.....................Problems Encountered in Teaching Religions Which Accept the Self as Decisive Authority

Michael York

Bath Spa University College

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

“Religion and Transnationalism: Challenges of the 21st Century”

18-22 October 2000

I remember being taught in grade school how lucky we were to have been born as Americans. However beautiful or special France, Italy, Holland or other countries in the world might have been, not to be American was presented as a detriment, deficiency or an extra burden that we Americans did not carry. The implied non-equality between the world’s inhabitants – even between Americans and Northern and Western Europeans – translated into political and economic advantages as well. For instance, in the early 1960s, I did the typical and went to Europe after completing my undergraduate studies, bought a Volkswagen, used it and eventually imported it to the U.S. where I was able to sell it at a substantial profit and pay therefore for the entire trip.

That particular hegemonic imbalance no longer exists. Other countries have since `caught on’, and we live today in a more pluralistic world of multiple centres and greater equality. All the decisive decision-making policies no longer emanate from the U.S. alone. The resulting colloquy between multiple centres we find reflected ubiquitously in the self-selectivity of market and religious consumerism. At least in the west, there appears to be an increased understanding of cultural and religious differences, and, as far as religion is concerned, one’s faith position is no longer simply a matter of acculturation into the religion of one’s parents. With greater knowledge, there is greater choice. Religious orientation has become an increasing matter of personal selection and decision-making.

However, in teaching classes on new religious movements and especially New Age and Neo-paganism, problems frequently arise due to students’ inability to grasp something as diffuse as New Age and Neo-paganism in which authority is devolved to local, individual decision-making levels. The chief difficulty as I encounter it is that students still tend automatically to compare and assess the emergent amorphous religiosities with the traditional religions. These last are understood as centred on the authority of a spiritual leader (a pope, imam, chief rabbi, guru, etc.) and/or the authority of a sacred text (the Bible, the Koran, the Sutras, etc.) Without the presence of a clear locus or standard of authority, students remain confused and perplexed by the spiritual network – its identity, its structure, its teachings and its practices. Religion still seems to be understood chiefly in terms of commitment, and when students cannot project what forms commitment assumes toward a diffuse and nebulous orientation, they experience difficulties in comprehending spiritualities that do not conform to the traditionally established norm.

This is perhaps all the more ironic in that my students in Bath clearly and predominantly appear to participate in what Colin Campbell has described as the cultic milieu. Many attend New Age workshops, seminars or lectures, and many engage in some portion of what can be considered New Age vocabulary. Most seem to be cognisant of Goddess Spirituality and some are pagans – whether Wicca, witches or Druids. So what I have found is that practice and involvement with an orientation on a personal level often remains distinct – dichotomously distinct – from the ability to study religion as an academic discipline. For the run-of-the-mill student, these are not the same and have little connection.

In some ways, this might be seen as a good thing. It allows for the possibility in the student of an objectivity akin to the academic who pursues the study of religion or religions as a developing science – one uninfluenced by the dictates and persuasions of the researcher himself/herself. If the student keeps his/her spiritual practice(s) separate from the academic discipline, he or she is promoting the growing study of religious phenomena as distinct from theology and/or ecclesiastical agenda. But since the English undergraduate seems to model understanding of religion against predominantly Church of England, perhaps the Roman Catholic Church and at best the world’s other major religious institutions, he/she encounters problems when religion does not conform to the standard prototypes.

At the end of each academic term at Bath Spa University College, students are asked to complete an assessment questionnaire for each module attended for the term. The majority response for the Paganism and New Age course, in a choice range consisting of excellent, very good, good, satisfactory and unsatisfactory, were predominantly satisfactory for overall impression – the second lowest. (This was six responses out of fourteen. The remaining were excellent – 1, very good – 5, good – 2, and unsatisfactory – 0). The highest degree of unsatisfactory responses concerned the question of assessing library and other resources (Six. The others: excellent – 1, very good – 1, good – 4, satisfactory – 2), and this raises another difficulty in the teaching of new religious movements, namely, lack of appropriate resources. However, by far and large, individual student comment expressed the confusion the individual faced in understanding New Age. It was too difficult to grasp; they could not get a `handle on it’; it was, in short, confusing.

The same attitude was not expressed toward paganism. And, in fact, from the Study of Religions Module Evaluation Form, there was an indication that more was wanted on paganism. Students felt there was an imbalance between New Age and paganism, that New Age was emphasised more than Neo-paganism, there was not enough on paganism, that there is a need for separate modules on New Age and paganism. Some felt that paganism was scarcely mentioned. This was not true, and, in fact, the course was evenly divided between New Age and paganism – so the student perception becomes interesting and indicative in itself.

