What If? Subjunctive Theological Reflection in Heathenry

(This article is a little longer, but it’s worth it)

Theological reflection, aside from winning lots of points at Scrabble, is something that’s easy to write down, but rather harder to explain. In essence it’s thinking about your faith, resulting in an approach that might be new, or modified. Theological means ‘about faith’; reflection means ‘having a good think’. So: what use is theological reflection to heathens, or to pagans in general? Why would we spend some our of (probably limited) time thinking about how we practise our faith?

Reflecting theologically can bring new understanding, deepen our connections to the divine, bring a moment of sudden inspiration or insight (known as a Kairos Moment) or a realisation over time (known as a Chronos Moment). We need to work at our faith, devote time and effort to it, experience it in different ways, challenge ourselves and not get too comfortable in what and how we understand the world to work. The ritual familiar can provide a deep connection, but without growing, learning and developing our faith we run the risk of becoming stagnant. The gods always have plenty more to teach, and many more ways that they can influence our lives. For me as a heathen, theological reflection is something that I try to set aside time for, even if it doesn’t lead to a blinding moment of inspiration there and then, it may do in the future. It can help me appreciate my faith in different ways, some of which I may end up incorporating into my regular practice.

There are several cycles for theological reflection, most based on Kolb’s Learning Cycle (1984). Kolb looks at experiential learning in four stages: having an experience, thinking on that experience, learning from that experience, and putting that new knowledge into practice.

In Judith Thompson’s book, Theological Reflection, Todd refined this cycle for use in faith contexts, and it is from him that the Kairos Moment forms part of this process. Here a situation is described in detail, looking at historical, sociological and psychological aspects, before engaging in faith connections. There is then time to reflect (and pray if it’s part of your tradition), and to look at all the different aspects and influences. According to Todd there will be a moment of insight, which is followed through in reflective action. This leads to a new situation, and so the whole is more akin to a spiral than a circle.

A way to apply this might be:

A situation arises – something which you want to reflect on: for example, the offer of studying a new course; taking up a new job which is less hours than your current one; being asked to give up your driving license on medical grounds; or having an argument with a close friend.

Take time to describe the situation – write it down if it helps: your thoughts and feelings, the context, in as much detail as you can. The more detail here, the richer the reflection will be. Is there historical precedent? What about the social implications? How might it affect your family or those around you? What images, smells or sounds are connected to this? Are there economic implications? Are there costs in terms of time in the future? Think of as much detail as you can.

Then think of the situation in terms of your faith. For me, as an inclusive heathen, I might look at any situations in the Havamal, the myth cycle, the sagas, or modern heathen prayer books or devotionals. I might not find direct parallels to my situation, but something I’ve written down or thought about may remind me of something I’ve previously heard or read about.

Now it’s time to think: let all these things percolate or turn over in your mind, see where your thoughts go, and be prepared to accept seeing things in a new way. I pray as part of my tradition, so I might choose to spend time in prayer or silence; offer to the gods, my ancestors and the spirits of place, and ask for their guidance; or let them know that I recognise I am at a decision point.

All this should lead to a moment of insight about the situation, and from there, action based on that insight. This results in a new situation arising, and the spiral can continue.

There are lots of different methods of theological reflection out there, but I’d like to focus on just one for this article: Subjunctive Theological Reflection, more commonly known as ‘What if things had been different?’ This doesn’t focus on a personal situation or experience, but more on a point within the theology that can be explored. In terms of modern Heathenry there are plenty of ‘what if’ moments in the myth cycle or sagas which can be explored: What if Frey hadn’t given his sword away as part of his courtship? What if Skathi had picked Baldur in the line up of bare feet? What if Thor hadn’t got Mjolnir back when he dressed as a bride, or if he’d succeeded in his challenges at Utgard against the giants? What if Idunna and her apples had been permanently lost to the gods when she was taken by Thiazi? What if Hel had let Baldur return to Asgard when she was asked? What might the immediate outcomes have been, and what might the implications have been for the myth cycle as a whole?

Below is a piece that came out of a recent subjunctive theological reflection: Are Odin and Odr the same or different? This took some time in reflection. I wanted to write a piece that kept the ambiguity, but also held the possibility of the two being the same. What might Freya feel at the decisive battle between the Aesir and Vanir at the beginning of the myth cycle? Where does Odr fit into the cycle? He’s mentioned as Freya’s lost love whom she mourns, but nothing else is known about him. Freya ultimately teaches seidr to Odin: what omens might she have seen leading to these events, and why might she have chosen to teach him this art? Ultimately this cannot be held as certain truth, but as an exercise in faith, which brought me closer to understanding.

