The Very Idea of Religious Tradition: Identity, Agency, and Loyalty in History and Historiography

AHA Session 234
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Wilson Room (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
John McCormack, Aurora University
Joshua Ezra Burns, Marquette University
Elaine Fisher, Stanford University
Arvind-Pal Mandair, University of Michigan
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Session Abstract

The concept of tradition is seductively self-evident. Nearly all fields of human knowledge and realms of practice would seem to have their traditions, those customary ways of proceeding which have been handed down from generation to generation. The term itself denotes continuity and connotes antiquity. To label something “tradition” is to suggest pragmatically that something has “worked” and might continue to do so. Moreover, that which is “traditional” has the implicit sanction of authority, human and perhaps even divine. Political and intellectual historians have studied the construction of traditions for more than a generation, attentive to the ways in which collective memory, national identity, gender performances, and other social formations are created and maintained through relations of power. We speak of philosophical traditions, literary traditions, historiographical traditions. As Eric Hobsbawm put it, “There is probably no time and place with which historians are concern which has not seen the invention of ‘tradition’” (The Invention of Tradition, 1983, p. 4).

Everywhere it operates, the notion of tradition places implicit value on faithfulness to inherited norms. To invoke tradition to invite judgment about the loyalty or betrayal represented by beliefs and practices, individuals and communities. Nowhere does the term appear more frequently or do more work than in the study of religions, where it is used to denote complex arrangements of doctrines, rituals, institutions, and individual experiences. “Religious tradition” also functions as scholarly jargon, simultaneously capturing the continuity many religions presume with the historical and mythic past and the individual agency implied by the “handing down” of particular elements of religion. For some religions a concept of tradition is indigenous and carries significant theological weight, whereas in others it appears as an imported shorthand to group disparate elements that share some distinctive characteristic. In short, religious tradition powerfully shapes the identities of religious believers and the questions of the scholars who study them.

This roundtable brings together scholars of several religions working in different disciplinary contexts to interrogate closely the concept of “religious tradition.” Employing the methods of literary criticism, theology, cultural studies, and intellectual history, the panelists will examine critical ways in which notions of religious tradition are used to construct religious boundaries, inscribe particular identities as natural, and indeed shape what believers understand to be ultimate truth. Drawing on their research in Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh religious communities and historiographies, the panelists will unearth in comparative perspective some of the ways in which religious traditions emerge historically and exert authority on both public practice and private experience of religions.

See more of: AHA Sessions