Paganism and New Age are – and as I have taught them – radically different theological positions. New Age, through its precedent of theosophy, is a modern-day version of gnosticism. The world is rejected as either an illusion of deception or at least as something of secondary and regressive value. In New Age, the ultimate goal is to return to some a priori source, to that state of ultimate grace before the fall, loss and incarnation. Whereas in the past, theosophical and gnostic achievement often depended upon esoteric teachings and spiritual masters whether real or otherworldly, New Age argues that the occult and private registers are now open to full public and personal access. This `new access’ constitutes the `new age’ – one which incorporates a `quantum leap’ in collective human consciousness.

Paganism, by contrast, does not deny the physical. Instead, the earth is celebrated of at least equal value if not also the origin of the transcendental. There is no ultimate goal to which to return, and there is no desire to escape the physical origins of being. Instead, paganism celebrates the great round of life itself: the cyclic processes of birth, growth, death, decay and re-birth. The sacred is not confined to some wholly/holy other but is seen to encompass the whole of existence as itself holy.

To understand paganism, it is necessary to distinguish between its generic and nominal forms. By generic paganism, I refer to paganism itself, paganism by definition. But nominal paganism – whether cabalistically inspired magical systems, whether Pythagoreanism, Platonism or Neo-platonism – seeks an ideal one or prototype. Here the body becomes a tomb or prison – the soma sema concept. And there is a ladder of being by which the soul and true worth of the individual regains its privileged state. In a word, these systems are more accurately understood as forms of gnosticism in all but name.

But if paganism itself can range between or incorporate both the gnostic and the pagan as distinguishable ideal-types, the same dialectic is to be found within New Age. To the degree that nature itself is understood as the gift or creation of the divine in New Age, as something to be cherished and protected, there is often an unarticulated dimension of paganism within New Age. Hence the confusion – especially for students – between the two. Furthermore, to the degree that New Age relies on various Human Potential techniques aiming for self-development, and to the degree that the application of these goals includes tangible acquisition and increased physical competency or wherewithal, this human potential legacy of New Age is often itself this-worldly. Consequently, New Age incorporates yet again another pagan dimension in its emphasis on the `better life’ for its adherents. In the case of New Age, however, this emphasis may be seen as more akin to the capitalistic foundations of Calvinism in which physical well-being and accomplishment are presented as a sign of divine grace and confirmation. Moreover, both movements incorporate a general belief in reincarnation – but again for different reasons. New Age, following its adoption of transmigration as a religious concept from eastern religion, considers rebirth as a series of incarnations preparing the individual for ultimate release. Reincarnation here follows the general laws of dharma and karma. In paganism, by contrast, rebirth is understood as part of the natural cycle – a product, even, of paganism’s affirmation of life. Reincarnation becomes a means to `come back’ rather than a wheel of return from which to escape.

Moreover, vis-à-vis traditional mainstream religions with their institutional and authority structures, both New Age and paganism – despite their theological differences – are natural allies. Both revere the individual and local community as loci of selection and spiritual decision-making. As New Age spokesperson William Bloom phrases it, the contemporary spiritual position is one which rejects being told what we must believe and do. As a largely heretical stance, New Age and paganism endorse the individual as the arbiter over his or her own comprehension of spirit and meaning.

What all this translates into for the student, however, is often confusion. The confusion is of two types. One concerns the difficulty to distinguish the two movements and the fact that they are unlike traditional religions. The other confusion or difficulty arises from New Age and paganism’s vesting of ultimate authority in the self rather than in a bible, church or some other external authority. As this vesting of authority in the self is increasingly a part of the general modern western milieu that encompasses both New Age and Neo-paganism as well as Goddess Spirituality, the Human Potential Movement, Creation-Centred Spirituality and other related religiosities, there is an implicit danger that all authority becomes suspect and resisted – including that of the teacher him- or herself. To date, at least in my own experience, this development has not yet materialised. It nevertheless remains a very real possibility in any postmodern questioning of legitimacy and truth-claims to establish a viable and accepted foundation for an academic and/or educational position. New Age and Neo-pagan religions tend toward a solipsistic relativity that could question in turn the very basis for teaching about them. If we are the authors of our own reality, what need have we for teachers to inform us about our own authoring?

