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Thoughts from the Orthodox

I’ve been following the writing of pagan writer Rhyd Wildermuth for a while, having originally seen his name mentioned by other bloggers. Of late, Rhyd seems to have been undergoing a shift in his thinking, and one of his recent posts – The Fires of Meaning – struck a chord, and helped me to clarify a train of thought about culture, faith, and why contemporary Druidry is seemingly so ineffective in responding to the catastrophe that is facing our society.

Since I expect pushback against some of the ideas I explore here, let’s be very clear from the outset: this is an exploration of how faith in general, and Druidry in particular, can help people cope during the collapse of Western society which is indicated by the scientific evidence available to us. If you believe that Western society is in fact likely to continue much as it is today, you don’t need to read this.

Rhyd is an American, now living in France. Although I don’t know Rhyd, I suspect from his recent writing that that he is shifting into a new worldview: an acclimatisation into a different cultural paradigm.

Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, developed a model for comparing different cultures using a six-dimensional scale. These dimensions are:

  1. Power Distance
  2. Individualism
  3. Masculinity
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance
  5. Long Term Orientation
  6. Indulgence

It’s very interesting to use Hofstede’s model to compare the culture of Rhyd’s original home, the United States with that of his adopted home, France (see the comparison on Hofstede’s website, here). I’ll also include the UK, for reasons I’ll get to below.

On a scale where 1 is low and 100 is high, the US scores 91 for individualism. The UK is close behind, at 89. France is at 71: still high, but a long way below the Anglo countries in terms of thinking of society as based on the individual as opposed to the group.

For Uncertainty Avoidance, there is another dramatic difference. France is at 86; the US at 46; and the UK at 35. The French like to know where they stand, and don’t like surprises. In the Anglo world, people are much more comfortable with uncertainty, the Brits more so than Americans.

In Long term Orientation, the pattern is different again. The French score 63; the Brits 51; Americans 26.

On Masculinity – the extent to which the culture is competitive, and dominance-seeking – France is at 43, the US at 62, and the UK at 66.

When it comes to Indulgence, the French score low, at 48. The Anglo world has less self restraint: the British are highest at 69, with Americans at 68.

Finally, looking at Power Distance, we see that the French have a very high respect for authority, at 68. Americans are next at 40, while the British actually have the lowest respect for authority, at 35.

If we take these together, we can see that Rhyd’s home culture is very self-focused, with a high tendency to go for immediate gratification without thinking much about what the future might bring. They do have a certain degree of deference to authority, but it’s limited. They are highly competitive, and seek to establish dominance over others.

However, his new homeland is quite different. The French have a far stronger sense of themselves as part of a community – and not just a community of place but also a community of time, spanning generations. They are very worried about the future, they think long-term, and they are willing to exercise restraint, avoiding immediate gratification. Where there is legitimate authority, they will obey it. The French do not value competition between themselves, and are not inclined to seek a position of strength over others in the community.

The British are something else. Highly individualistic, they don’t like being told what to do. They do worry about what the future might bring and take it into consideration, but they’ll take their chances and throw themselves into hedonism while they can. They are even more competitive, and inclined to seek advantage, than than the Americans. For many people, this description might be surprising but, again, I’ll come to that later.

I find these themes reflected in Rhyd’s post in which, it seems to me, he is coming to understand that he has joined a world in which memories, community, and traditions stretch back for millennia and expect to endure for just as long. A world with infinite local variety, but an understanding and acceptance of belonging to a greater whole. A world in which communal ritual is vital, because ritual binds communities together – and must, because the future might bring dark times again, and it’s understood that then everyone will need to pull together to get through.

I myself am British and, sadly, have to recognise that Hofstede’s understanding of the British is very accurate. This is why, as the Covid-19 lockdown began to ease, we saw crowds repeatedly leaving waves of litter and filth on Welsh beaches, national parks, and even on the doorstep of our national Parliament.

I can certainly recognise the individualism and lack of deference in my younger self. However, as with Rhyd, time spent living in very different cultures across Eurasia has very definitely left its mark on my thinking. Let’s add two more countries, China and Russia, into the mix:

  1. Power Distance: China 80; Russia 93.
  2. Individualism: China 20; Russia 39.
  3. Masculinity: China 66; Russia 36. (Remember that in Hofstede’s model, ‘Masculinity’ has the specific meaning of being competitive and seeking to dominate others).
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance: China 30; Russia 95.
  5. Long Term Orientation: China 87; Russia 81.
  6. Indulgence: China 24; Russia 20.

