Academic v. Experiential – Its Really a Question of Personal Balance

Question — Do you sometimes feel that discussions on Pagan topics get a little too Image“academic” in context?

I asked this particular question on the podcast’s Facebook page as well as on my Google+ page.  The response wasn’t overwhelming in terms of numbers, but I have less than 25 people on the Podcast’s page, and Google+ doesn’t really tear up the world in terms of commentary and response.  But I did get a handful of responses.  Most agreed that there is a lot of emphasis placed on academics in Pagan conversation.  Pagan blogger John Beckett – From Under the Ancient Oaks – had one extremely interesting observation to add:

Pagan conversations _can_ get too academic. I see this more from intermediate practitioners who have moved beyond the 101 level but who haven’t yet learned that “doing” is more important than “knowing”.  —John Beckett

Which starts to open another can of worms over what is and is not “101 level”?  But, we’ll save that question for another time.  Then, last night I started on “The Mount Haemus Lectures:  Volume One 2000-2007“.  Created by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, the Mount Haemus lectures are…well, let me step aside and present the explanation in their own words:

…”the Order grants a scholarship each year for original research in Druidism and related subjects. We have called this scholarship the Mount Haemus Award, after the apocryphal Druid grove of Mt Haemus that was said to have been established near Oxford in 1245. (The Mount Haemus Award)

So far, its been a very interesting book – though I’m only part of the way into the first lecture by Dr. Ronald Hutton.  The Introduction is written by Philip Carr-Gomm, and the very beginning was a reminded that synchronicity is something very real within Druidry studies.  You start talking about something, and no sooner do you turn around but find that same subject presented somewhere else.  Yeah.  The first two sentences smacked me right between the eyes.

“Where the harsh light of too much analysis shines, poetry, inspiration, and the faery folk flee from the scene.  Where poor scholarship, misunderstanding and fantasy reign, the wise move to higher ground.”  –Philip Carr-Gomm

I’ll be swoggled…here is the exact thing that I was trying to express…in a book that I had pulled off the shelf last night, simply because I had finished two others.  Synchronicity?  Magick?  Destiny?  Fate?  Coincidence?  To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t matter to me one whit, and actually pulls me away from the topic at hand.

I’m a sideline watcher at gatherings.  Generally, you will find me on the edges of a gathering of folks, just watching.  What am I looking for?  Sizing up the pretty girls?  Well, I’m a straight, heterosexual male – so yeah.  However, that’s not the complete reason.  I like to watch people interact with one another.  And in Pagan crowds, I’ve noticed a few things.  I’m only going to discuss one here – otherwise this blog might go on forever – and I’m not inclined to type that long.

Newbies – or Seekers as some folks call them – are very intimidated by the conversations that the “seasoned veterans” hold amongst themselves.  Particularly when the conversation turns to the usage of academic sounding language (or in some cases – academic discussion overall).  To be perfectly honest, there’s nothing wrong with academic discussions – in fact there’s a desperate need for discussions and writings to present a more scholarly approach within the Pagan community (as pointed out by both John Beckett and Philip Carr-Gomm in the above quotations).  However, an academic approach is not necessarily the best one to utilize in front of Newbies or even others for that matter.

Paganism – pick a brand – is about experiential moments.  Particularly, those moments happen in the ritual circles or other settings designed to have the adherent feel or experience some emotion or something along those lines.  There are plenty of academic explanations for it – but I care little for those adjectives or “explanations” if you will.  These are moments to feel and experience.  I understand the desire to be as accurate as possible in explaining the idea of the Chase for a ritual depiction of the Wild Hunt.  But in the end, the ritual is still about the experience, not the academic moment.  And this is where I think the folks just stepping onto the Path of Paganism can get confused, particularly when the focus switches from the experiential to the academic.

I’m guilty of this, just as much as the next Pagan out there is.  Many times, in talking to people about Pagan belief and study, I’ve made the assumption that the individual I am speaking to is on the same level of understanding as I am – only to find out that I was completely wrong.  In some cases, the individual was barely starting out on the Path, and in others, they had been on the Path and experienced far more than I had ever dreamed of.  I am reminded of those conversations and my moments of realization – and my panic at those “aha” or “uhoh” moments.

I’m a professor at a local college.  I hold a Bachelor’s degree and two Master’s degrees.  I understand the necessity of academic rigor in studies.  However, I’m not an academician when it comes to my beliefs.  I don’t need to know every single factoid about something to relate to the necessary state of mind for a ritual experience.  But that’s me.  For someone else, it could be exactly the opposite.

There’s a necessity for balance between sheer experience of the emotive side of things, and the academic study.  When one over-powers the other, the focus of Life within one’s Spiritual side becomes unbalanced.  At least that’s this Libra’s opinion.  🙂  And what I may consider to be “balanced” will not be the same definitive aspect of “balance” for another…

2 thoughts on “Academic v. Experiential – Its Really a Question of Personal Balance

  1. Yup! I too worry sometimes about swaying too far into the academics of Pagan spirituality not only when speaking with new seekers on the path but for my own well being to an extent. Remember when I said, awhile back, that I feel those spaces you sometimes find in between what speaks to the mind and what speaks to the psyche are where the magick really happens? I know myself well enough to know that I can dive down that rabbit hole of wanting to know the mechanics of how it works, the why’s of how it works, the minute academic details of what makes it work that eventually the magickal is lost and I come away feeling, while perhaps satisfied that I might have it figured out, spiritually there’s kind of an empty feeling. Maybe it’s best that some things remain a mystery?

    So yeah, a little academic knowledge but not too much makes for a good recipe in my book. How far in one direction or the other the scales should be tilted though? I think it depends entirely on the individual.


    1. Troy – you bring up a point I was actually circling around in this post – letting the mystery remain a mystery. There’s a ton of things to explain within the aspects of religious belief — but I do believe that there is a tipping point to it as well. Once that tipping point is achieved – its like letting the “magic smoke” out of the computer (to borrow from a bad computer technician’s joke). Its sometimes better to let the mystery remain a mystery…

      The other side of the coin for this particular post comes from what I see as an attempt to seem “smarter” than other people by obtaining every scrap of knowledge available on a myth or story that is going to be presented in a ritual setting. In this manner, the person is able to speak like a “learned” individual or an academician. But there’s a blow-back from that position as well – since the ritual should be about (in my opinion) the experience instead of the factual knowledge. So I see where an academician may completely miss the point of the ritual experience, and someone who has not researched the topic as deeply may be far more open to the entire experience.

      Knowledge IS power. Experience IS reality. Together, in my perspective, they combine to provide the strong, mystical experiences that are sought in ritual. There’s balance where the two agree – but it can be 50/50 for one person – and possibly 70/30 or 30/70 for another. I sincerely believe that its the search for that balance that we are all on…and its our desire to achieve the “right” balance that keeps us searching…even when we think we’ve found that balance…


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