And beyond the educational issue, this becomes an ethical one as well. In contemporary pluralistic, multicultural society, the Durkheimian religio-ethical community has vanished. The modern question increasingly becomes one of seeking a unifying foundation upon which community issues and ethical questions can be approached. While the location of this unifying foundation remains beyond the scope of this paper, with regard to the more immediate concern of teaching from a position of informed authority, the strategy I find myself instinctually resorting to is one which emphasises to my students that whatever I say or teach is ultimately my own viewpoint, perhaps supported by colleagues and the academic community’s research, and it could be erroneous. I may even have remembered things incorrectly. Therefore, it behoves the student not to accept anything I say at prima face value but to question it, conduct their own research and come to their own conclusions. Something is not true just because I say it is.

Consequently, I will argue that the contemporary foundational relativity presents a gauntlet and goad for increased student innovation, research and calculation. In itself it need not be a detriment. But self-authority and self-choice include an additional `difficulty’ I encountered in teaching the New Age and Paganism module. This again centres on the development of the pluralistic world and the corollary notion of consumer choice – a choice not simply confined to the increased range of retail items but one which applies today as much to the so-called religious consumer supermarket in which spirituality in both belief and practice becomes a personal matter and selection process. In seminar discussion on the individual’s supposed increased range of choice, the student consensus argued that – even if true – it constitutes a mollifying illusion. My students expressed a feeling that individuals in contemporary western society are taught to believe that they are free but in fact they are less free. In a word, although this was not the term my students employed, there is an alleged pervasive form of state-brainwashing. The subtle insidiousness of present-day governmental effectiveness is such that there is no longer any student protest movement. While the students expressed their expectation  before having come to college that they would become involved in student demonstration activities, they have discovered that there is no current protest movement with which to become involved. The belief in increased religious freedom and choice is at best, so my students claimed, a manageable decoy for a bureaucratic and governmental strategy – nay, accomplishment – for the manipulation of citizens who labour under the false illusion that they have more individual freedom when in fact they have allegedly less. This again raises an issue which lies beyond the more immediate concerns of teaching. Let me here simply raise this question of student perception and return instead to the other confusion I referred to earlier.

If such religiosities as New Age and paganism remain confusing to the student not only because they are difficult to distinguish – often their respective literatures are found on the same bookshop shelves – or at least immediately adjacent ones, inasmuch as religion has traditionally been understood through the traditional religions, New Age and paganism are also confusing for students because they do not fit the traditional models of religion. In attempting to locate both general movements sociologically, I have in my own studies employed Luther Gerlach and Virginia Hine’s SPIN concept which delineates a segmented network that has many different centres but is integrated to some degree or another. The SPIN structure is a defensive mechanism for survival in a hostile environment. Its difficulty for the outside observer is that it is often difficult to see – if it can be located at all.

Gerlach and Hine originally formulated their understanding of the SPIN model in their study of the PLO. Gerlach and Hine were goaded by the denial of the existence of the PLO by western governments because there was no one who could speak for the movement as a whole. The anthropologists found that the flourishing of replicate cells allowed preservation of the broader network even in the likelihood that individual cells would be discovered and eliminated by the dominant authorities. Gerlach and Hine argued that the invisibility of the PLO, and hence the denial of its very existence, was a product of western observers preconceiving the necessity of hierarchical organisation which, if not located, made it impossible for the movement to be recognised. The PLO did not in fact fit the expected and standard understanding of an organisation. The same corollary development is found with contemporary students who, understanding religion in terms of church, denomination, sect and cult, are unable to `see’ and comprehend the SPIN structure of an emerging form of contemporary western religiosity.

Consequently, if the difficulty of teaching about new religious movements is compounded through the politics of representation and the appropriation of legitimate sociological categories like those of the sect and cult, a difficulty in teaching that concerns the more amorphous expressions of contemporary western religiosities stems from the situation that these newer developments do not conform to the church-sect typologies in the first place. If there is to be an answer to this difficulty, I suspect it lies in developing among students – if not among the general lay public as well – an increased understanding of conceptual categories as well as a broadening of the range or number of ideal-types. With a greater awareness of the shifting permutations and expressions of collective spirituality in both historical and traditional manifestations as well as in contemporary innovations and survival strategies, a greater understanding of religio-social variety in general and New Age and contemporary western paganism in particular could become a greater likelihood.

Part of this increased understanding must rest with developing an awareness of the finitude of religious institutions. Even the world’s major religions had beginnings and identifiable trajectories. Early Christianity itself may be understood in terms of the sociological construct of the cult. So I conclude, therefore, that with greater clarity in appreciating the nuances of ideal-types and various classifications as well as the limits of their application, the student becomes better equipped with analytic tools for the understanding of contemporary religion.