Oct 212011

Swallowing the Ruins

Photo by Stuck in Commons

Today we’ve got an interview with Drew Jacob, also known as the “Rogue Priest.” He is the creator of the Heroic Life and author of Walk Like a God.

I asked him about everything from why he likes the tangible so much to how he teaches the Heroic Life. It’s a lot of great discussion, so let’s jump right in, shall we?

The Tangible

C LUKE MULA: I’ve noticed that you take a more tangible approach to things. For example, during the “Encounters in Nature” discussion with B.T. and Urban, B.T. suggested that the “inner” wild is just as much of a wilderness as physical nature, to which you stood your ground and emphasized the importance of tangibly encountering physical nature. What is it about the tangible that appeals to you?

DREW JACOB: Well, the thing about nature is that people usually go to one of two extremes in thinking about it. They either romanticize nature, and how amazing and beautiful it is, or they say that it’s this dangerous, cold, and cruel thing. And I don’t disagree with either of these; nature is really beautiful and it is definitely dangerous. But when you’re actually in the wilderness, and living off of what the wild has to offer, you realize that nature is quite generous. People call themselves survivalists and stockpile cans of food and all this ammo; eventually those things will run out. But nature will just give you food. Food is amazingly abundant, as is shelter. And I don’t mean scraping by, living a miserable existence. You can actually live quite comfortably purely off nature. That’s what my stay with hunter-gatherers taught me.

CLM: So instead of romanticizing about nature, you’d rather get out there and see what it’s really like.

DJ: Yeah, it’s a different thing to actually experience it.

CLM: Gotcha. So, bringing this back to spirituality… I know that your book, Walk Like a God, is filled with these tangible, get-out-and-do it types of practices, and I definitely see this emphasis on the tangible cropping up on Rogue Priest. Any idea why there’s this focus for you and where it might come from?

DJ: Well, I’ve practiced Celtic polytheism for most of my life now. It’s the tradition that trained me as a priest. The most basic and important practice in our religion is meditation. This is a practice that you don’t have to believe anything for; you experience it firsthand. When you practice meditation, you see some immediate results, and a lot of development over years of practice. It’s an exercise, just like crunches. Let’s say you did fifty crunches a day. Each day your core would get stronger and stronger, and the more you exercised, the more those results would accumulate. Or if you stopped doing crunches; you would soften up, your core would weaken, etc. Meditation is the same way. The great thing is these results are not just in the practitioner’s head; there’s been extensive study showing the ways in which meditation changes the brain, and its health benefits. It’s something that it really changes you, and that’s something that you can feel for yourself.

CLM: So you’re saying that the immediate results that anyone can see are important.

DJ: Yes, very much so. The immediate and the long-term results. Spirituality and inner change is good and everything, but what effects is it having on your actual life?

CLM: Yes, I definitely agree with you there.

The Heroic Life

CLM: All right, moving on. Let’s talk next about the Heroic Life. I randomly found it on the Internet one day, and I’m not even sure how at this point. But I have to say, I love the Heroic Life, how it’s worded, and how it’s structured. It’s really great. I’ll probably never practice it, but I think it’s awesome.

DJ: (Laughs) Yeah, I actually get that response a lot. People are are really enthused by the Heroic Life and think it’s great, but I don’t think many of them will practice it. And that makes me think I’m doing something right. Because heroes aren’t average; they’re rare individuals. Anyone has the potential to be heroic, but as my mom commented to me most people are afraid of taking that kind of risk. So if I was designing a ‘heroic’ lifestyle and everybody who heard about it wanted to jump right in, I’d feel I was doing something wrong.

CLM: Now that you mention it, I’m currently working on the “Challenge of Heroism,” which is all about focusing on the goal of becoming a hero, and I realized the other night that I’d never, ever want to practice it. The whole “taking great personal risk” thing, especially for a stranger, is honestly something I’m not going to go out of my way to do. And even if I did try, it may not work out. Daunting stuff.

DJ: Yeah, it really is.

CLM: Anyway, back to the Heroic Life. I wanted to know what your philosophy is on communicating it to others. Let’s say someone came up to you and asked you to teach them the Heroic Life. How would you respond?

DJ: It is still a work in progress. I’m not teaching anyone to do it yet because I haven’t done it myself yet. I mean, if someone stumbled across Rogue Priest and was like, “This is awesome, this is everything I believe, and I’m totally dedicating my life to this,” then I’d say that’s great! Go for it. If they have the gumption to take this journey and live by their ideals and help people, I only want to encourage that. But I’m not recruiting. If someone asks me to teach the Heroic Life to them as a student-teacher type situation, I flat-out tell them, “No.”

CLM: So at this point, your blog is your main way of teaching people the Heroic Life?

DJ: Yes, but the thing is, I’m still working it out. It’s not that I have a problem with taking students. I’ve done it for ten years with Celtic polytheism. But for the Heroic Life, something I haven’t even fully put into practice yet, I don’t have the right to accept a student. The blog is really a journal of my own journey in understanding the Heroic Life more than anything else.

CLM: Interesting. That’s actually really cool. I never fully understood what Rogue Priest was all about, but seeing it as sort of a design journal absolutely makes sense of every entry on there. I’m definitely even more supportive of Rogue Priest now than I was before. That’s awesome.

DJ: Good! Glad to here it. The Heroic Life, at its core, is based on the idea that travel changes you. It is about getting out of your comfort zone and really experiencing something besides what you’re used to. And since this is coming my own travel experiences are limited, part of my Great Adventure is learning what exactly it means to have travel change me. I think that when you really travel from one place to another, doing it slowly, on foot, on bike, or whatever, and really take that in, it’s life-changing. So that’s a lot of what my walk to South America is going to be about; developing the Heroic Life and making it real.

