|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
Tradition is a force which helps bind societies together. On the
micro-scale we know them as personal habits. Tradition helps retain a
version or "myth" about the past which helps sustain the present. But
tradition can also constipate any group, rendering it incapable of
adapting to the demands of its environment.
Like any other general term, the term "tradition"
applies to a number of aspects of human life. In the 21st
century tradition doesn't have the same power it once had to stimulate
controversy. The main reason for this is that deep personal and social
concern for tradition as a central and life-giving body of knowledge
belongs largely to an age preceding ours.
An immediate distinction can be made between live and dead tradition.
The latter is, as its name implies, tradition preserved for its own sake.
Some would argue that certain aspects of life are forever true. One
example of this might be the tradition of monogamous marriage amongst
Live tradition, on the other hand, can be valued and assessed in the
light of each new generation's experience. When such a tradition is
perceived as having neither intrinsic justification nor intrinsic social
value, it can either be revised or jettisoned. An example of this would be
perceptions of the monarchy in contemporary Britain as compared with
monarchical traditions a mere 100 years ago.
Yet another aspect of tradition refers to rituals. In society as a
whole there are still right and wrong ways of crowning a monarch or
installing a president - the rituals themselves harking back in form and
content to a normative past. In the Christian Church, for example, words
from the Bible must be used at the Eucharist for it to be valid.
The importance of tradition for Christianity, Judaism and Islam rests
on the concept of revelation, which is fundamental to all three. Truth,
according to them, is ultimately derived from God. Because revealed truth
comes direct from God who is perfect and good, it can't be wrong in any
way. It is right always and for everyone.
These absolute truths nevertheless require a medium by which they can
be accurately and completely communicated between generations and over any
length of time - millennia if needs be.
Whatever the medium of communication, and if societies and human
understanding are subject to change, revelation needs to be interpreted
anew to each generation or culture. It might be theoretically possible for
the revelation to be recognised and understood by anyone, without an
intermediary. But if not, divine revelation needs to be re-worked in one
way for a scientist, for example, and in another for an Amazonian
Each one of the three religions mentioned above has its various
parties, each proposing a somewhat different way of gaining access to,
interpreting and preserving revelation. In Christianity, some maintain
that the Bible contains all we need to know about God's truth. Others
think that certain ecclesiastics can determine what writings properly
convey God's wisdom, and then lay down what constitutes right
Because the Bible is silent on so many new aspects of life, it is said,
God has arranged for a second source of truth to supplement this
shortfall. This is a steady stream of unwritten tradition going
right back to the followers of Jesus. This position was trumpeted at the
Council of Trent (1545) and apparently played down by the Second Vatican
A dual-source theory of tradition has been in place since the 2nd
century, when leaders of the Church appealed to a "rule of faith" which
was formally distinct from the Bible. Perhaps because there were so many
competing interpretations of the Bible, Irenaeus and others said that the
parameters of scriptural interpretation had been historically fixed.
Tradition was a way of interpreting the Bible within the community of
faith. This was roughly the line taken by the Reformation.
In the Orthodox Church, tradition is of paramount importance. It is
equated with the sustaining, enlivening and directing action of the Holy
Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. Thus tradition may not either
conflict with or supplement the Bible but can only interpret it. And any
doctrine or practice established by tradition is virtually immutable.
Some theologians in the West during the 16th and 17th
centuries regarded all tradition, which they perceived as encapsulated in
outdated religious, social and political structures, as capitulation to
the past. None of these traditions, they said, could be sustained because
everything worth knowing comes from reason and experience alone.
One of the most influential ideas to loosen the grip of tradition on
Western minds came from Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He thought of truth as
derived either from self-evident statements or by the application of
reason to human experience. We can know God only through an act of faith
based on what we have discovered through reason.
This, in effect, moved the the focus of the debate from the group, its
representatives, and their corporate tradition, to the individual. As
Basil Mitchell writes,
The individual bore responsibility for his or her beliefs and it was
incompatible with one's integrity as a rational being to defer to any
kind of authority. Hence deliberately to align oneself with a tradition
was to abdicate from the status of a rational agent .
