Over at the NY Times, Tara Isabella Burton penned a very interesting piece about Weird Christianity. It’s well worth reading the whole thing, despite the fact that she’s talking about Christianity, because I think a lot of what she says has relevance within Heathenry, too. (It’s also worth noting that Rod Dreher (of whom I’ve written in the past) has been on a tear about “Weird Christianity” lately; here, here, and here.
Now, of course, some wag will doubtless say “all Heathenry is weird”, and in the context of the wider culture, this might be true in some sense. But this is talking about weird religion in the context of that religion, and that’s where the interesting bit comes in.
First, definitions. By “weird”, Ms. Burton has a very specific meaning:
What we have in common is that we see a return to old-school forms of worship as a way of escaping from the crisis of modernity and the liberal-capitalist faith in individualism.
Setting aside the Christian-specific examples in her article, one can see where this can apply within a Heathen context. All too many Heathens are what the Christians call “accommodationist”. That is, changing their religion to accommodate the pressures of the broader (secular-modernist) culture.
A perfect example of accommodationism is the 1890 “revelation from God” to the Church of Latter-Day Saints that polygamy was suddenly not a good thing. This was a necessary change because it was clear that Utah would never become a state without it. And so religious dogma was set aside in order to accommodate the wishes of the larger culture.
We see this all the time in the imposition of modern political ideologies within Heathenry, particularly from the Left (although explicit National Socialism on the right, while significantly rarer, does exist). One has to look no further than the movement of American Asatru from its original folkish roots in the 1970’s, to the stark division between folkish and universalist today. At least a large segment of Asatru accommodated the pressure to avoid even the appearance of anything based on ethnicity (at least European ethnicity).
We see this in all sorts of other ways within Heathenry, too. The use of modern language in ritual rather than the elder tongues. The use of Wiccanate ritual structure (which itself ultimately derives from ceremonial magic), with its casting of protective circles and invocations and the like. The lack of proper blót (as in, animal sacrifice), in favor of votive offerings. The use of street clothing, or (worse) “Sunday best”, or (worst) “plain clothes” like Amish wear. Yes, that’s really a thing among a few dozen Heathens (although because one of them is head of the Troth, you’d think they were half of all heathens around the world). Magic is nonsense, and at best a fantasy to be avoided. Men and women are interchangeable, and there’s no societal role that is related to gender. There are many other examples, but the general gist is that the religion changes to accommodate the society.
I don’t include the “Eightfold Wheel of the Year” in this, as it’s not so much evidence of accommodation as an influence from the very beginning. It was at the time the only model out there, to be fair. Since the 1970’s, research has yielded a much different calendar (calendars is perhaps more accurate) and it’s more respect for tradition (even if it is only 50 or so years old) than accommodation to modern expectations that keeps it in use.
One might ask, why is this a bad thing? Surely, as society changes, and grows, and new ideas come to prominence as we know better and discard old ideas. That’s good, right?
Well, it may be good in a secular sense, but from a religious point of view, it’s terrible.
The point of religion is to provide a framework for understanding and interacting with the world. Religion’s claim is that it retains the right to define what is, and is not, moral and proper. If those definitions can and do change based on the ever-changing whims of society, then their own claim to being able to define those things is undermined. In essence, religion abdicates its own role to society, and in so doing, finds itself without a reason to exist.
Fortunately, there is within Heathenry a group which seems immune to this phenomenon, for a variety of reasons. That’s Theodish Belief. Because it is centered on the religion of the sacral leader, it can better withstand the buffets of popular opinion.
Too, the principle of Freedom of Conscience, which states that nobody can say “you can’t be Theodish because you believe X” (whether X is folkishness, or Communism, or whatever), has left Theodish Belief largely immune to the ideologically based witch-hunts which have plagued Asatru and other forms of Heathenry since the 1990’s. Which isn’t to say there can’t be the occasional rotten apple; every barrel has a few. But they are dealt with at the individual or organizational level, and don’t rise to the level of Theodism as a whole.
Thus, Theodism endures, with its “weirdness” intact. The use of ancient languages in ritual, the wearing of ritual clothing, the acceptance of Politically Incorrect attitudes by its members, and the occasional animal sacrifice into the bargain.