The Lady watched as her brother and father went to negotiate their future with the General of the victorious army. The summer sun shouldn’t be shining so bright and warm on a day like this. It was a day that deserved rain, and bitter winds. She had not cried: her kinsmen had fought bravely, and not shied from the foe, even when the raven flew high on the red banners and her brother and father, deep in the melee, must have known then what would happen in the hours to come.

She watched eagles circling overhead, heard the wolf call from the scrubland, and remembered the messages that had come through to her in the months before today: warnings and dread in the straight-lined marks, changes of such magnitude that she couldn’t see a single thing staying the same afterwards. Again and again she asked, as if the repetition would make a difference. Again and again, the same answer came.

She watched the General approach. He had come forward alone, confident in the honour of the defeated. He had not shirked his armour or helmet; buckles glinted, iron-shirt shining. His decorated helm had circles for the eyes: one in shadow around which polished garnets glistened, the other eye a steady pale blue, watching all.

She tried to listen to their words in hope of understanding, but they spoke low together. The General glanced over to her and looked away. Were they discussing her future?

Something about him sparked a memory from long ago. A Spring day like this, the blue sky the colour of his eyes. The colour of hope, and trust, and certain faith in each other. The colour of shared laughter, an oath of love sworn sacred. Two eyes of pale blue, the confident spark of youth. He came from outside their halls, confessed he had spied her from afar and wanted nothing more than to meet her to exchange words.

One day in late Spring, she knew, she was certain. And so sure he felt the same.

Will you always be my love?”

Eyes like the bright flash of kingfisher feathers looked back. “Always.”

Their conversations grew longer and longer still, until she looked for him at the windows daily, waiting impatiently until she could see him again, her love full and wanting. They shyly met her father, and brother, and the summer day they married together was the sweetest memory she held. Their days were full: plans for their hall near her fathers, the foundation pits dug for great beams, talking about carvings, tapestries and tables. And still he made her laugh, the hours sweeter now they could spend more of them together.

The Summer wedding turned to Autumn planning, and Winter’s chill warmed by her heart and certainty of love lasting. They walked under frost-rimed trees, picked pine and oak, weaving them into shapes to set onto the frozen river.

She would tease him: “Will you always be my love?”

Eyes the colour of the deep frozen bay looked back. “Always.”

Then there was a day when he did not come.

She had waited at the windows, watched until the sun track dropped and turned the light golden. Watched until dark coated the fields and the moon track drew high.

Dread settled in as she waited for the early frost to draw delicate weavings on the high beams, and the grey morning light to set them all to sparkle.

The sun was watery pale that day; not strong enough to thaw the frosts, or her frozen thoughts. Still he did not come to her. She cast for an insight, and saw in the shapes a message of such change that for the first time since she had learned the spellsongs, she wanted to dismiss it and not listen.

But once the song was heard, it could not be ignored.

He came as the sun track was lowering and the frosts began to spread in the dusk. She knew what he would say, even before he spoke.

My love, war is coming. I have to go.”

There was nothing she could say in return, save, “Will you always be my love?”

Always.”

Are you married, Lady?”

Her thoughts interrupted, she found the General standing a few paces from her, his shadow across her face. Her brother and father stood beside him, a pace back. She hadn’t heard him move. He felt cold, this General; solid, sure muscle holding his armour, the weight of war on his shoulders, his one eye holding so much knowledge that it spilled out and out in his steady gaze.

No, Lord. I… was once, but he left when this war came.”

She looked into his eye. Her skin prickled with recognition and for a moment only, she was certain.

I grieve with you. Many die or are changed in war. I will care for you now, Lady. Your family is safe with me. I will protect and love you as if you were my own wife.” He looked at her, and for a moment, in an eye the blue of the burbling stream that ran beside her father’s hall she sensed a warmth she had not felt for too many seasons.

As the General turned to leave, she stepped forward and, impulsively, called after him:

Will you always be my love?”

He stopped, for a moment. He did not turn. She heard a whisper on the wind:

Always.”

(This article first appeared in Pagan Dawn, issue 215, the topic was also covered in Frithcast Episode 79)

Kolb, D (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey, Prentice Hall

Thompson, J (2017). Theological Reflection. London, SCM Press

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