On Closed Traditions

(Edited to Add Note: This is not an essay about the history of Christianity and Judaism. They are merely familiar examples of traditions which people recognise as generally open and closed, respectively. There is no way I could possibly summarize the history of either, much less their interactions, in an essay of this length.)

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 in general 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. [Edit] “Less Guarded” is not the same as “Open”.
  • 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.


About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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25 Responses to On Closed Traditions

  1. Okay, I was thinking about this a bit. I think there are a couple of problems here, both with the examples chosen, and the fairly binary nature of the discussion.

    I don’t think closed/open is a clear binary (you touch on this in discussing Catholicism). I think any faith will have aspects of being closed and being open. You can study Torah all you want, and I’m sure that if you showed up on Saturday morning and started praying along, nobody would really think to ask whether you were formally Jewish. And Judaism thrives on discussion of Torah; bat/bar mitzvot and minyan requirements are built to function with no rabbi around for miles.

    Actually declaring yourself Jewish hits the halakhic requirement of trying to dissuade the would-be convert, which appears closed — but how’s that different from having to first take a confirmation class, or be baptized with some very specific formal words? Even if you did that, no amount of having converted to Conservative Judaism would make you Jewish in Haredic eyes.

    Does this make Judaism closed or open? I’d argue Judaism is only as closed as any other religion out there. There are aspects of both. Plenty of Christianity is closed off; not everyone out there is a laissez-faire Presbyterian or Quaker happy to pray alongside anyone who accepts Jesus as a savior.

    I also feel like context gets glossed over as a function of these specific examples. “Anyone is welcome to become a Christian” sounds really open, but doesn’t quite acknowledge the coercion historically associated with that religion. Is someone truly being inclusive when you are required to adopt their beliefs? On the flip side, Judaism appears closed, but the requirement of dissuading the would-be convert is an answer to Roman persecution. Judaism might come across as exclusive because historically its adherents are cut off from the mainstream population, exiled, or brutally murdered — and a convert to Judaism might well be targeted in a less enlightened time and place. Was it Jews closing the religion off, here, or Roman pagans, Christians, and Moslems?

    Last, I suspect we’re being unnecessarily indirect. I suspect what you’re looking for historical precedent to apply to neopaganism, but given that we’re talking about reviving old traditions, the historical precedent is by definition the very “open” early days of any religion or the slightly more closed redefinition of a religion slightly later on (eg, the Arian heresy, the Shi’ia/Sunni split, Protestant or Hindu reformations). Why not go straight for it?


    • EmberVoices says:

      Wow, good stuff, ok, let me see if I can reply coherently.

      I think I may have cut a bit too much. I was trying to stay succinct. *sigh*

      I actually did have a bit that didn’t make the cut wherein I point out that some groups that are actively interested in recruiting (even potentially coercively so) are still closed, not in that they have oppinions on who can join or not join, but because the *process* of joining is itself a gateway.

      I’m trying to differentiate here between “Closed” meaning that there’s a gateway one most formally pass through in connection with the established community of practitioners in order to be counted among them, and Guarded, wherein a closed tradition may have anything from mild to strenuous parameters for who is allowed through that gate.

      *None* of these are meant to be epithets. The reason I say there’s no *ethical* way to close an open tradition is that the single most common historical reason for a[n open] (edit) tradition to end up closed is oppression, and the alternative for a functioning open tradition to be closed is to pull the rug out from anyone interested in the open branch or movement But as far as I can tell, A: Most specific, named religious traditions are closed. B: Open traditions tend to be full of closed sub-sets, if only because that’s how group identity works.

      Truly open traditions tend to be very, very broad in definition tend not to be particularly missionary themselves (Not a lot of missionary Christians who have no more specific definition than “Christian” for what they are or do), but may have closed, missionary branches, like the Catholic Church and its bloody history.

