Content vs Creator: Ethics of Inclusive Heathenry

Like many pagans I have a hardbound blank book into which I put favourite things: prayers, images, ritual openings and closings, full rituals on occasion, becoming a collection of words and images that resonate with me and a record of my spiritual practice as I go through the years. Recently I’ve had occasion to look back through some of my old stuff, and aside from finding words and dedications to a particular Vanir a lot further back than I’d been aware of at the time (Hello Freya) I also found a prayer to the Disir that I had copied in, not once, but on two separate occasions some months apart.

Hold that thought right there, sidestep: pagans tend to hold to the maxim that you find wisdom in many places, and something can resonate with you at the most unexpected of times. Wisdom is where you find it. If someone says something that profoundly resonates in that moment, it’s as valid as hearing it from a priestess, a gytha, or a member of the clergy from another faith. Something profound can be found in the smallest of things: a fallen leaf, a stone catching the light just so, the raindrops on a window, a thank you, a spiritual connection, not only in things, but in words.

For pagans, including heathens, there are ethical boundaries and dilemmas that we encounter in our faith practice. Ethical decisions aren’t a clear matter of good vs bad choice, but bad vs bad choice. Ethical decisions mean that we as heathens weight up a multitude of variables and make our best choice for us at that particular moment. In heathenism and paganism there are extremists, far right groups and individuals are especially vocal in modern Heathenry: some can be an easy spot, others can be more muddied in their intentions, values and morals. Which is where it can get tricky. Not in terms of which heathen path I choose to follow, an inclusive path has always been the one which resonated with me through all the years of practice, but in the material that we choose to research, reflect on, and learn from.

But what happens if a heathen prayer resonates with us, and are later discovered to be written by someone with an ideology which is in complete opposite to our own? Nothing about the prayer I found and copied into my book would suggest an ideology, and after reflection I had found I had projected my own inclusive ideals onto the words. Can we as heathens separate content from creator? The creator of the prayer that I had found so much meaning in is one who is outspoken, far right and the complete antitheses of all that I understand to be good and right about my faith. Do we as heathens have an ethical obligation to discount any material produced by those we find in direct ideological opposition, or can we take the art, prayer, or statuary created as a thing in its own right and find meaning in it, regardless of who created it? Can something meaningful and good come out of exclusionary ideologies?

The argument of ‘can good come from bad?’ be seen again in the ethical use of the Pernkof Topographical Anatomy of Man by Jewish surgeons (https://www.statnews.com/2019/05/30/surgical-dilemma-only-nazi-medical-text-could-resolve/) Do we, as inclusive heathens, choose to use, or reframe the argument by choosing to reclaim, neutral material created by far right heathens in our inclusive practice? What affect might that have on those inclusive heathens around in in our Hofs and communities if those individuals witness us using material produced by far right prominent figures? Is it morally and ethically defensible?

It can be hard to understand where material originally comes from, especially in the case of prayers which can end up copied and published across several blogs or sites without proper citation for the original author. As heathens, sources for modern material can be tricky, especially when you find a new piece that seems perfect for the occasion. Do we use it and draw the line at some of their more outspoken and direct work? Do we refuse to use anything originating in exclusionary practice on our own inclusive practice? Sometimes it’s hard to tell where an author stands, especially if they are new to you, some authors have openly documented ties to exclusionary Heathenry, for other creators there is no evidence at all, until something is brought to light months or years later.

The decision is not quite so simple, as with all heathens, every creator is walking their own heathen path at the same time we are walking ours: a creator may initially be vocally inclusive and create material, until they aren’t and become increasingly exclusive in outlook, continuing to create. Do we as heathens choose to use their material up to that point, or discard all their material immediately understanding that the exclusionary sentiment must have always been there? Creators can sometimes use online names, which can make it difficult to associate the name on an exclusionary book title with that of someone online selling heathen jewellery or art, or creating content in discussion groups or writing blogs.

The ethics of this, as always with ethics, are not straightforward, and there are lots of aspects to consider. What is the most ethical way we can approach this in our own practice, knowing that the way that we practice as an individual also affects those we connect with: reposting a prayer or poem online to a discussion group, kindred, Hof or sharing on our own personal social media ties us, however loosely or tightly, to other heathens? The decision has to be an individual one, and one which is unique to each circumstance. Heathenry is orthopraxic: how we choose to practically express our faith and what we do is often seen as of more importance than the exact doctrines behind it.

Ethical and social values are by nature implicit in inclusive Heathenry, supporting social and faith inclusion in movements such as Black Lives Matter, LGBT+, disability and neurodiversity: the Gods choose whom they want (and in general don’t let us know why). How do we as modern Heathens respond to the ethical dilemma of creator vs content when it comes to material produced by those with whose ideology or doctrine we we are in opposition to?

For myself, I have kept the prayer in my book (as to remove it would be to have to remove the pages) and marked both entries with a Do Not Use. A reminder to my future self that I have made an ethical decision and grown from the reflective experience.

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