Before You Throw Out a Tradition, Know Why It Was There in the First Place

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

We’ve been talking recently about how conservatives tend to stand more firmly on tradition, whereas progressives and libertarians tend to be more willing to toss aside tradition. It is obvious that not all traditions should be maintained because the original circumstance for which the tradition was established no longer exists.

For example, if there was a tradition established that all roads should be at least 8 horse widths wide to accommodate horse-driven wagons moving in opposite directions, then we could safely drop this tradition when the time came that very few horse driven wagons were on the roads any more.

For those of us who think that a particular tradition should be undone, G. K. Chesterton has some very sound advice from his book The Thing:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Before you advocate the undoing of a long-held tradition, you had better be sure that you understand why the tradition exists. Don’t tear a fence down when you don’t even know why it’s there. I don’t think this is too much to ask. If you can clearly articulate why the tradition is in place, you can make your case for why circumstances have changed and why the tradition is no longer needed.

  • Interesting post. I would argue that tearing down something physical like a fence is different from stopping a tradition in that it is easy to put the tradition back in place, where putting the fence back takes more work. Let’s say, for example, that I skip thanksgiving dinner with my family one year, perhaps I would realize how much I miss it and the next year I could just reinstate the tradition. On the other hand, the more people necessary to make the tradition work, perhaps the more difficult it would be to get it back. I’m curious, is there a specific tradition you have in mind?

  • I agree we ought to be conservative concerning new policies aimed at replacing traditions which were shown to work not too badly.

    But then we should welcome contradicting data showing that holding fast on the tradition is harmful.

    This has be proven to be so for homosexuality.

    Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Andrew Ryan

    Indeed. Marriage is a good example of the traditions that have been shown to work. Before you prevent people from enjoying the benefits of that tradition you need to make sure you’ve got very good reasons to do so. The people voting against gay marriage seem to be in a big rush to do so, which seems foolhardy to me given the benefits we know the tradition of marriage brings.

  • Excellent! I should have come up with that myself 😉

    As a Christian I would largely prefer gay people to marry than have lots of One Night Stands:

    Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • sean

    What if as a society we lost the reason for a behavior, so if no-one knew why we had it, and there was no clear way to find out that information should the tradition be kept or thrown out?

  • bbrown

    This post argues for exactly the opposite of what you want it to say. Based on the logic of Chesterton’s quote, the question we must ask is “what is marriage for?”, and even more basically, “what is marriage?”.
    The answer to both questions does not bode well for gay unions that you want to call ‘marriage’. Human flourishing suffers under your agenda.

  • bbrown

    I’ll never forget the time a lawyer told me that Latin was a dead language and need not be taught any longer. I was shocked to hear that from a lawywer about the the most living of all languages.
    –Wm. Brown MD
    Forest, VA

  • Andrew Ryan

    “The answer to both questions does not bode well for gay unions”

    “Human flourishing suffers under your agenda.”
    No it doesn’t.

    Sorry if both my answers are quite stark – faced with arguments that amount to simple unbacked assertions, sometimes one can only respond in kind. Present an argument and we’ll have something to work with.

    That aside, if the tradition here is marriage, YOU are the one saying “Here’s a group of people who have no use for this tradition”, a group you’re not even part of! If you decide for YOURSELF that you don’t want to get married, that’s fine. But you appear to be hastily making that decision on behalf of another group.

    So I say to you, bbrown: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think.”

  • sean

    Beg pardon? Doesn’t it promote monogamy, which would decrease the spread of sexually transmitted diseases? That seems like a good useful thing to me. It allows people to more easily live together and be there for one another. The secular definition of marriage really has very little to do with children, which is what I think you’re trying to say marriage is about. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t have much to go off of.

  • sean

    In what sense is Latin “the most living of all languages”? Certainly it has its uses, but outside of the Vatican, no peoples claim it as their primary method of communication, which is why it’s considered dead.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Sean, marriage is completely about children. That’s why we force couples to have fertility tests before we allow them to marry, and why post-menopausal women are forbidden from marrying.

  • And why couples who don’t have children after a few years automatically have their marriage annulled.

  • Andrew,
    Show me that you understand why the institution of marriage (the union of a man and a woman) has been honored and protected throughout human history. Why was the “fence” of marriage put up thousands of years ago and why has this “fence” continued to stand for so long?

  • Andrew Ryan

    Because people fall in love and want to spend their lives together, and the state recognises that want/need, and gives rights to those married to protect their partnership, and because the state gets benefits in return from that union.

