Redactionism

I have a problem with people referring to modern polytheist practices built from past dead folk spiritualities as “reconstructionism”. I cannot say with any certainty that that term is accurate. In its stead, I posit the term Redactionism. Let me explain why.


Reconstructionism and revivalism of dead religious lineages will forever have a very obvious drawback. No matter how dedicated we are to gathering sources and making sure our theories are historically soundproof and not anachronistic, we are always going to be missing major elements of epistemology, worldview and thought practice, the meanings behind doing what you’re doing. At best, reconstructed religions are mere pastiches of once lively traditions of human condition and experience, at worst, many of us are playing dress up and would be better placed in the SCA or at a Ren Faire.

Our research may be impeccable. We may have hoards of primary sources but we can never ever step back into the era we are reconstructing spiritual principles and practices from and we can never ask those people to explain the whys, whens, wheres and hows with any accuracy. When a generation of folk die, a whole world of spiritual life and homesteading dies with them. We are a patchwork, and it may be a more accurate description to call Reconstructionism the practice of Redactionism.

Let me explain, I like to cook. I like cooking historical medieval recipes. We have many many secondary sources of recipes but rarely primary sources. In the off chance that you come across a medieval recipe that is as close to the original as possible, it is usually a redaction written by a 17th or 18th century writer or historian(one of which is Samuel Pepys). Redaction is a form of editting in which multiple sources are combined and altered and stitched together to create a single document(a more modern usage of this terminology refers to the act of deliberately editing a document to remove sensitive information but that is not the way I am using this word). Thus we get singular recipes built up of several different versions of one. Often the sources are smudged, aged or missing words. We must therefore fill in the blanks. Reconstruction is much like this. It is a stitching together of sources and ideas to create singular modern practices. We are forced to fill in the blanks and “redact” the elements in order to create a cogent and cohesive whole that is workable and applicable in the modern world.

Sometimes, redactioners add their own spin on things, splicing their own elements into a document. A good analogy for Paganism would be the ever perennial UPG. It could also refer to our need to fill the blanks with our own interpretations. This is what makes our religions spring up with life once again. It makes them dynamic and living, certainly, but not historically accurate and true to primary source and essence. Popular examples are 1001 Nights and the Talmud. Both are redactions and the latter is used as a religious text. The bible could also be considered a religion version of redactionism, as per the Nicaean Council.

Reconstructionism is an inaccurate term for the practice of redacting sources and creating modern religious and spiritual practices from aged sources. We cannot reconstruct a religion that has been dead and has been separated from us by several generations and lineages with any amount of reasonable accuracy and call it a reconstruction of an ancient practice. It is best described as a redaction. Often one may find quotes that are edited, and spliced together into paraphrased redactions that are not faithful to the original spirit of the original text, and often even misattributed. This is often what it is like to try to wade through reconstructionist religious theory. We would be better off to call a spade a spade and see our practices with infant eyes. To see a thing for what it is, an effort of redaction but nevertheless lively and burgeoning tradition. Honesty is in this regard is much lacking and sorely needed. It’s like Einstein didn’t actually say those words you’re reading on a facebook .jpg.

3 thoughts on “Redactionism

  1. Overall I agree with you; any attempt at a Pagan revival without (significant) room for UPG will, without fail, end up as something belonging in a museum.

    Essentially religion is a means of interacting with the ‘Other World’- Myths are ‘maps’ of the place(s) and rituals are means of communication. If ritual becomes an end unto itself, then purpose of ritual, in a religious sense, is lost. Without ‘The Whys’, ritual degenerates into a sequence of motions one goes through – With or without regards to the results.

    Essentially, pure reconstructivism leads to a religion based solely upon the correct conduct of ritual. While this is not a bad start, it can only ever be a start (Or a museum exhibit).

    Add to this that, as you rightly point out, even the reconstructivists are not actually reconstructing anything other than their interpretation of fragments, and I would say that there a pretty good reason to consider historical research a tool rather than a goal.

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  2. I knew you would enjoy this. In the interest of accuracy(which is one of the main desires of recons and revivalists), I want to accurately portray what it is I am doing with religion. We are more than a mere museum exhibit, and yet we are not exactly eclectic either. When it comes to correct/accurate conduct- it certainly has its place(in some religions more than others, like kemeticism where the words you use are of the utmost importance) but it is only one aspect of many that create a live and dynamic tradition.

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  3. Of course I am not saying that the proper conduct of ritual is irrelevant. I am all for it. Provided it is actually the proper conduct; if a ritual archives what it is meant to achieve, that is the proper conduct. If it fails to achieve that, it is improper conduct.

    Why might the once-proper rituals now have become improper? Well, because things change, both here and in the ‘Other World’. Our link to the gods has been severed for at the very, very least a hundred years and in many important respects in a thousand years. Apart from the assumption that things changes faster here than ‘There’ we have no reason to assume that the ‘Other World’ is the same it was a thousand years ago*, and, therefore, that the same rituals work.

    Things, of course, are no black and white on this, though, and I’d wager that the ‘Other World’ is more responsive to rituals previously used than to completely new ones. At the very least, these rituals might serve as a starting off-point

    *This applies even more so to kemeticism.

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