Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What is Celtic Reconstructionism, or, How do I know if I'm CR?

You'd think after years of discussion and a FAQ website and book detailing the tradition that the online community would already have an idea about what Celtic Reconstructionism (CR) is. Alas, based on threads in various online fora, I can see that is not the case. There are people—who claim to be CR or to teach CR—who don't seem to even understand what exactly Celtic Reconstructionism is. They post links to foundation work like the FAQ, and yet don't appear to have even read it (otherwise would we really be constantly re-hashing these things?).

So here's my thoughts:

Celtic Reconstructionism is a way of life. It encompasses your entire worldview, your being. Celtic Reconstructionism is about living every moment of every day within tradition, religion and culture. As a Gaelic Polytheist (or Gaelic Reconstructionist Polytheist), my thoughts, words, beliefs and actions are filtered through Gaelic culture and its accompanying worldview. I don't think simply as a modern polytheistic American or Irish-American; I think like a Gael.

Each Celtic culture is enclosed within a worldview that makes it wholly unique (though some commonalities do exist between them), and it is entering into a cultural worldview, wrapping it around oneself like a shawl, and allowing it to take root deep within us that truly makes one CR, in my humble opinion. It is that which separates Reconstructionism from general Neopaganism (where practitioners tend to be rooted in individualism and modernism over living traditional communal culture).

Community lies at the center of CR. It is the hearth around which we are all gathered. It is that which shelters us, what we tend to, that which holds us accountable, and what provides direction and solace. But community does not take the same appearance for all. For some, it is their immediate family (of birth or of choice). For others, a monthly gathering or study group. For others still, an online group of trusted peers or phone connections with close friends and family. Furthermore, some might have all of the above or any combination of them. Whatever community looks like for us, the main thing is that we give to that community. We foster kinship and help it grow. We don't come to community as spectators; we participate.

Study is a part of what some of us do, certainly, but one does not need to read x-amount of books or hit the books for x-amount of hours, days, or years in order to practice CR. Indeed, how could one even practice if one is constantly buried within a book? CR is about practicality and experience just as much as learning—if not possibly more. One cannot fully know the goddesses, gods and spirits through bound pages; it is through the participation in prayer, offerings, ritual, and ceremony that they are known to us. All of which can be performed with little more than basic knowledge of CR ritual.

CR has within it many paths; scholarship of which is only one. We are not all scholars. Some amongst us are quite happy being mystics, warriors, artisans, musicians, or healers. In fact, some are called to simply be hearthkeepers—to tend to their home, hearth and the welfare of their family through simple prayers, charms, blessings and offerings. Every path will and does include some degree of study, though—after all a hearthkeeper will need to learn traditional songs and prayers—but to assume that every CR needs a vast library and hours upon hours bent over books instead of living CR is sending the wrong message, I fear.

Learning can and certainly does happen through communal cultural immersion and participation as well, and experienced "culture-bearers" play an important role in CR community— even if they are not polytheists themselves. In situations where one is a member of an extended family or other type of group, we can certainly be participating members of the CR faith and tradition without ever reading any books at all. In fact, this is the way our ancestors learned and were immersed in culture (and I'm not only referring to the Iron Age here, but the entire Celtic cultural continuum). This is why worldview is so crucial. People who only understand books and arguing online usually don't have in-person groups, and are usually behaving in ways that will keep others from wanting to share experiential work with them.

Can one be a CR and only attend a gathering or two a year? Absolutely. But only if every other moment and thought comes from a CR worldview outside of those gatherings. You can't attend a gathering and then shut CR off for the remainder of the year. Also, if you are CR on Monday, Ásatrú on Tuesday, Wiccan on Wednesday, Hellenic on Thursday ad nauseam, then you are not fully CR because you are setting aside the CR worldview to practice— or dabble, really— in others.

Granted all the above is just my experience-based opinion mixed with what is said within The CR FAQ itself, so as they say your mileage may vary; but I hope it gives everyone something to ruminate on.


