This morning at breakfast, a friend and I got into an interesting discussion about spirituality. After reading the Corey Olsen book (Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, 2012), I found myself thinking once again about the distinction between fictional and historical spirituality, and reflecting on whether or not it is a valuable distinction to make.
The idea of a fictional spirituality is that you can base practices and even beliefs in a fictional source; such as LOR or Star Wars or Star Trek—and that this does not de facto prevent you from living a valuable and production life. Some people would say that to live your life ‘based on a fiction’ is inherently inauthentic; but I disagree with the generalization. I have thought of my own book, The Fires of Yule, for the last year or so as an exercise in fictional spirituality, as it is ‘set’ in Ross County and is now – in the new edition coming out this year – narrated by a fictional character – Cornelius Whitsel.
But what constitutes a ‘fictional spirituality?’ What defines it; especially as in distinction from an ‘historical spirituality’—and what defines that?
Is the distinction simply that an historical spirituality is grounded in historical facts whereas a fictional spirituality is grounded in ‘literary’ or ‘fictional’ sources? As I have said, somewhere (perhaps here in another blog?), a fictional spirituality draws its content from fiction, not from history. The practitioners of such a spirituality know that they are basing their praxis on a text or film (series) that is not historical, whereas the practitioners of an historical spirituality can cite historical sources and know that their praxis is tied into history in some way.
But this does not seem very clear cut; and it blurs at the edges when you start thinking about it more deeply. For instance, take The Fires of Yule: while it is ‘set’ in Ross County and narrated by a fictional character, everything I say about Celtic Paganism and mysticism is drawn from sources from the Celtic tradition; there are historical precedents for these practices, even if no one before me (or perhaps before my Horned Ones) ever practiced “The Thirteen Dayes of Yule.”
Furthermore, what if someone practices a ‘fictional spirituality’ that has been practiced for generations? Will the practitioners of a spirituality based on Star Wars pass on their spirituality to their children? Will others pick it up and carry it on? If so, does it eventually become an historical spirituality? What about historical religions? I would argue that most of what practitioners of the major world religions believe is fictional, even though it has been believed (in) for thousands of years, and thus has an historical dimension.
Does a fiction that has been believed (in) for thousands of years become an historical fact? No, obviously—that’s silly. But a fictional spirituality, once practiced for decades, not to mention millennia – does become, in one sense, an historical spirituality. _And fictional spiritualities, consciously constructed by one or a number of people, can contain historical elements. _Nothing is ever ‘created out of whole cloth’ with no precedents! (Even the cliché jibes at itself; there was the ‘whole cloth’ out of which something was created to begin with; lol)
At breakfast, my friend suggested a distinction between “organic” and “synthetic” spiritualities as a possible alternative. While there are problems with this terminology as well, the hermeneutic gist is that an “organic” spirituality would be one that arises out of a sociocultural context ‘spontaneously,’ ‘un’-consciously – having an inner dynamic of its own, whereas a synthetic spirituality is one that is ‘assembled’ – with conscious intent – by a creator or founder(s). So a phenomenon like the early Jesus movement or even the advent of a ‘Tolkien inspired spirituality’ might be counted as organic, whereas much of Neo-Pagan spirituality seems to be synthetic; in the sense that many practitioners are consciously constructing – or in their minds often ’re-constructing’ – a spiritual praxis out of traditions and even historically researched accounts of ancient Pagan cultures.
Yet this is a different distinction from the fictional/historical one; it cuts a different way, and doesn’t make the point I thought I was trying to make. _And I’m not sure the point I wanted to make was well defined to begin with. It’s just that it has long struck me that a spirituality can be grounded in fictions as well as historical facts; and that this does not make the spirituality ‘false’ or ‘inauthentic.’ But just because a spirituality has the pretence of being ‘historical,’ that doesn’t make it so; nor does it being grounded in ‘historical facts’ make it authentic.
