Friday, September 24, 2010


Now is a good time to talk about religious traditions.

The phrase “religious traditions” is superior to the word “religions.” It avoids the problem that Wilfred Cantwell Smith warns us about, the problem of reification—making a religion a static, real thing existing outside the mind. Because every historian of a religion thinks of that religion as a living, changing thing, a good way to acknowledge this insight is to speak, not of religions, but of religious traditions.

Let’s start with a distinction between the statics and the dynamics of religious traditions. There’s a pattern that is common to all religious traditions; I call this the statics of religious traditions. Think of this as like a photo, taken at a specific period in time. But traditions exist within history, which means they are living, changing things. I acknowledge this fact by saying that there is a dynamics of religious traditions. And this is like a moving picture, which chronicles the chief moments within a typical tradition: for example, it is born, it suffers schisms, and it sometimes dies.

Now let’s focus on the statics of religious traditions. Think first of the indisputable fact that a religious tradition is composed of a community of the faithful. Using the language of the great twentieth century sociologist Edward Shils, any community has both a center and a periphery. (See his collection of essays, Center and Periphery, 1975.) In other words, there are the elite leaders at the center, and there are the followers on the periphery. Now, add to this the fact that not all human beings are members of any given tradition. I call those nonmembers aliens to the given community.

These, then, are the actors in the drama of a religious tradition. The center consists of those who mediate the teachings and practices of the tradition, both to those who aspire to the center and to those at the near and far peripheries. (One can also change the image of center/periphery from two dimensions to three, thinking of a hierarchy of the faithful.) The center consists of such figures as the shaman, the guru, the priest, the prophet, the bishop, the cardinal, the pope, the preacher, the pastor, the president, etc.

Both center and periphery are aware of the presence of aliens. Therefore, any religious tradition must develop a “foreign policy” toward those outsiders. The options run from a policy of extermination to that of missionizing, with avoidance as a distinct possibility. Religious wars have abounded in the history of the world; the Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic traditions have busied themselves with spreading their messages beyond their native territories; and the Judaic and Hindu traditions have, for the most part, been content to replenish their membership solely by reproducing themselves.

Returning to the sociological center of a tradition, let me expand the idea that its members “mediate the teachings and practices of the tradition.” This is to say that the members of the center have the responsibility of interpreting the charter that guides the tradition. (See the influential anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski’s collection of essays, Magic, Science, and Religion, 1948.) This charter consists of a mix of myths and teachings and practices.

But the charter would be a set of artificial, human preferences if there were nothing beyond it to sanction or legitimize it. This “something” is always an anchor, a source, whether it be Yahweh, the gods of the ten-thousand-world system, God, Allah, or the Self-Existent One.

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