Tradition and innovation – guest post for DruidJournal
Posted by Erik on June 13, 2007
(NOTE: Given that my posts tend run rather long, I am experimenting with adding a “cut” to reduce the amount of scrolling on the front page. Some people like this, some don’t; please let me know what you think! I’m happy to do it either way, whatever makes it easier on you, the reader.)
Jeff of DruidJournal asked some of us to guest-blog for him while he’s on vacation; unfortunately, there appears to be a technical issue with guests posting over there, so I am posting this here for now and adding a link in the comment box on DJ.
Given that this is a guest post for a Druid blog, I was going to talk about tradition and innovation in Druidry; but I realized quickly that Hellenism is where I see the differences more clearly, and that it made more sense to address the question from that perspective.
I have touched on this topic elsewhere:
I do seek what the Ancients sought – to come into relationship with my Gods, which were also their Gods – but I do not feel constrained to do this always the *way* they did. … I believe that the old ways have inherent value, but that for individual worshippers they are only essential to the degree that they make us more receptive to the presence of the Gods and foster kharis (relationship or reciprocity).
Obviously, that puts me on one side of a particular point in the Hellenistic tradition/innovation continuum; but the important point is that it is a continuum, not a divide. Even the most hardcore Reconstructionist will admit that innovation is sometimes required to fill in the gaps, and the most ardent innovator will engage in some traditional practices, such as offering libations or standing while praying. With a few vocal exceptions on either end, generally nobody tries to say “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” engage in this or that worship practice… except on the question of animal sacrifice, where opinions are largely fixed – and usually based more on emotion than on anything more subjective – and discussions do become quite heated. (For the record, I personally believe that for someone who is already in the position of needing to slaughter their own animals, traditional sacrificial practice is entirely appropriate and should even be encouraged; and for someone like me, who gets my meat already dead, it would be gratuitous to go out of my way to try to practice it. YMMV.)
What does happen is that people on both sides are regularly challenged as to why they do a particular practice, or hold a particular opinion; Reconstructionists will challenge innovators to explain the reasoning behind their innovations, and innovators will suggest that Recons try to bring their worship into the 21st century. As somebody said on a pagan interfaith board a few years ago (paraphrased), “If you tell me you had a vision of the Morrigan dancing in a field of flowers with bunnies hopping around, I can’t tell you absolutely that you’re wrong, but I will point out that this goes against all tradition and ask you if you’re sure that was Who you saw.”
I think awareness and intention are the keys – whatever you’re doing, make sure you understand what you’re actually doing and why you’re doing it. Innovations, if they are to be successful, have to come from somewhere real and identifiable, whether that be research or revelation; and the most traditional practice, if done simply as a matter of rote imitation, is meaningless. I try to stay aware of this myself, particularly when some new situation arises that requires a deviation from my standard (and fairly minimal, to be perfectly honest) practice. If a traditional practice doesn’t engage me spiritually, doesn’t help bring me closer to the Gods and foster kharis, then I will likely not add it in, at least not at this time. Likewise, if an innovation seems like a great idea at the time, but after research and reflection seems either to not be grounded in something solid or to not meet with Someone’s approval, then I’ll (sometimes sadly) shelve it.
Note where the emphasis was in the last two sentences – religion is not just about us, it’s about the Gods. Of course, it is about us as well, since if we weren’t in relationship (or seeking it) with Them then we wouldn’t be doing the practice at all… but if we’re the most important person in the relationship, there’s a problem. This is a point that I am sure is present as an assumption in most discussions of tradition vs. innovation, but it’s so important that I wanted to call it out and highlight it at least once. Whether your practice is hardcore Recon, completely innovative, or anywhere in between, if it’s not helping you grow spiritually, not deepening your relationship with the Gods, then it’s dead and it needs to be reconsidered. This requires work, of course: meditation and prayerful reflection, self-awareness and fairly brutal honesty with yourself about what you find; but the result and reward can be a vastly richer and more rewarding spiritual life, and a deeply renewed relationship with Those in whose honor you’re doing all this to begin with.