– by B. T. Newberg
Does it matter whether naturalism is ancient or modern? What difference does it make as we march toward the future?
The importance of naturalism’s history may not be immediately obvious. After all, it’s what we do now that’s most important, right? Yet the past holds the keys to our future. There are at least three essential reasons why knowing naturalism’s ancient history is critical to moving forward.
This post is a follow-up to a previous post entitled Naturalism in prehistory?.
1. History tells us about ourselves
The first reason is the same reason all history is valuable: it tells us about ourselves. We learn something about human cultures and the human condition. Moreover, the ancient history of naturalism tells us a story of our ancestors. We are not alone.
2. History grants authenticity
Are older traditions more “original” or “authentic”? Maybe, maybe not. But the fact of the matter is, rightly or wrongly, people do attach greater authenticity to more venerable traditions.
This is especially true in Paganism, where the ways of our pre-Abrahamic ancestors inspire almost all that we do. Although many modern Pagans are comfortable adapting or even inventing new traditions, there is no denying that ancient traditions carry a certain gravity and aura. Traditions rooted in authentically-ancient practices gain respect, and that is something in short supply for many minority traditions in the current Pagan climate.
Naturalistic Paganism is not a modern invention. Most ancient Pagans were not naturalistic, but there were those who were. They practiced Pagan religions at the same time that they held naturalistic worldviews, and some of them brought those two things together into an integrated whole.
In short, Naturalistic Paganism enjoys ancient precedent. Historical evidence shows it is an authentically-ancient way to be Pagan.*
3. Accurate history cultivates integrity
Finally, when we hold ourselves to the facts of history, we cultivate integrity. It can be tempting, depending on your persuasion, to believe either a) ancient Pagans were naturalists and never took their gods as literally as many do today, or b) naturalism is totally modern and all that went before it was unenlightened. Neither belief would be true to history.
History may not be an exact science, but it is a discipline that admits of evidence, and beliefs about history can be shown likely or unlikely. When we hold ourselves to the evidence, we practice integrity.
Much recent historical work by Pagans, especially that done by Reconstructionists, has been a model of integrity. Thanks to it, many of the more fanciful notions of Pagan history have been discarded in favor of more truthful representations. Investigating the ancient history of naturalism can be seen as a complement to and extension of that project.
The truth is not ours to choose, but to discover.
Ancient history is our future
In many ways, the ancient history of naturalism holds the keys to our future. It grants us self-knowledge, and gives us a story of our ancestors. It can garner respect for naturalists in the eyes of our fellow Pagans. Finally, it helps us cultivate integrity by harmonizing our beliefs with historical evidence. By looking back to the past, our community can move forward into the future.
So what does the evidence say about naturalism in the ancient world, exactly? To find out, follow the multi-part series currently currently coming out at Naturalistic Traditions, hosted by Patheos.
*For evidence of this, follow the current series at Naturalistic Traditions as it continues to come out. A brief synopsis of some of the most important evidence is here.
The mindfulness mindset, by Aaron Hernandez
Appearing Sunday, August 4th, 2013