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C h a p t e r 5 Ramsay’s Ur-Tradition When D. P. Walker wrote about ‘‘ancient theology’’ or prisca theologia, he firmly linked it to Christianity and Platonism (Walker 1972). On the first page of his book, Walker defined the term as follows: By the term ‘‘Ancient Theology’’ I mean a certain tradition of Christian apologetic theology which rests on misdated texts. Many of the early Fathers, in particular Lactantius, Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, in their apologetic works directed against pagan philosophers, made use of supposedly very ancient texts: Hermetica, Orphica, Sibylline Prophecies , Pythagorean Carmina Aurea, etc., most of which in fact date from the first four centuries of our era. These texts, written by the Ancient Theologians Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Pythagoras, were shown to contain vestiges of the true religion: monotheism, the Trinity, the creation of the world out of nothing through the Word, and so forth. It was from these that Plato took the religious truths to be found in his writings. (Walker 1972:1) Walker described a revival of such ‘‘ancient theology’’ in the Renaissance and in ‘‘platonizing theologians from Ficino to Cudworth’’ who wanted to ‘‘integrate Platonism and Neoplatonism into Christianity, so that their own religious and philosophical beliefs might coincide’’ (p. 2). After the debunking of the genuineness and antiquity of the texts favored by these ancient theologians, the movement ought to have died; but Walker detected ‘‘a few isolated survivals’’ such as Athanasius Kircher, Pierre-Daniel Huët, and the Jesuit figurists of the French China mission (p. 194). For Walker the last Mohican of this movement, so to say, is Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay PAGE 254 ................. 17751$ $CH5 05-21-10 15:29:58 PS Ramsay’s Ur-Tradition 255 (1686–1743), whose views are described in the final chapter of The Ancient Theology. But seen through the lens of our concerns here, one could easily extend this line to various figures in this book, for example, Jean Calmette, John Zephaniah Holwell, Abbé Vincent Mignot, Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil -Duperron, Guillaume Sainte-Croix, and also to William Jones (App 2009). Ur-Traditions To better understand such phenomena we have to go beyond the narrow confines of the Christian God and Platonism. There are many movements that link themselves to some kind of ‘‘original,’’ ‘‘pure,’’ ‘‘genuine’’ teaching, claim its authority, use it to criticize ‘‘degenerate’’ accretions, and attempt to legitimize their ‘‘reform’’ on its basis. Such links can take a variety of forms. In Chapter 4 we saw how in the eighth and ninth centuries the Buddhist reform movement known as Zen cooked up a lineage of ‘‘mind to mind’’ transmission with the aim of connecting the teaching of the religion’s Indian founder figure, Buddha, with their own views. The tuned-up and misdated Forty-Two Sections Sutra that ended up impressing so many people, including its first European translator de Guignes, was one (of course unanticipated) outcome of this strategy. Such ‘‘Ur-tradition’’ movements, as I propose to call them, invariably create a ‘‘transmission’’ scenario of their ‘‘original’’ teaching or revelation; in the case of Zen this consisted in an elaborate invented genealogy with colorful transmission figures like Bodhidharma and ‘‘patriarchs’’ consisting mostly of pious legends. Such invented genealogies and transmissions are embodied in symbols and legends emphasizing the link between the ‘‘original’’ teaching and the movement’s doctrine. ‘‘Genuine,’’ ‘‘oldest’’ texts are naturally of central importance for such movements, since they tend to regard the purity of teaching as directly proportional to its closeness to origins. A common characteristic of such ‘‘Ur-tradition’’ movements is a tripartite scheme of ‘‘golden age,’’ ‘‘degeneration,’’ and ‘‘regeneration.’’ The raison d’être of such movements is the revival of a purportedly most ancient, genuine , ‘‘original’’ teaching after a long period of degeneration. Hence their need to define an ‘‘original’’ teaching, establish a line of its transmission, identify stages and kinds of degeneration, and present themselves as the agent of ‘‘regeneration’’ of the original ‘‘ancient’’ teaching. Such need often arises in PAGE 255 ................. 17751$ $CH5 05-21-10 15:29:59 PS 256 chapter 5 a milieu of doctrinal rivalry or in a crisis, for example, when ‘‘new’’ religions or reform movements want to establish and legitimize themselves or when an established religion is threatened by powerful alternatives. When young Christianity evolved from a Jewish reform movement and was accused of being a ‘‘new religion’’ and an invention, ancient connections were needed to provide legitimacy and add historical weight to the religion...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780812200058
Related ISBN
9780812242614
MARC Record
OCLC
794700616
Pages
568
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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