      And yes, you’re right, I’m ultimately looking at how this affects the Pagan movement. Why not go straight for it? For one thing, the lines are blurry no matter which examples I give, but the Pagan traditions are even less well defined than the most familiar examples. I was mostly trying to get some basic definitions out before diving into how it applies to the Pagan community. For another, That essay is already scheduled to post in a few days.

      Part of my point, though, is that people keep talking about Open and Closed as a binary without much thought to the details. I’m actually trying to *add* a layer of detail here, in distinguishing the recruiting-to-guarded spectrum.

      Am I making more sense?

      I’m still not sure I’ve heard anything that indicates there’s an open movement in Judaism, but aside from perhaps the broadest definition of Mahayana Buddhism and non-denominational Christianity, I’m not sure there are all that many truly Open religions out there, so it’s still accurate to say that Judaism is about as open as most major religions, in that most major religions, welcoming though they may be, are still essentially closed.

      And that’s NOT wrong of them.


      • EmberVoices says:

        Argh, I’m still leaving stuff out. Stupid long topic. I swear this needs a whole book, not a blog post. I’m trying to raise it up out of Twitter oversimplification. How’s that for ironic?

        Anyway part of my thought about closed traditions that recruit is that they as often as not are closed because their goal is to establish a cohesive power base. To be truly open would actually undermine that process, hence the Roman Catholic church being both clearly closed, and coercively recruting, historically.

        But that didn’t make it past my edits. Perhaps it should have.



    • EmberVoices says:

      Also, I don’t actually agree that most religions start out open. I believe, from looking at the history of many traditions, that most actually start closed and may or may not go through a period of recruiting, which isn’t the same thing as being open.


      • EmberVoices says:

        Well, wait, no, that’s for religions that are started *as religions*, like spinoff sects following a particular mystic. A lot of *other* religions are basically just what a particular culture does about their beliefs and relationships with Divinity, and they’re as open or closed as the culture itself, which tends to depend more on location and surrounding politics than anything else.

        Well, I *did* say it was *complicated*.



    • EmberVoices says:

      Argh, every time I go back over this in my head, I think of another thing I may not have explained very well.

      1: Open vs. Closed wasn’t my idea. I’m trying to expand it. I didn’t choose those words, and I might have chosen differently if I was starting from scratch.

      2: The other Axis that runs from Recruiting to Guarded goes something like Recruiting… Welcoming… Relaxed… Guarded..Sealed. Open traditions can, hypothetically, be anything from relaxed to welcoming, but neither Recruiting nor Guarded make any sense for Open traditions, because of the lack of boundaries involved.

      Thank you, by the way, for giving me more to chew on.

      I’d like to further develop this into a solid framework with, like, diagrams and multiple examples and stuff, but I am still gathering information.

      If you have anything I can read about there being open movements within Judaism, by the way, please do send them along. Everything I’ve been able to find so far says that even the most liberal movements within Judaism still have a clear gateway, they’re just not very strict about it.



  2. Lysana says:

    The ownership issue really does get interesting with reconstructionist approaches. Years back, Celtic folks wound up in a full lather over one element of Brigid worship, that being tending a flame lit from Her sacred one. The original, which some think started in Pagan times but I suspect was a Christian import for a few reasons, was doused in the 16th century and re-lit last century by the nuns who inhabit the saint’s home church. When the topic of adopting that into recon practices arose, an argument broke out over whether men should do so because it had been tended solely by women until it was extinguished. The ones who wanted it kept women-only in recon practice spoke solely of older texts on the matter, the quality of which could be argued heavily. Those who wanted it open regardless of gender while not caring if some people wanted women-only groups were far closer to the sentiments of the current stewards. They decided it was foolish to leave their convent the only place Her flame would burn and opened it to everyone, including lighting a permanent torch in the city square with it. So you had the inheritors of the tradition within the culture saying it was open to all while a subset of recons were acting like they could be a dog in the manger about it. Friendships died on that hill.

