What If Nicaea Happened Online?
What if the Internet had been around 1,689 years ago? What if instead of a call for the top figures in a new religion to attend a council in Nicaea, the conversation had happened online? With all the advantages and risks of such communication?
That's the fascinating mental experiment posed recently by John Beckett on his blog Under the Ancient Oaks. Beckett lists about as many titles as the Queen of England: Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids; ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship; Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
All of which means he is both a leader and holder of a ringside seat for whatever is happening in the Pagan world. He headlined his recent post "Showing up." And he posed his challenge this way:
"Every time I compare the running debates on the Pagan Internet to the Council of Nicaea I get pushback. Some of this is understandable. The Council of Nicaea was one of the most important events in the establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion of Europe and its output has helped define Christian orthodoxy for over 1600 years...
"What's relevant is that 1800 bishops were invited to participate in the council. 300 showed up. Those 300 bishops made decisions that are still in effect today. What would the Council of Nicaea been like if the other 1500 bishops had attended? What would it have done differently if ordinary priests had also been invited, or lay Christians?"
Nicaea, of course, is where still-young Christianity hammered some heavy theological points into dogma. Just how divine was Jesus? Do we like the word filioque? Should the Book of Revelation be considered part of the Bible? The decisions reached at that council affected religious and secular history down to this very day.
Are Pagans at a similar point? It's hard to draw a precise parallel. Modern Pagans are organized a lot looser even that the Christians of the Nicaean era. What exactly is a Pagan, anyway? Are Wiccans Pagans? How about Heathens?
Beckett uses what he and others call the "Four Centers" model: Nature-centered, Deity-centered, Self-centered, and Community-centered religion. Which means, among other things, that they worship gods. Some Pagans turn to the deities of historical pantheons. Others, not so much.
And just as those ancient Christians had to decide just how literally they wanted to believe in aspects of Jesus, modern Pagans are discussing what it means to believe in lesser, multiple gods. Are there actual personages living someplace that have an interest in this world and the power to take action? I asked Beckett for his take:
"As for Pagans and the gods, ask 10 Pagans and you'll get 12 answers. Some see them as real, distinct, individual beings with agency of their own. Some see them as aspects of one Great God/dess. Some see them as the personification of natural forces or as psychological archetypes. And some don't see them at all."
How about his own worship?
"The primary way Pagans deal with this is the idea of Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG). My experience of the gods is real and no Pagan is going to argue that it's not (well, some will argue with anything, but that's not the point). But my interpretation of that experience is binding only on me -- it's unverified, and I can't reasonably expect someone else to accept my Damascus Road experience as authoritative for all Pagans.
"Now, if other people have similar experiences, it becomes Shared Personal Gnosis. If enough people have similar experiences, it becomes accepted lore -- at least for that group.
"From a practical standpoint, what matters isn't whether the claims of experience of the gods or the efficacy of magic are literally true. What matters is if our interpretations of those experiences are meaningful and helpful. If they are meaningful and helpful, they are mythically true even if they aren't literally true."
Which means this modern "Nicaea" isn't aiming for anything as codified as the original. More than most faiths, organizing Pagans is like herding cats. Which is why Beckett wrote his "Showing Up" post. As he explained to me:
"Show up and your ideas have a chance of taking off. Don't show up and they're guaranteed to die with you."
That model actually reminds me of a very modern phenomenon: The digital world of the Internet. Form a node. Network it. And see who pings. Ideas that work for enough people go viral pretty quickly. Others fade.
Paganism is a movement perfectly suited to an online discussion. The numbers of followers are small and physically dispersed, so face-to-face meetings can be challenge. Ideas range from vague to concrete, which means synchronous conversation can even be a challenge. Online, every "bishop" is everywhere. There's always more time to work on ideas or carry on arguments. And the exact record of the online consultations can be available to be read as long as electrons flow.
Of course, the Nicaean bishops didn't have to worry about trolls. And had an easier time of keeping their flame wars private. But the technological advantages enjoyed by many modern Pagans likely outweigh the downside.
Does this mean that Pagans will be meeting in their many millions a couple of millennia hence? Who knows? But if there are Pagans then, and if any echo of our current technology survives, believers of that day will know a lot more about the debates of their spiritual ancestors than modern Christians do about the disputes settled in Nicaea.