Looking at this, it is hardly surprising that the English-speaking countries so badly misunderstand the thinking and motivations of Eurasian countries.

I mention all of this because Rhyd’s post crystallised a train of thought which had been developing at the back of my mind for some time, and that train of thought is this:

There is a major problem with contemporary Druidry, and with the neo-pagan movement as a whole. This problem means that when it comes to dealing with the Climate Emergency – with Gwyn ap Nudd’s assault on modern human society – Druidry is not a part of the solution; it is part of the problem.

The problem is that modern Druidry, and neo-pagan movements such as Wicca, are very Anglo-American in their thinking, and very largely reflect the cultural values of the Anglo world: prioritising self over community, seeking immediate personal gratification, and a lack of commitment to the future. 

The uncomfortable truth is that we are facing three separate issues, each of which is capable of bringing our way of life to a brutal and painful end. No, it’s better to say that any one of them probably will bring our way of life to an end. And all three are happening at the same time.

These three crises are: climate change, resource depletion (particularly fossil fuels), and the fact that western economies now depend completely on printing money and on ever-growing and completely unrepayable levels of debt.

We know what it’s like when a modern, industrialised economy collapses, taking its society down with it; we saw it happen in Russia and the rest of the post-Soviet countries in the 1990s. What happens? Organised crime grabs everything worth having. The remnants of the state are no longer paid – so elements of the police and the military become heavily armed gangsters, while the individuals who retain authority asset-strip all government assets. As a result, there is an explosion of violence. Ordinary people lose everything when the banks collapse, and survive by bartering their remaining possessions on the black market. All food is locally produced; there are no more imports from foreign producers because the currency is no longer worth anything.

We saw that happen in Russia – but, truthfully, Russia wasn’t the worst it could be. As author Dmitry Orlov described in his book Reinventing Collapse (read a review here), many elements of the Soviet economy and social structures actually continued to function quite well, allowing ordinary people to survive the chaos until the Russian government was able to reorganise and start the process of rebuilding. The US (and to a large extent, the UK) does not have the same underlying structures and resources, so when things fall apart, they will fall apart harder.

As British academic Jem Bendell writes in his convincing, and influential, paper on the need for Deep Adaptation (links to a PDF file):

When we contemplate this possibility of ‘societal collapse’, it can seem abstract. The previous paragraphs may seem, subconsciously at least, to be describing a situation to feel sorry about as we witness scenes on TV or online. But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.

The Russians did not only experience an economic collapse. They went through something worse. They experienced the collapse of a worldview, and of a belief system which was their means of understanding the world. Of course, very few people by the 1990s still believed in orthodox Communism. Nevertheless, the sense of the USSR as a brotherhood of nations, and as a society that provided for all, was very real. Citizens of the USSR knew that they were citizens of an indispensable global superpower. All of that was lost overnight.

When a worldview and value system collapses, people will seek another. As humans, as thinking creatures, we cannot exist without a system that explains to us what the world is, what our place in the world is, and how we should behave.

When Weimar Germany collapsed in the 1920s and early 1930s, ordinary Germans found a powerful new belief system in Nazism. Who knows, perhaps Russia might have gone that way – there were certainly fascist voices seeking to be heard. Ultimately, an older system filled the moral void: the Orthodox Church joined to a sense of historical national identity.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the deepest and most interesting thinking about our environmental, economic, and social crisis in the West appears to be coming from the Orthodox community.

For example, I recently watched this very short clip, an excerpt from a longer interview, of Deacon Kentigern Siewers, of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

I happen to know the Deacon, though it’s many years since we last met in person. I’ve watched his spiritual journey with interest. I found this clip very much in tune with my own feelings because, although we obviously differ in our religious beliefs, we can completely agree on the idea that western Modernity and ‘Progress’ have led us to objectify ourselves and to objectify nature, and that this needs to be undone. He refers to the question of how we can become more human, which leads him to consider the question of unity with nature. I would not refer to “God’s grace”, of course – but we are very much in agreement on the point that we need to let go of the concept that we, humans, are at the centre of things.

Despite the personal connection, I might not have included that clip if it hadn’t seemed to reflect a theme I’d previously been contemplating: one raised by Paul Kingsnorth, the writer and former environmental campaigner, who recently joined the Romanian Orthodox Church. Here, in an interview on Unherd, he raises the need for “Secession from the system“, and asks “Can we learn to live within limits?

