Monday, January 3, 2011

Tradition Is Progressive

It’s a common misconception that “tradition” and “traditional” is somehow backwards looking or simply conservative. It’s not.

‘Tradition’ comes from the Latin traditio, the noun of the verb tradere, ‘to transmit’, ‘to deliver’. It was a term of ratification in Roman law: for example, the legal transfer of a shop or house was accompanied by the act of handing over its keys, traditio clavium; the sale of a piece of land was accompanied by the act of handing over a clod of earth. Tradere, traditio meant “to hand over an object”, with the intention, on the one hand, of parting with it, and, on the other, of acquiring it. Tradere implied giving over and surrendering something to someone, passing an object from the possession of the donor to the receiver... An equally good simile would be that of a relay race, where the runners, spaced at intervals, pass an object from one to the other...
    from The Meaning of Tradition by Fr. Yves Congar, O.P.

Tradition is not something for your grandparents. It’s not wistful nostalgia for the past. It is, in brief, what enables us to keep moving forward, to keep expanding and enhancing our knowledge about things, to progress--it’s progressive, not conservative. Whether or not you like it, essentially everything you have had taught to you is a kind of tradition, and that is A Good Thing.

Of course, not all traditions are good or perennially helpful. Each of us has to evaluate what is given to us and assign it value, but I’m just saying we shouldn’t discount tradition just because it was handed down to us, i.e., not dismiss things out of hand because they are “traditional.” I would even go further to suggest that we might want to implicitly give traditional knowledge more value than something we discover on our own until we have plenty of evidence to recommend another course precisely because it is something that those who came before us thought was valuable enough to hand on to us.

In other words, I’m suggesting we not reinvent the wheel if we don’t have to. What our parents and grandparents (and theirs and theirs and theirs) hand on to us should have implicit value for us, to help us to not start from scratch, to learn from their experience and mistakes, and to, as Sir Isaac Newton and others have said, see a little bit further than they by standing on the shoulders of giants. We should value tradition because it enables us to be truly progressive.