Authenticity: What’s Traditional Anyway?
One thing that seems to unite members of many religions as well as postmodern hipsters, is the search for authenticity. So as people debate over whether this or that custom, method of worship, holiday etc. is authentic or not, and to what degree, I think it best to take a step back and ask, what do we mean by “authentic”?
Many holiday customs that we think of as “traditional” for both Christian and Pagan holidays, we don’t have record of much beyond the Middle Ages. Pagans often make claims that this or that holiday custom was of Pagan origin, and meant such and such, but lot of this is conjecture. But does that really matter? It’s interesting, certainly to know the antiquity and origins of our practices and symbols, but you and your family (or coven/grove/kindred) think it means something, and you find out that it doesn’t, does that lose its meaning or power? No. The story behind it may change, the reason may change, the meaning may shift, but it’s still there. In fact the story of how you found out that the “traditional story” was wrong becomes a new part of your tradition! Such as my fiance’s great-grandmother claiming to be related to President Harrison, which they figured out was impossible.
Are we doing things we think are authentic for their own sake, or for their intrinsic meaning and relevance?
Take say, Latin Mass. Latin was the language that united the Roman Empire, and its cultural heir, the Catholic Church and later the language of the educated classes. After Latin’s influence had waned for centuries, the Vatican decided that Mass would be in local languages. Some people enjoy the rhythms and cadences of the Latin language, and they like to experience Mass spoken and sung in Latin. And so some churches still have Latin Mass. There were some people at the time of Vatican II that were upset about these changes simply because they were new.
Change is threatening. So is the unfamiliar. But we shouldn’t cling to things that aren’t relevant to our time and place out of insecurity. On the other hand, throwing out something just because it’s not modern and shiny is also spiritually immature. Be honest about the origins of your spiritual practices and beliefs, that gives you and your path more legitimacy than claiming false antiquity.
Remember, everything had to start somewhere.
This post owes a lot of inspiration to this article by Gordon Cooper, and an interview with John Michael Greer on Deo’s Shadow Podcast (both of the Ancient Order of Druids in America) in which he discusses “authenticity vs. validity”.