Detail from Book of
Kells, illuminated
Bible, ca. 800 AD

The Process of Tradition:
Leaders, Texts, and Interpretations

Religious Tradition and Culture
The Leaders
   Technicians of the Sacred
   Wise Ones and Enlightened Ones
   The Learned Interpreters
   The Messengers: Great Prophets
   The Appointed Agents of God: Messiahs
   Holy Ones
   Incarnations and Avataras
   The Significance of Leaders
Sacred Writings
   Truth from Tradition
   Wisdom Literature
   Revelation and Inspiration
   The Complexities of Sacred Writings
Interpreting the Texts
   A Desire for Certainty
   The Necessity of Interpretation
   Literal or Loose Interpretation

Religion has normally been at the heart of  every cultural tradition.  Though many people will argue that their religious belief is not just a product of their cultural tradition it is clear that religious beliefs often vary according to ethnic and national lines.  It is also true, however, that religious minorities exist in all parts of the world.

Anyone who can claim to understand the mysterious and invisible powers in life is likely to be accorded special status.  Leaders delve into their traditions and form insights that help guide others in their search for meaningful existence.  The following are some examples. 

Technicians of the Sacred
Religious specialists take on specific, important roles in primitive and archaic society.  In primitive society, the two main tasks of the religious technician, the shaman, are healing and augury (divination).  Archaic cultures also employ religious specialists called priests, who perform rituals particularly ritual sacrifice, to please the gods or to keep the order of the universe running smoothly.

Wise Ones and Enlightened Ones
The traditions of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism place high value on the sage or enlightened one.  The authority of these leaders is a result of the wisdom in their words and the personal peace and understanding that they have achieved.

The Learned Interpreters
Some religious leaders gain authority from their learning and interpretation of cultural ideas.  In many cases, this involves specific interpretation of sacred texts.


The Messengers: Great Prophets
The word prophecy sometimes connotes who foretells the future.  The best-known prophets, however, did not predict the future but delivered revelation or guidance from God, such as Moses and Muhammad.


The Appointed Agents of God: Messiahs
The word messiah comes from a Hebrew word meaning “anointed.”   A messiah is one who is chosen for a special role.  In Western religions, the anointed one is usually thought of as an individual sent by God to bring about a new world order.


Holy Ones
In primitive and archaic cultures, holiness is identical with sacredness, and sometimes even with mysteriousness.  Holiness is usually defined by an intense devotion or dedication to serving the numinous. Monks and nuns are also considered by their religions to be holy.

Incarnations and Avataras
The term “incarnation” is often used to indicate persons who are really numinous deities living on earth.  The Hindu belief in avataras is one example of this.  Western religions tend to disagree on the nature of incarnations; both Jews and Muslims reject the Christian belief that Jesus is an essential aspect of God.


Sacred texts are focal points in religious traditions.  To be considered a sacred text, a writing must carry special authority that raises it above ordinary human writings.  This authority sometimes comes with age: texts that have been influential for centuries evoke respect.  Or a text may be accepted if it is perceived as unusually perceptive and wise, such as the Taoist Tao-Te-Ching.  The most common justification for the “sacredness” of a text, however, is that the text was not produced by humans but rather by a divine being or power.  


The certainty of religion plays a critical role in the religion’s ability to provide comfort and security to its followers.  When there is confusion on how to interpret sacred texts, this can threaten certainty.  Sometimes sets of interpretations that are particularly useful become sacred texts in themselves, such as the Hindu Upanishads. The question of how literally or loosely texts should be interpreted is another problem related to religious certainty.  

End of notes to Chapter 9

This page last changed Tuesday May 20, 2003

In The Presence of Mystery






  Pope John Paul II
   technician of the sacred,
   learned interpreter




Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild,
London, Learned Interpreter