Reviving broken traditions

The advantages and disadvantages of of having to re-create and new-create a religion/spiritual path

Back to Articles | Back to Page One

This article is based on a lecture, given at the 2nd International Conference and Gathering of Elders -- "Spirituality Beyond Religions -- 2006" -- 5th to 10th February 2006 at Jaipur, India.

Being born without a spiritual culture
I am a city boy. Born in Stockholm, Sweden, in the most materialistic of times, with parents who are professional academics - my mother a librarian and my father a veterinarian and professor in pathology. No religion whatsoever, no spiritual tradition. A great interest in culture, art and history was there, but only from a very contemporary perspective. No real roots. A lot of focus on the present and the future, but little in the past. In fact - for a modern, generic westerner, there is no such thing as an indigenous culture.
Being a city boy in a modern western society means being well situated, from a materialistic perspective. We have good housing, good cars, functioning electricity and communications, food on the table, fashion clothing - overall, a high living standard.
And we have a great intellectual culture, with democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, good education and freedom of choice in most fields in society.
But we have lost something.

Who is rich, who is poor?
Our old traditions have been broken. And not just once. First due to the introduction of christianity in the 11th century, and then due to a reformation in the 16th century. Finally, in our time, due to globalization and technical development, local culture has become obsolete, and is now replaced with up-to-date, international culture and lifestyle.
Interestingly enough, we ”modern” Westerners generally embrace an ethno-centric perspective of being the rich ones, and all those who come from more primitive, indigenous cultures are of course the poor ones, who would do better in life if they got more of all the good stuff we have.
But coming here to India, to this conference, seeing this great diversity of indigenous cultures showing their ceremonies, dancing their dances, singing their songs, telling their myths and stories, wearing beautiful clothes and jewellery - makes me wonder. Who is rich, and who is poor - really?

New Age and spiritual seekers
In Sweden, our old traditions have been broken not only once, but many times. The first major shift came with the introduction of the christian church in the 11th century. Then came reformation in the 16th century, and in present times, the church has already lost most of its power, and for a long time it has had no real influence over the minds of people in Sweden.
This has left people with a frustrating lack of spirituality, lack of soul.
So New Age came along, and during the eighties it exploded. There was Tarot cards, chrystals, I Ching, Feng Shui, Hare Krishna, Scientology, meditation, yoga, vegetarianism, acupuncture, healing, channeling - you name it. Everything on a big buffet. Just pick what you like.
No doubt, this has been an opening for new (and very old) things to come into practice, and many has found new and effective ways to find depth in their lives. And one has to remember that the current trend of reviving older spiritual traditions, is in fact partially a result of New Age.
However, New Age has still left many with frustrated hearts. A lot of New Age stuff is just way too shallow, mostly because of its lack of organic, cultural roots.

Revival of ancient Scandinavian paganism
During the the last three decades, many Scandinavians have chosen to look back in time to find roots within our own history, in our own soil and ancestry. Often from a cultural perspective, but for some, the spiritual aspects has presented a major attraction.
This is not all new. There has been attempts also in the 18th, 19th and in the beginning of the 20th century, but mostly in very limited, academic circles. Only now it has spread to ordinary people living under ordinary circumstances, all over Scandinavia.
Fertilized with, and inspired by shamanistic and other religious practices in various cultures (Native Americans, North Scandinavian Samis, Siberian shamans, ancient Indian Vedic culture - and many more), and with the help of academic research, archeological findings as well as practical experience, slowly by slowly, a revival of ancient Scandinavian religion is taking place.
And during this process, we find that much more than we thought of our contemporary culture and folklore is in fact remnants of pre-Christian culture. Most of our traditional holidays and celebrations have pagan origin, and many of our unique cultural features as a whole.

