Tradition and innovation – guest post for DruidJournal

(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.


9 thoughts on “Tradition and innovation – guest post for DruidJournal

  1. Ali

    Tag! Check out this nifty “Gotta Get Goals” meme, if you like. :)

    (P.S. I very much liked this post, by the way. I think you make an excellent point about religion, that it is is about the Divine and our relationship to the sacred, and not just about us.)

  2. Sojourner

    You said: Innovations, if they are to be successful, have to come from somewhere real and identifiable, whether that be research or revelation;

    I would think that innovations also have to be acceptable to the greater masses to be successful (although this also depends on the definition of “successful”). They are needed for a religion to grow and move forward but, as you have said, there needs to be a reasonable explanation behind the changes for the new ideas to be accepted and adopted.

    But what happens when what is reasonable for one person is not for someone else? Does that mean that the individual religious experience counts for less than what the group has to say? I’m thinking that there needs to be several levels or layers of religious experience and practice because each individual (and group) has preferences in how the innovations, or new ideas, are presented and adopted. Maybe this is why there are so many different groups and denominations in most religions.

    Thanks for a great post!

  3. executivepagan Post author

    When I wrote that, I thought I was thinking mostly of “success” in spiritual terms, in relation to kharis with the Theoi… but now you have me thinking about “horizontal kharis” as well. I hadn’t been consciously thinking in those terms because I don’t have a group that I worship with Hellenically… but I obviously need to consider that aspect as well.
    I think that there already are multiple layers of experience in any religion, just by virtue of the fact that it’s made up of multiple people. When we worship together my experience is not going to be exactly the same as yours, even if we’re standing side by side – and my experience in group worship is always going to be different than my experience at my home shrines (and all of this will vary from week to week, depending on my mood at the time, how open I am to experiencing the Presences, and so on…)
    I sense that you have more to say on this topic – maybe you should do a post on it!

  4. Sojourner

    It is something that I have recently been thinking about due to a recent conversation with a friend. I will take up your “challenge” and will post my response in a day or two. :)

  5. Pingback: Druid Journal » Blog Archive » Voices in the Empty Tower

  6. Jeff | Druid Journal

    Hi Erik! I finally managed to get on over here and check out your post. You make some great points, and I really enjoyed it. The essential core — that our decision about innovation vs. tradition has to make crucial reference to what fosters the relationship between the human and the divine — is so right on the money!

    Recently I started working with Kundalini yoga, bringing my yoga practice (which had been essentially for exercise and relaxation) into the spiritual realm. This isn’t because I’ve given up on druidism (I haven’t), but because I saw that for myself, it would fill a need in my relationship with Spirit; and I didn’t know of any comparable Celtic tradition that could do so. An honest and open relationship with the eternal is so much more important than the details of ritual.

  7. executivepagan Post author

    OK. (If you’d care to expand on that I’d love to discuss further!)

    In any case, thanks for stopping by.

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