  • bbrown

    Well, in almost every sense our language is thoroughly Latin.

  • bbrown

    Andrew, this naive reply just underscores that you do not understand what marriage is or what it has been for thousands of years. And further, you clearly did not understand the wisdom of the message in the original post.

  • sean

    You are so utterly wrong. It’s clear you’ve never studied linguistic history. There’s a group of languages called Romance languages because of how much they take from Latin to develop their languages. English isn’t one of them.

  • sean

    I know what marriage has been for thousands of years, and what it is now ain’t that. Women were considered property, and it was up to men to manage this property, and Fathers married off their daughters. Love and commitment had nothing to do with it. That’s what concubines were for (if you could afford them) That’s been the reason for religious marriage for a long time. It still exists in some countries. Our blasted secular nation has decided to get rid of that definition. Darn. As a fairly affluent white male, I’d love for that definition to come back. I’d get to pick whomever I wanted. That’s religion. (I wouldn’t really want that, if you missed the facetious nature of the comment)

  • sean

    Oh, of course, and it explains why we take people’s children away when one of the parents dies. How could I forget?

  • sean

    I’ll admit, that when southern conservatives overturn the work of the Civil War, ending the reconstruction period, and going back to discriminating against blacks I do have a hard time seeing the wisdom of being conservative.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Fill us in then. All you’ve offered so far is bluster.

  • bbrown

    The English we speak is largely derived from the Romance languages. The language I speak every day in my profession is almost entirely based on Latin.

  • Andrew Ryan

    English is considered a Germanic language, not one of the Romance languages. We have Latin-derived words, just as we got bungalow, shampoo and jungle from India. I don’t care if your profession requires you to converse in Latin, Klingon, Computer Basic or Esperanto – you are plain wrong on this issue.

  • sean

    Don’t conflate use of words as a language. When you say ” The language I speak every day in my profession is almost entirely based on Latin.” do you mean Latin or English. It’s unclear. English isn’t “almost entirely based on Latin” (see Andrew’s post below this, or any person who has actually studied languages for five minutes, or can help you use Google)

    If your contention is that as an MD you use Latin to describe medical terms, then I’ll let you in on a secret. The reason Latin was adopted as the convention by science and medicine is precisely because it’s a dead language. Certainly it has derivatives, but so what? Is Spanish the same language as Romanian? Your claim that they are Latin dictates this to be the case. None of those languages are Latin. If you think that derivative languages do count as the original language then surely Latin isn’t the “most living language,” since whatever came before Latin had even more offshoot languages, making it more alive.

  • Andrew Ryan

    China and India have over a billion people each, very few of whom even speak English as a first language, let alone a Latin-based one. Mandarin Chinese has a few hundred million more speakers than English.

  • bbrown

    Thanks for the replies Andrew and Sean. I ‘ll admit that I am only going on my general knowledge and I want to look this up when I get home from work. I thought I remember reading some Tolkien, Jacques Barzun, Paul Johnson, and I think it was Charles Williams; linguists who loved to talk about this stuff. That’s where I got the idea of Latin “being the most living of languages”. Of course these guys were academics, Oxford dons.

    Anyway, I think the arguments can get a little foggy. I listened to one of those ‘Knowledge Co.’ series on the English language and they discussed some of the controversies. But I think I can pretty safely say that Latin’s influence was, overall, the predominant influence on the English we speak today. The French and Germanic roots were heavily Latinized.

    Sorry to get off on this tangent!

  • sean

    I still disagree about Latin being the most influential, but now we are more leaving the realm of fact, and going into more of a debate above all of our heads. It gets a bit “foggy” as you said. Latin did influence English, but if were going to try and have a deep philosophical discussion about to what extent English was influenced specifically by each language we’re all going to need a few years of study and a degree or two. To my current knowledge, which is admittedly mostly based on what I’ve learned in Spanish class, English is considered to have been most influenced by Germanic roots, especially Old English. I’d do a Google Images search for something along the lines of “indo-european language family tree” for a quick overview of which languages were derived from which.

    I don’t think anyone minded the tangent though, so no need to apologize. 🙂

  • Nina Simone

    Oh boy, you sadly are so wrong on this. Marriage was for the PROTECTION of women and children by making responsible the Man to his wife and children before GOD and man i.e. Spiritually and legally. Look at what the destruction of the definition & understanding of Marriage has wrought due to “no fault” divorce as well as what the disrespect for marriage vows and the lack of abstinence of the unmarried has caused. Generations of broken families and fatherless children lost to rebellion and broke single mothers who have to beg for $50.00 a week in child support.

