Religion today: Themes and issues
Religion today: Themes and issues

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Religion today: Themes and issues

1.2 Continuity and change

Religions generally go to a great deal of trouble to stress how consistent, how changeless, how solid they are, but change is, in fact, an observable and constant factor in religion. At a personal level, for example, older Catholics who grew up having to eat fish on Friday and ‘knowing’ that cremation was forbidden to them are aware of that. Such ‘unchanging certainties’ have changed a great deal over the years. It is therefore useful to look both at how a religion develops over time and/or in different milieus. We can learn a lot by seeing what remains constant and what changes over time, what it is thought necessary to maintain in a new situation, and what can be compromised upon. What works when a religion is the dominant force in society (as, for example, in Christian or Islamic theocracies) has to be reappraised in the context of religious pluralism, communism or civil society.

Continuity is often stressed or implied by an appeal to ‘tradition’, but tradition is not the unambiguous edifice it is frequently made to appear, and is not constant. Indeed, we repeatedly have to ask: what tradition, whose tradition, when and where was this tradition established? In the realm of sharia or Islamic law, for example, despite certain guiding principles, different schools of law and interpretation have developed in different places, at different times. There is thus not one monolithic, universally applicable set of rules – there is no single tradition. Writing of contemporary conservative Jews, the religious studies scholar Paul Morris notes that ‘the calls for a return to the timeless ways of traditional Judaism usually require a return to the early or mid-nineteenth century’ (Morris, 1996, p.225). Tradition is thus a flexible concept that can be pressed into service to legitimize any number of ideas, practices and lifestyles. As the American folklorist Henry Glassie cautions, ‘tradition is the creation of the future out of the past’, and history ‘is an artful assembly of materials from the past, designed for usefulness in the future’ (Glassie, 1995, p.395). Nevertheless, the concept of tradition as constant and changeless (which some take to mean unchangeable) is of great importance to many believers, and raises many complex issues when religion is faced with change, either internally or externally.

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