Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: Catholic Church

The Asatru Option?

Several months ago, conservative commentator and author Rod Dreher released his latest book, The Benedict Option, subtitled A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, and it made quite a splash in the conservative Christian community. I read it, and I have to wonder if there isn’t some kernel at the core of the idea that Asatruar could use as well.

Now, obviously, this is a book aimed at a traditionalist Christian audience, primarily Evangelical, Catholic, or Orthodox. And there’s certainly nothing theological in the book that lends itself to any sort of Asatru application. But there’s some social, educational, political, and economic ideas that warrant a closer look.

The thumbnail argument in the book is that the West is “post-Christian”, and thus Christians need a new strategy to be able to maintain their unique identity in the face of a secular-liberal culture that not only has social values at odds with a lot of Christian values, but which insists on actively forcing those values on everyone, including those whose religion increasingly finds those values odious or even directly against its tenets.

The strategy he endorses is based on the Benedictine monastic tradition; physical and cultural separation from “the world” (in other worlds, from the greater non-Christian culture in which we live), with the formation of explicitly Christian communities being highly recommended, and a rigorous application of Benedictine religious principles in the form of prayer, hospitality, the work ethic, and more.

In terms of cultural separation, he provides the following advice:

Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid that which is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department. (p. 98)

If some of that sounds a bit odd coming from someone who is very much a champion of Christian conservatism, bear in mind this is the same guy who wrote Crunchy Cons, subtitled How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural revolutionaries plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party). I have only skimmed that one as of this writing, but it’s at the top of my to read list, for obvious reasons. It seems to check a lot of boxes for people I know in Asatru (again, looking past the Christian emphasis and focusing on the cultural ideals).

He also considers this sort of cultural separation as a tool for what he calls evangelization in and of itself:

As times get tougher, the church will become brighter and brighter, drawing people to its light. As this happens, we Christians should not be afraid to consider beauty and goodness our best evangelistic tools. (p. 117)

That should sound pretty familiar to those Asatru who embrace the idea of outreach by example. That is, by living honorable, joyous, simpler lives along the same patterns of our ancestors, and not being afraid to let our friends, co-workers, and neighbors know that we are Asatru, and that’s what informs our life choices, we might encourage more of those people to come home to Asatru.

His solution isn’t necessarily to pick up stakes and settle in the woods with a dozen people who think like you do, although I would daresay he wouldn’t rule that out. Rather, the preferred strategy seems to be to create pockets of culture-within-culture. Deliberately moving within walking distance of your church, for instance. Once you do that, your everyday life starts to be filled with people who think, and worship, the way you do. Doing so allows you to reinforce those cultural and religious values you want to embrace, and to limit the necessity of dealing with the secular-liberal culture that is so intent on spreading its memes to every host through mass media and cultural peer pressure.

Imagine that scenario, adopted for Asatru. Here in New Jersey, the tribe to which I belong has a bunch of members, but we’re scattered around New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Some live as much as three hours away from one another (we tend to meet in more central places, so it’s not quite as onerous for the outliers). But imagine we all decided, “hey, let’s all pick a small rural town and buy or rent houses there.” Would it be initially disruptive? You betcha. Jobs would be lost, new ones would have to be found. But in the meantime, we’d have a whole support network of people we know, and love, and consider kith and kin to help us through the rough times.

And imagine how easy it would be to decide where to open that hof!

There’s a lot in Dreher’s book that a non-Christian would need to jettison, and no mistake. Much of it is in the details of his recommendations; his obsession with sex, homosexuality, and related things is pretty awkward, but par for the course when one considers control of sex is one of the principle instruments of cultural control the Church has used over the centuries, precisely because it is such a fundamental biological urge. I’m certainly not arguing Asatru should embrace that sort of theological baggage.

But the core concept, minimizing the influence of the modern culture, and maximizing the formation of face-to-face communities which foment the creation of real bonds, I think is a perfectly valid one, especially for a religion like Asatru which finds itself also at odds with the modern secular, liberal, industrialized, corporatized, homogenizing, culture in which we live.

