Tradition

Tree with birds, by Mary Hart

Tree with birds, by Mary Hart

Tradition is something that grows and evolves. It is not set in stone, but is more like a discourse; if you start with a particular set of premises, ideas and values, you will get further ideas and practices that are consistent with the initial set of ideas. Religious traditions evolve according to social, cultural, and political circumstances. For example, a Catholic community in India had the tradition of having a procession in honour of the Virgin Mary. It was a particular honour to carry a special flag in the procession, and to raise and lower the flag on the special flagpole. This meant that more people wanted to have the honour than could be accommodated by a single flag and a single raising of the flag. So more flags were added to the procession, and more occasions of raising and lowering the flag were added, till over the years, the original custom was elaborated by considerable additional flags and flag-raising. There’s an example of a tradition evolving.

In a comment on a previous post, Erin wrote:

‘Tradition’ is the accumulation of what others in the past have experimented with to create what will feel like a meaningful experience, whether it is designed to ‘work,’ ‘feel good,’ create connections, or speak through specific symbolic language and action to the powers of choice. ‘Tradition’ does not even necessarily mean set in stone, as personal experiences allow one to gather information which might lead to tinkering and tweaking of said traditions in order to evolve them. Following tradition means attempting to understand how it was created and why, to discern what is language is, and learn how to speak it, to see for oneself if the results are as they are claimed to be. When experiences fall short, the knowledge gained can be added to the accumulated mix that has created tradition thus far, adding a new dimension to it. It is meant to be a living thing preserved by a people which speaks a uniquely meaningful language to them, carried with thanks to those who came before who contributed what they did, and carried carefully to those who will come after, as an important legacy of what has been known and created up to that point.

This is an excellent summary of the organic and evolving nature of tradition.

Some people think that tradition is rigid and unchanging (or that it ought to be so), but this is not the case. Some people also think that saying “because it’s traditional” is sufficient reason for doing a thing. But because tradition evolves in response to circumstances, and because customs can sometimes be harmful, saying “because we’ve always done it that way” is not a sufficient reason for doing something. First we need to consider why it was done that way in the first place. If the reason for doing it that way is still valid, then that’s not a problem. But if there is a new group of people to be taken into consideration (who weren’t considered when the custom was first devised), then we may need to adapt or drop the custom in order to accommodate them.

Folklorists pay attention to the transmission and context of a tradition, as well as to its content. The means of transmission is also important in Pagan traditions. In Wicca, the validity of an initiation is important (it has to be done by someone who is already initiated, and it must be done according to certain criteria). In reconstructionist and polytheist traditions, some people think it is important to have a cultural or ethnic connection to the religion being reconstructed; others derive the legitimacy of their practice from ancient texts about their religion, mythology and deities. Before a new insight (an Unverified Personal Gnosis) can be more widely adopted by practitioners, it needs to be compared to textual evidence, and/or substantiated by comparison with insights from other contemporary practitioners. It then becomes a substantiated personal gnosis.

In Native American religion, the transmission and context of tradition is incredibly important. They would argue that you cannot take their traditions out of the context of people, language, and land where they arose. It is certainly true that when these traditions are taken out of their context and borrowed indiscriminately, with little understanding of what they mean, it is usually cultural appropriation, which erases the identity of the keepers of the original tradition, and can be actively harmful.

That is not to say that you can never adopt a tradition that does not relate to your ethnic background; it does mean that in order to be respectful towards that tradition, you need to study it in depth and respect its original sources and context. If it is possible to receive transmission of that tradition from one of its keepers, then so much the better.

However, if an aspect of the tradition that you have received is actively harmful, then it is legitimate to change it, in my view. An obvious example is the tradition of marriage. In the past, the definition of marriage included polygamy. Some people regarded this as injurious to the individuality of the additional wives, and so polygamy became widely frowned-upon. It also included a woman being required to marry a man who raped her; this was obviously harmful, so the practice has been discontinued in most cultures. Until the early 20th century, it was extremely difficult to obtain a divorce, which meant that many people were trapped within failed marriages; again, this was regarded as harmful, so marriage was redefined as something that could be terminated. Currently, many same-sex couples are harmed by their exclusion from the possibility of being married, so they want the law changed so they can get married. Some have argued that this is a redefinition of marriage; maybe it is, but marriage has been redefined many times before, and it’s still popular. The story of the evolution of marriage shows that it is possible to modify a custom to include more people, or to reduce the harm that it may cause, without changing the basic features of the tradition.

About Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. She has written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is the editor of the Theologies of Immanence wiki, a collaborative project for creating grass-roots Pagan theology.

  • http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/ Erin

    Interesting post, and fun to see myself quoted. ;) You pull on many threads here, and I am feeling that the thrust of your stance is not entirely cohesive because those threads lead in different directions with subsequently different conclusions. When you refer to Native American traditions and their context, I think the key to those is that those traditions derived from individual tribes, and they are meant to apply to those specific tribes. They aren’t meant to be universal, and I’m guessing that a tradition holder who chose to pass her tradition on to someone outside the tribe might still well mean for that tradition to be applied in ways applicable to her people, or to at least support them, because that is what traditions are for. Similarly, Wiccan traditions are intended for Wiccans to use, not anyone else, so those would only develop to meet the needs of the Wiccans employing them, and changes and adaptations would only consider the growing needs of those Wiccans in that coven. Indian traditions address Indian needs, Wiccan traditions address Wiccan needs- they are meant to apply to the in-group only. This means that by definition they are already exclusive. When and if the in-group’s needs change, so will their traditions. But the criteria for doing so won’t be based on the needs of those already naturally excluded by not being members of the in-group. Being all-inclusive in order to meet the needs of everyone encountered isn’t the agenda when setting tradition; only the needs of the group in question will determine what traditions are created, and how they develop.