In a longer interview on Youtube, Kingsnorth points out that (from the Orthodox Christian viewpoint) makes some absolutely critical points:

  • We chose to leave [Eden] because we chose power, and knowledge, and desire – individual self-will – over communion“.
  • Humans need a mythic picture
  • We are all realising that we can create our own values, and there’s no reason why we should agree with each other, and so there’s no centre. And any society without a centre is not a society“.
  • Societies can’t survive without rituals
  • “Nobody wants to deny themselves [anything], and in this culture, this culture that we have in the West now, we glorify the Self. The Self is everything, the Ego is everything, we’re narcissists”.

You will recognise that what he’s saying are not generalisations or debatable political statements: they accurately reflect the data-based, scientifically-grounded cultural descriptors of Hofstede’s model.

It’s really worth watching the whole thing:

He says, regarding his unwilling conversion to Christianity, something very interesting: “Strange things started happening. I started having dreams“. I’m reminded of Druid writer John Beckett’s article: The Veil is Shredded, and of my own experience of being called by Gwyn ap Nudd. Something is stirring.

So here’s the rub. Our western society, our economy, and our way of life are running out of time. We hear lots of greenwash in the media about how fusion, or hydrogen, and electric cars, will somehow fix the climate and allow us to keep living the way we do now without having to make any sacrifices or major changes. But it’s nonsense. Please read this excellent article on Consciousness of Sheep: Are You Still Buying This? which will talk you through just why this is not going to happen, and cannot happen.

The unpalatable fact is that our society is on the verge of collapse. Whatever follows it will be a society dependent on what it can produce from its own local resources. It will be very hard, and very much simpler than our present life. Many people are not going to make it. Quite apart from the problems caused by the disappearance of the supply chains that keep us clothed and fed will be the psychological collapse and despair that results from being dropped into a world in which nothing makes sense any more. As we saw during the post-Soviet collapse, many people who are otherwise healthy go mad or just give up, because their entire worldview and value system have been shattered.

This is not inevitable. Culture can change. Beliefs can change. I referenced Hofstede’s analysis of British culture because it’s a very accurate description of Britain today – but it’s a description that may very well surprise those (including many of the British themselves) who still have an out-of-date view of Britain as demonstrated in Ealing Films from the last century: a Britain of community solidarity, of social deference, of shared belief and common purpose. That Britain disappeared two generations back; a new culture took hold, more suited to a country that had undergone major change.

That can happen again: another new culture can be introduced. This culture will root people in their community and land; it will lend people strength from their past and faith in their future. It will redefine the way we relate to nature, and to the Otherworld.

This change cannot come from the Anglo world. A culture defined by individualism, short-termism, and hedonism is not capable of the shared work and vision needed to transform itself. At best, those who are capable of defining a shared vision need to establish the foundations of the new society amongst themselves, separating themselves to the greatest extent possible from the mainstream in a work of Prefigurative Politics. This is something that’s been discussed for some years now: Dmitry Orlov’s 2014 book, Communities That Abide provided one of the first analyses that I’m aware of. However, the only major effort to actually do this, that I know of, is also coming from the Orthodox Community, via Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (though he models it on a Catholic Saint).

I suspect that several factors explain why the Orthodox Church is becoming so relevant. From my time living in Russia, I can attest that the Orthodox faith seems to give its followers a luminous and personal sense of connection, both to the Divine and to its community of faith. To a far greater extent than western versions of Christianity, it seems that Orthodoxy establishes a profound sense that the individual is subordinate to something greater than themselves. On top of this are the general cultural values of the nations in which Othodoxy is rooted: as noted above, Russians (as one example) have a very different cultural model to the Anglo west.

Finally, I think it is significant that, unlike western Christianity,  Orthodoxy has experience of catastrophe, and of rebuilding. From the fall of Constantinople, and the subjugation of Christians to masters of a different faith; from the defeat of Russia by the Mongols, and subjugation again; to the fall of ‘Holy Russia’ to the Bolsheviks, and the anti-clerical persecution and official atheism of the decades that followed; the Orthodox Church has survived, it has rebounded, and it has maintained the values and identity of the community which it inspires and guides.

I’m not a Christian, though, Orthodox or otherwise. I’m a Druid. And Kingsworth’s words trouble me. If you watched his video interview above, you may well have caught the same thing: that he looked for religious inspiration in the ‘Earth Religions’ such as Wicca, and did not find it.

That, I believe is because these movements – contemporary neo-Druidism included – are absolutely centred around individual fulfilment. It seems to me that a faith-based community that rejects the subordination of the individual to a greater whole, and rejects any attempt to find a common agreement on worship, is neither a community nor, in fact, a faith.

