a market place to exchange ideas and where we can put things out there, be challenged on it, and have to defend those ideas before we reaffirm them, reexamine them, or abandon them. It makes Heathenry better, and helps people to become better Heathens.

Heathenry is beginning to explode. What it becomes is determined by the actions that we take right now. Sometimes those actions will not be pleasant. I do not feel I am exaggerating when I state that the struggle going on in Heathenry is existential; that the religion will succeed or fail by what emerges as heathen identity over the next five to ten years. In my vision, Heathenry is highly decentralized but still has broad things that make it at its core Heathen. The core of that Heathenry is not what we believe but rather how. In this Heathenry, there are many Gods, some of which will have emphasis and others that will fade. Some will prove to be different kinds of Gods than what others have in mind. It is a process of discovery, of revelation, not of creation and imposition. It is organic, slow, and messy because life is organic, slow, and messy. The kind of Heathenry I see is concerned largely with establishment and perpetuation of relationships of mutual respect, of worship, of gifting. It is Worldview – it informs people’s relationships, how they view the world, and how they interact with it. It is an understanding and acknowledgement that the world is fundamentally inimical to people, that it is unjust and uncaring, that the only stability in life is the stability you can make, and that without a people to help you, you will never create anything of lasting value. Finally, that lasting value is found through a series of relationships, with friends, family, and the Holy Powers of home, land, and world.

If we do not put the time and effort to communicate these things, and almost as importantly, to stand in opposition to those who would like to see Heathenry evolve into something different, then those who would like to see Heathenry evolve into something different will see their vision realized instead of ours. I was recently asked by a man I very much like why I bother. “Does this make your life better?” he asked me, as if the point of Heathenry is to give us a better life. As I have immersed myself deeper and deeper into this religion, I am firmly convinced that Heathenry is not about your life, but rather the lives of your people. This attitude of disengagement, of avoiding rather than resolving conflict, is poisonous. It elevates the absence of conflict over the idea of true peace: frið. If we stand for something, we should stand for it. If we feel that a person or an idea is harmful, we need to be willing to stand up and call it out. Ideally, we should be able to have civil discourse. We should be able to debate these concepts in structured civil ways but we should also not fear getting our hands dirty. We can challenge people to debate these topics but experience shows that most will not accept the challenge, or having accepted the challenge, refuse to follow through on the debate. To date, I have extended 2 open challenges to people I have disagreed with, and in both cases, the opposing party has refused to follow through. Civil debate only works when both parties agree to the debate.

I want to see a better, meaningful Heathenry, and I’m more concerned with achieving that than I am about being nice. This is debatably not to my credit but I cannot help to think that the churn of argument and discussion, as vociferous and nasty as it may become, is the only way we can resolve these issues of identity. That “a better way” only exists once the guidelines and base principles are agreed upon, and we stop using the same words to mean different things. I happen to think that Heathenry means something specific and I’m willing to exert some ownership over the word in order to make sure that meaning is made manifest. That it brings me into conflict with others is unfortunate but unavoidable. We can only do our best while not yielding the floor to the ignorant, the unethical, and the incompetent in pursuit of an amorphous and poisonous idea of nicety that unfortunately only serves to shield others from legitimate criticism. It becomes easier to remain civil, of course, when others are willing to stand up and argue and participate in the discussion, and politely but firmly, advance an argument for what they believe Heathenry should become.

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