    But when you apply this approach to ideas of marriage in an American context, the picture changes, in ways that many don’t see. For example, the Christians who feel the need to protect what they call traditional marriage don’t see that how they practice it is meant to only apply to -them-, the Christian in-group. In their tradition, marriage exists for the purposes of procreation and family development, which they see as impossible among couples who can’t physically accomplish this (never mind they don’t exclude naturally infertile heterosexual couples from marriage, or remember that they really like to promote adoption as a means of building family, but being inconsistent or potentially hypocritical isn’t against the law, so whatever, it’s their bag.). Once marriage became a legal institution though, and not just a Christian one, it didn’t belong to the in-group exclusively anymore. Now, on this level, it belongs to the larger in-group that is the American citizenry who derive recognition and benefits from its federal government. Now the evolving needs of this large group will, and does drive developments in the marriage tradition. Christians are still welcome to define it for themselves, within their religious congregations, as they so choose, to meet their needs, and I understand that in some states where gay marriage has been legalized, like my WA state, churches are protected from compliance and permitted to maintain their own religious and cultural boundaries. And I think that is as it should be- they practice it as a religious tradition and their internal communal needs will drive how that tradition will be shaped and practiced. But they don’t get to decide for those -outside- of their in-group, because Christian guidelines aren’t meant to be applied to non-Christians (not sure how many of them are aware of that, but some I know are), and that too is as it should be.

    I wouldn’t say that inclusion should always be a universal goal, or is always even a laudable goal; after all, I doubt many American citizens would take kindly to harem-owning sheiks dictating to us that we ought to include their cultural modes of marriage within our legal recognition. The sheiks aren’t a part of the American in-group, so their needs will not, and need not drive our internal development of our traditions. And I’m not sure that all the developments we have seen have been purely altruistic; Utah only outlawed polygamy so it could gain statehood, so that was only a political trade, not a moral stance. And really, so long as it is practiced between consenting, legal adults, why should the state interfere? It runs contrary to a country founded on the inherent value and pursuit of individual liberty to do so, and so is inconsistent with its own traditional values. If we would extend that freedom to gays, then why not to polygamists? In this case, it is the American tradition of individual liberty and applying it to the total in-group of Americans that is challenged to develop and grow to meet Americans’ needs. But it wouldn’t make sense to insist American marriage traditions be applied in say, India, because they are their own in-group with their own traditions meant to be practiced by them, and so they must determine the course of those traditions for themselves. Theirs don’t apply to us, and ours don’t apply to them. Inclusion of the ideas of the others isn’t the agenda of either, and neither should it be.

    Tradition is a living, breathing, growing thing, the opposite of the Ten Commandments forever set in stone. But it is those within the tradition who define and develop it, as it is only meant to serve them, and so tradition is already exclusive by its very nature. Being inclusive, therefore, isn’t a relevant reason, in and of itself, to alter a tradition if it means it will no longer meet its people’s needs. Where communities overlap, however, is where questions have to be asked about who these groups are and how their needs are interfacing, so that those boundaries of traditions can be redefined in ways that speak to each group’s needs.

    Thanks for writing about such an interesting topic, Yvonne. :)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/ Yvonne

      Traditions being developed for the particular group that “owns” them is a very good concept.

      However, Wicca is not hereditary in the same way as Native American traditions are, so the analogy doesn’t quite work there. The kinds of people who are told they are welcome (gay, dyslexic, etc) but then inadvertently excluded by the way the tradition is practised are not the “out-group”. Wicca is open to any Pagan who wants to develop their magical skills and their priest(ess)ly skills, and who likes Wiccan-style ritual.

      I would make a distinction between polygamy (where the husband is top dog) and polyamory, where the partners are generally equal. And I wasn’t talking specifically about the USA and Utah (I had actually forgotten about that example) but about western culture in general.

      • http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/ Erin

        I would agree with you that Wicca is open to anybody, but in lineaged traditions, only those properly initiated are Wiccans, so they are the in-group in question; it doesn’t have to be a hereditary thing. If enough initiates inside Wicca want certain Wiccan traditions to change, they likely eventually will, but insular change tends to be slow. While frustrating at times, this does help preserve the core of the tradition. Anybody can practice Wiccan-style rituals, Wiccan or not, and make changes accordingly, but the initiates of Wicca might not recognize them as official Wiccan traditions because a non-initiated pagan used their ritual format with their own spin on it. The in-group still isn’t required to validate what an outsider chose to innovate.

        Polyamory and polygamy are different things, agreed, but if all participants are consenting adults, and if those involved in polygamy agree to the man-is-top-dog model, then should they be denied the legal right to practice it? If one thinks gay marriage ought to be permissible, then I don’t see how one can say polygamy ought not to be. (Ironically, this is one of the arguments fundamentalists use to dissuade legalizing gay marriage, because of the slippery slope it could lead down.) In the American cultural tradition of personal liberty, both marriage styles stand as shining examples of that very thing.


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