Tradition and Change

(February 4, 2002)

In the opening song of the long running musical and later movie Fiddler on the Roof the principal character, a Russian Jewish farmer named Tevye, sings about why things are the way they are. And his celebrated answer is, of course "Tradition!" Poor Tevye, it seems, is caught up in the struggle between the old ways of doing things and the fresh and brash ways signified by his daughters and their beaus, who are intent on leav­ing the farm and the oppression of Czarist Russia and emigrating to the brave new world of America.

This is not to suggest that the religion of Jewish peasants in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Eastern Europe was entirely dominated by tra­dition; in fact, the Hasidic mysticism that flourished among eastern European Jews was considered quite untraditional by more highly edu­cated Jews in western Europe and America. Even today quite a gap exists among Jews in America (as well as in Israel) over what is the "soul" of Judaism. Is it the tradition of the Tanach (what Christians call the Old Testament) or is the free spirit (God's "Holy Spirit") expressing itself in the lives and loves of the believers?

This would seem to suggest that we need to take a hard look at what drives religion. Henri Bergson, a Polish Jew who became one of France's leading philosophers in the past century, famous for his book Creative Evolution, wrote another less known book The Two Sources of Religion and Morality. In it he showed how religion itself evolves through an in­teraction or combination of "tradition" (what is handed-down from ear­lier generations) and "mysticism" (the source of new inspirations and new ways of understanding). According to Bergson, if you only have the first, eventually you'll end up with stagnation. But if you only have the second, you end up with chaos, and, it seems, a mess of "cults."

For balance you need is a combination of the two, a tradition that can hand down the essentials and can authoritatively decide what fits and what doesn't, but at the same time, a lively bunch of mystics and thinkers who can give the tradition new insights and ways of understanding to think about.

There is always bound to be some competition between the two. From one period of time to another you are most likely to have one or the other tendency dominate the scene. Bergson compared it to something like a flight of stairs. The periods where new inspiration occurs are like the vertical risers that bring you to a higher level, and the periods of con­solidation, where the new insights are assimilated into the tradition, are like the treads that give the foot a place to rest and serve as a platform from which to move upward into the next stage. Of course each time there seems to be a change of direction, from horizontal to vertical or vice versa, there is bound to be a certain amount of hesitation or resis­tance. But this is what makes for a creative tension.

Christianity has also experienced this same sort of struggle through­out its history and has long felt this same tension. It was part of what tore Christianity apart at the time of the Reformation. The traditional Catholi­cism of medieval Europe was being challenged by fresh new insights from the Protestant Reformers. And, in turn, the Catholic "counter-reform" that took shape at the Council of Trent itself in time became a new "tradition" that was challenged by the new theology, spirituality, and other innovations of the Second Vatican Council.

(An added note: In 2007, are we now seeing, especially with the new "indult" restoring the pre-Vatican II "Tridentine Mass" as a more common option to please traditionalist Catholics, an attempt to turn back the clock? Perhaps so, but I expect the movement itself will eventually be superseded by yet another phase. And so it goes.)