Breaking with tradition

[Originally, I wrote most of these thoughts as a separate article to try and get published, but since the concept of actually getting paid to write has vanished anymore (I knew I should have gone into throwing balls around,) I might as well at least make it public. Granted, a blog is a version of “public” much like the notice of intended demolition of Arthur Dent’s house, but anyway…]

Let’s talk about tradition. Such a simple word, but almost amazing in what it can convey. In virtually every usage, it conjures up an aura of respectability, of culture. Practices handed down through generations, techniques or languages or clothing or entertainment preserved, sometimes painstakingly, from older origins. Just uttering the word in response to a question is almost always a perfectly sufficient answer: “Why? It’s tradition, of course!” Even religion pales before the explanatory power of the word, and in many cases, relies on it. How many words can you think of that communicate so well and require no further support?

But here’s the funny part of it all: ask someone why. Why is “tradition” so complete an answer? Why do we hold the concept of tradition up so highly? And do you get slightly uncomfortable even asking that question? If you imagine asking that of some friend or family member, does their potential response make you cringe? I think most of us would have little difficulty finding someone who might respond rather sharply to such a question. And that, in and of itself, should make us more aware of the power of the word.

Merriam-Webster has this to offer as the primary definition of tradition:

…an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom).

That sounds almost too simple to invoke the response in ourselves that it usually does. Tradition is respect for our forebears, and recognition of our cultures. It is preservation of rituals, and continuation of the “line” (whatever that line may be). It is the bearing of the torch, the survival of something we identify with. Well, now, that’s all right then – survival is important, the prime goal of life itself. No wonder it’s such a powerful word.

Until, of course, you compare this concept against the things we normally associate with tradition. Turkey dinners for the holidays? Well, now, I suppose survival isn’t really in question there – soylent green could work as well (perhaps that’s a bad example when we’re talking about survival). Wedding ceremonies? But more and more people are participating in less traditional ceremonies these days, sometimes none at all. Cultural dress or dance? Can we honestly say dancing or neckties or frills have anything to do with survival? From a practical standpoint, is there much of anything in traditional practices that would be detrimental if we ceased to observe it?

Sure, there’s an argument for preserving a culture. Tradition is what keeps alive many of the facets that define a culture to begin with. But again, is this more the power of the word than the importance of the culture or practice? We know rain dances are just a reflection of culture rather than a method to ensure adequate sustenance for crops. If we’ve never seen a rain dance, are the chances high that we will be at a disadvantage because of it? If we no longer know how to properly dye the family colors, can we reasonably say that the world is poorer for it? Those colors could be considered a representation of the family heritage, a coat of arms if you will, or they could simply have been the hue of ochre that came from the local clay. Had the family been given the choices we have now, maybe they wouldn’t have chosen those colors at all.

Looking still deeper, in many cases tradition is a matter of belonging, of marking the distinction of a particular group of people. Our family, our tribe or village, our land, our country – sometimes these are kept alive simply through the traditions that have been passed along, and often these traditions are the last remaining distinctions long after the other boundaries have vanished – “this is the way we did it in the old country.”

But there are two interesting factors behind this idea. The first is that, things change, for good or bad. It could be argued in many ways, but one is that change occurs because the “old ways” are no longer functional, needed, or wanted. Tradition, in such cases, is a resistance to change, but it may be against the tide. Respect for the old ways is not necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps respect for ways should be tempered by recognizing which ways are respectable in the first place. “Tradition” isn’t particularly meaningful in and of itself – there is a difference between a song that records the history of a culture, and a song that speaks simply of lost loves, or even holes in buckets.

The second interesting factor behind the community idea of traditions is that “community” not only speaks of togetherness, but of separation at the same time: those who are not part of the community. The second message behind, “We are the ones who wear the blue and black,” is, “…and you are the ones who do not.” This may seem to be a dramatic take on tradition, but family colors were exactly the way that clans told one another apart on the battlefield. Often, this idea has become lost in time, and the tradition does not recognizably reflect its bloody origins anymore. But in such a case, what is the tradition we’re keeping alive in the first place?