Walk Like a God

CLM: All right, let’s move on to Walk Like a God. In it, you offer lots of practices for spirituality, many of which I’ve been putting into practice to good effect, especially “letting nature speak to you,” which I think is really powerful. But in the book, you pretty much make an appeal to naturalism, saying that it doesn’t matter what a person believes, they can still interact with the gods. Why did you put that there?

DJ: Well, people look at that and usually ask if I did that to appeal to hardcore atheists who would have rejected my book otherwise. And the answer is, not at all. I wrote Walk Like a God exactly how I practice it. The focus is completely on the practices, not the beliefs, so it really doesn’t matter to me what someone believes about the gods. If they want to think of them as psychological constructs, they’re free to do so. If they want to treat them as real, external beings, that’s fine, too.

When religion gets brought up, one of the first things that people ask is, “What do you believe?” I think that’s the worst question you could possibly ask; it just makes people defensive and talk past each other.

CLM: So I know you just said you hated this question . . .

DJ: (Laughs)

CLM: . . . but I’m going to ask. What do you believe about the gods? Do you treat them as more real, or more psychological?

DJ: Well, let me preface my answer with this: I have had many experiences with the gods as presences that I’ve felt very strongly, and where I’ve strongly sensed another being in the room, and they’ve given me valuable guidance for my life.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way… Hmm, I don’t think it’d be easy to classify me as a “hard polytheist” or a “psychological polytheist.” I’m not even sure where I fit on that spectrum. On the one hand, I’ve had all these experiences with the gods, but on the other, they’re by definition immaterial, and it’s very well-documented how easily our brains can play tricks on us. So to claim that the gods are real just because I’ve had this immaterial experience would just be bad science. I can’t prove them, not with what I’ve seen. So I do make offerings and have a very close relationship with what I see as gods, but I’m kind of agnostic when it comes to whether they are objectively real.

CLM: Okay, that’s fair. Let me focus my question a bit more, though: how do you treat the gods in practice? Regardless of your theoretical understanding of them, how do you regard them when you’re actually in a ritual.

DJ: I find it most effective to treat the gods as real during ceremony.

CLM: So as external beings other than your conscious self?

DJ: Yes.

CLM: I’m actually glad to hear that, because that’s the one thing I’ve taken issue with in B.T.’s articulation of Humanistic Paganism. He used to call it “nontheistic ritual,” but recently I’ve asked him about that, and he told me that he treats the gods as real during ritual. So I think it’s more of a theistic ritual with a nontheistic understanding of the ritual.

DJ: It’s actually not that uncommon. I don’t know how familiar you are with Tibetan Buddhism, but they have similar practices. In one specific visualization practice a monk will construct the image of a god before them, in their mind, step by step. They literally take hours to visualize every little detail, and then interact with the god, treating him as fully real the entire time. But they’re extremely open about not believing that any of the gods are real. They are an outright atheistic religion, yet they have these rituals with deities in them. I’ve heard someone compare their use of deity to technology, which I think is a fair comparison.


CLM: Well, I think that about does it. Thanks for taking time to talk with me about religion. And whatnot.

DJ: Sure thing. Thanks for having me.

Drew Jacob

Drew JacobDrew Jacob is a rogue priest, a philosopher and a writer. He follows the Heroic Life: the idea that the highest goal is to live gloriously, to distinguish yourself through your deeds, to be clever and brave and become known for it - to use the moments of your life to leave a lasting and worthy impression on the world. In the pursuit of that ideal he is walking across two continents from the United States to Brazil. His goal: to meet the gods.

  4 Responses to “The Rogue Priest: An Interview with Drew Jacob”

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  1. >CLM: I’m actually glad to hear that, because that’s the one thing I’ve taken issue with in B.T.’s articulation of Humanistic Paganism. He used to call it “nontheistic ritual,” but recently I’ve asked him about that, and he told me that he treats the gods as real during ritual. So I think it’s more of a theistic ritual with a nontheistic understanding of the ritual.

    I don’t think I ever said that… unless I’m remembering wrong. I stopped using the “nontheistic” language because it was confusing people, even though it is technically the correct theological term for religion where gods are not central. Whenever I’ve ever spoken of the gods as real, it’s always been as entities within the imagination, which are real as such even if they have no objective referent. It’s the same as with dream images – dream of a flying monkey and it is real as a dream image, even though there are no flying monkeys in the waking world.

    In ritual, it is useful to suspend disbelief in the same way that you suspend disbelief during a movie, but gods do not become objectively real somehow during ritual, at least according to my view.

    Anyway, if I gave the wrong impression at some point, I’m sorry.

  2. Just read the whole thing – nice, by the way! – and in context the comment makes more sense. Yes, it is useful to treat deities *as if* real in ritual… in the suspension of disbelief sort of way mentioned above.

    The understanding I would distance myself from – which you did not suggest, but I just want to be clear – is the so-called “two worlds” theory (described in Luhrmann’s anthropological study Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft), where ritual somehow suspends the ordinary laws of nature and accesses a space that obeys different laws incomprehensible to the rational mind. According to that theory, gods and magic are literally real in ritual, but outside ritual they are not. That’s *not* what I mean.

    Apologies for the double-comment.

  3. Thanks for the compliments!

    And I see where the confusion was. What I meant was that in normal life you don’t have a theoretical understanding of ritual as actually summoning tangible deities. Your theoretical understanding of them is completely nontheistic.

    When you are in ritual, though, it takes more than just suspension of disbelief; you have to actually believe in the deities while you’re performing the rituals. So the rituals themselves are theistic.

    I’m definitely not accusing you of espousing the “two worlds” theory in any way, though I certainly see how my comment could have come off as that.

    Thanks for the response! Good to see you here, even though this site has been dormant for a little while.

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