and Religious Studies:
Reflections on the Concept of Tradition
Although most of the chairs and programs established in Catholic Studies in recent years have been established in Catholic colleges and universities, an increasing number are appearing in non-Catholic institutions both private and public. Some of the latter have been established as interdisciplinary chairs or programs without any special relationship to religious studies; others, such as the new chairs at Hofstra and UC Santa Barbara, are located in departments of religious studies alongside endowed chairs in other religious traditions, such as Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Sikh Studies, and Jewish Studies. At UCSB, where the Department of Religious Studies has been organized on an areastudies model (for example, Religions of South Asia, Religions of North America, Religions of the Mediterranean World), the endowment of a series of chairs in particular traditions sparked a yearlong faculty discussion of how the study of traditions might relate to the study of religions in areas or regions.
In reflecting on those conversations, I was struck by the need for more sustained reflection on the concept of “tradition” within the context of religious studies. In those conversations, I used “traditions”— perhaps naively—as a loose synonym for “religions” as in “religious traditions” or as a way to refer to variants within a religion, as in, for example, Christian or Buddhist or Islamic traditions. Although I was not assuming that the boundaries of “a tradition” were clear-cut or undisputed, colleagues and doctoral students raised questions that seemed to equate studying traditions with advocating for a tradition or promoting traditionalism. In contrast to other concepts routinely used by scholars of religion, such as sacred, myth, ritual, and religion, I realized that we apparently had less scholarly distance on the concept of “tradition.”