It appears as though Wicca is by nature incapable of answering the difficult questions asked of it in the most recent post in this series. It might be suggested that some mistakes have been made with regard to something that has been said concerning either Wicca or the questions asked of it. Someone might suggest that mistakes or misunderstandings of Wicca or its implications have come about. For example, it could be that the main source used for this series, Essential Wicca, is unreliable. It might also be that this book alone is simply not thorough enough to provide a general understanding of Wicca. Or perhaps I am just incapable of understanding or thinking through the implications of what I read. I will answer these three concerns in reverse order.
First, concerning the possibility that I am just incapable of understanding Wicca or its implications, I do not claim to be an expert in Wicca or Paganism. I have not studied them for as long of a time or as in-depth as I have other religious and philosophical belief systems, nor have I attempted to practice them on a consistent basis. Wiccans may see these admissions as undermining my work, but there are good reasons for taking what I have to say more seriously than that. Practitioners of many of the world’s religions often chalk up the objections of outsiders to simple misunderstanding. Blinded by narrow dogmatism, ethnocentrism, and inexperience, outsiders are immediately dismissed as unqualified to comment upon the strengths or weaknesses of a tradition other than their own. While it is certainly understandable that people become quickly irritated by uninformed “attacks” on their beliefs by people who have never actually encountered or sought to properly represent the adherents or contents of those beliefs, this absolutistic dismissive spirit toward all outsiders is an unfortunate mistake. Alleged inexperience amongst outsiders is not nearly as problematic as it is often made out to be, for everyone is inexperienced in some sense with respect to something. Even most Wiccans are initially inexperienced with respect to Wicca. It does not follow that they are unable to understand and learn Wicca. They are! Even extremely dogmatic people can still learn about other religions and philosophies.
It may be objected that there is certain experiential and secret knowledge only accessible to those who are experienced in Wicca. I understand this concern, and I believe there are problems with it, but setting these problems aside, it is still the case that some things may be known or understood without first coming to the experiential or secret knowledge. Every Wiccan had to start somewhere, after all. This series pertains most immediately to that knowledge which is outside of the aforementioned experiential or secret type of knowledge.
While some religions may not be fully expressed in text the way that others can be, there are at least some things (and I would argue, many things) in Wicca which can be expressed through text. After all, witches are known for reading and writing a great deal. In my estimation, people in general are much too presumptuous with respect to what other people have and have not experienced anyway. For example, I constantly see Christians painted as people who were born into their faith, indoctrinated with the faith, and limited to their faith in terms of their study and thought throughout the entirety of their lives. Wiccans are often quick to point out the ignorance of Christians concerning anything outside of Christianity, but not all Christians were born, raised, and limited to Christianity during the course of their lives. I certainly have not been. I was not always a Christian. Hence when I am painted as an individual with no experience of religious or philosophical thought outside of my own, I know that I am dealing with a rather presumptuous, and mistaken, individual. Lovingly pointing this out can be a challenge. For the sake of those with such a presumptuous attitude, I hope I have been able to point it out here without unnecessary offense.
It should be mentioned that one recognizable difficulty in teaching or learning about various religious and philosophical systems is finding points that the people learning about the systems will be able to relate to. If no such points can be found, then an outsider can never even begin to understand about the system in question. On the other hand, these points that others can relate to may pervert the purity of the religious tenet or system in question. The Christian may, for example, view particular beliefs or belief systems wholly in relation to their own such that everything becomes thoroughly “Christianized” and is therefore misunderstood. Or perhaps the Christian (or whatever else) may learn about a particular religion (X) by comparison to another (in this case non-Christian) religion (Y), in which case X comes to be understood only as it relates to Y, and not in terms of X itself (because it would allegedly be an impossibility to learn about X in terms of itself). These are knotty problems that I will not even attempt to answer here, but it suffices to point out that while we all have presuppositions and worldviews from which we evaluate others and hence can never be fundamentally neutral observers, we can shed a great deal of our bias and attempt to understand views other than our own as much as we can in terms of those views rather than our own. There will be some notable similarities and differences between various systems that can become points of contact from which to learn about other systems, and Wiccans themselves, recognizing helpful comparisons and contrasts between Wiccan and the more popular Christian beliefs, will often use these in educating others about their own religion. I approach Wicca with presuppositions just like everybody else does, but I have not always been a Christian, I understand the difficulties in learning about other religious and philosophical systems (I have a degree in comparative religions), and I may even be able to offer something concerning Wicca that the Wiccan cannot because he or she is an insider rather than an outsider.
