Earlier this week I began this series of posts attempting first to disambiguate the various senses of the word faith in order to explore how the various practices referred to under this one word’s umbrella all relate to each other and how they can be ethically and epistemologically assessed, both as they occur individually and in various combinations with each other. On Wednesday, I explored how faith’s connotation as “trust” differed from other connotations of trust. In this post I want to sketch some ideas on what a faith tradition is and what functions it plays.
The expressions “breaking faith” and “keeping the faith” point out to us that for most people to reject a faith is not simply to reject a set of truth-propositions but to “break faith” with a group. This phrase “break faith” means to break with either implicit or explicit promises. To “keep the faith” by contrast is to loyally preserve a tradition, a common set of values, practices, rituals, meditations, codes, belief statements, etc.
Participation in each of these aspects of tradition is designed to inculcate and reinforce one’s identification with the group and to preserve the traditional expressions themselves as vehicles for maintaining and transmitting the group’s identity and values to new generations. Whenever one performs the group’s rituals, one transcends one’s own individuality (or lets themselves be robbed of it—depending on your point of view) in order to act and think formally like any other member of the group.
This is part of why faiths require carefully defined practices and statements of belief. They do not so much need everyone to interpret all the meanings of these practices and beliefs identically, but they need the outward forms—the uniting rituals, practices, and expressions, etc. themselves—to persist. Individuals’ personal interpretations of their tradition can vary only insofar as they do not threaten the outward forms and the identity between both cotemporaneous and inter-generational members of the group.
So, for example, Christians can vary in their interpretations of whether Genesis 1 is literal or figurative as long as their interpretations do not threaten people’s future willingness to recite the Christian creeds or participate in communion or read from the Christian holy texts, etc. I think debates about orthodoxy—the boundaries of permissible interpretations of the meanings of a tradition’s standard belief statements—boil down to debates about what variations of ways of speaking would threaten a group’s identity by hindering the abilities of its practices, recitations, rituals, holy-text readings, etc. to have the same effects and to be able to successfully transmit the tradition into future generations.
Faith traditions in this way try to unite people in holistic ways of acting, speaking, valuing, and identifying with each other. Disagreements and variations are permissible (to varying extents in different traditions and times and places) but the forms and group identification are paramount.
And faith traditions, as traditions, try to preserve values through means of tradition more than through reason. The traditional rites convey the group’s recognition of the important stages of life, its weekly rituals inculcate (and express its belief in the value of) certain habits, and its creedal statements express its fundamental view of the world (usually in a way that is mythical enough to permit interpretations which can adapt to some extent to the advance of knowledge over time).
All traditions, religious or otherwise, supplement their rational justifications for their ideals with practices which unite members to the tradition by shared participation in rituals, symbol recognition, and reverence for heroic role models and institutionalized authorities who impress the seriousness of the tradition and its values upon children and others who are less responsive to rational arguments.
Traditions, religious or otherwise, are a valuable resource for transmitting previous generations’ wisdom of experience. Rather than having to rediscover everything that our ancestors learned, we rely on our traditions to guide us to a considerable extent. In most matters in life, we have a default deference to tradition rather than attempt to “reinvent the wheel” in the innumerable instances in which tradition proves itself a reliable guide for accomplishing goals effectively. We also retain many traditions whose explanation may be unknown to us or may have never existed. Sometimes we might develop traditions out of the human tendency to ritualize and standardize all our practices, even some of those practices which do not rationally require being standardized for any urgent purpose beyond the pleasures of predictability, routine, familiarity, and stability in life.
For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above. It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.
Faith As Tradition