  1. Here's some helpful quotes from The CR FAQ:

    "Any well-rounded living culture will have a place for many diverse kinds of people and their different talents and abilities, and it is this diversity that CR fosters." ~

    "Though we are at a place where people who don’t want to do lots of research or pioneering mystical experiments can join an existing CR group, and participate on a much more informal level, the truth is that functioning CR groups that are willing to take in new members are still few and far between. So if you’re alone, you may feel that it is difficult, especially if you are just getting started. Right now CR favors pioneer species, so to speak."
    "A number of us were also inspired by our experiences in other living cultures and wished for something that full and vital, not only for our own Deities and Ancestors, but also for ourselves. It will be a while till we are as fleshed out as the traditions that inspired us, but that is our goal." ~

    "The CR community is diverse. Not everyone is an experienced scholar, and not everyone is inclined to deep mystical work. However, we believe both scholarship and experiential, ecstatic spirituality are necessary on the CR path. The presence of, and balance between, these aspects is crucial. Without both, it is not CR. But people will tend to move towards what is more comfortable and desirable for them. Sometimes the balance has to be found in community, where the mystics and the scholars can work together to help inform one another’s practices. In this way, we can co-create a vibrant tradition that honors our personal experiences as well as those of our ancestors, that is ecstatic yet also rooted in the earth and in the history and living culture of the Celtic peoples. " ~

    This whole bit goes into how to get started, and reading is only the very beginning, and only one way to start:

  2. I'm glad that you seem to understand what we were trying to do.

  3. Overall, I agree with your assessment here. It's certainly in line with what we were talking about in the FAQ. The only place I might take some slight issue with your essay is here:

    You can't attend a gathering and then shut CR off for the remainder of the year. Also, if you are CR on Monday, Ásatrú on Tuesday, Wiccan on Wednesday, Hellenic on Thursday ad nauseam, then you are not fully CR because you are setting aside the CR worldview to practice— or dabble, really— in others.

    Where do you believe those of us who do sincerely follow multiple paths fit into this? I certainly primarily identify with the CR community and most of my work is focused there and has been for many years, yet I am also a member of the local Shinto shrine, a mystes and luperca of the Ekklesía Antínoou, and have other active practices of one sort or another along with my primary CR practice. I don't see myself as "dabbling" in any of them. They're all serious interests and I honor them as best I can.

    I can certainly understand the urge to discourage people from just dabbling, but some folks are able to hold several sincere and viable practices at the same time; it's part of being a polytheist. We're not confined to one deity, or even one set of deities, even if we may consistently work most often within one cultural paradigm or with one set of deities.

    I don't see myself as no longer practicing CR when I go to the Shinto shrine, nor do I see myself as no longer a practitioner of Shinto when I am formally practicing a CR spirituality with my local group or in my home. The fact that I have experienced the Antinoan mysteries doesn't go away when I am engaged in my flamekeeping practice for Brigid. I do think it's important to remember this.

    1. I think that that view has much to do with the split in CR or GP. I personally see honoring other deities and having other spiritual practices, if not within a Celtic Polytheistic context, as an eclectic, neo-pagan practice, though the practices are not themselves mixed with one another.

      How does one balance different worldviews and understandings of the spiritual world and cosmology? Does being at a Shinto shrine change what you believe when you tend the flame of Brigid? Also, how can it be a way of life and yet be absent in other practices?

      A way of life is the essence of who you are, at least in my opinion. Going to a different shrine or having different practices would inevitably be changing that practice with a different experience within the context of a Celtic polytheistic worldview.

      Don't get me wrong, if I pass a shrine or am near the house of another religion, then I acknowledge the deities and/or spirits there with a nod and a few words, but I don't partake in the spiritual practices of the people who have a relationship of some sort with the deity or spirit whom they worship.

    2. Thank you for this, Breandán.

      As an orthopraxy, I'd say this also means we are what we do, not what we choose to call it. If one's spiritual practice and way of life is eclectic, one is eclectic. Calling it something else doesn't change that.

    3. @Erynn: I think Breandán hit the nail on the head when he said that this is one of the differences between CR and GP/GRP. I can only speak for myself and my community so the following is our opinion, which can easily be ignored if you so choose to.

      In our GP community, worldview is everything. Regularly participating in ritual or ceremony that has a liturgy, theology, and cosmology drastically different to Gaelic Polytheism or Celtic Reconstructionism is not recommended within our community. Why? Because while being a respectful, occasional guest at another culture's observances is acceptable, trying to practice multiple lifeways at the same time can lead to confusion and serious internal conflict. As protocols for interacting with the spirits can vary greatly between cultures, trying to combine these ways can lead to serious, if unintentional, offenses against the spirits that will have very real consequences in your life.

