CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Traditional and nontraditional: paradoxes of coexistence

by Marina V. Vorobjova (St. Petersburg, Russia)
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.


The problem of the coexistence of the traditional and  the nontraditional in the religious sphere has very ancient origins. The attitude of adherents of traditional religious beliefs is cautious  and frequently even aggressive  towards nontraditional religions.

So,  Ancient Egypt, in the epoch of the pharaoh Ekhnaton (Аmenhotep IV) (1400 or 1375 B.C.) was unwilling to accept the new religious beliefs of its leader. The priests defended the traditional cults of  numerous gods, among which there was the cult Amon-Ra. The national monotheistic cult of Athon, represented in an image of the sun, which was introduced by Ekhnaton,  was abandoned  with the death of its founder.

Christianity which was born in Palestine, establishes a hold on new territories with great difficulties, frequently representing a danger to the authorities who see in a new religion a break with already inculcated traditions.

It is possible to give many other examples, which prove  the difficulties various religious beliefs  experience in contacting each other while clashing on the same territory.

Religious identity – which is a quality inherent in any religion – consists in understanding of itself as a  true religion, in the recognition of itself  as the uniquely right response of man to the Sacred. From here there is a claim of exclusiveness of its own variant of the dialogue, which any religion – ancient or modern – carries in itself.

Any religious movement which appears for the first time on  what is  new  territory for itself , will always be seen as  "nontraditional" in relation to the "tradition" which existed before its appearance.

Only time changes priorities. The nontraditional, which manages to defend its position, obtains a more and more strong position and becomes able to compete with the tradition,   which was the only unshakeable form before.

The same happened to Christianity which rushed into the bosom of Judaism in Israel, and after more then eight centuries displaced paganism in Slavonic grounds. It was the same with other religions applying  for the status  of  "traditional" on this or that territory (as, for example, the Islamic religion in the African states, where  so-called "primitive beliefs " were the original "traditional" religion).

1. Peculiarities of the interreligious dialogue in Russia

Russia gives the appearance of a huge international and intercultural space. Many nationalities, which have lived together with each other for a long time, differ in their history, cultural traditions, and religious beliefs.

Speaking about the peculiarities of the modern dialogue between religions, we agree with the opinion of M.A. Sivertsev about the increased importance of an "epoch of non-religious culture", which has its  effect on the interreligious dialogue [1] . However, leaving apart from research such major factors as globalization and secularization, we stress the role of the "traditional" and "nontraditional" in the interreligious dialogue.

Our attention will be drawn to the experience of interaction between the "traditional" and "untraditional" in Russia, to features of the dialogue between them, to perspectives of the further development of this dialogue.

Before proceeding to this subject, it is necessary to outline the main concepts  we will be dealing with.  The "traditional", in our opinion, is the historical form of beliefs of the people and is determined, first of all,  by the duration of  its existence on a particular territory and  by its close cultural interaction with the nonreligious (secular) environment. Speaking about the "nontraditional" we mean by that  new religious movements, and also those religions, which have expanded to this cultural environment [2] .

2. Traditional

The integral part of the religious life of any state is the tradition.  The traditional occupies a privileged position. It is our face appearing through the layers of the centuries of culture. We apply to it for an answer, we refer to it,  we search for  protection in it. An attempted assassination of  tradition, especially religious tradition, is  blasphemy. Public speech against tradition is treated as  rebellion.

In the foreword to the Russian translation of  E. Barker's book  "New religious movements" [3]   it is said  that the use of the term " traditional religions" needs very detailed discussion [4] . On the one hand, we have the right to doubt the lawfulness of the usage of this term for juridical practice. One main reason for that is the absence of the precise chronological boundaries, which allow us to refer to a religious movement  as to "traditional" or "nontraditional". On the other hand, we have to take into account the mechanism of  the effect of religion on culture and, in its turn, of  culture on   religious life [5] .

It is also important for us  to underline that moment, when the tradition, as a rule, is forced not  to conflict with  the existing social world-order.  The traditional should accept the world as it  is given; and it is,  to the most degree , the necessity, rather than desire of the  tradition itself.

What  else is necessary for the society which is carrying its tradition, and, therefore, its spiritual base,  which assists its further development? The answer is paradoxical. Such a society  needs the nontraditional to underline the importance and significance of the tradition, on one hand, and reveal deficiencies in  the tradition – from the other hand.

Indeed if we remember the history of religions, it is possible to see many examples, when the tradition "set up its weight" at the expense of  the untraditional. Entering the polemic with untraditional views, the tradition strengthened its positions, became firmly  established  and consolidated  the religious views of its members. For example of  this is the numerous dogmatic disputes, in which the position of Christianity (theological polemic with Arias, Nestorius, Origen etc.) was formulated. And, as an opposite, the religious society which lacks the opportunity to compare  itself with untraditional,  loses a lot for a successful formation of its spiritual image and, as a result, had no such strong positions in the society.