How to do it
However, reviving a broken tradition is not a small thing to achieve. Many questions arise, needing answers. Much has been lost - more than most of us would like. But more is also preserved than we first believed. Nowadays, the christian bias within historical research has diminished, and even if one never can speak about absolutely impartial, objective science, we are definitely closer to that now, than just a few decades back.
So to start with, we have to combine theoretical studies with practical experience. Trial and error, combined with theoretical knowledge, that is. Nothing beats experience.
It is crucial to fill in the gaps - all the things that are lost over the centuries. This can be done by on one hand comparative studies, by looking at other religious traditions that are in some way similar to the one that needs reviving, and maybe even using certain parts of those practices.
One also has to be creative, and invent new things - this requires a lot of awareness of the needs within ones own path. It also requires a lot of humility - and pride. This may seem a paradox, but what I am referring to is not a personal pride, but being proud of ones own tradition and faith. And of course, humility and respect towards the tradition, and all those others who practice it.
And - humility towards other traditions. If there is mutual respect, one can learn from anyone.
We also need a lot of depth and honesty, not to get lost in illusory goals - and finally, we need a lot of perseverence and patience. These things always take much longer time than we think.
The direct result of this today, within our tradition, is that we still consist of quite a high percentage of creative pioneers and leaders. Within a generation or two, though, I believe this will have changed into a more normal disposition, when the amount of practitioners is considerably higher than now.
To achieve this, we need to strengthen ourselves through our ceremonies, and through establishing local, active groups, and functioning networks between them. This is already slowly taking place.

A World Revolution
ALL major changes within the human society comes with technological development. Also religion.
When we changed from hunter-gatherers into farmers, this was the biggest technological shift in human history. This also changed religion, of course. Suddenly, fertility Gods and Goddesses came into fashion. And when society changed from stone into metal technology (bronze, iron), this also changed things. Radically. What to speak of written language, the printing press, electricity and microprocessors! The result of this today is that we have easy access to the whole world - through media, Internet and other forms of communication - in a way we never before have seen in the human history. This of course also changes religion. It has become much easier to connect with other people of the same faith - as well as with people from other faiths and cultures. Things are happening faster than ever.

Disadvantages (of being part of a broken tradition that needs reviving)
The disadvantages are obvious. There are initially no traditional ceremonies, no natural flow from generation to generation of customs and ways of acting and thinking, no old wise men and women to ask for advice, noone to learn the whole thing from.
We don’t have old songs and rituals - we don’t have any solid basis for our actions within our tradition. In the beginning, only the strongest individualists can fully experience the essence of this tradition, because they are the only ones with enough creativity and integrity to withstand ridicule and oppression, and enough faith to keep up the good work.
This may lead to rootlessness, artificial form without content, great diversity between all the individualists (everyone is a pioneer/leader) who wants to establish their own exclusivity, easily resulting in big conflicts over stupid details.

Advantages (of being part of a broken tradition that needs reviving)
The advantages are actually many - more than one may believe. First of all, we cannot just repeat old rituals as some kind of cultural reflex, without awareness. Every step we take, we have to make conscious choices. We have to choose our symbols and create our own ceremonies.
In this, we have to be very aware of what we are doing. We have to be very focused. This is of course a good thing for any person, on any spiritual path.
We don’t have a lot of luggage. We can start more from scratch, creating a tradition that hopefully will be better adapted for modern society than many other, non-broken traditions - at least those who desperately cling on to, or put too much pride in old traditions.
Buddha said on his death-bed, that one should not accept any statements, any rituals or leaders blindly - that everyone has to be responsible for his/her own spiritual path.
For someone who tries to revive a broken tradition, this is not an option - it’s a must.

Complete recovery is NOT wanted
We are not part of a ”viking religion”, and we have no wish to reconstruct a religion exactly as it was practiced a thousand years ago. That would be a crazy thing to attempt, completely out of touch with the needs of people today.
All religions and human cultures as a whole change over time. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism - or any religon - does not look as it did a thousand years ago, or even 500, or a 100 years ago. And that’s the way it has to be. In order to survive, any tradition has to revive itself constantly, no matter how old it is. And this is possibly where we have a slight advantage over the old, unbroken traditions - we are fully aware of that we have to revive our tradition.
And in this we can actually be a source of inspiration for those who are within unbroken traditions, with deep roots.
We have to revive the understanding that everything that is alive inevitably has to change, in order not to die. We ALL have to create and re-create, in order to keep the spiritual fire burning, to revive the desire to know the Divine, to awaken the desire to live in harmony with ourselves and the world.

© Carl Johan Rehbinder 2006

Top | Back to Articles | Back to Page One