      Belief informs actions; belief is what gives actions their meaning, resonance, and power. If you have fully placed your being within the Gaelic worldview, then putting that aside to practice another religion that is drastically antithetic is hypocritical to us because it is basically setting who you are aside. It suggests that your heart and mind are not in the same place and that you compartmentalize yourself. This is not how we in Gaol Naofa see the Gaelic worldview and Gaelic Polytheist lifeway.

      Others are free to respectfully disagree if they wish. I’m not out to convert people or force change within their minds, only to civilly share my (and our, when I speak on behalf of GN) thoughts and practice. People are, of course as always, free to do what they wish.

      Also, apparently we see polytheist defined differently than you. In our opinion, polytheist means you believe in the existence of a multitude of deities, not that you should worship all of those deities. This is especially the case when the deities are from other people's cultures, and you don't have the cultural context to do it without offending those deities or the tradition-bearers of those cultures. Like Breandán, I acknowledge and respect them, but that's different from actively worshiping.

    4. I understand that within your community, you apparently require that people only follow one path. Not a problem. I'm certainly not defining polytheism as "you have to worship all the deities," which is how you seem to be interpreting my statement.

      I don't find myself either confused or internally conflicted when I worship different deities in different ways. It's just like hanging out with different friends and different groups of people that have their own ways of doing things. I go into the Shinto shrine, I take off my shoes, I do what the Kannushi says when he says to do it, I make my offerings, and everyone seems very happy. I don't stop being CR when I walk in the door, I don't stop also being Shinto when I walk out the door. I follow the rules of Shinto respectfully. I've studied enough to know where some of the problems can be, and if I am concerned about giving offense, I ask Barrish Sensei to clarify for me.

      It's obviously an agree-to-disagree situation, from where I stand. Historically, people have always traveled and brought home the deities of different cultures. There's archaeological evidence for this sort of thing everywhere. Anyone who uses any sort of comparative mythological methodology in their study of CR is doing something similar, so the people who go to Dumézil in order to shed light on early Celtic polytheistic practices are apparently also "eclectic" according to GN's criteria, if what people are saying here is correct.

    5. Erynn, as I stated, this is our opinion and not one we are trying to force others into. If you don't agree, well then you don't agree. I'm not trying to make you agree. No, we do not believe comparative studies make one eclectic. Studying is one thing, but attempting to walk all those paths one studies comparatively is eclecticism to us.

      We do not see "it's only natural, every culture does it" as a valid justification to do whatever you like. Where is the evidence *within* Gaelic culture (outside of Viking and Norman influences that is - we are only interested in historically documented syncretism)? And how does one practice a variety of different faiths while maintaining a primary cultural focus, without compromising the worldview that is inherent to the practice of a culturally-focused religion?

      I get the feeling that our views differ because you appear to be viewing things through a lens of modernism, whereas we see things through a traditional one.

      The workings of Shinto are foreign to me. I do not see things through their worldview because I reside the worldview of the Gaels.

      Overall, we are just going to have to agree to disagree. It is what it is :) Because as I said, I'm not interested in forcing others to see things like we do.

    6. Study is study. Practice is practice.

      Reading diverse works by diverse authors is simply being widely read. Trying to put into practice the religions of all those different cultures is having an eclectic spiritual practice. Very different.

  4. As far as I can tell, it's only the later waves of people, who came in only via the Internet, who seem to miss the point that this was always intended to be a culturally-rooted worldview and way of life, not just an academic exercise. I am also not clear on why some think they can declare themselves scholars when they have not really studied primary sources, or even very many solid, bilingual secondary ones written by actual scholars. I think we've seen an influx of people who sincerely believe that as long as they're not relying on Llewellyn books, they are CR. We addressed this in the FAQ, here: Isn’t everyone who incorporates some degree of Celtic Research CR? (And the consensus answer was, "No.")