Right now, numerous cultures embrace traditions that, from an outsider’s standpoint, may be anything from ludicrous to abusive, even self-destructive. Respect for tradition, in such cases, may be radically misplaced – “tradition” is hardly an adequate argument for racism, mutilation, poverty, poor health, or countless other detrimental effects. Some cultural ideas do indeed deserve to die out and vanish in the mists of time – change can be for the better. But we can’t see this if we are swayed by the power of a word without wondering what lies behind it.

I had a little more to the article than this, but this point allows me to go on to the thought that stirred this post in the first place. Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has a recent post regarding the definition of “New Atheism,” (well, kind of – Eric doesn’t stay to narrow topics,) and within, he talks about examining the histories of scripture and its foundations as divine inspiration:

And then he goes on to quote Irenaeus to the effect that the church did not create the canon; it was instead acknowledged, conserved, and received — as though, in other words, from the very hand of God himself.

But this, quite evidently, simply will not do. We still go back and back, and when we get to the end of a chain of traditions, we find someone with a pen! A human being, just like you and me! So the church, just like the Muslim authorities, took some human writings, no matter how fenced round with sanctity, and then elevated these writings to a stature they simply do not and cannot possess.

Which is where the two ideas came together. The original scribes almost certainly did not run out of their house waving a manuscript wildly and claiming god gave them this great idea for a book. Instead, older writings were selected by church authorities as reflecting divine inspiration (while, as Eric points out, others were not, in a rather arbitrary manner.) But the acceptance of such scripture by the general public, then as it certainly is now, relies on this value of tradition. The strong drive to elevate and indeed revere older sources of wisdom is precisely what gives them value and authenticity.

This idea is supported in three ways. The first is, this is exactly why religion remains active today. Virtually no one chooses their religion, or is ever convinced by reading scripture that it must be accurate – the amount of excuses for the inaccuracies is evidence of that. Instead, people (usually in childhood) are told that scripture reflects the will of the supreme being, and of course, they get to see the elaborate support structure that has grown up around it, the reverence that others place upon it. With no small number of older artifacts and icons, as well. Which is more compelling and interesting: a nice new modern church, or an old church with ridiculously outdated architecture? You know what I mean: the traditional style.

The second way that this is supported is with the histories of the texts themselves. Most of the abrahamic scriptures consist of retelling – almost none of them are contemporary, and even those portions claimed to be from disciples, for instance, show signs of having been written long after the events they relate. The most powerful stories are all historical, in that they do not tell what happened “today,” but many years (centuries!) previously. In fact, the explanation for the age of these stories is often that they were retold with perfect accuracy as oral tradition. This is plainly ludicrous, but such is handwaved away by saying that this tradition was important (which somehow makes it superhuman, it seems.)

And finally, there’s this nasty little fact that many facets of religious scripture have close counterparts in previously existing religions, such as the moses and bullrushes story and several different versions of resurrections. The date of christmas and most of the traditional practices thereof predate christianity (scriptural details point to a spring birth for jesus,) but they were co-opted precisely because they were already traditional. It was easier to morph the whole belief structure into a characterization of previous beliefs than it was to instill a new structure against the power of tradition.

Isn’t that almost frightening? Tradition isn’t just a word, it’s a wickedly motivating force. It raises the question as to whether this is a powerful cultural thing, perhaps one of the most powerful considering how many cultures it spans, or if there’s some kind of internal drive to respect older knowledge over seeking newer knowledge. Is it possible (or even worth speculating on) that there’s some form of evolved mental trait that causes us to fall for the concept of tradition? Tradition itself is difficult to justify rationally, and in all of the history I just outlined above, cultures have changed drastically, but tradition itself remains. It’s something to think about.

[Update: I did, actually – see the expansion of this speculation in the next post.]