The more I think about this issue, the more I find it muddled. It is not clear what is meant by a ‘fictional’ spirituality. It doesn’t really mean that the spirituality is ‘fictional,’ does it? That would be a strange idea. Rather, I’m aiming at the idea of a spirituality grounded in fictions. But that could intend an exploration of a Tolkien or Star Wars inspired spirituality as much as lead to a critique of traditional western religions, for instance, which are all grounded in fictions (resurrections, prophecies and miracles, ascensions, etc.) as much as ‘history.’ Judaism, Christianity and Islam put themselves forward as ‘historical religions,’ in juxtaposition to ancient Pagan religions; which were considered more ‘mythological’ and therefore ‘made up’ (there’s the bias against the truth of fiction coming out).
Let me go down this path a ways …
I think it is true that ancient Israelite religion emerged more from tribal experiences supposed to have been within the reach of people’s historical memory, than were many ancient Pagan religions, grounded as they were in the cycles of the seasons and the ‘eternal return’ of the same events year after year, the practitioners becoming more mature as they moved further along in the spiraling of time and experience at each cycle. Israelite religion was supposedly initiated by encounters between the tribal ancestors and their god – perhaps archaically called “Yah” – the ‘religion’ evolving as people encountered their god and had experiences of the god in their lives. But, as modern research has shown, the accounts of the patriarchs are composite stories put together by later generations, written and re-written to fit new circumstances, and not ‘historical accounts’ in the sense in which we today understand ‘history’ (i.e., as a researched account of what actually happened at x time in x place). As such, are they not as much ‘fictions’ as the seasonal-based tales of ancient Pagan religions?
I would say “Yes,” they are of equivalent ‘fictionality’ (a term complementary to ‘historicality’). It’s just that one set of fictions is grounded in the cyclic experience of the Earth and the seasons, while the other is based in touchstones thought of as ‘remembered events’ from the tribal past that have been passed down orally and then in written accounts, and that are supposed to have ‘happened’ – not in some dreamtime or otherworld, but in the same historical stream as other events in our lived empirical lives. But just because so much of the mythic content of Israelite religion and its descendants (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is fictional, that doesn’t mean that it (i.e., the mythic content) isn’t ‘true.’ _That is a question that has to be dealt with separately. The critique I meant to imply above is aimed at those who argue that the big three western religions are all ‘historical,’ and for that reason ‘true.’ The fictions of western religion are true in the way that myths are true, not as researched historical accounts are true. They are both true, just in different ways. They express different kinds of truth. _And this doesn’t stand or fall on whether or not archeologists can verify the existence of x city or x person from the stories in the myth-historical texts! For instance, finding the ossuary of James the brother of Jesus (even if they could verify that this is what the artifact actually was) doesn’t make anything in the letter attributed to this person in the NT any more ‘true’ or ‘false’ by itself. Ok, so there was a man named James who was the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. Did he write the letter attributed to him? _That’s a different question. Does it validate the content of the letter if he did write it? Again, it does not.
Having said all this, are there spiritualities that are clearly fictional, and others that are clearly historical?
No. I think there is probably always a blend. After all, a spirituality is basically a praxis that contributes to our living life to the fullest. A genuine spirituality is one that allows us to understand ourselves, see ourselves for what we actually are, and then helps us move toward wholeness, self-realization, personal-fulfillment, enlightenment – or some combination of such aims. Whether the stuff of the stories and tales that we repeat as part of this process is historically verifiable is less important than that it is existentially authentic. A spirituality that tells you that you are an alien being from another planet, or that you are just a soul wandering through the physical world and imprisoned by it, is not helping you to understand what and who you really are as a human being; a biological creature with the specific personal history that makes you you and the particular evolutionary history that makes you the particular kind of animal that you are, by virtue of hundreds and hundreds of millions of years of biological processes that we cannot undo or re-write at our whim at this point.
We are who we are. We are where we are.
Spirituality should always be a path of awakening to this present reality; leading to self-revelation and empowerment—a praxis that helps you to become what you are best capable of becoming, both as an individual and as a member of your family, community and species. It should teach you where you are – in the world, in time and in history – as much as show you where you are in your own life-process. It should then reveal the possible paths you can walk from where you are to where you might be going, and offer choices. I think that spiritualities that are characterized as ‘fictional’ can be just as good at this as those that are characterized as ‘historical.’ So long as we realize that there is more than one ‘kind’ of truth, and allow that fictions can reveal truth as much as history can reveal it, we’ll be on a potentially authentic path.