    Goodness people truly are blind to the truth with their itching ears and their wishy washy, fickle emotional arguments.

    As for the “concubines” this also is in opposition to the fact GOD created one man and one woman for life and the commandment not to commit adultery. Just look at the destruction in the Old Testament that this practice caused. Abraham with Sarah and Hagar, they ignored GOD and his commandments and therefore created their own enemy. Solomon and his concubines who led him to idolatry and pagan worship. The list goes on and on…

  • Nina Simone

    So you as a self proclaimed Christian prefer gay people to marry instead of have one night stands so they don’t spread disease? WOW! you definitely do not love your neighbor.

    Homosexuality is completely destructive to the human body, mind and soul even in a monogamous, STD free relationship.

    Homosexuality cuts down a persons life by a minimum of half, due to the spiritual, physical and emotional traumas associated with the act. The cancers in the body apart from STD’s, is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Homosexuals are many times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexuals especially in countries in Europe where the majority of society embraces homosexuality so no it’s not from “bullying” or being marginalized”.

    It’s from being Incomplete i.e. one man + one woman completes the whole of a person.

    Homosexuals are lucky if they live til’, never mind past 40. This is a scientifically verifiable fact. Do some research on the damaging effects of this practice.

    People are not being told the TRUTH about the damage and destruction caused by this practice. But I’m not surprised for satan is a liar and the father of it. satan hates mankind and is hell bent on destroying as many of our brothers and sisters as he can. Pun intended.

    Homosexuals need our love and support but most of all they need the truth in order to help them get away from the burden and destruction of this sin and it’s hold over them. The most loving thing you can do for your neighbor is to tell them the TRUTH especially in the face of societal opposition!

    Same with abortion. The murder of the innocent is an abomination and the damage to women as individuals as well as society as a whole is practically immeasurable. From depression, to suicide, to breast, ovarian & uterine cancer, infertility etc… Coupled with the damage to society due to the loss of our children. Social Security is a prime example (one of many) of the destructive effects of the Roe vs. Wade “baby boomers” (which are perpetuating this practice in this generation and beyond.) who aborted their children and we are now missing millions of people who would have paid into that system and therefore it is not sustainable. I can’t even begin to imagine how many Inventors may have been cut down before their birth. Cure for Cancer? Aborted…

    Even more disturbing a trend is the fact that the children who have survived the abortion holocaust who have been taught to have no respect for life or the weakest among us, now have no problem cursing, abusing, killing and/or tossing their parents into nursing homes. Well DUH! When you stand in front of the death panels before the children all grown up of this generation and they sentence you to die by stating you are not “worth” the medical costs and effort to save you, Just remember you set the precedent when you tried to kill them first.

    All of GOD’s Law is for the benefit of mankind and our rebellion against HIS Law due to our personal “feelings & beliefs” i.e. itching ears, is what causes our own destruction. As it is written “You will reap what you sow.”

    Therefore repent, turn away from these lies and turn back to the Truth of GOD for the saving of your souls. For the LIVING GOD is slow to wrath and quick to forgive. JESUS our LORD is knocking on the door with the Truth in HIS hands. Will you open the door and let HIM heal you?

  • Andrew Ryan

    You’ll need to give us a cite for the ‘scientific facts’ you give there – that gays are more likely to commit suicide in Europe than in the US of in, say, African countries where homosexuality is an imprisonable offence. Cite also for the ‘dead by 40’ claim too, please Nina.

  • Nina Simone

    You will find no argument with me that any form of Bullying, Intimidation, Teasing etc.. does not factor into suicide rates among Homosexuals. This is true among Heterosexuals as well. What you will consistently find is that even after factoring in this cause the suicide rate is quadrupled among Homosexuals compared to Heterosexuals. It’s just a sad fact.

    I am extremely educated and well versed in the literature due to my exhaustive life experiences being born into and raised within an extremely dysfunctional environment in all aspects of the human condition. There are not many hardships I can list in this world that I have not witnessed, been directly affected by and or experienced myself since my youth.

    My way of escaping the detrimental effects on the human psyche from being continuously traumatized was to learn and understand all I could about the psychological factors that create a victimizer as well as the innumerable studies as to the effects of and treatments/defense against the mental effects of being victimized in all it’s forms.

