Open-minded academics are somewhat hard to find much of the time. This stands to reason when jobs are already rare and having a reputation for thinking outside the box frequently equals thinking outside the academy. I am always pleased, therefore, to find unconventional works by credentialed authors. I just finished reading Sabina Magliocco”s Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Magliocco takes head on the dilemma that non-empirically verified experiences sometimes do happen. Of course, Paganism accepts that as a matter of course, and Magliocco notes that many Pagans hold advanced degrees in the sciences and some even have university posts. Experiences have a way of defying the rules. Most of us have had a bizarre coincidence or uncanny occurrence or two transpire in our lives. We are trained, via our scientific worldview, to shake our heads and try to dismiss it. Magliocco pauses to wonder if we’re perhaps being too hasty.
Sabina Magliocco is an anthropologist with a legitimate doctorate and a university post. Witching Culture is largely an analytical study of Paganism, but it also allows for the possibility that experiential knowledge might complement academic knowledge. This remains a debated issue among specialists: who can really know a phenomenon objectively? Many argue that empirical data reveal the truth of the matter, but truth remains a slippery concept. At the opposite debating table sit the smaller coterie that argue that you can’t study magic until you’ve experienced it firsthand. The debate does not divide along even lines and this is reflected in society at large. We accept the utility of science, but many still pray for divine intervention. Specialists in religion fear to take sides—after all, jobs are hard to find and increasingly harder to keep.
Fully aware that the modern Pagan movement is a revival movement following the hiatus of Christendom in Europe, Magliocco nevertheless admits to being a practitioner. Fascinating her readers with first-hand accounts of mystical experiences, she draws back to try to analyze what has just happened. And she tells us so. Years ago, as part of a seminary assignment, I attended an Al-Anon meeting as an observer. I am, however, the adult child of an alcoholic and when the circle came around to me I confessed to being both an observer and a person seeking healing. It was a difficult place to be, so I respect what Sabina Magliocco is offering us here. Anthropologists increasingly doubt the possibility of pure objectivity, and even physicist Werner Heisenberg realized that to observe is to be part of the experiment. And so are we all.