Textual Arachne

A weaver of threads.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

It's too early for existentialism.

10am on Sunday is always too early for existentialism. Nevertheless...

...One of my classes this semester involves existential anthropology. Without a background in philosophy, I'm limping along somewhat. In an early lecture, the professor quoted Sartre's "soundbite": existence precedes essence. He then started talking about what this means for an anthropological viewpoint: don't study Communism, study how people who call themselves Communist behave. Don't posit some kind of "eternal essence", whether it's "the eternal feminine" or the "eternal religiosity"--at least, not when you start. If a pattern, a set of similarities and similar conditions, shows up from what you're studying, then you can talk about that, but not as if it were some kind of Platonic ideal that exists apart from the people who make it.

I like this approach. I'm oversimplifying it a bit here, of course. Now, although I do not plan to make Paganism my main topic of study, I ended up relating the lecture to my faith. And it seemed to provide some insight into a question that I'm often asked at the Div School: "What is Paganism, anyway?"

The glib answer suddenly doesn't seem so glib. Paganism is what Pagans do. That is, there isn't a litmus test for Paganism, nor an easy set of five major characteristics. The existence of people who announce that they are practicing Paganism defines what the patterns of Paganism will be. Social action? Sure, there are Pagans for whom that is central. Ritual magic? Same answer. Reconstruction? Same answer.

To some of you, this will be extremely obvious. For me, it served as another way to reaffirm that what we believe isn't--and doesn't have to be--simple; that our beliefs can best be discerned by looking at the pattern of the weave formed by our actions. All our actions, whether they're purchasing groceries, working for a living, casting circles, or journeying inward.

And moving from that idea, I came again to the concept of looking at the world--all the world, all its injustices and cruelties and beauties and hopes--in order to discern the pattern of the Divinity within it.


At 10:56 AM, Blogger Inanna said...

Hey, it's never too early for existentialism (as long as I've had my coffee)! But seriously, I haven't heard of existential anthropology, although I've studied Sartre (and especially Beauvoir) at length as a philosophy grad student. I like what you've said here and the way you apply it to thinking about Paganism. Thanks.


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