    I have no bias as to political positions on this issue, only the facts using logic and reason to make my assessment which comes from my understanding of the subject through real life experiences not politically motivated or even my religion for that matter.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Nina, you answered neither of my questions. Your link supported neither of the claims I questioned. In fact, the link backed up that factors and lack of legal protection were a factor in gays being more likely to commit suicide. When I tried to google my own way to checking your claims, I found Christian apologists DENYING that gays were more likely to kill themselves, saying that such a claim was pro-gay propaganda to gain gays sympathy!

    So please look at my previous post and read my two questions again. If you can’t back either claim up, I’ll figure you quite possibly made them up.

  • sean

    Then perhaps you’d like to explain Exodus 21:10. It seems pretty clear to me. God gave a rule regarding how you should still be good to your first wife if you take another. Why would God give a rule about how to have multiple wives if he considered marriage to be, in your words, “one man and one woman for life”

  • Sean,
    Just because God regulates a particular human behavior in the Torah does not imply that God condones or encourages that behavior. The Old Testament is full of rules that God places on the Israelites to limit the harm they can do to themselves and each other.

    With the Israelites, we see God placing strict limits around sinful behaviors that are prevalent within the ancient near east. They knew that polygamy was not ideal because God established the one-man-one-woman pattern in Genesis 2.

    In addition, the first polygamist mentioned in the Bible is Lamech in Gen 4:19, and it is clear from the text that Lamech’s behavior is disapproved by God.

  • sean

    If God is all powerful, I fail to see why his divine mercy for victims of the Hebrews does not come into play, nor his perfect justice when it comes to creating rules to live by. You are saying that God creates rules that are not perfectly just. How is it that you then consider him a perfectly just and and all powerful being if he either cannot or will not lay down the perfect rules for creating a society? (which as an all knowing being he undoubtedly could do)

    I think you can only make the argument you just made if you’re willing to forgo the descriptors most Christians give God; as being all powerful and perfectly just and merciful. If you do, I’m more than willing to grant your argument.

  • God is perfectly just and all-powerful, but humans are not. God deals with us where we are.

    Biblical history portrays a God who teaches mankind about who he is progressively over time. Just as a parent doesn’t throw everything at a child the day they are born, God has revealed who he is as human history advanced.

  • sean

    Alright. That’s a fair point. I’ll rescind my statement that not outright banning it is necessarily an implicit endorsement.

    This raises another idea though, which is that our current information from God is not perfectly moral. Surely you are then open to the idea that it would be possible for God to reveal still further information to us. Whether or not you accept that Mormonism is that, you should, I think, agree that at least in principle, some revision to Christianity, as Mormonism was, is conceivable. At the time o the Jews, there were probably some people who thought slavery was wrong, but they were shot down because the Bible seemed to accept slavery. But in this case, those that stood by the Bible were in fact wrong. Would you agree that it’s at least theoretically possible that we disagree on, like abortion, that I am in fact in the right and you are wrong on some issues? It may even theoretically be the case that God is after secularism and wants us to look after ourselves, but in his past revelation he met us where we were at before, and knew that we wouldn’t be good without him then, but now the tides are turning and he wants to be left to his own devices. Maybe I’m doing God’s work. Isn’t that possible? If so, how do we go about determining which is more likely?

  • The Bible is very explicit that verbal or written revelation from God can only come from true prophets of God. How do we know if a prophet is a true prophet?

    First, what they say cannot clearly contradict what other true prophets have said in the past.

    Second, any predictions about the future must come true, exactly as the prophet foretold.

    Third, true prophets are typically able to perform supernatural signs to prove they are God’s representative.

    Joseph Smith fails all of these tests. However, if a person appeared today who could meet all of this criteria, I would absolutely pay attention.

  • “The Bible is very explicit that verbal or written revelation from God can only come from true prophets of God.”

    Wait a minute, I thought the Christian position was that God can talk to everyone. Wouldn’t that be a revelation from God? People say that God speaks to them all the time, isn’t that a verbal revelation?

    I’m guessing we are talking about something that is similar but different, what is the distinction?

  • Obviously God can communicate to anyone, but usually when someone says, “God told me…” they are referring to a mental prompting of the Holy Spirit by which God is helping them apply His word to their particular life situation.

    This is very different from a person claiming that God has given them new revelation which should be shared with all mankind and which should be added to the corpus of prophetic works collected in the Bible.

