Tradition is an important aspect of our lives.  This was equally true in the sixteenth-century as it is now, although it’s meaning and prominence in society has radically changed in that time.  I have just finished reading the sociologist Edward Shils book entitled and on the subject of Tradition (published in 1981).  To my knowledge there are few other books on the market that look in their entirety at tradition as a concept, and it is therefore still important for that reason alone.  Shils himself has been credited as a social theorist on similar levels to Max Weber, Jűrgen Habermas and Michel Foucault, although as Stephen Turner has suggested, he is often misunderstood.

In this book Shils talks about two types of past.  One that is real – that which has happened and left behind its residues.  Then the other – a more mutable perception of that past based, admittedly on the residues left behind.  The perceived past is capable of being retrospectively reformed by humans living in any given present.  It is a past that is recorded in memory and writing, formed from facts, but pliable, open to interpretation, error, or even purposeful revision.

This description fits perfectly with what happened in the sixteenth-century.  Reformers and evangelicals had a very specific perception of Christian history, one that became mutable to their purposes in degrading the Roman Catholic Church and raising theirs up in its stead.  The argument ran that novelty was an error – a corruption made and designed by fallible humans.  The only statement that could be confirmed as certain truth was biblical.  God’s word was certain, unalterable.

That was then, what about now?  It seems tradition has had a change of fortune in the western mindset between the sixteenth-and twenty-first centuries.  The claim of tradition as opposed to novelty has reversed. Shils begins his book by stating:

“Very few persons argue for the revival of the beliefs and institutions of the remoter past which have been obliterated in the more recent past. Even if they desire their revival, they do not think that there is any reasonable chance that what they desire will be realized.” (Shils, p. 1)

In the sixteenth-century evangelical reformers tried to do just that; return to a distant past, now nearly lost, to retrieve the institutions of old in place of one which they believed had become corrupted.  Shils notes that:

“the time through which we have just lived has been one in which what was inherited from the past was thought of as an irksome burden to be escaped from as soon as possible.” (Shils, p.2)

This is nowhere made clearer than in present day politics. The coalition government in Britain is rapidly unpicking the state fabric – paving the way for privatisation in health, education, and communication systems.  These systems are seen as holding the country back.  Those who see otherwise are often accused of being backward looking themselves, recalling a mythical golden age that either never existed or certainly doesn’t exist any longer.

The idea of a golden age, a time when everything was better or perfect, has a very long history.  We all look back wistfully to a happy time, when everything seemed good.  In History such golden ages can come as a result of desired change.  For instance, Mahatma Gandhi’s fight for Indian independence focused on an Indian past – located in the idea of a countrywide village community – a past that never existed other than in the minds of the people.  Last year’s London Olympic Games opening ceremony revealed an imagined British past and present; one triumphant, quirky, and rich, but pretended, imagined in the minds of a nation.  In both cases the idea of an imagined past constructed an image of a golden age in the conviction that it can provide the context for an improved future, changed somewhat from the perceived failures of the present.

We often talk about progress these days – in fact we have been talking about it for about four hundred years.  Intrinsic to our beliefs is the concept that we must change and improve and never turn backward.

There is a great belief that practices, institutions and society need to be constantly changed, replaced or discarded in favour of new ones.  The emphasis is always on improvement.  If our skin is blemished or our nose is too big (or small) we change it, make improvements.  Our houses grow, expand and change – new furniture is introduced, old is removed – it is a cycle, constant in its transference from one fashion to the next.

That wasn’t the case once.  Progress was the beast, the thing that led to novelty and a distancing from the true path laid out for us by God.  That was the predominant belief.  Novelty was bad, a corruption from purity.   Innovation was viewed as a human intervention, which was bad because God had already laid out our futures before it had even begun.  Therefore our views and opinions about tradition and novelty are different than those that we study in the pre-modern times.  They are reversed – to a degree – novelty is the sin, but so too might tradition, depending on whether it was the tradition that God had laid out, or the tradition built up by humans since then.  For Roman Catholics these traditions were provided by God, through the priesthood, but for Protestants this was a corruption.

It’s almost ironic that in Britain Protestant is often referred to as a progressive faith in comparison to Catholic.  Protestantism is often claimed as a lead-factor to Britain being capable of innovating and kick-starting the industrial revolution.  But in truth it is the Catholic faith where traditions are built one upon the other that was the most progressive in the sixteenth-century.  Protestantism represented rupture, but a rupture intended to revert to an even older tradition.  It was not forward looking at all, not intentionally anyway, it was backward looking, more so than the Catholic Church of its time.  So who really were the modernisers and why should progress and novelty always be seen as a good thing, while traditions and old ways are ignored, replaced, and looked upon with disdain?

Further Reading

Edward Shils, Tradition (Chicago, 1981)

Stephen Turner, ‘The Significance of Shils’, Sociological Theory, 17:2 (July 1999), pp. 125-145.

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