Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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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 Christians.

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 forest-dweller.

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 interpretation.

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 Council (1962).

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 [1].

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 rapid change. 

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 absurd.

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 Newtonian physics.
  • 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 atoms.
  • 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 [2]. Writing of the 1998 Anglican conference of bishops at Lambeth in England, he observes:

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 commitment.

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 Rousseau).

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 [1] that some new fact will come along, or [2] that a new paradigm will be formulated, or [3] 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.
[1] Tradition in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, 1997
[2] The Bishop's Voice, Crossroad, 1999

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