3. Non-traditional

What is the nontraditional? Is that something new? Yes, it is.  But it is not correct to think of it as of  something consisting only of  new positions. The same time there can be echoes of other doctrines in it. Is that something developing? Yes, and it is  developing very actively. Especially because of its rapid development on a new territory, the untraditional causes  the "traditional" to fear, because it  represents a dangerous competitor.

Under the untraditional we shall understand, firstly, religions,  which have pe3netrated to particular new territory (for example – Confucians in  the Far East), and on the other hand – new religious movements (NRM).

 The main difference  between them is that,  in the first case, we deal with religions  which have the status of the  "traditional" on  its own territory but which have extended beyond boundaries. Here we deal with religions  which are rather sure of themselves. This intervention of tradition in a new  foreign  sphere  happens taking into an account the ethnic features and social conditions of the state, to which the religion is introduced. As a shining example of it, the Buddhism of Karma Kanji' school  and the  Danish preacher lama Ole Nidal can serve,  who is widely known in Russia and in  the West due to his sermon on the Buddhism related to the consciousness of  western man.

In the other case we deal with  religious movements which have arisen  in the last century, and obtained the status of "new religious movements".

Certainly, the nontraditional is a product of democracy. In  the Russian Federation  soon after the acceptance of the Law of  the Russian Federation "On freedom of confessions " (1990) there was a noticeable surge of activity in  religious life, which is still in process, which is evidenced by the steady growth of  athe number of religious organizations (not only orthodox organizations which are accepted as "traditional" Russian, but also unorthodox).

The law "Concerning liberty of conscience and religious associations" consists in essence a number of limitations for believers of untraditional religions, but on the whole  it regulates the activity of religious organizations and creates favorable circumstances for an interreligious dialogue.

What  can we  say about existing new religious movements? Firstly, that many of them are syncretic, i.e. they incorporate positions of different religious doctrines (from earlier up to the present day), and, secondly, they tend to various variants of a dialogue with a world . Let us explain these positions by concrete examples.

More often the new religious movement which insist on the uniqueness of its doctrine, displays a syncretic character.

So, the doctrine of the Great White Brotherhood Usmalos (the official web. site is www.usmalos.com), founded in the beginning of the 1990s in Kiev (Ukraine), which now experiences "its second birth", has the brightly expressed character  of a syncretic  religious teaching, since it carries in itself echoes of Gnostic doctrines  such as secret mystical societies, rosencreicers, cabbalas, theosophy, ancient Egyptian religion, Christianity etc.

Another example is the Church of the Last Covenant. The tendency towards withdrawal from the world,  a rejection of a war links them with such movements as fedorovzy, tolstovzy, etc. The idea of the possibility of   reincarnation in the teaching of the Last Covenant approaches  the Indian doctrines. And, certainly, a very strong influence on the movement comes from Christianity. Here it is " turned inside out": after twenty centuries Christ again appears on the Earth and gives a "Last Covenant" to the world …

New religious movements are not connected to the world by the burden of   "necessity". They are not obliged to  have contacts with this world. That gives opportunity for co-existing of a various variants of their relations to the world:

1. The world  is accepted as it is. All  its shortages exist because they  live in us. To change the world  it is necessary to change yourself. An example of  that  is the Great White Brotherhood Usmalos,  which is not world -denying , but tends "to convert" the world by  "conversion" of  yourself.

2. The world  is hostile to us and it is impossible to accept it. The vissarions (followers of the teaching of  Vissarion, the Church of  the Last Covenant) tend in this direction, by breaking any contacts twiththe world.

3.  Indifference to the world is also rather widespread. In this case the accent in the search of a solution is directed to the internal "self". The destiny of the world is predetermined,  and the main  thing is  the result of that struggle, which occurs in us.

One explanation of  the appearance of nontraditional religions  is possible to the low level of  religious culture. Nickolai Mitrokhin in his article "Ethnonationalism and religious organizations: the experience of SNG" says that "  the ethnicity ( the national spirit, the national originality) is not separated from  the religion". However, we can  see the difference between  public organizations generated by an ethnic principle, and religions (from complete indifference to the designing of  new religions).

Certainly, that can take place when  the absence of a religious culture or its low level  leads to the fact that  the tradition "does not work". Therefore nontraditional doctrines  are actively offered instead . However  we see another reason for it. The politicization of religion frequently leads to the decline of belief. In this case untraditional religions come instead of  traditional religions, which tend to awaken people’s hearts from a dream of heart and, so far , to confront a religion-free world.

4. Nontraditional and traditional: paradoxes of coexisting

Before we get down to concrete examples, we note the following. The "nontraditional" puts asignificant emphasis on  the religious identity  of the "traditional",  which has got used to feeling itself  the owner of its territory. Especially this, in our opinion, gives new impulse to the development of both "traditional", and "nontraditional" religions. It is unconditional, that in a similar situation it is impossible to exclude the impact of  one on another. This or that but only joint coexisting of  the "traditional" and "nontraditional" can  help to reveal their full growth. The "nontraditional", which finds itself  in an alien environment, is forced to underline its own special, exclusive features which distinguish it from the "traditional". The "traditional", in its turn, should be always "at its height", ceaselessly proving firmness of its position.