  • I see, so it’s like a revelation for a specific person as opposed to a revelation to be shared with everyone.

  • sean

    I believe that would disqualify Jesus though. There are several references in the Bible to the fact that his second coming will be withing their lifetime. This did not happen, so that prophecy failed.

    Moreover, does not his let the dead bury the dead quote deprive that man of abiding by the honoring his parents commandment?

    If Jesus failed to uphold these standards, perhaps you should reconsider Judaism.

  • What passages are you referring to where Jesus says he is returning within someone’s lifetime?

  • sean

    Jesus Says:

    Matthew 16:27-28
    Matthew 24:34
    Mark 13:30
    Luke 21:32
    Matthew 26:64

    Someone Else Says:
    1 Corinthians 10:11
    Hebrews 10:24-25
    1 John 2:18
    1 Corinthians 7:31
    1 Peter 4:7
    1 Thessalonians 4:15-17
    1 Corinthians 15:51
    Revelation 1:3
    Revelation 22:6-20

    This list may not be exhaustive, but it’s certainly sizable. Some of these are Christ’s word, while other passages merely serve as testament to what the writers thought, without directly referencing Jesus. I would encourage you to examine the full context of each chapter when considering each of these, as most quotes I have provided here have information before them that really clarifies the matter on what Jesus is saying (where it may be ambiguous)

  • Andrew Ryan

    And hence the tradition among some Christians that there must be some guy somewhere from Christ’s era who is still alive, so that it can still be ‘in his lifetime’! I’m surprised you’ve not heard of this Bill!

  • sean

    The outlandish nature of some Christian claims means it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether or not you are making a joke, or recounting actual beliefs. This is one of those times.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I’m afraid it’s the latter!

  • I don’t see that any of these passages indicate that Jesus predicted that his second coming would occur during the lifetimes of his disciples.

    I see lots of language about Jesus returning “quickly” and Jesus returning “soon” but these are always in the context of exhorting believers to be ready at any time for his return. He can return at any moment, and we all have to be ready. In other words, it is motivational language, not language meant to pinpoint a date and time.

    We know this to be the case because the NT is saturated with these kinds of exhortations: “Be ready! He is coming! The time is near!”

    The documents of the NT were collected from sources that cover a 60-year period (with life expectancy around 30-40 years), and each period of the 1st century church was reading what was previously written.

    If everyone understood Jesus to be promising to return within a short period of time, then surely the Christian movement would have collapsed. Note also that early second century Christian writers also did not interpret any of these passages as promising a return that they could pinpoint within the first century.

    If you are going to press any of these passages to indicate a specific date and time, you have a lot more work to do, especially given Mark 13:32.

    Why don’t you pick one of the passages that you think indicate that Jesus predicted his return and make a case for that passage?

  • Andrew Ryan

    I think people are talking about when Jesus said that that generation would not pass away before his return. Eg: Luke 21:27-32

  • sean

    Sure, the first example I gave is a fine demonstration of that. Matthew 16:27-28

    Matthew 16:27 is about judgement day; Jesus coming down to Earth in full glory to judge everyone, and Matthew 16:28 says some of the people he’s telling won’t ‘taste death’ (or die) before Jesus returns to do this judging.

    Additionally, I think Mark 13:32 doesn’t disprove my case. Just because we don’t know doesn’t mean we absolutely don’t know. if I tell you something is either blue or red, and someone asks you to tell him which color it is, you can’t. All you can point to a set of possible colors. In the same way, they had a set of possible days (which was larger than two, as in my example, but smaller than past the lifetime of those with Jesus when he spoke those words.) but not the exact date.

  • Sean,
    I invite you to read the very next passage of Scripture, Matt 17. In this passage, Peter, James, and John all see Jesus in his glory at the Transfiguration. Surely this is what Matt 16:28 is referring to.

    I need to remind you that if you go along with current majority scholarship, which says that the Gospel of Matthew was written in the 80’s AD, the generation of people Jesus was talking to would mostly be dead, since Jesus died around AD 30.

    If Jesus’s words were taken to mean that his second coming would occur soon after he died (within 30-40 years), then the author of Matthew would have known this and left these kinds of sayings out. Additionally, Jesus would have been exposed as a false prophet and the Christian movement would have imploded.

    It seems more than likely, then, that Jesus’s words in Matt 16:28 were not referring to his second coming at all, but to his transfiguration which was immediately reported in chapter 17 of Matthew.