As Cardinal Henry Newman showed, however, the person who attempts to
think things through entirely alone in fact has with him or her a great
crowd of advisors. That is, we all reason using "antecedent assumptions" -
ways of thinking and perceiving taken for granted as part of the given
order of things, seldom questioned, frequently beyond consciousness and
cumulative over the ages. In other words, we use tradition in order to
reason, said Newman. There is no such thing as "pure" reason.
The upshot of these developments is that tradition in the West serves
primarily, as I see it, as a focus for nostalgia. It provides a sense in
the 21st century of a small degree of continuity in a world of massive and
Tradition may be needed in that sense, but it is no longer usually
regarded as sufficient. It's role is to be respected in that it can and
does preserve elements of the past which might otherwise quickly recede
into oblivion. As a result of a minimal perception of tradition's role in
modern times, the statement of Pope Pius IX during the First Vatican
Council of 1870 that "I am tradition" (in effect, "I alone am able to
infallibly convey God's revelation to humankind") appears little short of
There are a number of cogent reasons for this:
- It is indisputable, I think, that the kind and degree of knowledge
we possess today about the past and about the universe in all its
aspects far outstrips that current in, say, the first century
ad, when the foundations of Christian tradition were laid. This
at least opens up the possibility [a] that conceptual errors may now
require correction, and [b] that limited or restrictive early paradigms
of thought might be superceded - just as relativity has superceded
- The rise of the scientific method has produced a class of knowledge
which is, by definition, always potentially open to correction. Since it
depends upon reasoned evidence, and a resulting consensus, all knowledge
is regarded as provisional. Any conclusion reached through the
scientific method is open to change and may be abandoned. It doesn't
make much sense to talk, for example, of a "tradition" that e=mc2
or a "tradition" that water consists of one hydrogen and two oxygen
- Human knowledge is increasingly being perceived as an integrated
system. The system comprises every branch of knowledge and strives
constantly for internal coherence and congruence. It is open, not
closed. No one branch of the knowledge system has defining power over
the rest. It's nonsensical to propose, for example, that physics as a
discipline determines what can be studied by a molecular biologist or
that archeology determines the scope of the historian.
- Tradition as maintained and developed by the Christian Church (and,
no doubt, by other religions and organisations) imprisons the
imagination and initiative of the individual within its own confines.
Because Christian tradition may not contradict revelation or render it
obsolete, it cannot allow the individual to disagree with it and to
think thoughts or carry out actions which will put the tradition at
risk. While this view still prevails in many societies in the 21st
century (a herd boy who experiments with his father's cattle in Africa
will be lucky to survive undamaged), in the West it is no longer a
viable way of living. Any group or society which restricts its members
in this way is likely either to disappear or to fossilise.
The extreme tensions which conflict between reason and tradition can
provoke in a revelation-based religion is illustrated by Bishop John Spong
in his recent book of selected essays . Writing
of the 1998 Anglican conference of bishops at Lambeth in England, he
We lived at Lambeth with perceptions of reality so vastly different
that the same words simply did not mean the same thing.
As a result, the conference was
a tense, difficult and negative experience ... Buttressing every
debate on every issue was an appeal to "Holy Scripture" ... If we cannot
reassert ... that reason must be an equal factor with scripture and
tradition in shaping the Christian message in every generation, then
Christianity as we know it is doomed.
His conclusion is valid, I think, only if revelation is regarded as a
right way of knowing anything. If not, then scripture and tradition must
both give way to reason.
What I mean is that the Bible is not the voice of God written down,
either by some sort of miraculous dictation or through a human medium. If
it is, then reason by definition takes second place to it, for revelation
cannot be tested by reason. In turn, if that is the case, then the
entire body of modern biblical scholarship is null and void. There is no
point in dissecting the Bible as the record of God's revelation to
humankind if that record can't be modified in any way.
Bishop Spong is incorrect in saying that reason, tradition and
(revealed) scripture can be given equal weight. The Bible is a compiled
record of the thoughts and experiences of ultimate meaning in the lives of
certain groups of humans. Tradition is their collection of past insights
into the many and various aspects of human life - often
self-contradictory, frequently of little or no relevance to contemporary
conditions ("Wives, submit to your husbands as if to the Lord" - Ephesians
5.22), and always resistant to change.