As main examples we shall consider the following:

1. Paganism and Christianity. A history of  Christianization of the people of the North. The peoples of theNorth today.

2. Western Christianity and religions of the East. East expansion to the consciousness of  modern western man. Transformation of  religious consciousness.

3. New religious movements (NRM) and tradition. Coming of new religions instead of  old. The criterion of "newness". Our relations to NRM and relations of NRM to us.

What are  the perspectives for the dialogue of  the "traditional" and "nontraditional"? On the one hand, that interaction cannot exclude the factor of the inbuilt antagonism towards each other. On the other hand, it raises the level of  the self-consciousness of  believers. Also the dialogue between "traditional" and "nontraditional", as one of the forms of the interreligious dialogue, can contribute to  the cohesion of two different forms of religiosity which is, as a matter of fact, they are confronting a non-religious world. And , in  its turn,  it will encourage the growth of religiosity as a whole.

5. Paradoxes of coexisting

What influence  does  non-traditional and traditional have on one another ?

As a rule,  the traditional relates to the  traditional  better than to the nontraditional.

An example. Christianity cannot ignore Islam and Judaism, as it is interested in the interreligious dialogue with them. But the same time the reaction of Christianity towards new religious movements is much worse. The reason for this frequently has a political aspect.

The nontraditional, being frequently repressed by adherents of  traditional teachings, finds complicity and understanding from other persecuted nontraditional religions.

Mutual attempts at proselytism are characteristic of  both  the traditional, and  nontraditional. But the main paradox is that the traditional  needs the nontraditional  as well as nontraditional requires traditional. Why is it so?

We dare to assert that a religious society  which  kills and in every possible way limits  the nontraditional, risks to limiting its own development and risks to becoming "a lifeless river", whose stream has stopped. Waters of such a river will inevitably become stagnant and  the river  will silt up. Opposed to that, the tradition, which is not afraid of contact with nontraditional shares, will be filled with fresh water and there will be a constant stream – from beginning to end of  the understanding of  God.


1. E. Barker. New religious movements. Practical introduction.St. Petersburg, Russian Christian Institute for the Humanities, 1997.

2. History of Religions in Russia: The tutorial Editor N.А. Trofimchuk. – Moscow, Publishing of RAGS, 2001.

3. S.I. Samygin, V.I. Nechipurenko, I.N. Polonskaya. Religious Studies: sociology and psychology of religion.Rostov-na-Donu, "Fenix", 1996.

4. Religion and Society: the book on sociology of religion / V.I. Garadga, E.D. Rutkevich. – Moscow, Aspect-Press, 1996.

5. N. Mitrochin. Ethnonacoinalism and religious organizations: experience of SNG. http://www.nlo.magazine.ru/politican/45.html

6. Dia-Logos: Religion and Society 2000. Almanac /Editor Mark Smirnov. – Moscow, Cultural-enlightening centre " the Spiritual Library , 2001.

7. Religious associations. A liberty of conscience and confessions. The statutory acts. Judiciary practice /A.V. Pchelincev, V.V. Ryachovsky. – Moscow, Yurisprudenciya, 2001.

8. Balagushkin E.G. Non-traditional religions in the modern Russia: morphological analysis. Part 1. – Moscow, IFRAN, 1999.

9. M.A. Sivertsev. The interreligious dialogue in epoch of a globalisation. – Magazine "Man",  № 5/ 2002. Pp. 76-87.

10. Christianity and others religions (Digest of articles).Moscow., High Orthodox-Christian School of St. Filaret, 1999.

12. A. Shipkov. What Russia does believe in: the course of the lectures.St. Petersburg, Publishing of Russian Christian Institute for the Humanities, 1998.

13. Reconcilement in Europe. – Mission of Churches in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and Germanium. – Regional conference 07.05.1999 in Minsk and Grodno. Materials. – Minsk, 2000.

14. Paths of reconcilement. The practical Quick Reference Karitas. – St. Peterburg, Karitas of Russia, 2000.

15. Gustav Mensching. Tolerance and Truth in Religion. – University of Alabama Press, 1971.

16. Jeffrey Bloechl. Have We Need of Invoking Postmodernity? Identity and Difference in Theological Discourse. Postdoctoral Research Associate, Belgian Fund for Scientific Research (Flanders). Journal for Christian Theological Research. 4:1 1999

and others.

[1] M.A. Sivertsev. The interreligious dialogue in epoch of globalization.

[2] For example, Confucianism, Taosism, Buddhism in the territory of Far East.

[3] E. Barker. New religious movements. - St. Petersburg, 1997.

[4] P. XXI.

[5] P. XXI.

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