Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
Modern societies present us with an ambivalent attitude toward the past. On the one hand, most of us are so much part of a culture of innovation that we tend to accord little power and importance to tradition. Being old-fashioned is an invective, whereas it is a virtue to be up to date. As Marx famously phrased it, in modern life all that is solid melts into air.
Yet, at the same time that the idea of change, innovation, and progress permeates so much of our society, there are areas of life where tradition reigns. A felt continuity with the past provides social institutions and private life with a sense of stability. Religion must surely be one of the domains where the habit of referring to hoary tradition is most prevalent. Ancient texts are passed on through the ages, accepted ways of interpreting them are taught to new generations of members, and rituals are performed according to age-old precedents.
In the dictionary sense of the word, tradition constitutes a set of inherited patterns of beliefs and practices that have been transmitted from generation to generation. In another sense, tradition can rest simply on the claim that certain cultural elements are rooted in the past. Claim and documented historical reality need not overlap. Indeed, in their classic study The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger remind us that some of the best-known “ancient customs” are, in fact, quite recent innovations.