Paganism and Tradition
Article ID: 9061
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,197
Times Read: 4,300
Author: Brendan Myers
Posted: March 13th. 2005
Times Viewed: 4,300
Why are so many Pagans members of traditions, and indeed why are there so many traditions? Why are they so prominent in our communities, despite the enormous popularity of eclecticism, solitary practice, and do-it-yourself spirituality? The simple answer is because belonging to a tradition can be an enormously powerful way for people to share their spiritual experiences with each other, and it can do this in a way which solitary practice and eclecticism cannot. A tradition, as it is often defined in our Pagan communities, is a body of teachings and practices which are shared by some group of people and which are passed on through teacher-student relationships. This way of spreading knowledge and of bringing people together into communities has been a part of our Paganism right from the beginning, more than sixty years ago, and there is some evidence that something like it existed in antiquity as well. Despite the enormous popularity of eclectic Paganism, traditional Paganism still exists and continues to attract new people. Here I would like to ask: What makes a spiritual tradition successful and powerful? What more, and what else, can a spiritual tradition be?
There are a few different kinds of traditions which should be differentiated first. Here are three of them:
The Order: A community with a centralised authority defining its teachings and practices, and specific roles and positions for members to occupy. It is normally, although not always, hierarchical in character, with an individual or small circle of people possessing the authority to define the group’s most central spiritual principles and the structure of its ceremonial liturgy. The higher-ups on the ladder are responsible for training and caring for the lower-downs. Advancement up the ladder is normally obtained through completing various different tasks, including but not limited to a training programme of some kind. There may also be tests of character and maturity involved in the advancement procedure.
The Initiatory Tradition: A community normally composed of small groups of people lead by at least one teacher or initiator, who is responsible for training and caring for the others; this teacher received his or her authority to do so from another teacher, and so on. The body of knowledge originated with some predecessor after whom the tradition is often named. Lineage is usually very important to the members of the tradition, and people are sometimes able to obtain social prestige for themselves by having a famous person in their lineage. Advancement is obtained when the teacher acknowledges the student’s readiness to teach and lead independently; the student is then initiated, often departs to found their own small group thereafter, taking on the role of that new group’s leader and teacher.
The Cultural Reconstructionists or Revivalists: A community of people who identify themselves with some past culture and find spiritual fulfillment in the attempts to revive or reconstruct the customs of that past culture as much as possible. Cultural Reconstructionists may or may not also be members of orders or initiatory traditions, but it is just as common for cultural Reconstructionists to be solitary practitioners. For instance many people who practice Celtic Paganism are descended from Irish, Scottish, or Welsh families, or believe themselves to be re-incarnated Celts.
The Informal Tradition: A simple practice, task, ceremony, piece of knowledge, or even practical joke, which is passed on to some recipient along with a requirement that the recipient should continue to pass it on, and should treat others who have received it as friends or companions. Once the task is performed, it may not need to be performed again, or even thought about again.
In each of these cases, the important feature which rises to the surface is the notion of “passing it on.” A tradition is something that is not just shared, but also taught. Someone who possesses an artefact of tradition also possesses a bond of social connectivity with other people. Someone who passes on a tradition is in essence also widening the circle of who is included in the tradition’s bonds. The bond of a tradition has a specific structure: that of giver and receiver, with the implication that the giver resembles a parent or a teacher, and the receiver resembles a child or a student. For the “giver” has a responsibility to teach and to guide his or her “receivers” in more or less the same way school teachers are responsible to their students and parents are responsible to their children. The very notion of tradition implies social bonds of inter-generational giving and receiving.
The case of the Cultural Reconstructionist tradition appears to be the odd one out here: there need not be any obvious teacher transferring anything specific to the practitioner. However, many of the members of such traditions are very concerned with “getting it right;” researching history, archaeology, mythology, literature, and so on, so that their own practice resembles the ancient practice in a substantial, serious, and non-accidental way. In this case, the tradition itself is the teacher. For there is a definite sense that the practitioner is creating bonds with predecessors, even if those predecessors have been dead for hundreds or thousands of years and cannot “pass it on” personally. They do so indirectly, through the things they left behind for us, whether that was their intention or not, and whether we choose to pick it up or not. When Cultural Reconstructionists form communities, for instance when Celtic Pagans form Druidic groves, de-facto traditions are often informally created as someone’s interpretation of an ancient ritual, poem, megalithic structure, etc., becomes popular and others seek to emulate it.
In our wider community, in the nations and societies in which we live and in which our Paganism is a sub-culture, we are surrounded by traditions and immersed in relationships of inter-generational sharing, passing-on, and receiving. There are traditions of folk music, of painting and architecture, food preparation, language and literature, history and storytelling, law and legal precedent, sports and games, celebrations and festivals, and a whole range of ideas and practices which we receive from those who came before us. Traditions inform nearly every aspect of life and touch us right at the centre of our identities. Whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, we are, all of us, in large measure the product of the traditions which we inherit. They give form to all of our social relations, enabling us to interact with others, share thought and feeling with them, and trust that we will be understood and respected in the process. Each of us is a product of the world into which we were born, and as soon as we are born we are already engaged in various relations to others which our traditions have constituted for us. A person doesn’t have to accept the limitations of her historical and social inheritances; for instance she can choose to rebel. But her inheritances are her starting place in the quest to “know yourself.” The quest moves forward from them. The past, on this account of the meaning of spiritual identity, is the inheritance which figures into all of our present identities, and an awareness of the past strengthens and fortifies our present social relations. This past, it must be noted, is a function of the present: it is what we inherit and possess in the present. It is the power of tradition to bring this past into the present, to make it come alive for us, and to endow it with a reality which can bring form and continuity to all of our here-and-now practices and identities.
