The Idolatry of Tradition

Album Page with Two Sheikhs and Calligraphic Specimens (between 1599 and 1799). Held by the Art Institute of Chicago.

If I am critical of certain excessively narrow or exclusivist formulations of religious orthodoxies, it is not from the standpoint of a modernizing or liberalizing impulse. Rather, it is from an iconoclastic standpoint, where the claim to unique possession of some sacred form is measured against the most original of orthodoxies — the essence of Divinity as Compassion, Love, Mercy, etc.

There are few forms of idolatry more insidious than the idolatry of a crude traditionalism, where it seems that one is given divine justification for giving something the station of ultimate importance. To do so, however, is to take the contingent and fallible and raise it to the level of the necessary and eternal. And what a powerful weapon for control these idols become — a truth which has been well realized by various tyrannical political leaders throughout history.

As such, the historical element of the development of religious dogmas — which have neither been static nor monolithic even within a particular branch of a given religion — is so often intertwined with political histories. An uncritical theological response to this basic truth is to merely assert that the historical development of the dogmas and forms of religious authority within one’s own tradition was in fact God-given: there is a divine wisdom at work in the messy human historical world which leads to the intended outcomes even if we may not understand the sense behind such progressions.

If we grant this premise, there are two options: 1) Either God is at work in the development of human theological and philosophical perspectives writ large and we are thrown out of exclusivism directly, into a deeply pluralistic understanding of religious truth, or 2) God is guiding the history of some human religious communities but not others; or God is at work in all these traditions, but intentionally guiding some to falsehood while reserving truth theological perspectives only for an elite few.

If this premise of a Divine lure through history is to be maintained, the first option is the clear choice, as the alternative doesn’t pass the basic heuristic mentioned at the outset of testing all theologies against the fundamental notion of a God of Compassion, Love, Mercy, etc.

Yet at the same time, I remain deeply hesitant to too quickly dismiss traditional perspectives as is often the case in progressive religious movements. It is easy to see a different form of idolatry at work here — a likewise subtle phenomenon where an implicit ideology of progress is taken as ultimate. In Islam, for example, one may look back to the work of the Islamic modernists of the 19th and 20th centuries, where much of the richness and coherence of the classical tradition was abandoned in favor of what to contemporary eyes appears as a very dated form of Eurocentric modernism with all its scientism and excessive rationalism.

It is very easy to get carried away by the spirit of the age, to become attracted to what is novel and alive in the moment, and take this as an ultimate to which material received in tradition must now conform.

There are, of course, things we do genuinely wish to leave in the past, and to make these decisive stands forcefully at times — as movements within the developments of various strands of religious orthodoxy have always done.

Yet it is not enough to merely be critical. What is demanded of us, I believe, is to likewise be critical of the frameworks out of which our critical perspectives arise. There must be a two-way hermeneutical movement, from our intuitions as contemporary subjects and all the social, cultural, and intellectual material that comes with that; and from tradition with its complexities and pluriform expressions that may initially appear dense, arcane, irrelevant. But this two-way movement is always mediated by this most basic vision of a God of Compassion, Love, Mercy, etc, demanding that we purge our traditions of the toxic residues which they have accumulated in the course of history, while also beckoning that we faithfully and vulnerably dig into the various theophanies our traditions have brought forth, allowing ourselves to be transformed and purified by this difficult task.

This is a delicate task, surely, yet without due care in sure a project, contemporary religion very easily lapses into crude tribalism — something fundamentally undesirable in our age of growing and deepening divisions, and ultimately something which likewise does not pass the test of heeding the call of a God of Compassion, Love, Mercy, etc.



Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI. Founder @alifreview

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Jared Morningstar

Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI. Founder @alifreview