Unverified Personal Gnosis is the Foundation of all Religion OR How Our Distaste for Misrepresentation can Fuel Poor Group Dynamics

I visited a forum recently. Someone relayed a fairly…interesting UPG. It was not supported by the literature (AT ALL). It was not supported by community held UPGs (AT ALL). Should we correct each other? Absolutely! Should we be ugly about it? No. These are all points most of us agree on. But what about those far fetched UPGs? Not the ones we roll our eyes at (“I am Ramses reincarnated.”). But what about the ones that seem pretty…out there?

I think most practicing pagans, whatever their persuasion, have an opinion on unverified personal gnosis (UPG). A UPG is when a practitioner gains insight or a message through their own intuitions, contemplations, and/or communication with a deity. My general opinion is that UPG’s are generally good things, but they should be balanced against common sense, logic, and (in the case of an organized path or a recon path) historical evidence/tradition.

All religions are based off of someone’s (or often times collective) UPG(s).

The Annunciation, where Gabriel tells Mary she has conceived Jesus of Nazareth.

The Annunciation, where Gabriel tells Mary she has conceived Jesus of Nazareth.

All practices, myths, philosophies, and concepts are man made. By that I mean a man or woman wrote it down or told it to others. Religion is a product of humanity, however divinely inspired. Even if a god incarnates and reveals something to mankind, it is recorded and retold by people, and people propagate those practices through time.  A new idea is usually, at the least, loosely based on ideas which came before it. Some more so than others. Maybe it was so radical people laughed, until a little cult fixated on the idea. Then people probably gawked.

Usually, new ideas in our cultures aren’t entirely original. Rather, they are a synthesis based on what came before them, either within or outside of the native culture. This can make it hard to distinguish clearly with whom an idea originated or when a certain concept emerged.

But they all had to emerge. And people, men and women such as ourselves, were the vehicles for emergence.

When UPG Evolves into Common Religion

It seems to me that when a UPG is:

  • made popular/is widely accepted
  • woven into existing myths/schemas or pulls from existing myths/schemas,
  • becomes time tested (meaning it sticks around either due to utility or preference)

it is generally considered common practice. It may become foundational to a religion and thus become orthodox. Even when it isn’t necessary to hold these opinions or beliefs in order to be a member of a religion, there may be strong social stigma to do so, even if it goes against logic or evidence to the contrary.

Obviously, if you have a faith that is time tested, you get a a number of conveniences:

  • an established community and/or body of knowledge/practices with which to work
  • knowledge or practices that have worked for others, and will more likely work for you (no recreation of the wheel)
  • In some instances, symbols and concepts may already be a part of your world view, which enhances the utility of symbols and the comprehension of ideas
  • Material or ideas already exist independent of you; thus, lessons or mysteries or themes you would have never thought of on your own exist for you to widen your horizons.

Why does any of this matter?

As someone attempting to create her own path, it is important not to reinvent any wheels, and in fact to use the wheel that most closely fits the original…unless none of those wheels fit on my cart.

As someone forging a path using a pre-existing, ancient culture as a blueprint, it is important to let that culture inform my synthesis as much as possible….but if I happen upon an idea or connection that works and does not violate common sense or the basic cohesion of my practice, there’s no reason not to employ it. I want my path to be dynamic and personal while remaining influenced by the past. I want it to be relevant – to me, my time, and my beliefs.

The general consensus is that should you declare yourself a “hip” (historically informed pagan), reconstructionist, revivalist, or any other label that suggests recreation of an old religion, be careful not to publicize information that isn’t historically accurate without the proper disclaimer. The whole point of these paths is to reconstruct! You can share UPG’s, but state them as such. HOWEVER, all we are doing (IMHO) as any of the above is seeking to recreate a collection of UPGs that were proven effective, cohesive, time tested, popular, and interrelated. We seek to modernize UPGs which became orthodoxy (and at that point they aren’t classified as UPG’s anymore).

 Validity and Misrepresentation

I try not to assume an “out there” UPG lacks value if isolated from the person which bore it. Many times we say, “Wow. Well, whatever works for you…” but we don’t actually work out the kinks we perceive in the chain. I try to explore all the possibilities before casting aside or assimilating. Because men and women 3 millennia ago were just as human as men and women today. Their religious experiences are no more valid than ours. Its true that they have time and popularity on their side. But not all good ideas became popular, and not all popular ideas are good. Secondly, who knows what time could do for our own revelations? Don’t throw away your critical thinking skills…but don’t build an impenetrable fortress either.

Many pagans I’ve encountered employ a laissez-faire policy. So what if Joe believes the pyramids were build by aliens, and the Set-animal proves it?  So long as Joe isn’t going around saying “This is what all X believe,”  live and let live.

But sometimes, Joe doesn’t necessarily generalize his “out there” UPG to the whole group, and he doesn’t need to. If he identifies publicly as a member of the group, we see him as a reflection on us. When his ideas clash with ours, we feel misrepresented. We fear others may see Joe as a representative of all members of the in-group, i.e. us (or, even less positively/likely, we are insecure about our own identity and such generalizations upset us by way of cognitive dissonance).

That’s the rub. People  can get up in arms when they feel they are misrepresented. And its natural. We invest great deal of ourselves in our paths. Everyone wants to be viewed truthfully and positively.

Could this be why UPG sometimes causes such a raucous?

As an aside…

I sometimes feel in the Recon/HIP/revivalist communities, there is an extreme need to be “historically accurate”, and to get “the earliest and purest form” of things. Notice the word extreme. Granted, these communities are fulfilled spiritually be recreating past religious practices. But at some point, those same practices were “made up” by someone. So, even though the whole point is to recreate, does the age and accuracy of rituals, beliefs, or a myth really validate the practice?

Shouldn’t the efficacy and meaningfulness to the practitioner be the main validity test? Wouldn’t you be in danger of recreating for recreation’s sake if this weren’t the case? In the end, you can’t prove much about religion, much less which one is better. And better to whom? Even the value of religion is relative to each practitioner.

Reconstructing old practices is the name of the game in a reconstructionist path. But, in my path, it is only the name of the game so long as it makes for a better person and an effective practice.

**Braces for impact?**

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