Last month’s post on the pretensions to superior authenticity that infest some corners of the Celtic Reconstructionist movement in modern American Neopaganism focused primarily on the social and cultural dimensions of that movement. Those are relevant, to be sure, since every religious movement is also a social and cultural phenomenon, and derives at least as much of its agenda from social and cultural factors as it does from the interactions with other-than-human entities that religion is meant to mediate.
That said, there’s another side to the question—the side just mentioned, where human social and cultural phenomena come face to face with powers that are not at all human: the powers that religious people call gods, goddesses, spirits, and the like. Religion can be most usefully defined as the toolkit of practices and theories that human beings use to interact with those other-than-human powers. Being human, religious people inevitably bring their own social and cultural background to bear on that toolkit, but it’s a serious mistake to assume that the social and cultural side is all there is.
Now of course this particular mistake is also extremely common, and potent cultural forces in today’s industrial societies not only encourage people to make it, but push back hard against anyone who refuses to do so. I’m thinking here, among many other things, of a religious studies class I took during my second pass through college in the early 1990s. The teacher, a brash young man with his eyes firmly fixed on the distant star of tenure, spent the entire quarter talking, not about religion, but about all the different things that other scholars had claimed religion was really concerned with.
It was quite a diverse panoply of theoretical analyses, stretching across a giddy range of possibilities, but one rather noticeable thing was omitted from the list: the possibility that religion might be what it claims to be, a way of dealing with deities. I was impolite enough to point out that omission, and got a classic slug-in-the-salad response. Most people would consider a class on botany rather odd if it refused to consider the possibility that plants might exist; most people, similarly, would raise worthwhile questions about a class on literary theory that took it for granted that there are no works of literature, and spent all quarter talking about why people pretend to read books. Somehow the same oddity passes unnoticed when religion is the subject.
The omission just noted might be less glaring if nobody had ever made that claim, but in fact—and you can test this by asking the ordinary rank and file religious believer of your choice—it’s the standard explanation you’ll get from most religious people if you ask them what their religion is about. That’s true across the spectrum of religions: a devout practitioner of Shinto will tell you that religion is about establishing proper relations with the kami, a devout Southern Baptist will tell you that it’s about getting right with Jesus, and so on through the colorful roster of the world’s deities.
Is it reasonable to consider the possibility that religion might be about something other than its apparent purpose? Sure—but it’s also reasonable to consider the possibility that religion might be exactly what it appears to be. Of course the difficulty here is that this latter option requires an additional step .
That step, for what it’s worth, doesn’t require believing in the real existence of at least one god—though of course that’s one way to approach it. Exactly what the word “god” means, and exactly what the phrase “real existence” would mean when applied to such a being, are questions that have kept philosophers and theologians hopping for a good long time, and we can leave them aside for now. No, the additional step I have in mind is simply that of accepting the possibility of religious experience.
Religious experience? In the broadest sense, that’s what happens when someone engages in religious practice and gets a response. The nature of the response varies with the type of practice, and it also varies with the deity to whom the practice is directed. Despite the efforts of the one-size-fits-all sort of monotheist to insist that every religion is directed toward only one god (i.e., theirs) and results in only one kind of religious experience (i.e., also theirs), the literature of religious experience suggests otherwise. It suggests, in fact, that there really is a difference between (say) the presence of the living Christ experienced by a devout Christian in prayer, the state of enlightenment experienced by a devout Buddhist in meditation, and the medicine power experienced by a devout Lakota Native American on a vision quest.
There’s a lot that can be learned from the diversity of religious experience, and I’ve tried to explore some of it in my book A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism. For the moment, though, I want to tighten the focus a bit, and in the process return to the issues central to last month’s discussion.
The one-sided dispute that Celtic Reconstructionists have carried on against the Druid Revival for all these years is—aside, that is, from the factors discussed last month—a quarrel over the validity of religious experience. To participants in the Druid Revival traditions, what gives value to the legacy of Iolo Morganwg and the other eighteenth-century British eccentrics who sent the Revival off on its merry way is that their rituals, practices, and teachings work—you can apply them and fairly reliably get certain kinds of religious experiences. To a great many Celtic Reconstructionists, on the other hand, that’s not an adequate justification.
Nor are the Reconstructionists entirely wrong. It depends entirely on what you want to justify. It so happens that back in the day—the day in question being the early to mid-twentieth century—some of the most public Druid Revival organizations claimed to be descended directly from the ancient Druids, and they were wrong. It really is that simple. The Druid Revival was invented in the eighteenth century, and the fact that the rituals, practices, and teachings get good results when put to work does not mean that it really is ancient; it means, rather, that its founders were competent eighteenth-century mystics.
