Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Thinking about Tradition v. tradition

Professor Kocku von Stuckrad from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands has been stranded in Houston due to the eruption of the volcano and the cancellation of his flight home after the Hidden God conference. So today he joined my seminar and discussed the methodology which he has been developing to analyze the history of Western Esotericism and published a few weeks ago in his new book Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.

It was a pleasure to hear him discuss how he approaches the problem of pluralism in the ancient world and his constructive views. What struck me about our conversation was the difference in our usage of words. I don't know if this is because he was trained in Europe and I in the States, but it has caused me to pause again and consider again that even though we may be using the same words in our analyses, we do not necessarily mean the same thing.

Part of our discussion centered on the word 'tradition' which von Stuckrad has set aside in favor of another concept, 'discursive field'. He does so because 'tradition' means for him 'the' centrist religions and is not able to handle the material 'outside' 'the' tradition except on 'the' tradition's own terms. Discursive field, however, allows him to talk about any field of knowledge (like 'journeys to heaven') without being bound to 'the' tradition's perspective of it.

I identify as a tradition-critic. But my understanding and use of the word 'tradition' is not the same as von Stuckrad's. I don't use it to mean 'the' tradition or the Tradition, as a referent to the centrist religion and its normation. I use it in the sense of 'tradition' with a little 't': as those ideological holdings and practices belonging to a group and transmitted by them over time. I think that I am using the term 'tradition' in the same way that von Stuckrad is using 'discursive field'.

So this afternoon was enlightening for me, reminding me how careful I need to be to define the terms I am using in my academic writing, and never to assume that my colleagues, especially across the Atlantic, are using them in the same manner.


Ed Jones said...

Your statement which read in part: "how careful I need to define the terms I am using in my academic writing - -".
Wouldn't this concern apply as well to common use of the term "Christian"- Christian Origins - Jewish Christianity as a nomenclature problem? Historicaly the term Christian was not coined until some time after 65 CE when it was applied to the mission of Paul and Barnabus. It was never applied to the Jerusalem Jesus Movement, which was never "Christian". This common use obscures the real period of origins of the Jesus tradition - the period 30 CE - 65 CE when there were two distinct movements - the Jerusalem Jewish Jesus Movement with its sayings tradition and the Pauline Passion Movement with its salvific death and resurrection tradition which became orthodox Christianity. The relation between the two movements was adversarsal.

rameumptom said...


I would have loved to sit in on that discussion! I agree that the term "tradition" has become a loaded term, due to so many meanings ascribed to it.

Concepts such as the plurality of gods in ancient Judaism and even Christianity seems to upset many people who claim to be "traditional" Christians. Yet, such was the tradition for some early Christians.

Ed Jones notes two main Christian/Jesus movements prior to 65 CE. Paul also mentions other movements that were attempting to move in on his territory, including the Gnostics. So I would think there were at least 3 movements at hand in the timeframe he mentions.

Later, traditions included the conflict between Arianism and Athanasian beliefs, Trinitarianism vs modalism, etc. While all of these are traditions, most "traditional" Christians today would not consider anything but their orthodoxy to be viewed as THE tradition.

Robert Mathiesen said...

One great advantage of von Stuckrad's "discursive fields" is that it doesn't require the existence of an actual transmission of a set of doctrines through the centuries. This becomes particularly important when one studies alternate religious traditions and counter-religions. Here roughly the same doctrinal complexes recur throughout the centuries without any way to prove direct historical transmission -- in some instances, despite the implausibility of any direct historical transmission.

Couliano in his _Tree of Gnosis_ elucidated the mechanism of such cases by means of his concept of "inverse exegesis." All that is needed, in the instances he studied, is a direct historical transmission of an orthodox text of the Bible and an orthodox tradition of its exegesis. Since every such text and every such exegesis poses problems to any attentive critical reader, and since there are only so many convenient and interesting solutions to these problems, attentive critical readers will repeatedly come up with the same complexes of alternate doctrines as they attempt to solve these problems. This gives rise, in the eyes of a modern historically-minded scholar, to the *illusion* that there must have been a means by which this doctrinal complex was transmitted over the centuries from an earlier adherent directly to a later adherent. But this is an illusion, and there need not be any such transmission, or "tradition" in the original, literal sense of the term.

Similarly with counter-religions: all that is required here is for such a "counter-Traditional" doctrinal complex to claim the status of a religion. This, too, is a logical next move in the game of competing exegeses, and thus it can happen more than once independently of any historical transmission.