If we are to survive the coming catastrophe, and to build the foundations for a new society to emerge, one that can endure for centuries in harmony with the world of nature, and with the world of spirit, we Druids need to provide a meaningful vision; a shared value system that explains to people what is happening, and how they can endure it. I believe that Barddas and Welsh myth do this. In communicating their meaning, Welsh Druidry offers something that can bind a community together, offering hope and meaning for a society and for the individual spirit.

To conclude… well, I have no conclusions to offer. I can only say that I expect to be thinking more about the themes I’ve raised here in a number of future posts; I hope it might lead to a constructive discussion of how Druidry can help people face a difficult future. The only thing I can say for sure now is that this will require a community, not a collection of individuals.

8 replies on “Thoughts from the Orthodox”

Much to think on but perhaps this is where I see my personal Druidry as a journey of service and self fulfilment is a fortunate side order. Pun intended. Perhaps too the only Order I find of worth is one that seeks to identify what one is doing in service. But in the end I guess I’m unlikely to survive the wave that’s coming. For which I’m very grateful.

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Hi Bish, thanks for the comment. You’re already doing a lot to help the Druid community. I guess my own background and concerns make me particularly concerned about helping the community around me prepare for what’s coming, and to establish a foundation that others can build on in the future. I do think it’s going to get unpleasant for a while: we can look at not only Russia but also Argentina and other countries to see what a major economic crisis looks like, and it’s not pretty.

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Even after viewing them I know very little about it. But since I accessed them through you and we have a shared interest in studying Celtic polytheistic beliefs, I did reflect on what ancient/medieval Celtic peoples might have believed about nature and mankind’s place in it. I tried to catalog the relevant texts in my head, but that wasn’t too rewarding. Lol! There are some pretty odd ideas regarding that topic in Old Irish. Do you know of any early Welsh writings about it? I’d be happy to talk to you about the Irish stuff but it’d be so convoluted that I think that a full-on blogpost to really unpack it would be more helpful. What do you think?

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May I ask, what is your analysis on modern druidry such that you conclude: “The problem is that modern Druidry, and neo-pagan movements such as Wicca, are very Anglo-American in their thinking, and very largely reflect the cultural values of the Anglo world: prioritising self over community, seeking immediate personal gratification, and a lack of commitment to the future.”

I don’t disagree, but wondered what your thoughts were on the druid paths (that are fairly similar) that bring us to the individual over the community? I started a seed group to build just that community for the greater good. I am a regular attendee at the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. That event attempt (once successfully) to put the community over the individual and so this article hit home for me. I shared it with my group; however, I did want to discuss some of the conclusions reached. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!!!!

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Hi Trav, thanks for the question!

I guess I need to just remind everyone that this blog is me trying to work things out in public, not some kind of pulpit; as such, it’s a reflection of my personal experience, which is necessarily incomplete. So, what I’m saying in this post reflects my experience of interactions in various Druid and pagan groups; I’ve found that notable numbers of people get very angry very quickly at any suggestion that they might not, and perhaps ought not, do exactly what they want. I’ll be enlarging on this in a future post. It’s the case, though, that people in the OBOD FB group have blocked me, because they think that posting links to this blog I’m trying to impose a dogma on them. So, I have to consider the possibility that I am coming across in that way. However, Caitlín Matthews, who’s one of the big names in Druidry, recently posted a complaint that she’s been trying to get Druids to organise for decades and it’s “like herding cats”: people simply will not work together even when it would benefit the community as a whole – so I don’t think it’s just me. John Beckett also addressed the topic in a recent post (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2021/05/why-are-pagan-groups-cash-poor.html) and has referred recently to the “don’t tell me what to do crowd”, which confirms to me that the same situation applies in north America. Plus, I follow various Druid-related blogs, and I just don’t see anyone putting a complete belief system together.

Does that answer your question?

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It does! Yes. Thank you. I appreciate you being willing to put yourself out there with your reasoning and thoughts, to generate actual discussion. I was just wondering what some of your experiences were. I too have felt the “me” first mentality, in all aspects of society. I am struggling with it in my group of friends. I completely understand what you mean by American is the same; America is all about the individual and not about the community, as a result we are lonely, suicidal and depressed in an ever increasing isolation despite being surrounded by so many people. Our families are divided and estranged, our friends are mostly “fair weather friends” and the populace idolizes fame (self-recognition) over all else. Our Druid path does create a community of like minds, but not necessarily a community of of for the “greater good”. In part, I suppose this is due to the limited numbers and distance, for example, there are only 4-5 other OBOD members in my area and only 3 of us know and see each other. Still though, thank you for this blog post. I am sorry that others are so afraid of hard topics that they have to block.

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