    What I've seen through observing the weirdness on so many putatively CR fora is lot of the people who think it's only about books and teh intarwebs have never been part of in-person CR or GP communities, and they apparently have no clue about how these things work in living, traditional, polytheistic communities. They also don't seem to understand what it is to be rooted in a cultural worldview. For those of us who are older, the Internet is an interesting gadget, but we formed our ideas of how relationships and communities work back when your only option was dealing with people in person, with your feet on the ground and accountability to the people you'd run into on the street was a given. CR was not meant to be an online shouting match between alienated people who will never meet one another, often hiding behind psuedonyms, shouting at their computer screens in the darkness.

    That said, we have also been incredibly lucky to have a minority of younger people, like you, Treasa, who get it. I think the difference is that you understand the importance of functional community, of extended family, of accountability, and yes, of being rooted in a cultural worldview.

    I have a very hard time understanding people who don't understand that we all have a worldview, and that one's worldview carries over into every activity and decision we make, every priority we set. Modern, consumerist, eclectic worldviews are worldviews, too, but they are not culturally-rooted, traditional ones. It is fine if others have a different worldview, as long as they are being honest about it, and not doing anything offensive with their words or in their practices. I think for many years I made the mistake of thinking everyone drawn to CR understood and shared the priority of coming from a Celtic worldview (or if one didn't come from that place, learning to adopt one). I thought this priority had been made clear from the beginning, so I most definitely feel boggled by looking at the surreal carnage happening online.

    1. I can understand perhaps coming into CR for the first time and thinking that you can just bring in eclectic practices (especially if one is coming from general Neopaganism), but the further I studied (both in terms of actual sources and into the traditions of the Gaelic continuum - a culture that is a long way from "dead" as some seem to believe), I saw how antithetical the two are.

      Culture, worldview, tradition, community, language, religion are so intertwined in the Gaelic mind that one will need to change oneself rather than try to change culture, worldview, tradition, etc. to fit them and their "needs."

      I think it really does come down to priorities in a way: Is what one is doing preserving culture, worldview, tradition, etc? Or is it diluting them and becoming self-serving?

      Therein lies the root of the schism, I feel.

    2. It's been very disappointing seeing a lot of the replies to the discussion at hand, in various places and fora over the past few days, which have concentrated on snarking about other people's opinions rather than the matter at hand. It's a shame that instead of respecting other people's opinions for what they are - "This is what *I* think, this is my opinion," not "ZOMG UR DOIN IT RONG" - the same old attitudes surface. Over and over again we go...

      It's doubly a shame because I think it's distracting the conversation from the point of your post and the discussion in general. I do agree with everything you've said there, Treasa, and I think ultimately it boils down to how the individual approaches not just CR in general, but the community as well. (Such as it is!) Individual scholarship is all well and good (and I do think it's at least desirable) - coming to a personal understanding of CR is important for one's own experience, of course - but I think those arguing that scholarship is essential to one's experience are emphasising it at the cost of the community. A community is varied, and it must serve a variety of needs; not everyone has the same abilities or interests as others do, and we shouldn't discriminate against someone just because they haven't read as many books as most people do.

      Right now, though, it seems that books are the least of our problems.

  5. I really resonate with the way this post is written, but that hasn't been my experience with other CRs. I have not found most of them to be at all steeped in a traditional worldview, but instead their worldviews and mindsets are very much products of modern, western mind. I feel at odds with it, resonating much more with tradition myself, relating with religion as a spiritual expression of a cultural tradition and a people held in common, vs religion as a discrete entity involving 'religion browsing' and 'god shopping.' Ancestral tradition is what grounds, roots and guides me, but this seems to not be the feeling of the majority of those posting in CR groups today.

    1. Erin, I don't think you were ever looking hard enough then. Because Gaol Naofa and myself are precisely the type who DO hold a traditional worldview ("religion as a spiritual expression of a cultural tradition and a people held in common") above the modern of 'religion browsing.'

      The Gaelic Polytheist Facebook group is also precisely that type. Honestly, I've yet to see anyone beyond GN who holds CR in what I believe the be the correct view. Either they are wholly modern and falsely syncretic, or anachronistic to a worrying degree - attempting to recreate the Iron Age in a modern world. Gaol Naofa was the only community I found who had the perfect balance.

      I understand your meaning but you aren't correct in believing you having not come in contact with traditional worldview types when you have.