What Can Become a Tradition? Research Time, 01/03/2018

The term ‘resurrection’ is loaded, especially to someone who grew up in a historically Christian culture like me. It’s ironic today, because I want to talk about the resurrection of pagan religion in the West.

It was an illuminating example in a densely brilliant essay by Isabelle Stengers in The Guattari Effect. It extends a dialogue she and Guattari had when he was alive, about what it means to continue a tradition.

Question – Does a tradition need unbroken transmission across all generations from origin to now, if it’s going to be a genuine tradition?

The last several decades have seen a revival of Pagan rituals,
festivals, and genuine devotional religious ceremonies in the West.
Not only in Europe, but among settler cultures in North America
as well. But is it an authentic paganism if the tradition of the
religion was broken, and broken so long ago?
It started with an exchange between Stengers and Guattari about the nature of progress in anything’s development. The first context was how to understand the implications of evolution. If you take Darwinism seriously, you actually have to throw out any talk of higher and lower organisms.

The Medieval way of thinking ordered the world into hierarchies. The classification system in the Great Chain of Being may have been getting more complicated, and all the talk of God never needed to be said anymore. But until Darwin, you still ranked them.

And we kept ranking them after Charles Darwin the person wrote. But you now had this thoroughly materialist way of thinking about life. What does that imply for the reality of rank? Of a scale of “higher to lower” organisms by phylum or species? A chain that you moved up as you developed?

It's gone. Start from this fact – All the species that exist today are genuinely contemporary. This includes the bacteria. Folks typically think of bacteria as the lowest form of life, because one-celled organisms were the first to develop and bacteria are one-celled organisms.

But the bacteria that exist today are bacteria that have gone through nearly four billion years of contingent evolution. They’ve had just as much time as us. So if passage through time means advancement up the great chain of evolution, why are they still bacteria?

Because Earth is not the current place in an evolutionary process of creatures growing more advanced. Earth is a highly entropic system of hydrocarbons that’s had energy pumped into it for four billion years. We are the current era in a roiling chaos of highly complex contingent activity.

Bryozoans have existed for nearly 500 million years. They are
literally bags of microorganisms that live as a fist-sized single
organism. It moves, perceives, eats, excretes, and reproduces
asexually. The Bryozoans of today are utterly different from
the ones that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, except
that they are still bryozoans.
What the hell does this have to do with neo-paganism?

That conception of existence – roiling chaos of highly complex contingent activity – is an incredibly abstract description. Words heavy with very precise meanings expressed generally enough that many other contexts express it too.

Cultures change over time – contingent development in a chaotic world. The competing, older concept is the chain of being from lower to higher forms – progress as advancement in rank. A tradition consists in a common task developing over time. So you continue a tradition by relaying that task – passing it along.

Pagan religions in Europe – Greek, Roman, Celtic, Norse, and Germanic – flourished two thousand years ago. Christianity wiped out all the theology and absorbed pagan customs into its own practice, now seamlessly. New Pagans build their new tradition from archaeological and anthropological research on those ancient religions. They build their own practices from these fragments.

If you think of tradition as a chain, any temporal break ends the tradition. The reconstructed version developed in the late 20th century isn’t authentic to the organic Pagan religions of ancient Europe because of that break. There were no Pagan Yoda figures in hiding until Christianity let its institutional guard down.

But if you understand development as contingent chaos, then temporal continuity doesn't matter. Recurrence without continuity can happen, if conditions develop that make a tradition’s resurrection possible. So authenticity is a matter only of engagement, care, and a spirit of fidelity. You’re no receptacle. You can learn.

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