Guest Lecture | John Torpey (New York): "Points of Departure: Religious Breakthroughs and their Significance"
FNO 02/ 40-46
This paper explores religious breakthroughs and the challenges they must meet if they are to endure. I explore the origins of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, the Protestant Reformation, and the French Revolution, and discuss four such challenges:
1) While there may be no strong desire to police boundaries or exclude outsiders, there must be some distinction between who is "in" and who is "out" of the movement that comes into being on the basis of the founders' original ideas. There thus arise ways to distinguish among adherents and non-adherents. The ways in which this binary is constructed has far-reaching consequences for the character of the religion that is emerging.
2) If the message is to endure, the purveyors of the original teachings must consolidate and standardize them in some fashion. The message must be stabilized at least to some degree such that it has sufficient coherence to be received and absorbed by new initiates. Yet the stabilization of the main message need not preclude variant readings of the canon – which typically come to predominate in different regions as a result of routine historical processes.
3) Then there is the matter of the messengers – who will carry on the message? The main question to be addressed here is that of who will enjoy the authority of the initiator(s) of the breakthrough. There is always, in other words, a problem of succession. The way in which that problem is resolved may have quite profound consequences for the nature of the message and for the long-term consequences of the breakthrough.
4) Next is the question of the relationship between "virtuosi" and laity. The former are understood to have privileged access to the sacred lore, whereas the latter may be regarded by the virtuosi as religiously disqualified -- adherents, perhaps, but "second-class citizens" of the faith. Variations in the relations between virtuosi and laypeople have profound ramifications for the character of a religion.