    So looking at what you’re saying, I think I see the larger issue you’re driving at. And you have it dead to rights. But there will always be the ones who think they’re better at it than the rest of the rabble. And invariably, they contradict the reality of the situation.


  3. Pingback: An interesting analysis on Closed Traditions | facingthefireswithin

  4. A roll call raised christian living with a cultural jew says:

    Your example religions are not good examples. There are many christian sects that have as many or more steps to conversion as jewish sects, and who keep much more rigorous roll books than jewish sects. By your own arguments, if you take christianity as a whole, it is also closed.

    If you want me to listen, go back to the drawing board.


    • EmberVoices says:

      Did you read the whole essay or just up to the cut?


    • EmberVoices says:

      It sounds like you only read up to the cut. If you’ll read further, you’ll find that I do point out that there are closed branches of Christianity.

      While Christianity itself is open by its own definition, that does not stop specific denominations, and orders within them, from being closed, and even guarded.


      • A roll call raised christian living with a cultural jew says:

        The whole thing was read. That you contradict yourself later doesn’t make using the Open example something you go on to admit is closed a good example.

        And I can’t believe you assumed I didn’t read.


        • EmberVoices says:

          It’s NOT a contradiction for a subset to be closed, it only appears to be if you expect that any given word refers to a single, monolithic, homogenous tradition. Christianity is not remotely homogenous.

          Your experience of a specific, closed branch of Christianity does not describe Christianity as a whole. That some branches are indeed closed and even guarded does not negate my point about how an individual may choose to join.

          I believed you didn’t read because your point in no way invalidates anything I said, but you’re acting like it does, which implies either that you don’t understand what I’m saying, or that you didn’t read where I got to the point in question. I gave you the benefit of a doubt that you reacted before finishing, rather than that you failed to understand my point.


          Liked by 1 person

          • A roll call raised christian living with a cultural jew says:

            Then by your own words Judaism is also Open. Which still makes your set of examples not a good set of examples.

            Find better examples.


          • EmberVoices says:

            It’s news to me that Judaism is open, for I have *never* heard of it being acceptable to identify as Jewish simply by deciding to be… what… monotheistic? But if the examples themselves get the point across to most people, I’m satisfied with them.

            I don’t understand why this is upsetting you.


          • A roll call raised christian living with a cultural jew says:

            You seem to be investing the use of short, direct statements with an emotional state. And that emotional state is strong and negative. That is not the case here. You might want to stop doing that.


          • EmberVoices says:

            Coming into my blog and giving me orders is not acceptable. And yes, I parse short, direct statements like “You are wrong. Do it my way.” as having a load of negative emotional content.

            If you have nothing further to add to this conversation, please leave.


        • I can. I thought she very clearly talked about how certain parts of Christianity are closed. And she also very clearly stated that the history of both Judaism and Christianity are too complicated to get into. Certainly Reconstructionist judaism is more open than Haredi (with whom it is very difficult to convert and requires knowing people.)
          I also can’t imagine why you are being so combative about this.


          • EmberVoices says:

            Oh, that’s obviously because I hit a nerve. I’m guessing that the “role call raised” indicates they left a closed branch of Christianity that treated them poorly. But while I can see how that would influence their mood on the subject, I’m not sure why it is causing this *particular* argument. -E-


          • EmberVoices says:

            Also, to be fair, the note about not being able to get into the history of Christianity and Judaism within the scope of this essay was added belatedly when I saw some folks reactions. Not the above comments, but elsewhere. It’s possible they read before it was added. I’m hoping further confusion can be avoided, but the ‘net being what it is, I can’t hope for much more. -E-


          • EmberVoices says:

            Is Reconstructionist Judaism actually open, or just less guarded? I have never heard of it… -E-


          • EmberVoices says:

            Upon review, Reconstructionist Judaism is less guarded, but still closed. Interesting stuff, thank you for bringing it to my attention. -E-


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