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Clifford Geertz – The central paradox of religious development

September 23, 2014

“Religious faith, even when it is fed from a common source, is as much a particularizing force as a generalizing one, and indeed whatever universality a given religious tradition manages to attain arises from its ability to engage a widening set of individual, even idiosyncratic, conceptions of life and yet somehow sustain and elaborate them all. When it succeeds in this, the result may indeed as often be the distortion of these personal visions as their enrichment, but in any case, whether deforming private faiths or perfecting them, the tradition usually prospers. When it fails, however, to come genuinely to grips with them at all, it either hardens into scholasticism, evaporates into idealism, or fades into eclecticism; that is to say, it ceases, except as a fossil, a shadow, or a shell, really to exist. The central paradox of religious development is that, because of the progressively wider range of spiritual experience with which it is forced to deal, the further it proceeds, the more precarious it gets. Its successes generate its frustrations.”

(from Islam Observed [1968])

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