Let us not forget that we are not only living in a post-Christian culture, but we are also living in a post-Pagan culture. The Christians are looking at a loss of the dominance of their world-view in the West that has only taken place over the span of a few decades. We as Asatruar are dealing with a culture that saw many inherently pre-Christian aspects systematically destroyed and replaced. We’re dealing with a modern culture that has not replaced our own, but is in the process of replacing the one that replaced ours! Now, as part of the historical process, Christianity not only self-injected itself with Germanic religious and cultural concepts, but specific ritual and celebratory practices managed to survive under a thin Christian veneer for nearly a millennium, only to be finally almost obliterated by the Industrial Revolution and the flight of the agrarian folk who maintained those customs into the cities, where the rigid demands of industrial life made it impossible to retain them.

When we live in a culture that labels folkishness as racism, and a magical word-view as superstition, encourages us to be as removed from the production of food as possible, encourages radical individualism and atomization, and insists that we are somehow socially inferior if we don’t buy the newest gadget, and which insists that the latest social fad is a basic human right that must be enforced with threats of prison and economic ruin, and on and on and on, that’s a culture that should rightly be shunned wherever possible.

In its place we should seek to create a culture-within-the-culture that is based on our natural tribal affinities, on the cycles of nature and agriculture, on the concept of honor rather than shame and family rather than political party, on the knowledge that ours is a magical universe at its core and science for all its wonders is not the be-all and end-all of human experience, and on and on and on. And to do these things not online in blogs and emails and Facebook threads, but in the real-world, where you can walk down the street to a local ice-cream parlor and see one or two of your fellow Asatruar as you do so.

Take away the Christian baggage, and there’s a core concept in the Benedict Option that I think Asatruar would do very well to look into.

A paucity of celebrations

If I may be permitted a brief interlude in my series on Yule and pre-Yule subjects, I’ve noted that Asatru tends to have a lot fewer holidays than other Indo-European religions. And here I am talking about well-attested historical celebrations, not modern inventions that (for instance) honor heroes such as a Day of Remembrance for Ragnar Lothbrok, or convert modern holidays into deity-specific holidays through dubious folk etymology such as celebrating Vali’s Day or Einherjar Day in lieu of Valentine’s or Veterans’ Day.

Historically, we really know only of a few holidays that are described even briefly; Winternights, Yule/Midwinter, Sumarmal/Sigrblót/Ostara, Disablót, Alfablót, and Thorrablót. From the Anglo-Saxon, we can add Charming of the Plow and Mother’s Night. Maybe one or two more. But even these are but sparsely described. and leaves us with only eight celebrations on the calendar, and a total of 20 days if we are generous and give all of the blóts three days spans.

Contrast this with some other Indo-European religions. Hindus have scores of holidays holidays, the Athenians had over 60 holidays of varying duration, and the Romans had dozens more than that, if one counts the various ludi (games) on the calendar, again some lasting many days. So why do the Germans get stuck with a measly 8? Bear in mind that we’re talking about largely agrarian cultures without the concept of weekends off; these sorts of holidays would be vital.

I submit that the Germans had just as many holidays as their southern and eastern neighbors; we simply haven’t identified them yet. My research on these Yule and pre-Yule celebrations has pointed me strongly in this direction. What we’re seeing, for instance, with the subject of yesterday’s post – a celebration involving a celebration of the story of Thor’s goats, possibly with animal guising and faux child-napping – isn’t “part of Yule”, but rather was simply another holiday, which didn’t get mentioned in direct attestations, but which survived through having its outward features adopted by the church, and surviving in mutated fashion through to the current day. We moderns have lumped all these sorts of things together in our zeal to categorize and reduce complexity, not to mention the modern secular and commercial effort to make the start of the Christmas season ever-earlier. When you look at some of the 19th century folklorists’ accounts of rural life and peasant and folk customs in England, Scandinavia, and Germany, the year is positively crowded with celebrations and customs.