In summary: Tradition isn't wrong in itself - unless it seeks to impose
rigid, absolute norms. Recent changes in human understanding of the
universe and of ourselves have made tradition secondary to reason.
Tradition needs to be separated from traditionalism - a 19th
century Roman Catholic reaction against the Enlightenment.
The approach of the 19th century
traditionalists may seem strange to us in the 21st century. But in terms
of their religious context, it was understandable though extreme. Today
they would probably fit into the fundamentalist category of religious
The movement was largely French
in origin and was a reaction, if somewhat belated, to what is now
generally called the Enlightenment - the movement of Western thought away
from revelation and authority as a source of truth, to rationality and
science as mediators of provisional truths.
In particular it reacted against
popular ideas connected to the French Revolution. These ideas perceived
the revolutionaries as removing the seat of authority from the group - be
it society, the nation, or the Church - and placing it in the hands of the
individual. Thus the individual could, it was thought, either attain the
truth through reason (following Voltaire) or through feeling (following
Broadly speaking, the
traditionalists thought that individual reason or feeling are too fragile
and uncertain to contain the whole truth. Instead they focused on
revelation as the only vehicle capable of giving us access to truth.
In particular we have access only
to that religious and moral knowledge - usually called metaphysical
knowledge - which has been transmitted to succeeding generations from
previous recipients. The latter are our authority for the truth.
Because revelation stretches back
through history to the genesis of humanity, we can talk of society at
large being the reservoir of knowledge. Modern theories of knowledge would
usually agree that the past is a reservoir of truth. But they would go on
to say [a] that not everything once thought true is in fact true, and [b]
that analytical ways of gaining knowledge (like history, science and
archeology, to take but a few examples) are more effective.
People today are no less prone to
asserting the absolute truth of some epistemologies (theories of
knowledge) than before the Enlightenment. But a growing body of thinking
people today would hold that all knowledge is provisional. They would say
that very nature of the process by which we arrive at knowledge demands
that there can be no such thing as a final and complete answer. There is
always a possibility either  that some new fact will come along, or 
that a new paradigm will be formulated, or  that some unique way of
thinking will be pioneered.
Perhaps the best-known exposition
of traditionalism comes from H F R de Lammenais, a French Roman Catholic
(1782-1854) who was eventually condemned by the Vatican for his views. He
thought that certitude can come only through the common reason of the
human race. If an individual reaches the truth through his or her reason
or senses it can only be by accident. The authority for the common reason
comes direct from God who has entrusted it to the Church. No philosophy
can supercede revelation, just as no individual can exist and survive
apart from society and its common store of truth.
His views, and those of some
contemporaries like de Maistre (1754-1821), rest upon the proposition that
something is correct because it has always been done. So, for example, de
Maistre maintained that there is no such thing as a right to personal
freedom because until recent times slavery had been the ordinary condition
for most people. Only the Christian Church had access to God's revelation
because it had remained faithful to a correct set of doctrines for 1800
years. "No human institution has lasted eighteen centuries," he wrote.
Therefore the Church must be superhuman.
Another contemporary, de Bonald
(1754-1840), held that underlying the common reason of society is the
identity of thought and language. He reasoned that we need thought in
order to invent anything. Thought in turn requires language. Therefore we
could not have invented language. In turn, therefore, language must have
been implanted in humans at the act of creation. de Bonald went on to
reason that it is language which holds society together and that all ideas
are essentially corporate in nature. It is tradition through which these
ideas, and therefore revelation itself, are expressed.
Traditionalism survives to this
day in more moderate form. The First Vatican Council (1870) affirmed that
reason operates in a process which culminates in any personal act of
faith. It leads to, but does not confirm, Christian doctrine. In the final
analysis, the authority of the Church, vested in the Pope, decides
ultimate truth in harmony with God's revelation to mankind.
 Tradition in A Companion to Philosophy of
Religion, Blackwell, 1997
 The Bishop's Voice, Crossroad, 1999