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7.1: Interpreting a Whole Tradition and Subtraditions

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    Several considerations should be kept in mind when setting out to apply the framework of ways of being religious to an entire tradition or even to a major subtradition.

    First, one should expect diversity and avoid reductionism. Entertain simplifications skeptically. In applying the framework of ways of being religious to a major tradition as a whole, it makes a great deal of difference how well acquainted one is with the concrete diversity of practices the tradition happens to hold. The more one becomes acquainted with that diversity, the less likely one will be tempted to take one practice (exemplifying a single way or a certain combination of ways of being religious) as representative of the whole, even when a presumably authoritative spokesperson for the tradition, an apparently authoritative passage of scripture, or a seemingly reliable secondary account asserts (or seems to assert) it to be representative of the whole. An informant may be quite reliable with regard to her own local subtradition, but she may be quite unreliable with regard to her readiness to hold forth about the tradition or subtradition as a whole, especially in regard to variations from the specific practices with which she particularly identifies. A subtradition that has long exemplified a single way-given changed circumstances, a new generation of adherents, and new leadership-may come to develop aspects of other ways. That is one of the reasons why an older version of a tradition or subtradition is not necessarily more authentic, although our Western and largely Protestant bias is to suppose it must be. Insiders who presume to speak for a tradition or major subtradition and sympathetic outsider interpreters very often, and frequently without realizing it, commit a kind of reductionism in this respect, if for no other reason than that they are naturally inclined toward one way of being religious over others or they are preoccupied with the specific aspect of the problem of meaning (i.e., the existential need) that corresponds to that way. To avoid reductionism, there is no shortcut to learning what ways of being religious are and are not exemplified in a tradition apart from getting to know that tradition fairly well at close hand and to be wary of generalizing about the tradition beyond the extent of one's acquaintance. To that end a good historical and geographic survey of the tradition is indispensable. (It is important to keep in mind, however, that an historical orientation toward a tradition may bring with it elements of a worldview at odds with insiders' understandings of that tradition.1)

    Second, although one may find clear examples of a single way of being religious, it is best not to expect that "pure" instances of a single way are what one is most likely to find and not to insist that a given religious phenomenon must be classified as wholly of one way rather than some other. More likely what will be found are phenomena exemplifying predominantly a single way or a fusion of two or three ways, while aspects of other ways may be present in a subordinate fashion. For example, concern with right action is present to a varying extent in Evangelical Protestant Christianity, as is serious study of scripture (i.e., reasoned inquiry), but both are comparatively minor and definitely subordinate aspects relative to a predominant emphasis upon the way of devotion.

    Third, one should be prepared for the possibility that dominant expressions of a given way in a given subtradition within a given epoch might well be degenerate and corrupted in various respects (i.e., exhibiting more vices than virtues of the sort described in Chapter 5). In the event one finds that to be true, one should avoid directly drawing the conclusion that the way of being religious is well represented in such an instance, that the subtradition in question has always been so practiced, that this instance represents what the subtradition is like in other locales, or even that it is corrupt for all followers within the circumstances in question-let alone for times and circumstances yet to come. In other words, it is important to distinguish between the way within the tradition (or subtradition) in question and the (level ot) quality of practice of that way in any other given instance.

    What is high-quality and authentic practice in a given tradition and what is not is not just a matter of the generic criteria discussed in Chapter 5. Just as important-for insiders, clearly more important-is how well it accords with the authoritative norms of the tradition: its primary system of symbols, its central story or stories, its scriptures. It is important in this respect to discover how the ways of being religious within a tradition relate to, and are ultimately an expression of, how the primary system of symbols, the central stories, and the scriptures are interpreted.

    When we speak here of Buddhism and Christianity we mean to speak of them holistically, in a way that encompasses their many different subtraditions. Not all of their subtraditions agree with or recognize the authenticity of the others. Some differences between their subtraditions run so deep that a few serious scholars have questioned whether it makes sense to speak of Christianity as a whole or of Buddhism as a whole. Nevertheless, the account given here proceeds on the assumptions that, with proper qualifications, it does make good sense to speak of them as wholes and that there are unifying traits and sibling resemblances in each tradition that connect its subtraditions together within a single family, however recalcitrant some of its members may be. The same might be said of the other great religious traditions such as Hinduism, Judaism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Islam-indeed, of any religious tradition large enough to permit a variety of subtraditions to emerge.

    Conceived holistically, both Buddhism and Christianity in particular give expression to several varieties of all six ways of being religious. What is true for a whole tradition, however, is not necessarily true for its subtraditions. Many subtraditions of both Buddhism and Christianity have differentiated themselves in large measure by their insistent identification with a specific way or combination of ways of being religious-in some cases exclusively so but in other cases nonexclusively by prioritizing a certain way or set of ways in relation to other ways. In other words, many (perhaps most) subtraditions do not exemplify all six ways and certainly not with equal emphasis. Some subtraditions have differentiated themselves in some respects by their insistent rejection or repudiation of a specific way (or ways) of being religious. But taken as a whole, these two major traditions encompass all of the ways.

    This page titled 7.1: Interpreting a Whole Tradition and Subtraditions is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.