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Formation and Transformation: Modelling the Dynamics of Religious Traditions

Panel Chair: Ab de Jong | Friday, August 28, 1:30-3 p.m. | Venue

Invoking the authority of Weber, Hobsbawn, and Shils, everyone agrees that religious traditions are dynamic entities. Even so, it is rare to find good analyses (not to mention general theories) of how religious traditions are formed and transformed. This panel helps fill this lacuna by raising two difficult questions: Which mechanisms are involved in the formation, transformation, and maintenance of religious traditions? And can these mechanisms be combined into a general model? The panel begins with a short opening talk sketching the nature and the relevance of the problem. In the three papers that follow, we identify a number of transformative processes across various contexts, and each attempt to combine them into a general model of the dynamics of religious traditions. The papers deal respectively with contemporary death ritual in the Netherlands, Manichaeans in fourth century Egypt, and the emergence of an international milieu of Tolkien religion.

William Arfman

Trajectories of Tradition: A Ritual Studies Approach to Modelling (Trans-)Formation

In this paper I develop a tripartite model for mapping the dynamics of ritual traditions, based on my research into the recent emergence of a ritual field of collective commemoration in the Netherlands. First, I will identify two pairs of oppositional poles which together make up the tension field within which ritualizing takes place. The first of these poles concerns the opposing forces of innovation and repetition, the second deals with localization vs. generalization. Secondly, I will show how recurring trajectories of tradition within this tension field can be recognized. In particular, three consecutive stages can be identified: that of creativity, where elements of existing traditions are subjected to local innovation, that of stabilization, where a selection of these innovations come to be repeated, and dissemination, in which these rites spread to new locations. Finally, I will argue for the relevance of this model for understanding religious traditions in general.

Mattias Brand

Negotiating a Manichaean Tradition in Absence of Ritual Specialists

The documentary letters from Kellis provide the very first opportunity to study the Manichaean tradition ’on the ground’. This paper will highlight some of the transformations which set this material apart from other Manichaean sources. Among the alterations I will stress the absence of ritual specialists and will present the role of lay participation in the ritual dynamics and the formation of a Manichaean community. I will describe the formation of the ‘holy church’ in Kellis from a socio-historical perspective, based on the Greek and Coptic material analyzed in my PhD-project. The transformations attested in this village reveal the mechanisms of creating a Manichaean way of life in antiquity; they problematize theoretical approaches which a priori designate Manichaeism as a coherent system whose Urform was designed by Mani himself. Systematization, agency and the adaptation to the local context characterized the formation of this religious community in fourth century Egypt.

Markus Davidsen

Towards a Theory of Religious Rationalisation: The Case of the Spiritual Tolkien Milieu

Drawing on my PhD-thesis on religion based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy books, I sketch a semiotic theory of the dynamics of belief in religious traditions. I identify four ‘loci of belief’, and explore the dynamic relations between them. In particular, I focus on how folk rationalisations and theology emerge when elemental religious practice and religious narratives are made subject to processes of religious rationalisation. Two aspects of religious rationalisation, belief elaboration and ontology assessment, are distinguished and discussed. I then identify certain patterns of rationalisation in Tolkien religion, for example that folk rationalisations gravitate towards a balance between fabulousness and plausibility. I refer to conceptual blending theory and the cognitive study of religion to explain these patterns. Pulls towards minimal counter-intuitiveness and compression of the human-deity relation are found to propel endogenous rationalisation. ‘Exogenous rationalisation’, involving religious blending, is more loosely framed by processes of compression and pattern completion.


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