Now of course trying to insist that the Druid Revival isn’t spiritually valid because it’s not ancient falls into an equal and opposite plethora of difficulties. If, as I’ve suggested, religion is a toolkit for dealing with other-than-human powers, the validity of a toolkit hardly depends on how old it is, still less on whether the tools in it have endured unchanged since Roman times. Granted, that sort of thinking makes no impression on those for whom religion is a roleplaying game, or a Society for Spiritual Anachronism in which people go around pretending to be ancient Celts or what have you—but we can leave them to those entertainments, and pass on.
The point I want to make here is that there are things that can be justified by reference to religious experience, and things that can’t. Claims about the spiritual validity and effectiveness of a tradition fall into the first category; claims about the historical origins of a tradition fall into the second. These two sets of claims have no necessary relation to one another. A tradition can be gray with the dust of centuries and still useless or harmful; a tradition can also be newly invented and wholly valid—every tradition, after all, was brand new at one point in its history.
Yet the fact remains that inaccurate claims about a range of subjects are routinely made using religious experience as a justification. Despite the enthusiastic efforts of Biblical literalists, for example, the geological and paleontological evidence simply won’t support the claim that a worldwide flood exterminated every person and land animal on earth except the inhabitants of Noah’s Ark in the fourth millennium BCE. Despite the equally enthusiastic efforts of some of the older Druid Revival traditions, similarly, the historical evidence simply won’t support the claim that the ancient Druids used Iolo Morganwg’s rituals. Clearly you can have powerful religious experiences and still get your facts wrong.
This is where I’d like to turn to a phrase used very often in Reconstructionist circles: “unverified personal gnosis,” or UPG for short. That’s their term for the kind of claim that runs, “I had a religious experience involving X, and therefore X is true in some general sense, no matter what the evidence says.” It’s a common enough phenomenon, in and out of modern American Neopaganism, but the point I want to make is that the phrase embodies exactly the mistake that defines so-called UPG.
The word that matters here is the last one, “gnosis”—for those who aren’t familiar with the word, it’s pronounced “know-sis.” People who know their way around the alternative religiou scene know that this is a Greek word for “knowledge.” Too many of them don’t remember that the Greek language is much better at sorting out the different kind of knowledge than English is.
Bentley Layton, whose collection The Gnostic Scriptures is to my mind the best one-volume introduction to classical Gnosticism yet compiled, translates gnosis into English as “acquaintance.” That’s the kind of knowledge that gnosis is: not abstract discursive knowledge, but the kind of knowledge that implies and requires personal experience.
The distinction between gnosis and two other kinds of knowledge we’ll be discussing in a moment can be best understood through a metaphor. Imagine for a moment that you’ve just had a passionate year-long relationship with a woman who’s in the Federal witness protection program, and is living under a false identity. Literally every single “fact” you know about that woman is false—but at the same time, in another sense, you know her very, very well. The kind of knowledge you have about her, the results of your intimate acquaintance with her, is gnosis.
In ancient Greek, there are two other kinds of knowledge alongside gnosis. The first, doxa—that’s pronounced “dock-sa”—is opinion. This is something you know because you heard it from someone, or because you read it somewhere. It doesn’t matter how good or bad your source is, if you know it because you heard it or read it rather than because you experienced it yourself, it’s doxa. The world being what it is, far more often than now, when someone says they know something, what they’ve got is doxa.
The third kind? That’s episteme, pronounced “epp-iss-tay-may.” This is logical knowledge, the kind of thing you know because you understand the rules of reasoning and know how to proceed from premises to a conclusion. It’s also personal knowledge, because you have to do the reasoning yourself—if you trust someone else to do it for you, then for you, it’s doxa, not episteme—but it’s replicable personal knowledge. Most people, given patience and a willingness to learn, can be led step by step through a sequence of logic until they understand why the conclusion follows from the premises, and the moment they get it, they have episteme of it.
Notice that the same piece of knowledge can be doxa for one person, episteme for a second, and gnosis for a third—and for that matter, the same piece of knowledge can pass through all three stages in a single person’s mind. You learn a scientific fact in school, and simply commit it to memory: that’s doxa. Later on, in college, you major in that branch of science, repeat the relevant experiments, come to understand the logic that underlies that fact and gives it its meaning: that’s episteme. You end up working in that field, and experience that fact in action until you know it in your bones: that’s gnosis.
With that in mind, let’s return to the phrase “unverified personal gnosis.” That’s a double redundancy, because if something is actually gnosis, it’s personal by definition, and it’s also impossible for anyone else to to verify. At the same time, it doesn’t justify any other mode of knowledge; the mere fact that you have gnosis of something doesn’t mean that your claims to doxa about that same thing ought to be accepted at face value. As in the example of the woman in the witness protection program, you can have true gnosis and false doxa about the same subject, because there’s no overlap between these two kinds of knowledge.