Eclecticism is basically incapable of providing this sense of continuity through time. Its basic demand is that one’s meditation, ceremony, or practice, must be created especially for the occasion, for a specific purpose. It may even be required that nothing be planned in advance, but that every action and spoken word be spontaneously produced “from the heart.” Indeed it is sometimes claimed that spontaneous emotional expression will have the most meaning, or will be the only carrier of meaning. But spontaneous emotional expression, precisely because it is original and unique, is not drawn from the past. Thus it does not draw its power from the past. It draws its power from the present. Similarly, it is also incapable of being passed on to others. The moment someone else tries to use it, is no longer original and spontaneous. There are many occasions when spontaneous and original emotive expression is appropriate, but I can think of at least one in which it is grossly wrong: funerals. Someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one needs a spiritual practice which will restore her sense of normalcy.1 Eclecticism, with its emphasis on the individual, the original, and the unique, cannot provide this, because it cannot provide relations with the past.
To be fair to eclecticism, though, it may be the case that every tradition began with the original spontaneous expression or discovery of spiritual truth, which was then passed on to recipients who were so excited and inspired by it that they felt compelled to pass it on. The criterion for a successful or viable tradition may be like the criterion which evolutionary biologists use for “reproductive success.” An animal achieves reproductive success through its grandchildren; i.e. through children which are themselves capable of producing children. Similarly, someone wishing to inaugurate a tradition can be counted as successful if his or her students do in fact pass on the teachings and practices they learned. There is no question of “dogmatism” or “doctrine” involved here. Someone participating in a tradition is perfectly at liberty to make his or her own contribution, and is even free to debate and argue about what he or she is receiving and being asked to pass on. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre claimed that a tradition is very often not a continuity of thought, but a continuity of conflict — it is a conflict precisely about what goods the tradition is supposed to be about. 2
Traditional Paganism is not going to be for everyone. Many people are going to find their spiritual needs fulfilled through eclecticism or through some other form of unstructured, private practice. And membership in a tradition is not exclusive of eclecticism: one’s membership in an order, a coven, or a grove does not automatically mean that one is no longer able or permitted to have a private relationship with the divine. Just as building a temple for our gods does not mean we are prevented from going to the wild woods to find them there as well, we are not prevented from exploring the world’s spiritual mysteries privately because we have inherited traditions of practice from the past. Traditions constitute the public face of our Paganism. Those who are, or who wish to be, public Pagan leaders or clergypeople, therefore, really ought not to ignore the power of tradition. We should be able to expect of our leaders and public clergypeople that they can offer continuity with the past, with the mythological and historical origins of our spirituality. We should expect that they can uphold the standards of excellence which their predecessors set for them. In short, we should expect of them much the same as what Christians, Muslims, or Jews expect of their clergypeople; for instance that they be university educated, etc. We cannot expect our Paganism to grow, to flourish, to achieve stature and respect in the world, nor even be understood by non-Pagans, if we continue to stifle our own traditions out of paranoia of “doctrine” and “dogmatism.” Our traditions can provide a defense measure against modern day witch hunts. If we wish for non-Pagans in the world to stop vandalizing our homes and businesses, using the courts and family law services to remove our children, and so on, the best strategy we may have at our disposal is the creation of strong and authoritative traditions. They will have to be strong enough to outshine the false image of us which appears in mass media entertainment caricatures, and in the hate propaganda of certain right-wing Christian groups. They will have to be authoritative enough to provide bonds with the past and hope for the future, which will give people who are the victims of anti-pagan discrimination confidence and power enough to carry on. But the most important benefit strong traditions can provide us is a past which can be carried forward into the future. We should want our values to have a future, and we should do that which will bring into being a future in which our values have a home. No one builds a monument or a museum only to tear it down the next day. Similarly no one who is sincere in her commitment to her spiritual path jumps to another one and forgets all she has learned before. Pagans have always used traditions to ensure that the best of their teachings and practices can continue to benefit people in the future. It is time, I believe, to acknowledge their power.
1. See, for instance, Starhawk’s comments in The Pagan Book of Living and Drying — her words are especially pertinent here since she is more responsible than anyone else for promoting eclecticism and spontaneous emotional creativity in ceremony.
2. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has discussed this aspect of tradition in detail in his landmark essay, After Virtue.
Copyright: © 2005 by Brendan Myers.
Location: Gatineau, Quebec
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Bio: Brendan Cathbad Myers is the author of Dangerous Religion: Environmental Spirituality and its Activist Dimension (see Witchvox listing under Books) . He has been on the Druid path for nearly twelve years, and lives in the west of Ireland.
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