How to offend a fundamentalist

Every tradition, every human endeavour has a little cluster of fundamentalists. Some more vocal and obvious than others, but all of them having, in my experience, a fairly similar outlook. It goes like this: Standards must be maintained. There should be rules (determined by them) to exclude the unsuitable (people not like them). There must be no dabbling, no half hearted, partial involvement. Everyone must be very serious, hardcore, totally dedicated and involved. Wisdom, longstanding involvement and knowing how it all works are the keys to authority, and it is the fundamentalists, who, in their own eyes, are always the people best qualified to lead, inform, dictate and define.

My experience of running things has also taught me this. There are people who come in to all activities with little experience and a lot of enthusiasm. They bring energy, new visions, they don’t always respect the established form because they can see how to do it better. They are often young, opinionated idealists. If you set the fundamentalists on them, they just go away again, but the vibrant newbie and the conservative fundamentalist never combine to good effect.

I grew up in the folk tradition. I understand and value tradition. If you do not sing the old songs, there is no real folk. If all you do is new innovation, you do not have the trad that has to be the essence of folk. What you have instead is a bunch of singer songwriters with acoustic instruments. At the same time, if all you have is the tradition, and all you are allowed to do is the things that have been done, in the way in which they have always been done, the results are boring and sterile. You get a museum piece, not a living tradition. Ultimately, it dies. Given a choice, I’ll take the vibrant new thing over the stale old thing every time, because even though I love tradition, sterility is death and innovation is life.

I’ll take the dabblers, because people who dabble, learn and most people won’t make a deep commitment without having time to see how it all works first. You only need a small percentage of your dabblers to become serious for that to really pay off. It also gives you time to see if they fit, and what you might do with them. Dabblers and people from outside bring ideas and challenges, they do not always recognise, much less respect your status quo. They keep you real and alive. I’d rather, for example, that people came to druidry and learned something that enriched their lives, than that they stayed away because they couldn’t make a total dedication.

I don’t like authority. Fundamentalists are always interested in authority, in who has the right to dictate (them, or people they approve of) and who is in control. To be a fundamentalist is to want things done your way, and to be much less open to alternatives. Now, I know that I have yet to discover the one true way. I’m not all knowing, I’m not wholly at ease with the breadth of my wisdom. I’m a work in progress. I learn from other people, and the people I have learned most from have not, for the greater part, been self important rule makers. They’ve been experimentalists, testing the edges and sending back reports. They’ve been people who made mistakes, too. We learn from each other, none of us assuming that we have it all pegged. That’s the kind of Druid community I want to be part of. It doesn’t denigrate expertise and experience, nor does it denigrate the questioning mind and new ideas of someone who has just turned up.

In any tradition or endeavour, you need balance. You need the voices of experience if you’re lucky enough to have them, if they aren’t in your circle its worth seeking them out. Experience spares you from reinventing the wheel. You also need responsive, creative energy. A tradition that replicates the past will just stagnate. A deep understanding of a tradition makes it possible to recognise where the essence of it lies, what is surface and can be safely tinkered with, what is absolutely vital and must be left alone. You can put a modern drum kit under and ancient folk song and it’s still folk. You can play a reel on a saxophone and it’s still folk, there’s a lot of room to manoeuvre. You can write folk songs about modern life, and it’s still folk. Ask me to define what makes it so, and I’d struggle, but I know it in my bones, and so do plenty of other people. I feel much the same way about Druidry.

I’ve been doing this for long enough not to really count as one of those bright young things anymore. I’m blowed if I’m going to turn into a fundy. I’m trying to walk the balance between the old and the new, respect for the past and the energy of innovation. I seek out those whose wisdom, knowledge and experience exceeds mine, so that I can learn from them, and I also seek out the bright young visionaries who want to shake things up. The one set of people I don’t tend to look for, are the ones who want to hold on to their own, precise and regulated way of doing things. I keep an ear out because it’s always useful to know things, but there’s no point even trying to talk to someone who knows it all, and knows they are right, and knows you are wrong. On the whole, you’re better off talking to rocks and trees, they tend to be more flexible.

It’s endlessly difficult trying to work out how to include people who do not want to include others – it’s as true for folk as for Druidry. I think the best thing to do is let them go their own way, and try not to take them personally. Treat them politely, listen to them because they are often well read and know things, but do not let their desire for authority result in actual authority unless you are indeed happy to do everything their way.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “How to offend a fundamentalist

  • silverbear

    Long live diversity of thought and creative enterprise.

  • Makarios

    ‘. . .if all you have is the tradition, and all you are allowed to do is the things that have been done, in the way in which they have always been done, the results are boring and sterile. You get a museum piece, not a living tradition.’

    This! You’ve described one of the major differences between a living religion and a historical re-enactment society.

    Given the opportunity to develop, all religions change over time. For example, the Judaism and Christianity of today are not the Judaism and Christianity of 2,000 years ago, or of 1,000 years ago, or even of 100 years ago; and a good thing, too. Blind attachment to “the way we’ve always done it” is a sure road to irrelevance.

  • Alex Jones

    It is a regular theme in Celtic stories of a king who into old age becomes a tyrant turning everything he touches into decay and ruin; then along comes a challenger who overthrows him and then all becomes well. You can recognise such kings because their wife deserts them for another man, which is another way of saying that the Land has turned its back on the King. The noble King Arthur became a tyrant in the end, that was why the land became sick and his Camelot fell to ruin. All fundamentalists are tyrant kings.

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