Tradition and Society – How a Culture Lives Or Dies

From the Latin word, tradere, meaning “to hand over” or “to hand down”, we derive the modern word, tradition. A tradition is something society finds intrinsically valuable — that is, of value in and of itself, and at the same time, standing the test of time.

Tradition has several elements:

  1. specific content such as music, dance, customs, laws, behaviors;
  2. persons charged with transmitting the content intact such as religious, secular or other leaders;
  3. recipients of tradition — the society as a whole

Content and Context

By its very nature, tradition has a social context. If it is central to a society, without it, the society disintegrates. Another way to say it is, tradition provides a particular society an awareness of its identity and the reason it exists. Tradition acts like a glue that holds a society together in peace, or a frame of reference within which to gauge behaviors of a society or its members.

Traditions are an inheritance, and cease to exist when they are no longer critical to the life of the society practicing them. Sometimes traditions are simply abandoned to the detriment of a society’s heritage and identity and must be reclaimed in some form to restore a lost or diminished identity.

Japanese director Yamada Yoji, when directing The Hidden Blade, referenced this point when he lamented the loss of certain gracious gestures and ways of thinking and acting that have disappeared from Japanese society at large through technological developments and Westernization. Directing period films brought home the need to preserve, at least in film, some of the ancient ways for the sake of the Japanese identity.

Transmission of Tradition

Tradition is not a dead and useless thing such as a bug frozen in amber, but rather is a living thing, which can be built upon and evolve. It grows organically from within as opposed to being imposed from outside. We cannot manufacture tradition any more than we can manufacture a star or a turtle or a tree. To attempt to transform a tradition fundamentally or massively as, for instance President Obama said he intended to do to America, is to kill it. We cannot turn a frog into a rabbit or a blade of grass into a cornstalk. And to attempt continually to change tradition trivializes all of what has gone before and those who handed it down faithfully.

Passing on the contents of any given tradition can be more or less successful, depending on the knowledge and dedication of those to whom the traditions have been entrusted. If no loyalty to the tradition exists in them, nor a sense of serious obligation, then the failure to pass on faithfully the tradition as given them results in a betrayal of the society.

D.Q. McInerny, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary wrote in the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter Newsletter, May, 1999:

“The value of any tradition depends directly on the value of its contents, and its centrality to the society to which it pertains… The contents of some traditions are so valuable…that if those contents were to be seriously compromised, the survival of the societies themselves would be jeopardized. This is preeminently the case with regard to sacred tradition and its relation to the Catholic Church.”

Since the 1960s, the inveterate and unauthorized tinkerers with the Sacred Liturgy and pious practices of the Catholic Church have caused many of its traditions to be obscured in the minds of worshippers. Some Church authorities fall into the category of those who have no sense of obligation towards sacred tradition even though they have been entrusted and charged, by virtue of their positions, with the task of passing it on.

An entire generation has now passed without a clear understanding of the term “sacrifice” regarding the Mass. In this example we have both trivialization and betrayal which has brought about a struggle in the Church for the restoration of tradition. Today we see many young Catholics married, with children, filling churches where the Traditional Mass has been restored or where the rituals of the New Mass have been brought more in line with tradition. Tradition is not dead in this case, nor dying, but living and continuing in modern Catholic movements such as “the Reform of the Reform” and the “Traditional Mass Movement” in spite of the best efforts of those who sought to quell it or simply abandon it.

In this example we also see that forcing the abandonment of tradition valued by many in a society results in conflict that can continue for many years, no matter how diligently authorities attempt to smother it.

Reception of Tradition

Receivers of tradition must have a healthy attitude towards it in order to absorb it effectively. If the receiver does not see the necessity of the tradition, he will not live it, nor will he be able to pass it on with integrity. Eventually the tradition dies. In the process, the society either changes into something it was never meant to be or disappears altogether.

Today many Americans are reawakening interest in their founding documents. People in record numbers are rising off their couches and coming together in a renewed commitment to the American traditions of free speech, free enterprise, and freedom of assembly through participation in conservative movements such as what has been dubbed “The Tea Party Movement.” History will show whether enough receivers of tradition exist for Americans to grow along the trajectory handed down by the patriot founders or whether American society will cease to exist as it has been known. In either case, knowing and applying the three elements of tradition can provide a map for analysis and decision.

Copyright Barbara A. Schoeneberger 2009