Sunday, June 17, 2007

Religious Tradition And Innovative Ideas

In their beginning, all traditions within a religion started as new ideas, or innovations, that helped to move the religion forward. But at what point do innovations become traditions? And how or why are they accepted by the participants of the religion? And does acceptance and adoption of innovations by groups equal success vs. individual adherence? There are so many questions that need to be looked at when discussing tradition and innovation.

Tradition And Innovation

When we think of traditions, we think of those rituals and rites that are a long standing part of our religious practice. Our traditions help to bring us comfort with their familiarity and help us to connect with others who believe as we do. We like the feeling that we are connected to our ancestors and communities through following the traditions that have been handed down to us.

When thinking of innovation, I think of change – either slight changes or something that brings about radical differences. Innovation comes about when someone suggests changes to a system that is currently in play, with the presented innovation taking the form of a new idea or even a new method of a tradition. While traditions can be considered the foundation of religion, innovations are the building blocks that help the religion grow up and out.

All religions focus on both tradition and innovations. Wade Roof (1998) implied that tradition and innovation are parts of the same process when he stated that “religious traditions are socially constructed, at times absorbing, other times resisting, influences within their environments; they are unfinished creations, always evolving, their boundaries drawn and redrawn to fit new circumstances.” [1] We need new ideas to help evolve the “creation.”

At what point do innovations become traditions?

The truth is that we all have boundaries when it comes to what we are willing to accept into our system of belief. When new ideas are presented, they sometimes cross the boundaries of what we consider acceptable.[2] (These boundaries can be on either a personal level or on a group level.) But when changes are accepted and brought into practice, the have the possibility of eventually becoming traditions.

I see the process of accepting innovations in religion as being somewhat akin to the acceptance of new paradigms in the sciences:

  • someone presents an idea
  • it tends to be rejected as it is in conflict or competition with a currently accepted paradigm
  • as more people voice their opinion on the new paradigm, the idea starts to root itself in the knowledge base of the field and more research is done either to find support or to discredit the new paradigm
  • if research is supportive, the idea slowly takes precedence over an older idea
  • new paradigm comes into acceptance

Tambey, Powell & Johnson (1989)[3] lay out similar guidelines on how religious innovation becomes accepted:

  • people are exposed to the innovation
  • the innovation must be accorded some level of legitimacy
  • successful innovation must have group that can experiment
  • there needs to be motivation to adopt the new idea

How/Why are Innovations Accepted by Participants

I like both the second and third points that Tambey, et al (1989) make in their research. Experimentation is an important part of the creative thought process of new ideas. Tambey, et al talk about how changes such as moving, going off to college or a new marriage can be times that allow for experimenting in regards to our religious beliefs. (While the research focuses on “religious nones” or the “unchurched,” I think that these ideas can be generalized to any religious change.)

Legitimacy also seems to play a part in the acceptance of a new idea. By saying that an innovation is legitimate, we are saying that there is some truth to it. But who gets to say what is legitimate? I’ve noticed that legitimacy tends to come from the social realm where the more people that except a new idea, the more legit it becomes. But ideas can have personal legitimacy as well.

Individuals Verses Groups

In a comment that I made on Erik's post regarding tradition and innovation, I had this to say about individual expression verses group expression: 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.

We live in an age that allows for more personal freedom when it comes to expressing our personal beliefs in regards to religion then any other age in history. We no longer need a religious authority to interpret religious writings and practices for us. Instead, we have the ability to read those texts and come to our own conclusions.

Why can’t there be both individual expression (which includes your personal traditions) and group expression within the same religious path? This is what I was referring to when I mentioned religions needing several layers.

In Conclusion

Does there need to be a war between innovation and tradition where we have to choose one over the other? No, because both innovation and tradition are needed to keep a religion alive. We need to find a balance between the two so that religion doesn’t become stagnant (weighed down by tradition) and so it doesn’t change too fast (because of too many new ideas).



[1] Roof, W. C., (1998). Religious borderlands: Challenges for future studies. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 31(1). Pg. 5.

[2] Ideas of boundaries taken from: Roof, W. C., (1998). Religious borderlands: Challenges for future studies. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 31(1): 1-14.

[3] Tambey, J.B., Powell, S. & Johnson, S., (1989). Innovation theory and religious nones. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 28(2): pg. 216.

7 comments:

Erik said...

I’ve noticed that legitimacy tends to come from the social realm where the more people that except a new idea, the more legit it becomes. But ideas can have personal legitimacy as well.

Indeed - and sometimes an innovation can have both aspects at the same time! An example:

A while back I mentioned in a post that I keep a prayer to Hermes on the root of my hard drive, on the "spinning prayer flag" principle. I also noted that while the prayer flag concept does not exist in Hellenic tradition, it seems to be a perfectly functional religious technology, and that Hermes as patron of IT (for such I believe Him to be) ought to approve... and I have received no indication that He doesn't, so far.

The understanding of Hermes as patron of technology is not really part of the tradition, although it certainly derives from it - but there are enough of us who think it makes sense that it is slowly becoming "traditional". My "technological" innovation, on the other hand, is more controversial - but it "works" on a personal level for me in my relationship with the God for whom the prayer is intended.

Good post! I'm glad you picked up the "gauntlet"; I knew you had more to say.

S. Nichole said...

Ah! You picked up on something (social vs. individual legitimacy) that I wanted to expand on but thought my post was getting too long as it was. Maybe I will get into it more in a future post.

You said: Indeed - and sometimes an innovation can have both aspects at the same time!

I would have to agree. It is not a matter of having one without the other.

Also, I love that you (and others) have attributed a modern association to Hermes. This is a great example of "innovation" being brought together with "traditional" beliefs. The world has changed, why wouldn't the gods?

Thanks for the "challenge." I almost always have more to say. :)

Erik said...

The world has changed, why wouldn't the gods?

The first time I mentioned (on an Hellenic e-list) pouring a libation of olive oil to Poseidon when we visited the ocean, somebody said, "Ooh, don't you think that's a dangerous choice?" (Referring to the decision between Poseidon and Athena for patronage of Athens). I said I thought He'd probably gotten over it some time during the last 3,000 years... :)

Chungsiew O said...

The world had no change yet.... Only the person will cahnge....

deborah oak said...

Great post!!! Having been part of the constantly morphing "tradition" of Reclaiming witchcraft, I've experienced this all over the years..watching a new idea rapidly gain acceptance and then be incorporated into a sense of tradition.

S. Nichole said...

Thanks, Deborah!

It is amazing to think about the amount of changes that have happened over the years in both Paganism overall and within specific denominations.

I would be interested in hearing your take on the changes that have been made in your tradition over the years. Maybe you would be willing to write about it on your blog?

Jeff Lilly said...

Nichole, thanks for taking such an in-depth look at this topic! When I post on it myself later this week, I'll be able to refer readers back to yours at crucial points!

One remarkable thing about religious innovation -- and it's the same with linguistic innovation -- is that it's not only healthy, it's inevitable. As new people learn the religion (children and adults), and populations shift, and technology and culture change, the religion will change as well. It simply can't be helped.

It may be the case that one day there will be a single complete body of Scientific Knowledge, with all the equations set in stone, and no further emendation or reinterpretation necessary. Personally I don't believe it. And the same is even more true of religion.