And episteme? It occupies a middle ground because, as already noted, it’s personal but replicable. Your personal experience of episteme can be generalized to some extent, because you can show other people exactly how to have that experience themselves. The difficulty is simply that episteme is only possible in certain fields of human experience. You can have episteme about any subject that’s subject to objectively verifiable testing, but a huge amount of human experience can’t be tested in any objectively verifiable way. That means you’re stuck with doxa, on the one hand, and gnosis, on the other.
For about two and a half millennia now, intellectuals have tried to enlarge the empire of episteme: to find ways to have replicable personal knowledge about things that nobody has been able to know in that way before. It’s a worthwhile project, and it’s produced three of the half dozen or so greatest achievements of the human mind—mathematics, logic, and experimental science—but one of the lessons of that project is that there are massively important aspects of human life that can’t be reduced to episteme no matter how hard you try.
The standard intellectual responses to that awkward lesson are, on the one hand, to find some way to pretend to reduce those non-epistemic aspects of life to episteme anyway, and on the other, to insist that the non-epistemic aspects of life don’t exist. Religious experience is subject to both of those gambits. My readers will doubtless be familiar with all the claims that religious experience can’t exist because it can’t be proven according to replicable quantitative tests. That’s one way of dodging the issue—but the response of the angry Celtic Reconstructionists discussed in last month’s post here is another.
To insist that religious experience can’t be real unless it conforms to some historical model verified by officially sanctioned scholars, after all, is simply one more way of trying to flatten out gnosis into episteme: to drag religion out of the uncomfortably personal realm of acquaintance and try to slap it down on the lab bench for dissection. That this maneuver inevitably misses what it’s trying to find is only one of many ironies in the situation.
Now of course there’s another factor, which is that certain kinds of spiritual practice are epistemic—that is to say, people who do them systematically, with the proper preparation and attitude, reliably get the same results. To understand that, and the immense challenge it poses to the entire history of rationalism, will require a great deal of discussion in posts to come.
On a theme by no means distant from the concerns we’ve discussed over the last two months, I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new book of mine, The Coelbren Alphabet: The Forgotten Oracle of the Welsh Bards. It’s about one of Iolo Morganwg’s many inventions, a 24-letter alphabet of vaguely runic pattern with its own distinctive and quirky symbolism. Is it authentic? You bet; it’s absolutely authentic eighteenth-century Druid Revival stuff—I give all my sources, including the obscure 1856 Welsh book where, after years of searching, I finally found the key to the Coelbren’s symbolism.
It turns out in practice to be a lively and accurate oracle and a very useful addition to the already rich realm of Druid symbolism. What’s more, because Iolo invented it and the Druid Revival adopted it, if you use it, you’ll annoy the stuffing out of some impressively pompous jerks. So what’s not to like? Copies can be ordered from the publisher here.
Finally, as promised earlier, I have some announcements to make about my future blogging. My new blogging platform is mostly up and running at www.ecosophia.net, and I plan on starting regular posts there around the summer solstice. I’ve also established an account on the social media site Dreamwidth at ecosophia.dreamwidth.org. The main site will get substantial essays, at least one of them a month; the Dreamwidth account will feature book reviews, announcements of new publications, wry commentary on fatuous media articles, and other shorter bits.
While my blogs always tend to have a mind of their own, and head off in directions I don’t expect, my intention is to focus from here on out on a theme I’ve discussed only in passing here and on The Archdruid Report: the emergence of a new fusion of ecology and religion in our time, not simply as an abstract worldview but as a way of life and a system, or system-of-systems, of spiritual and esoteric practice.
I make no apologies for that change of focus, though I know some of my readers will not find it to their taste. Over the eleven years I spent writing weekly posts on The Archdruid Report, I said pretty much everything I can think of saying about the decline and fall of industrial civilization; over the few years that I’ve spent doing monthly posts on The Well of Galabes, I’ve sketched out some of the foundations on which I plan to build as we proceed—and now it’s time to move on.
I do have more to say about some of the topics touched, peripherally or otherwise, in the course of eleven years of blogging; among other things, I’m looking for a print or online periodical that would be interested in hosting further discussions of politics and culture in late imperial America from my jaundiced and idiosyncratic perspective—but we’ll see whether anything comes of that. In the meantime, there’s much to be said about getting out from under the crackpot fantasy of Man the Conqueror of Nature and relearning how to live as part of the Earth’s biotic community, and I propose to say some of it.
Please note the following, though: as of the end of June, both my previous blogs will be going away. The posts here on The Well of Galabes will be hosted as a read-only archive on my new site; the posts on The Archdruid Report will be going offline permanently—though they’ll be available soon in a complete ten-volume published edition, in print and e-book forms, from Founders House Publishing. Thank you all for reading my blogs, and stand by for the next giddy leap into new territory