The Expostmodern Question

There’s been a little flurry of activity today in our neighborhood of blogosphere about the question of whether Neopaganism is a expostmodern religion. I’ve been mulling this over since I read Drew Jacob’s and Star Foster’s take on it hours ago; the comment I was composing became so long, I thought I might as well blog about it, too.

Drew puts forth some very stimulating talking points on what will be needed by spiritual communities to survive in our techno-saturated world. Star focused particularly on the ideas that physical meetings will become less relevant as blogging, podcasting, and social media interactions fill that niche.

She isn’t entirely comfortable with that conclusion, and neither am I. Certainly, the digital world is powerful and inescapable. I quite agree with the idea that those spiritual service providers who do not participate digitally will be marginalized. But will we be losing something in the process?

Joseph A. Moody, in the very first comment on Star’s blog, asked the provocative question about how the the written word had an impact on religious and spiritual life, and what could we learn from that? In fact, writing did change things a lot. People did not have to remember stuff, they could look it up when they needed it. This meant, of course, that it was not internalized in the same way it would be in a strictly oral culture. This is why the the Druids, it is popularly thought, did not write out their religious material because only unimportant stuff should be written down. If it was important, you memorized it.

A little more recently, we can look at what happened in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, when there was an explosion of books published on Pagan topics, including famously (or infamously) Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner and Silver RavenWolf’s To Ride a Silver Broomstick. These books were (and still are) immensely popular, and for better or worse changed the Wicca/Witchcraft/Pagan community, by regularizing the idea of the solitary as a path unto itself and popularizing the idea that you could learn everything you need from books.

What we face-to-face fossils have been struggling with ever since is conveying the idea that however valid the book experience may be, it is not the same as the f2f experience. A self initiation may be a moving and powerful experience, but it is not the same moving and powerful experience as an initiation into an initiatory lineage. Please note, I am not placing these on a hierarchy or a scale, only pointing out that they are each different experiences. They are not interchangeable experiences. And if that’s what’s available to you, that’s what’s available.

My argument has been with those who have other opportunities, but do not bestir themselves to take it. Many folks–I’m remembering reading (*snort,* yeah, I read, too) it from Robert Anton Wilson, but I’m sure there are many others–have emphasized that reading an exercise is not the same as doing an exercise. Reading a ritual is not the same as doing a ritual. Reading an initiation rite is not the same as getting initiated. Reading about sex is not the same as…well, you get the picture.

(I just realized I may be hopelessly dating myself merely by discussing initiation as if it were important and relevant!)

Now we’re all online. As other blog comments mentioned, an online rite is not the same as a f2f rite, but if that’s all you’ve got available, go for it. But do not think it is the same experience as a f2f rite. Typing and reading engage brain parts that are different from those you would be using in a f2f ritual.

A podcast ritual is another step farther away. I used to see Catholic masses broadcast on TV, but that was a pale experience compared to what I knew about being in church where you had not just the sights and sounds, but the smells, the tactile experiences, and the energy of being in a group. It’s different. Still, I treasure having been able to see the ADF podcasts of Isaac’s memorial. But it is not the same as if I had been able to be there.

Most troubling to me, as it was to Star, was this idea:

Sermons or other routine scheduled meetings will not be effective. Less people will want to commit to a physical meeting on a regular basis.

I can’t help thinking that is just sad. ‘Cause I don’t see people giving up, say, bowling night or going out to the bar or gaming night or dating on a regular basis. There is something about those experiences that call for repetition in real life. With religion and magic, as with a relationship, you’re going to get out of it what you put into it.

When I was at Florida Pagan Gathering the week before last (a wonderful f2f experience) I spent some time with Aaron Leitch, a practitioner of an art even more arcane than mine, Solomonic magic. You know, that stuff within the musty old grimoires where you have to spend six months to do a ritual, and half of that is time spent finding or making all the arcane supplies you need to do it. He called that quest magic. It is a process you take yourself through, finding out about yourself along the way. The quest makes the magic.

That is an example is an active participation in your own spiritual life, and a heck of a lot more profound than merely receiving information. I would shudder to think that just as the publishing boom led so many to believe they’d experienced it all that way, that the digital revolution would merely encourage another kind of passive consumerism.

But just to be on the safe side, I’m all over this digital thing.

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11 Responses to The Expostmodern Question

  1. Drew Jacob says:

    I’m really glad you wrote this, Phaedra. Really great post!

    For anyone who wants to see what exactly Expostmodernism is, check out the article that started it all:

    Something I find interesting is that you equate the use of digital technology with passive participation. With podcasts that may be true. But what about someone using Skype video chat to receive a lesson from their teacher when they’re away?

    I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As digital media improves it will continue to allow for increased interactivity. That can enable a lot of new things, especially for solitary practitioners. It doesn’t have to be a battle of digital vs. ritual.

  2. Thanks to you for your original provocative post.

    You’re right, I didn’t address Skype or other interactive techs simply because I have seldom used them. It just didn’t come up all that often for me in the past, and right now, I don’t have the bandwidth. It’s something I know I need to explore lest my lack of experience with it becomes a marker of my old fart guard status.

    The other issue is my stubborn belief that magic and the Craft are best taught experientially. Lecture stuff, personal counseling, yeah, Skype would work. Other stuff, not so much. When Isaac and I wrote Real Energy, it was my job to write the exercises, and while it’s relatively easy to teach energy work in person, I really struggled to put it into words and instructions. How something like that could be taught over Skype, I don’t really know. It would be a quite a challenge. You are limited to webcam range, at the very least. But I know a lot of people are doing webinars and such and liking it. So I don’t want to make too many sweeping statements about something I haven’t tried.

    Yet another issue is the pressure of availability on a teacher. If people don’t want to commit to being someplace in person on a regular basis, will they commit to being somewhere online on a regular basis? A teacher’s time is not like WoW, accessible 24 hours a day. It’s one thing to do a weekly 2-hour session with your students, it’s another to do multiple 2-hour sessions with individuals or subgroups of those students. Remember that we are not professional clergy and need to balance out huge chunks of Real Life in addition to teaching. I can’t help thinking this scenario will nudge people into the religious equivalent of those people who can’t turn off their Blackberries lest they receive a message more than a moment after it is sent. It doesn’t look like a sustainable scenario.

    There’s a lot to think about. Some of questions come out of the ongoing dance between Paganism as public religion (everyone should have the opportunity to worship the Gods) and as a mystery religion (coven work is an intensive training program and not for everyone). Both are valid paths, but have very different requirements, and produce very different experiences. Some technological solutions will work for one but not the other.

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  7. druidkirk says:

    Religion is a journey, not a destination, to paraphrase the old saw. But I think that we ignore the new digital age at our peril. I also agree with you, Phaedra, that parts of what we do may be amenable to digital expression, while other parts will continue to need the face-to-face time. I mean, how can one possibly enjoy a festival in the same way via a video feed rather than actually attending one? But using skype and moodle, etc., certainly will enable more of us to receive (and give) good instruction for students. I guess time will tell as to what will work and what won’t. Part of my dream is to establish on-line classes for ADF for our study programs, but I do know that some sort of f2f time will also have to be required. It’s probably impossible to teach good ritual skills from a book or just on the internet – an instructor has to work individually with each student. Magical and ecstatic practices need to be felt, not just understood, and this is done best in person. But I can see how the groundwork could be done on-line.

    I guess what I fear is that people won’t understand that to ‘practice’ our religions is to actually ‘do’ something, not just ‘believe’ or ‘understand’ something. It won’t do to just acknowledge a holiday, for instance. One should actually celebrate it.

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