UPG is a common acronym used within Pagan communities. Standing for Unverified or Unverifiable Personal Gnosis, it is the personal experiences and beliefs that we hold concerning the Divine, the Universe, and everything connected with it (and which often drastically alters the way in which we perceive and approach them).
Personal gnosis is a term used to communicate personal perceptions of the divine, personal attributions of sacredness, and subjective experiences of a religious or spiritual nature […] The term “personal gnosis” has been modified from “UPG” or “unverified personal gnosis”, which has long been used in Pagan circles to communicate personal experiences of a spiritual or divine nature which are not corroborated in sacred lore. – Personal Gnosis
By the very nature of UPG, it cannot be verified as true beyond a shadow of a doubt. These are, after all, extremely personal experiences and ideals concerning our Deities, our faiths, and so on. As a result, all UPG should be considered valid and should be respected by the community… However, one thing the Pagan and Polytheist Communities often fall short on is that UPG should be respected and considered valid only within reason.
Within reason and not without question
I stress the aspect of within reason because validity does not mean accuracy or correctness by default. Likewise, it does not mean that such UPG, by default, should be accepted by the greater community without question; as John Beckett points out in his article Unverified Personal Gnosis, “we must be humble, careful, [and] even skeptical about our own religious experiences“. In other words, respecting something as being a valid belief does not mean that we cannot (or should not) question its validity or accuracy. In fact, in order to maintain a healthy community and prevent religious zealousness and spiritual abuse, then a part of us must constantly be scrutinizing things- including UPG (even our own).
One of the main methods of scrutiny is proving the unverifiable nature of the UPG; it absolutely must remain unverifiable in the face of intense scrutiny from our peers.
If lore verifies our UPG by providing proof of its occurrence in lore? It is canon, it is lore, and it is and acceptable fact. On the flip side of that, however, is something that people often like to ignore: Lore and history’s ability to invalidate our UPG by providing evidence to the contrary of it. Like with validating it, if lore can definitively disprove something that we hold as UPG then it becomes nonfactual. In both regards, our UPG fails to remain unverifiable and therefore ceases to be UPG; both of these acts are the act of verifying that belief as either correct or incorrect- and UPG by its very nature has to remain unverifiable.
But these are not the only things we must take into consideration when establishing the valid nature of our UPG. As John Beckett once again points out in his article:
How can we know if a religious experience is good and right and true? […] We can’t, at least not in an absolute sense of knowing. But we still need to interpret and evaluate it.
First, we should judge it against our lore, our literature, and our history. How well does it match with what’s generally considered true? If it’s new information, is it consistent with what’s already known? If not, is it plausible, given the changes in time and place since the lore was established? […] We should judge UPG against our own experiences, both spiritually and materially. Is what you experienced consistent with other experiences? Is it meaningful and helpful? […] We should judge UPG against the experiences of others. If multiple people have the same dream in a short period of time, it’s a pretty clear indication something is up [… and …] we should pay attention. Finally, is it reasonable, ethical, practical, and helpful?
So not only does it have to remain unverifiable in the face of lorical comparison… But it still needs to make sense within the context of the established lorical and historical facts- whether that is in the fact that it wouldn’t necessarily be ridiculous given the established lore, or that it would be a likely progression of that lore had the religion survived unbroken.
An example I use quite often to explain “Actual UPG” vs “Not UPG”, is the fact that I see Manannan Mac Lir as Blonde Haired and heavily bearded. This cannot be verified as true within the lore, but nor can it be verified as false. Instead, it remains unverifiable- and it remains unverifiable for one simple reason: Within the Lore, it is well established that Manannan Mac Lir is a shapeshifter. Because of his nature as a shapeshifter, too, his appearance to me as Blonde Haired and Bearded also makes sense within the confines of the lore. Ergo, Blonde Haired, Bearded Manannan remains UPG.
This goes for those instances where we have what we feel are direct messages from and interaction with our Gods as well… For example, let’s use Fladais- the Irish Goddess of the Wilds. I personally hold UPG that (as a Goddess of the Wilds) she is also connected to the respectful harvesting of wild bounties as well as the conservation, protection, and ultimate benefit of wild places.
