The Shallow Hermeneutics of Religious Conservatism or Why It Is Impossible to Develop an Entirely Non-Modern Approach to Tradition

Sunset over lake Mendota, Madison Wisconsin, 2021.

Something interesting I have noticed lately as I have been examining contemporary reform arguments within religious traditions as well as the polemics against these arguments, is how liberalism is often reified by the polemicists so that they may easily accuse the reformists of attempting to judge the religion by something foreign and external to the canonical or sacred sources of the faith.

This is an effective move because liberalism is indeed a specific discursive tradition apart from any given religion (though it of course drew inspiration from religious ideas in the milieu of the Enlightenment as it was coming into existence), and so if someone claims to take inspiration from liberalism, or even if a liberal idea prompted new reflection on a religious matter, it does genuinely seem as though the reformist is taking some source as more fundamental or authoritative than those recognized by the religion itself.

My contention is that this phenomenon of being inspired by contemporary values or perspectives which are properly outside of the origin of any given religion is not something exclusive to the liberal reformist, but in fact universal, no matter the extent to which one attempts to construct an exclusively traditional approach to religion.

Of course, there’s a spectrum of zealotry amongst liberal reformists, so this isn’t to say that it is impossible to discern between who is more or less traditional — there are people who propose very significant cuts with the established tradition which would be clearly identifiable to anyone with a passing familiarity with the religion in question. My contention is that the mere fact that someone was inspired by liberalism (or any other more contemporary philosophical system) is not sufficient to renounce their perspective over and against what is presented as “traditional,” as I have good reason to believe that the conservative apologists within the religion are also engaged in this type of inspiration, though here it is implicit and unconscious.

Qur’anic calligraphy of Surah Yusuf, verse 64.

We live in an undeniably pluralistic world — certainly, at least those of us who have access to the internet or even libraries and bookstores. We come into contact with information and ideas with different histories and perspectives than those which have been developed and stewarded within our specific religious communities. To attempt to shield oneself entirely from these exogenous ideas is, I think most would agree, rather radical, and, more importantly, not something one can justify from the major sources of tradition. Because sacred texts came into being at the inception of various religious communities, and because the kind of pluralism we have today is unique in kind and extent, there are no ready to hand proclamations to, say, not watch the news unless it is produced by people of your own faith, or not read a book dealing with a non-religious subject penned by someone with a different religion.

As such, cross-penetration of ideas is only natural. As modern (and postmodern) subjects, we are naturally infused with certain values through which we then come to read scriptures and the broader canon of the tradition. The liberal reformist does this very intentionally, and often excessively — I certainly empathize with critiques that such people often deform the tradition to make it conform to their individual perspective, but I don’t think this critique covers all such cases.

This “natural infusion of values” is also something which can be made conscious, and subsequently rejected. This is the move of the religious conservative. At this point, an intentionally anti-liberal or anti-modern perspective is cultivated, and it is through this worldview that religion is then understood.

Notice, however, that it was a reaction against liberal modern values that then shaped the subsequent approach to religion. This negative inspiration is not something directly promoted by religious traditions, as they did not come into being in this same modern pluralistic context, so to define a traditionalism over and against a certain vision of modern liberalism is just as modern a way to construct one’s approach to matters of faith as is the reformist’s approach.

Ceiling Painted Dome Cupola Angels Fighting Demons in Vatican Museums

Ultimately, I think I’ve become more sympathetic to a liberal reformist vision, where this is understood as a more open hermeneutical method which attempts to intuit the value motivating particular proclamations within scripture or earlier tradition and then move forward by attempting to actualize that same value within our distinct context of late modernity. In its reactionary posture, the conservative traditionalism very easily slips into a kind of rigid literalism, where past understandings of religious matters are simply accepted on their face even if they go against basic moral apprehensions. The traditionalist also runs into the difficult problem of when and how to judge the historical tradition — obviously, even if scripture and certain religious offices are dogmatically understood to be free from error, there is still a human component within institutional religion which can lead to the development and proliferation of mistaken understandings, especially where the religion intersected with political power in various ways throughout history.

There’s a couple paths forward here. One is to merely look for consensus, and dismiss suspect interpretations on the basis that they were going against the grain or otherwise lacked significant support from religious authorities. But it is not always the case that problematic positions enjoyed little widespread support. In that case, the approach is to go to the primary sources of the tradition for inspiration, and use these as the normative standard against which the historical position is to be judged. Now, this is all well and good, except that this is precisely the method used by the liberal reformist which is rejected outright as being some kind of motivated reasoning, propelled by values external to the tradition proper.

The cardinal sin of the conservative traditionalist, in my estimation, is to simply double down on problematic understandings of religion inherited from the historical tradition, despite the fact that there is obvious tension here with basic moral intuitions. This is a kind of decadent historical literalism. I reject this approach as the conclusion is pre-determined through this dialectical engagement with what is seen as liberalism — something which wasn’t the case historically even as various religious authorities developed highly rigid understandings at various points. Taking a more contextual approach is in fact a very natural method and I think more often than not traditional authorities leaned more in this direction than in the direction of a reactionary and literalistic traditionalism.

The Buddhist Paradise of Amitabha, Chinese mural painted during the Tang Dynasty

There’s a couple paths forward here. One is to merely look for consensus, and dismiss suspect interpretations on the basis that they were going against the grain or otherwise lacked significant support from religious authorities. But it is not always the case that problematic positions enjoyed little widespread support. In that case, the approach is to go to the primary sources of the tradition for inspiration, and use these as the normative standard against which the historical position is to be judged. Now, this is all well and good, except that this is precisely the method used by the liberal reformist which is rejected outright as being some kind of motivated reasoning, propelled by values external to the tradition proper.

The cardinal sin of the conservative traditionalist, in my estimation, is to simply double down on problematic understandings of religion inherited from the historical tradition, despite the fact that there is obvious tension here with basic moral intuitions. This is a kind of decadent historical literalism. I reject this approach as the conclusion is pre-determined through this dialectical engagement with what is seen as liberalism — something which wasn’t the case historically even as various religious authorities developed highly rigid understandings at various points. Taking a more contextual approach is in fact a very natural method and I think more often than not traditional authorities leaned more in this direction than in the direction of a reactionary and literalistic traditionalism.

The good news is that we need not be either reactionaries nor wanton reformists. While we will always be inspired by systems of value and thought external to tradition as we come to our religious life and reason about various things, we do not need to set contemporary mores as a fundamental standard for religion — whether used as a heuristic for acceptance or rejection. Instead of constantly approaching religion on this macro level of worldviews, we can approach specific issues on a case-by-case basis. This requires doing historical study, as well as developing a holistic understanding of one’s tradition which can then be used as a normative standard against which the historical tradition can be judged. But this also requires a good deal of humility and introspection — we must also turn this normative standard back upon ourselves and the assumptions we’ve inherited as modern subjects and sort the wheat from the chaff.

A search for bedrock hermeneutical purity vis à vis tradition is fruitless — this very yearning is something uniquely modern in its dialectical approach of constructing tradition over and against liberalism/modernity/etc. By the very method, this purity is thwarted from the start. But that does not mean tradition is inaccessible to us — simply approaching religious sources with piety, open-mindedness, and sincerity is likely to produce positive, if imperfect results.

My own theology envisions a God who is comprehensible and understanding of human predicaments through history. This means our religious sources will always have something important to say, even as we approach them from limited perspectives, and that, in the end, our religious understandings will be judged not according to some obscure rubric concealed in the mind of God, but also according to moral and humanistic standards which are eminently accessible.

Art Deco style painting by Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1906.

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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

Jared Morningstar

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

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