On Closed Traditions

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. What does it mean for a spiritual tradition to be closed vs. open? The usual example seems straightforward:

Christianity is clearly open because not only is anyone welcome to become Christian, people are actively encouraged to do so.

Judaism is closed because if you’re not born and raised Jewish, you’re strongly discouraged from converting, unless you marry or are adopted into a Jewish family–and even then there are requirements for the process.

But I look a little closer and it gets more complicated. I have at least one Jewish friend who feels that Christianity is appropriation from Judaism. Aside from it being far too late to undo that, appropriation is about taking things out of their cultural context. Christianity was founded by Hellenic Jews who chose to open the tradition to gentiles from the inside early on. Christianity remains an open tradition today. You can not appropriate what is being given away.

It’s more complicated yet, though.

Christianity is open to anyone who wants to follow Jesus, but Roman Catholicism, requires you to go through catechism and be baptized to receive the Eucharist, an essential Catholic practice. That means Roman Catholicism is a closed tradition within the larger, open tradition of Christianity. Then there’s all those Catholic religious orders requiring vows, which are yet more closed, within the already closed tradition. What does that even mean?

I realized there’s actually two axes defining access to any given spiritual-cultural tradition, both of which are defined by the values and practices of the existing practitioners in a living tradition.

1: Closed vs. Open is a pretty simple yes/no question: Do practitioners of the living tradition consider it sufficient for an interested individual to educate themselves, and begin practicing the tradition on their own, or are there requirements for entry to the tradition that require an individual to have access to existing practitioners to receive otherwise inaccessible education, initiation, etc.?

If you pick up a copy of the New Testament and find yourself inspired to recognise Jesus Christ as your savior, and want to follow His example, but don’t have access to a congregation? No worries, you’re still Christian!

No amount of reading the Torah is by itself sufficient to make you Jewish.

2: Recruiting vs. Guarded, the second axis, is more of a spectrum for the closed traditions: How high is the bar to entry?

Education and initiation IS required to join the Roman Catholic church, but they are strongly missionary. They definitely recruit, actively devoting resources towards making such education and initiation available to all who are interested.

Judaism is a more guarded tradition in that, while they’re generally happy to share information with outsiders, they discourage converts, and have a fairly high bar to membership.

It’s an observable pattern that the more oppressed a tradition has been over the centuries, and the smaller its living presence is in the world today, the more guarded it tends to be in an effort to preserve what remains, and the more problematic it is to push for admittance.

Provided that such a tradition being closed does not bar off access to necessary secular resources, nor deny anyone agency in their own lives, this is is not necessarily a problem. Even the most closed, guarded tradition tend to allow for marriage or adoption into the group. Practitioners of highly guarded traditions have to decide whether they’d rather risk the tradition change from being less guarded, or risk the tradition dying off entirely.

That is not, however, for outsiders to decide. As tragic as anthropological scholars may find it, practitioners of a small, guarded tradition have every right to decide as a group that they’d rather let it die than be more open. That’s comparatively rare; most of the time when practitioners of a small, guarded tradition realize they may lose the tradition entirely, they seek ways to make the tradition less guarded, while still preserving its unique values, and practices.

So what does this tell me?

  • Closed traditions can have very low bars to entry, and even be actively recruiting.
  • Traditions that are open at the most general level often have closed branches within them.
  • Closed traditions are passed by direct personal contact, usually by new generations being raised to them by their parents, but teacher/student, adoption, and spousal relationships are also very common methods for joining.
  • Guarded closed traditions tend to be passed by immersive contact.
  • An established closed tradition can only be opened from the inside, which may open the entire branch, or may create a new, open branch, depending on the scope of consensus.
  • A specific tradition, once opened, can not ethically be closed.

So really, the only keys to a closed living tradition are personal relationships. Unfortunately for the highly mystical, this means feeling intensely called to a closed tradition is not enough, regardless of the basis for that calling. Luckily, many closed traditions are quite pleased to recognise when one is strongly called from outside the usual community, and make exceptions for people who are respectful and dedicated enough to immerse themselves in the adoptive culture. Of course that requires that you establish respectful contact in the first place.

If you’re so strongly called that it hurts you to be left out, but not so strongly called that you are willing to immerse yourself in the established tradition, you’ve got some discernment to do around which sacrifices you are prepared to make for your calling. If you’re strongly called but not able to acquire the opportunity for immersion, the Powers issuing the call have work to do.

Reconstructionism presents a whole other set of problems, though. It’s a common mistake among reconstructionists to count the beginning of their modern tradition from the beginning of the historical tradition they are reconstructing from. While they may choose to keep their particular modern reconstructionist tradition closed, they have no right to try and bar all others from forming their own reconstructed traditions from the same sources they did. In other words, reconstruction from a source does not automatically convey ownership of that source.

That raises a whole other question, though, not about open vs. closed living traditions, but about ownership of past cultural heritage, and what constitutes the boundaries of a culture. And here’s where we hit the real mess: Culture is a very blurry concept at the best of times. There’s really no such thing as cultural purity. Neighbors trade and raid. Travelers give and take. You’d be amazed how far pre-industrial technology gets an artifact. So how can we tell if a particular historical bit is fair game today?

In general, if a culture has been happy to export something, then by definition that thing is openly available for others to use. If, on the other hand, a thing is reserved within a culture, that’s important to respect. The lines get a little fuzzy sometimes, though. Turns out, real life isn’t always easily defined.

There’s one thing I’m sure of, though: If a culture has been deliberately spread across the world by merchants, missionaries, and militaries holding everyone to their assumptions and standards, that culture can not also be exclusively held by particular bloodlines. If particular bloodlines have raped and pillaged their way across the world, spreading their genes far and wide, their descendants don’t also get to pick and choose which of their distant cousins really count as fellow descendants.

If all roads lead to Rome, they can’t complain when everybody wants to go there.