Tradition and change

What is a tradition?

In English, we use the word ‘tradition’ in two distinct ways.

There is tradition in the sense of an entire set of practices, beliefs, and values – a cohesive religious tradition. Examples include the Wiccan tradition, the Mennonite tradition, and the Quaker tradition.

There is a tradition in the sense of a traditional practice or ritual, such as marriage, initiation, invocation, a Passover Seder, lighting lamps for Diwali, decorating a Christmas tree, and so on.

Image by JOAT, courtesy of Shutterstock

Image by JOAT, courtesy of Shutterstock

What is the function of tradition?

Traditional practices function to bring groups together by acting out their shared values, commemorating previous generations, acting out their mythology and stories, and reinforcing group identity. Examples include the Passover Seder – a beautiful and effective ritual for commemorating past generations, teaching the story of the Exodus from Egypt to future generations, reinforcing the identity and values of the group, and transmitting Jewish values and culture to the next generation.

Other traditional practices (such as marriage) function to make a connection between the individual and the tribe. When you get married, you affirm the relationship with your partner in front of your tribe (family and friends) and your deities or deity. When you undergo a rite of passage (e.g. Bat Mitzvah, Bar Mitzvah), you make the transition from child to adult, and your connection to your community or tribe is reaffirmed. When you get initiated into Wicca, you make the transition from uninitiated to initiated, and you become a full member of the Wiccan community.

Traditions that affirm identity and community can be a wonderful and life-affirming thing. They make us feel whole and loved and part of something bigger than ourselves.

Traditions can harm or heal

Some traditional practices are obviously harmful – examples include foot-binding, female genital mutilation, and so on. Other traditional practices are disputed, because they are regarded as harmful by one community, but helpful by another (e.g. male circumcision).

Other practices are widely regarded as desirable, but may exclude some categories of people – the obvious example being marriage. I would argue that a traditional practice that excludes a whole category of people is broken, and needs to change to include that category, provided that making that change harms no-one. (Clearly, a child or an animal cannot meaningfully consent to marriage, so that rules out underage spouses and bestiality, because being forced into an arrangement to which you cannot consent is obviously harmful).

In my video on Gender and Sexuality in Wicca, I said, “If a tradition is broken, then it needs fixing”. I was referring to harmful traditional practices, or practices that exclude entire categories of people, not to an entire religious tradition. However, if you equate a particular practice or set of practices with the whole of your tradition, or as the most important part of your tradition, and that set of practices excludes a whole category of people, then maybe your entire religious tradition does need re-examining.

In that video, I argued that certain traditional practices within Wicca, such as those that appear to value heterosexuality more than other sexual orientations, or that prevent LGBT people from doing certain magical activities together, harm LGBT people by excluding us from those practices. They also fail to represent the lived reality of gender and sexual diversity, and they may be preventing everyone within Wicca from experiencing the full spectrum of magical possibilities available to us.

Why might traditions change?

Traditions evolve and change all the time in response to the changing needs of the community. This applies both to religious traditions as a whole, and to traditional practices within them.

If a traditional practice excludes a whole category of people because of their core identity, then I would argue that it needs to be expanded to include them. There is no need to abolish the practice for the people for whom it works. The obvious example here is Wiccan initiation. For the vast majority of people, male / female initiation works just fine. If you are cisgender and heterosexual, there is no reason to change how you will be initiated.  But what if a person is transgender? Should they be initiated by someone of the opposite gender identity to themselves, or someone of the opposite physical sex? Or should they be allowed to choose? What about genderqueer people? What about those who are exclusively attracted to members of the same sex? This depends on whether you think initiation depends on polarity, and what you think polarity is, and how you think it is created. Is it created by erotic attraction, biological characteristics, or other differences?

What are valid criteria for changing a traditional practice?

If the traditional practice is actively harmful to a large group of people (examples include child marriage, genital mutilation, and footbinding) either physically or psychologically, then it needs to be modified or abolished.

If the traditional practice excludes a category of people because of their innate characteristics (e.g. not allowing same-sex couples to get married, or refusing Wiccan initiation to people with a disability), then it needs to be expanded to include that category, provided that it does not harm anyone else.

If the traditional practice affirms the identity of your group at the expense of making derogatory claims about other groups, then it needs to be changed so that it is not derogatory towards the identity of another group. An example might be a Christian affirmation that they are ‘not like the heathen’, or that they renounce ‘wicked idolatry’. The Vatican officially dropped a part of the Catholic liturgy that said something rude about the Jews, for example.

If it is claimed that the traditional practice excludes a category of people because of an acquired characteristic that is not part of their core identity, then we need to think a bit harder about modifying it. For example, I would argue strongly that the Wiccan practice of working skyclad is empowering and life-affirming and enhances group trust, but some people claim that it is harmful for people who have been raped or molested. I would certainly not want to add to their trauma by insisting that they work skyclad, but I would want to encourage them to work towards a state of trust and self-confidence where they felt able to work skyclad.

