Questioning the Questioning of Tradition
Hello everyone! Later this week we will celebrate Thanksgiving in the US. This is a strange time for a holiday whose primary purpose (other than giving thanks) is to gather and feel close to your loved ones. Even beyond the pandemic, Thanksgiving this year also falls into a cultural context that is very hostile to traditions, especially traditions that honor the history of the United States. We believe in a healthy skepticism in nearly everything. Heck, we list “challenge cultural norms” in the mission statement right at the top of our homepage. But, we also understand the value that these traditions hold and this week we’ll explore just that. We are thankful for you and your engagement with these ideas. Wishing you all a special and safe holiday. Let’s get into it!
ONE FROM THE AGES
A love of tradition has never weakened a nation.
- Winston Churchill
One FROM TODAY
“Tradition is peer pressure from dead people.”
- The marquee sign across the street
ONE FROM US
In college, I had a weekly tradition called Family Dinner Night, or FDN as we came to call it. Exactly as it sounds, this was a gathering of our college “family” for a weekly potluck dinner. The group size and attendees ebbed and flowed with our schedules and commitments, yet, with few exceptions, a core group of 10-12 of us met every Thursday night for 4 years.
These dinners were fun in the way that you might expect—joking, games, drinking (often a bit too much)—but eventually a deeper meaning emerged that exceeded any of the day-of festivities. A single potluck with friends is fun and special. A many year commitment to that same dinner each week is divine.
A few weeks ago I posited a question to our live course group: “Is there a level of meaning and purpose in religious practice available to a true believer that I, as a non-believer, will never know? Or does the deepest meaning of traditional practices come from a commitment and faith in the value of the practices themselves?” In other words, do you need to believe in the supernatural to attain the divine purpose, or can an enduring commitment to traditions provide the same meaning?
This is a question worth considering because a return to the ubiquitous religiosity of the past is impossible. Our body of scientific knowledge has grown too vast and the percentage of secular-minded individuals has grown too large to again become a nation (or world) of believers. This is a victory for reason, but it leaves us searching for the meaning that the traditional practices imbued. We don’t need to throw out all of our long-standing traditions. Perhaps we can let go of the supernatural underpinnings of our religious practices, yet practice them just the same because they show us the best path through a forest of distraction and pulls to convenience and comfort. Perhaps we can continue the best parts of our national traditions while embracing the nuanced and complex (and obviously fallible) individuals who pass them down to us.
Enter FDN. I didn’t realize it at the time, but for me, Family Dinner Night was like church (and a far more meaningful church than the one that I grew up in). For us devotees, FDN was an anchor, a source of stability and meaning. I knew where I would be every Thursday evening. I knew who I would be with and what types of experiences we would share. We all planned our dishes, taking pride in their silliness, their extravagance, or their simplicity. We got excited to wear a stupid shirt, share a stupider joke, or introduce a new game to the group. Like any faithful congregation, we had communion, fellowship, traditions, and an unquestioned commitment that brought meaning and stability far beyond the individual weekly meetings.
It was special and we didn’t need to ask why. We knew that we could rely on it for meaning. But we could also feel that the meaning was built on our individual commitments.
The above quote that “tradition is peer pressure from the dead” greets me every day as I arrive at work. It’s on the marquee of an old theater building whose current tenants use to post cheeky, thought-provoking little messages. The idea that traditions serve no purpose other than to restrict the inexorable rise of cultural progress is common throughout history. Alvaro Siza’s claim that “tradition is a challenge to innovation” is an understandable and expected perspective from an architect known for his ultra-modern designs. In one sense, he is correct. True innovation requires that we shrug off the expectations and norms of our age. Yet, even creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We need a status quo to ignore for innovation to be innovative. New creations need to stand out in relation to something. But traditions are far more than just a datum from which to measure our progress. They hold meaning in a way that the new cannot.
The traditions passed on to us hold special meaning because they have been proven through the crucible of history. Like every traditional diet, it’s difficult to isolate the exact reason why, but we simply know that they work. Traditions can remove our individual burdens to find meaning by providing us a roadmap. We can choose to see traditions as peer pressure from dead people. However, not all peer pressure is bad and dead people, antiquated though they might appear, offer invaluable guidance. Traditions are often distilled wisdom of the ages. Instead of peer pressure, we can see past humans smiling down on us from above saying, “you might not fully understand this yet but if you do these things I promise they will enrich your life.”
The Family Dinner Night tradition might seem to show that we can innovate brand new practices and simply decide that they are meaningful. I certainly feel this way about my daily cold shower. But this is not the whole story.
We didn’t invent Family Dinner Night, it was passed to us and we were instructed on how to do it properly. The five friends who lived in the FDN house accepted their new lease with the one condition that they carry on the Family Dinner Night tradition. Their instructions were to host a friends’ potluck every Thursday night without fail. That was it. We could make it what we pleased and create our own new traditions, but it had to be Thursday and we had to commit.
Like our earliest ancestors passing down religious practices and national traditions, the older students who passed FDN to us insisted that we continue a ritual that brought so much meaning to their college years. They had also received the tradition from their previous tenant and, like me, they probably never realized what a meaningful practice they had been gifted. They simply knew that it shaped their last four years and could say with certainty that, if we committed, it would shape ours.
Or traditions are under fire, religious and national traditions alike. Extremists seek to distort the meaning of these practices and wipe them from the Earth in the name of social progress. The examples are too numerous to list. I will also refrain from defending any specific secular or religious practice. I don’t need to. This week, perhaps more than any other, we will all feel the meaning of tradition. We will think of our family and friends. We will meditate on the gratitude we feel to have these people in our lives. And we will gather (in one form or another) in fellowship and communion over a meal and our love for one another. In the next month, regardless of our religious beliefs, we will celebrate with practices that objectively look very silly. We will decorate our houses entirely in green and red or in blue and white. We will listen to songs that carry far more meaning and personal association than any others. We will give and receive more than normal both in physical gifts and tiding of goodwill. The holidays, for all of their commercial extravagance, are a brief experiment in which we transform into a society far more bound by tradition and collective contribution.
These practices and the deep meaning that they hold demonstrate to us just how vital our traditions can be. We don’t need to understand where these practices came from or why they began in order for them to make us feel good. They survive for a reason. While cultural skepticism can bring innovation and progress, sometimes an unquestioned faith in cultural practices can bring more meaning than we could ever achieve as individuals.