Second, concerning the claim that Essential Wicca is not thorough enough to provide a general understanding of Wicca, it should be pointed out that the book is, not necessarily contrary to the complaint, extremely thorough. Nevertheless, the book is not an exhaustive work, and it is not treated as such in this series. Even this series is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of Wicca. In response to the objection in question two lines of reply are available. The first is that the book in question is, contrary to the complaint, thorough enough to grant one a general understanding of Wicca. The second is that the book in question is not the only one that was used in writing this series, even though it is the only one that appears for interaction. While researching Wicca and Paganism for this series I had the privilege of accessing a witch’s Book of Shadows (in this case it was an entire shelf) and spent hours looking through, reading, and cross referencing the material there. I sought to confirm my general understanding of Wicca through the Internet and a number of online communities of witches and pagans. Some of this research served to shine some light on the philosophy and practices of friends I have had the privilege of knowing in the past who were witches and pagans. There is a wealth of information available about Wicca and Paganism. Witches are known for reading and writing a great deal of material. An exhaustive understanding of Wicca would be difficult, if not impossible, given the massive amount of material that exists concerning Wicca, and especially given that much of it is not accessible to the public. So while it may be objected that a single book is not enough to provide a general understanding of Wicca, it must be pointed out that a single book is not all that has been consulted, but the book in question is sufficient for providing a general understanding of Wicca as confirmed through various other sources.
Third, the suggestion that Essential Wicca is unreliable is not at all shared by the mainstream consensus of witches. Rather, the authors of the book in question are loved and very highly respected within the Wiccan community. The authors did not write what they did as ignorant outsiders, but as very knowledgeable insiders who studied, taught, practiced, lectured, and wrote on Wicca. An Internet search on the book in question will yield a host of positive reviews of the work written by Wiccan and non-Wiccan readers. Even if one disagrees at minor points in the book, overall it provides an excellent introduction to Wicca. In at least one sense, Essential Wicca is an authoritative work on Wicca. It is written by Wiccans, for Wiccans (as well as those wishing to start learning about Wicca), and is even very highly praised by Wiccans. The book is well-written, well-organized, and presents the basics of Wicca in its unity and diversity. There should be no objection concerning the content of the work, and it can be corroborated through researching Wicca in other works, on the Internet, and in relation to practicing witches. In the sense described above, Essential Wicca is authoritative.
However, it should not be forgotten that Essential Wicca is nothing like a Bible of Wicca. It is not an authoritative source in Wicca in the same way that Scripture is an authoritative source in Christianity. It’s not even close! Remember, Wicca has no authoritative revelation and Wicca has no authority or authorities within the Wiccan community itself who would be in the position to write unquestionable religious dogma or doctrines for Wicca as a whole or even in part. In this second sense, Essential Wicca is not authoritative. Therefore Essential Wicca is not being treated as a singular authoritative source for Wiccan beliefs in this series as that would be a serious, not to mention obvious, misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Wicca. It should be noted that in rejecting any Wiccan or Wiccan writing as authoritative in the second sense above (the way that the Christian Bible is considered authoritative) the Wiccan is able to subjectively object to the teachings therein, but is not in a position to objectively denounce the work. Given Wiccan rejection of authoritative revelation, dogma, and doctrine, and the resulting autonomy, there is no one right understanding of Wicca. Instead, there are only general similarities between the respective beliefs of individuals who call themselves Wiccan. One may feel uneasy upon reading this potentially problematic observation. The purpose of this particular post is not to draw upon the problems the preceding admission may cause. However, the failure of this inherent subjectivism will be addressed in a future post. Essential Wicca is written by Wiccans who present a general overview of Wicca through focusing upon the similarities of the beliefs and practices of particular Wiccans. It is not an unreliable work.
Negative Transcendental Critique
There may be some qualms with the method being used to address Wicca. It was mentioned earlier in the series that a negative transcendental critique of Wicca will be offered. The term, “transcendental” should not be confused with transcendence, transcendent, transcendentalism, etc. as used in various ways by Christians, Wiccans, and others. Rather, “transcendental” refers to particular beliefs or belief systems which allegedly constitute preconditions of intelligible experience and knowledge. A “critique” is merely an analytical survey and evaluation. The critique used here is “negative” in that it seeks to demonstrate that the worldview in question fails in some respect. Negative transcendental critique is similar to reductio ad absurdum, but where a reduction to absurdity begins with a proposition and derives unacceptable contradictions from it, a negative transcendental critique more immediately pertains to the preconditions of knowledge itself. A negative transcendental critique may serve as a part of a transcendental argument; an argument that sets forth a maxim or a maximal noetic structure as sufficient for some epistemological task, denies that maximum or structure, and generates an inconsistency through the negative transcendental critique. In order to deny the maxim or noetic structure in question, one must likewise affirm it, which is contradictory. Insofar as Wiccans wish to make any knowledge claims, or intelligible claims at all, the negative transcendental critique will, if successful, demonstrate that Wicca is untenable. If, on the other hand, Wiccans do not care at all about knowledge, intelligibility, or the self-refutation that results from such an absurd position, then the apologetic aspect of Christianity is complete. Apologetics are by definition concerned with reason, but reason is not the sum of Christianity anymore than it is the sum of the acceptance or rejection of Christ.
The next post will return to the task of offering a negative transcendental critique of Wicca especially in terms of Wiccan pragmatism.