Now… If I believed that Fladais encouraged me in a dream to volunteer at a local Controlled Burn, I would likely not question it. Within the confines of Lore and my own UPG concerning her, it ultimately makes sense that she would encourage me to participate in a community action which ultimately benefits the land (and controlled burns have a range of important benefits). However, if I believed that she encouraged me to support a company who participates in Clearcutting practices? Not only would I expect the community to be concerned about that experience… But I would be concerned about it myself because Clearcutting is both unethical and extremely harmful to the environments it is done in; within the confines of lore and my own UPG and experiences with her? It simply doesn’t make sense that she would support such an action, let alone encourage me to.
Before we finish this off, though, I want to touch on one last thing. That is the penchant for people to use their UPG as a tool through which to teach people about their faith and Deities. But while UPG is certainly valid within reason, it is unverifiable by its very nature and must remain unverifiable to continue being considered UPG. And while it does have a place in community discussion, understanding, and growth? As a result of its inherently unverifiable nature, it is and remains nonfactual; in no circumstance should it ever be considered fact- nor is it a viable substitute for established archaeological, historical, and loric fact. So when teaching anyone about the foundations and basics concerning our Gods or faith systems? It ultimately has no place; under no circumstance should we ever teach them using anything but lorically attested and validated information and allow those we teach to formulate and explore UPG for themselves.
Edit 9.22.2016: It has apparently been promoted among certain individuals that somehow, through this post, I have said that UPG has no place in Reconstructionism; that I do not believe UPG is valid, has any worth, or has a place within out community. This assertion is and will always remain blatantly false– and ultimately I find myself appalled that people would so obviously put words in my mouth which have never been spoken by me even privately.
When I say that UPG needs to be validated and needs to be critically examined… When I say that it shouldn’t be used to teach people foundational elements of our faith because of its unverifiable nature… When I say that it should be discarded when definitively proven as being incorrect… At no point have I ever been saying that UPG does not have its place, is not valid, and does not have value. It would undoubtedly make me a hypocrite to do or believe such things- particularly because I have not only shared my own UPG with the community before on multiple occasions (this being the most recent example), but also because I am heavily involved in the formulation of a Modernized Irish Polytheist practice that is oriented in my Geographical location (something which is inherently reliant on massive amounts of UPG in order to even function, let alone exist in the first place).
It does have a place, it is valid, and it does have value- but it only does, it only does, and it only ever is within reason; as Erynn says in their post Aisling, Ársaíocht, agus Agallamh: A Modern CR Triad:
All of these aspects [Aisling (UPG), Ársaíocht (History / Lore), and Agallamh (Discourse)] must balance one another. Mysticism, history, and discussion are all important in the rediscovery and reconstruction of oral traditions like those of the Celtic peoples […] The answer is not to crush any and all manifestations of mysticism within reconstructionist religions because there is a risk that one might be wrong (by far the most common response I have seen), but to examine these manifestations both critically and respectfully in light of what is known, then make a decision.
I fully believe that there is a time and a place for UPG; there are times when UPG is a valid addition to the discussion, which results in the spiritual growth and development of both community and personal practices…. And a time when it is not a valid addition to the discussion and only serves to detract from it. But that doesn’t mean that it has no value, no worth, or no validity. It just means that everything has a time and a place- and learning to recognize them is an important part of spiritual education, growth, and development in my eyes.
It also means that I believe that UPG absolutely must be critically examined not only by those who experience or otherwise formulate it, but also by the communities whom those people are members of. And maintaining a willingness to not only critically examine our beliefs… But also a willingness to discard that which is definitively disproven, problematic, dangerous, and so on? Is absolutely integral to the health, longevity, security, and overall safety of our community as a whole- as well as its individual members.
The second we turn a blind eye and start taking things at face value… The second we start asserting that all experiences are valid and that (because of that) no experience needs to be questioned- that no experience needs to undergo the appropriate methods of validation by the individual… The second we stop critically examining our beliefs, or even the beliefs of others… Is the second that we open ourselves up to a whole realm of toxic issues that only damage both us as individuals and the Community as a whole. Because it’s not just unhealthy to promote something like that on such a level, it’s outright dangerous for many reasons.
Furthermore, this is not a new viewpoint of mine. It is one that I have had for several years, have written about at least once before in the past, and have always been very vocal about. Why people are so shocked that I would say it now is something which is beyond me.
For a list of IriPol resources, including those I used to inform the opinions mentioned in this article, please view this page here.