If this is true, then we could have an inkling at a living year of holidays and celebrations undreamed-of (with several of these sort of folk-holidays each month), as well as a possibly methodology to suss out some details (looking for Christian saint’s day or other holy day celebrations with incongruous elements that are unique to northern Europe). This would yield something closer to the medieval European folk-calendar, which the church deliberately designed to emulate the old Heathen cycle of celebrations, in order to supplant it, or the old pre-Christian Roman calendar.

Of course, not everything that “seems” pre-Christian is indeed pre-Christian, and care has to be taken to separate the wheat from the chaff. I doubt that the full extent of these celebrations will ever truly be recovered, but I think it’s at least worth investigating beyond the December/January examples I’m laying out here.

Post-Christian America

Over at the Catholic Thing, Fr. C. John McCloskey III frets that America is currently in a post-Christian phase of its history, but offers hope (as he sees it) that a revival of Catholicism could give us a Catholic America where a Protestant America has lost its grip on the culture:

With the passage of time, homegrown American Protestant sects sprang up so profusely that they now can be counted in the thousands. Despite this variety, almost all shared a biblical moral philosophy not far removed from Catholics. The loosening of divorce laws and the propagation of the birth control pill in the Sixties, however, precipitated further retreat mere decades later by mainstream and traditional Protestant denominations on other moral fronts, including abortion, homosexual activity, and most recently same-sex marriage.

The primary reason is the lack of dogmatic authority in Protestantism and the reliance on the principle of private judgment. Leaving people to rely on only their opinions or feelings as moral guide is not enough to sustain a country that was once Christian and now is increasingly pagan.

Now, in this passage he doesn’t mean “pagan” in the sense that I do when I use the term. He’s referring here to a vaguely non-Christian set of cultural norms and choices, rather than to contemporary polytheistic religions such as Wicca, Asatru, and the like.

Fr. McCloskey’s argument is undermined by his own Catholic myopia, however. Anyone reading the byline should have known that the answer in the article was inevitably going to be the Catholic Church; it’s impossible to trust his arguments or analysis because it’s obvious that the end-point was clearly in sight for him before he ever undertook them.

That said, if we set aside his foregone conclusion, we can see that these sour grapes can produce a passable wine. McCloskey is dismayed that the freedom of religious choice guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution has allowed people to (gasp!) choose something other than Christianity. I, on the other hand, find that a strength, and believe that a post-Christian America doesn’t have to replace the Christian cultural hegemony that is now in the process of passing into history (albeit not without its gasps of desperation to cling on) with a single religiously-based hegemony.

Rather, I think that the Founding Fathers were wiser than we give them credit for. Distrustful as they were of strong central authorities (given their experience with George III), they set up a system wherein law and culture is not dictated by the “dogmatic authority” that McCloskey seems to yearn for. Rather, the First Amendment itself guarantees against just such a thing, setting in its place a system of legal understanding and cultural evolution that flows from the ground up in a true marketplace of ideas where the strongest, most capable, and ultimately most valuable ideas rise to the top while those that are found wanting sink into obscurity.

Thus, the collective Christian idea (expressed sub-rosa in some cases, loudly and proudly in others) that sex should be for procreation only, has largely eroded away and replaced with a much more life-affirming sentiment that sex is fun, the human body is nothing to be ashamed of, and decisions regarding sex and procreation should reside in the conscience of the individual rather than being mandated by “dogmatic authority”. This has led us, over the last few decades, to the understanding that depictions of sex are okay and should not be illegal, providing contraception for people who choose to use it is okay and should not be illegal, sex between consenting adults who don’t happen to have undergone the marriage ritual of a specific religious tradition is okay and should not be illegal, sex between individuals of the same gender is okay and should not be illegal, etc. etc. etc.

I find nothing wrong with that whatsoever. The toppling of McCloskey’s “dogmatic authority” is nothing to be feared, and certainly nothing to be replaced with yet another such authority. It is the ultimate promise of the First Amendment, and should be cheered loudly and proudly by all lovers of individual liberty.

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