Change and Continuity

(originally published on Ordgeþanc, on 9/7/2010)

These days, one finds everywhere the notion that change has overtaken the world in the last few centuries. From the scientific advances beginning in the Renaissance and the erosion of faith in the dominant Christianity that accompanied them, on to the technological advances that enabled the Industrial Revolution and its attendant upheaval of societies’ means and aims of production to this day, change has been the byword of existence for quite some time. This change has been accompanied everywhere by philosophical trends that first lauded the dawn of the Age of Reason and the unshackling of human labor and intellect, but which have since gone to describing with horror the Age of the Titans, of Technology without Purpose, of the Machine.

These philosophers and their criticisms of the modern world deserve to be taken seriously, and the upheavals that occur with the greater changes in society are keenly felt when and where they happen; I’m thinking mainly (but not solely) of the change from primarily rural agricultural societies – and hunter/gather societies in many places – to primarily urban factory/technology/market societies that started with the Industrial Revolution and has continued until today, and all of the other changes that that greater change entails. It occurs to me as I write that this great change, whatever it might be, is not finished, and might never be finished until human life is snuffed out by the excesses and imbalances set in motion by this change. Suffice it to say that we have not yet entirely “changed over” into the mode of life that would seem to be the logical end of this particular centuries-long trend, and I’m not sure that we really ever entirely can (regardless of how much we might damage, in the meantime, by trying).

So, this is our “changed world”. One of the early victims of this “changed world” has been the authority of Christianity, a result that a Heathen like myself might well praise. However, it hasn’t been merely Christianity’s authority that has suffered, but the authority of religion itself in Western culture (Christianity itself having uprooted the authority of other religions). That result is, I think, less than praiseworthy, and has resulted in a number of unforeseen consequences which I won’t elaborate on here; I think that religion is, on the whole, a good thing (despite some highly pervasive bad examples of it), and that its loss is the loss of something ineffably valuable.

Many people disagree, of course, both on the worthiness of religion itself and, in a perhaps softer disagreement, on the role that religion ought to play in this “changed world”. People who, like me, pursue the practice of ancient religions and cultures often have to deal with the question of these religions’ and cultures’ relevance in the modern “changed world”; this is true for “mainstream” religions as well, for instance Catholicism, which has an uninterrupted history of practice going back to the Roman Empire. The question of relevance is ostensibly even more serious for religions like mine, which do not have such an uninterrupted history. For instance, people can (and do) question to what extent early Germanic culture, even only Germanic religion (as though the two were separable), should or could be brought into the modern “changed” world. Others argue that there is no place in this “changed” world for old religions like ours, which are better forgotten.

This whole line of thinking raises some questions for me. I think that there are many criticisms that could be raised about this point of view, not the least of which being that it is based upon a linear notion of progress that is ultimately derived from a specifically Judeo-Christian view of time. That is, the notion that things change over time generally for the better, and that one neither can nor should want to “go back” or “turn back the clock” is not a matter of objective fact so much as one of a worldview that is strongly pervasive in Western culture, but by no means universal or necessarily correct. One could simply (though certainly not easily) change how one views the world, and the criticism from the notion of “progress” loses all meaning.

In general, I see the role of religions like mine as having the same relevance in the modern world as a vaccine in a diseased body. If we are not a product of the main trends of the last few centuries, it is because these trends represent overall decay of a body that was, I think, already sick; Western Culture – seen as a whole – invited its own decline by its excesses and its poor foundations. Our goal is not to revive Western Culture; this goal is taken up by other radicals than us. No: we, and people like us, are here to revive the cultures that preceded Western Culture and which were, to greater or lesser extents, incorporated into that Borg-like collective. We are rebuilding cultures that were once viable and able to survive vast changes, because we think that they can be that viable and hardy now. Also, importantly, we revive these cultures because they are ours: they belong to us as an inheritance from our beginnings, and conversely, we belong to them as well.

Or, from another perspective: we are – to whatever in Western Culture remains of the organic cultures that preceded and were incorporated into it – something like an immune response, a reaction from within Western Culture to break free of this artificial thing and to return to a kind of culture more natural to us, more in line with our own manners of being. From this point of view it can be seen that the movement towards religions like ours has its roots in the Romanticism of the 19th century, which was a reaction against the industrialization and urbanization of the time. Romanticism, which inspired great art, also inspired a great deal of scholarship; it began the scholarly interest in pre-Christian European religions, in native European religious and cultural identities. Romanticism’s art and scholarship inspired the interest among some people to go back to practicing pre-Christian European religions. We, therefore are part of that same current of reaction against, rejection of, modernism and its tendencies to dehumanize and denature.

So, now that I have attempted to establish our roots and our place in and relation to the modern world, does this reaction against the changes of “modernity”, changes that now seem to define the everyday existence of many people, have any hope of success?

To answer that question with a question: has the world really changed that much, and are the evident changes fundamental, or merely on the surface of things? To many, these will seem like ridiculous questions. It seems obvious that the world has changed, doesn’t it? One might point to all the technology we have, and what it allows us to do, as evidence of the world’s fundamental difference from how it was a century ago, much less a millenium. I am uncertain whether technology is capable of changing existence in a fundamental fashion (or even the fundamentals of our experience of it), but technology certainly seems to have changed things: more powerful scientific tools give us a greater knowledge of physical existence; communications networks allow us to know what is happening around the world in an instant; weapons technologies allow us (at least in part) to wage war from afar; agricultural technology “liberates” the vast majority of people from having to grow food for a living (although I am by no means convinced that this is a good thing). All this is so, but I don’t know that any of these things really “change” the nature of the world in any fundamental sense. If anything, I think that technology gives an appearance of change that is ultimately a distraction from the underlying continuity of things, and thus from an interaction with – and understanding of – the underlying and eternal things about reality.

Nor do find much evidence that human nature has changed. People still have the same instincts and emotions, and largely want the same things as they always have. The change that people feel in the world is, I think, rather in their understanding of and relationship to the world. As an example, there is the notion that things are reducible to material, mere matter with no other meaning or existence than as objects to be shaped and transformed by human will. This kind of thinking enabled the Industrial Revolution, and the results of that revolution continue to lead to that kind of thinking.

This kind of sea-change in people’s understanding of and approach to the world leads, I think, to the flourishing of many lines of thought that would have been clearly absurd, if not unthinkable, in previous eras. I find that many people these days have a number of ideas that they seem to hold precisely because they are at odds with old wisdom. Of course, such a thing only makes sense from the point of view that states that things are fundamentally different now than they ever were before. If that isn’t true, though – and I think it’s not – if things haven’t really changed all that much, then old wisdom is still useful, especially in circumstances where the seeming newness of things has apparently deprived people of any wisdom whatsoever.

And that, when it comes down to it, is what religions like ours really are: old, traditional wisdom, ways of understanding and interacting with the world and with existence that we firmly believe have a great deal of value in the modern world; and this not despite the fact that these ways are old and from another time, but because of that very fact. Part of how people like us serve as an antidote to modernity is by questioning the modern rejection of traditional wisdom. Religious projects like ours are predicated on the belief that the world has not changed so much that traditional wisdom is useless, and that traditional wisdom helps to remedy the alienation from the world that is part of modernity.

In another essay, I hope to look at the implications the ideas in this essay have for how people these days approach the practice of ancient religions. Specifically, I would like to look at the fear of or disdain for tradition that I’ve seen among some Heathens and other Reconstructionists, and how that is contradictory and ultimately self-defeating.

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