What are valid criteria for retaining a practice unchanged?

Is the practice life-affirming? Does everyone in your group or religious tradition feel included in it? Does it affirm the core identity of everyone in your group? Does it express and affirm the core values of your group or religious tradition? Does it help to transmit your values, beliefs, stories, and identity to new members of the group? Does it accurately describe a key magical or cosmological concept or experience? Does it help rather than harm? If the answer to all or most of these questions is yes, then congratulations, you have a really worthwhile traditional practice.

Change

Autumn foliage splendor in the Green Mountain National Forest

Autumn foliage splendor in the Green Mountain National Forest (Wikipedia)

My favourite times of year are the transitional seasons of spring and autumn, when everything is changing rapidly. In spring there are new blossoms and new leaves emerging, and the days lengthen rapidly. In autumn, the leaves turn red and yellow and orange and are blown away in the wind. The smell of bonfires is in the air, symbolising the transformation of decay into the bright energy of fire.

Everything is always changing, transforming into something else; nothing is ever lost. The gathering of life experience is like the laying down of compost. The leaves of individual events fall onto the heap, fade and decay, and are transformed into memories, which feed our sense of identity, which gives rise to new experiences.

Change is constant in life; it is the one thing we can rely on. Some people find it difficult to embrace change; others enjoy it. Without change, there would be no growth, no seasons, no new life. There would also be no death, but just try to imagine what immortality would be like – a barren state of existence with no excitement.

The Buddhists like to point out that there is nothing constant about our bodies. Our cells are replaced so rapidly that every cell in our bodies is replaced by the end of seven years, so you are literally not physically the same person you were seven years ago. This is possibly the origin of the phrase, “the seven year itch”. Each day you acquire new experiences, new dreams, and lose old memories, so you are not the same person you were yesterday.

We constantly shape each other socially, giving approval or disapproval to certain characteristics, and each of us is a slightly different person in different social situations. We change our opinions as we hear new evidence, and this is a sign of flexibility and openness. A lack of willingness to change one’s opinion gives rise to the rigidity of fundamentalism. There’s a lovely quote by Alan Watts (an Episcopalian priest who became a Zen Buddhist in the 1960s) that explains the difference between the openness and trust of faith and the rigidity of belief:

“Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

This openness and trust is an essential pre-requisite for the building of spiritual community. It is why many communities (such as Quakers and Pagans, and many Unitarians) like to do their rituals in a circle, which involves making eye contact with others, and emphasises the equality of participants.

The sociologist of religion, Emile Durkheim, said that the function of ritual is to manage changes in life, such as the transition from one state to another. Rites of passage (coming-of-age, coming out, initiation, marriage, divorce, birth, and death) are obvious examples; but in a sense all rituals are about managing change. The structure of ritual is a way of managing and enabling the change in consciousness that you experience as you make contact with the Divine by gradually relaxing into the ritual and entering into an altered state of consciousness.

The major change enabled by participating in a ritual is the building of community with others. As we share the celebration of ultimate worth, singing, praying, invoking, meditating, speaking and listening, we are focused on something other than our individual ego. We cease to worry about how we look, and focus on the experience of being together. The constant presence of the inner commentator is switched off. David Smail, a therapist who regards therapy with suspicion, writes in his book, Taking Care, that more therapeutic benefit is derived from participating in a communal activity than from hours of individual therapy. This is true even if it’s something apparently trivial like your local bridge club.

Being in a community of people sharing their spiritual journeys enables us to rub the corners off each other; to be aware of our own foibles and to tolerate those of others. That’s presumably why the prayer of Jesus emphasises that we are forgiven as we forgive those who trespass against us (or in the original Aramaic, “detach us from the fetters of the faults that bind us, as we let go the guilt of others”).

So change is both embracing and letting go, expansion and contraction. It is a dance of inner and outer, dark and light. It is a cycle of growth, death and rebirth. Everything is in constant flux. The plants grow, blossom, bear fruit and die. Stars and galaxies are born, expand, and then die as their energy is spent.

Sometimes change can be painful. The loss of loved ones, or the ending of relationships, are usually immensely painful, but they may also enable growth and renewal, and expand your capacity to feel. There’s a beautiful poem by Kahlil Gibran about joy and sorrow:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
The more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

Similarly, the Baal Shem Tov, a nineteenth century Jewish mystic, equated brokenness with openness to divine mystery:

Once the Baal Shem Tov commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blasts of the ram’s-horn, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh Ha-Shanah. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and laid the slip of paper in his bosom. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s-horn, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the ram’s-horn without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them.

Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: “Lo, in the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock, but the master key of all is the axe, whith which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the ram’s-horn: the secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a man truthfully breaks his heart before God, he can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the King above all Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” — Or Yesharim

When I reflect on the changes in my own life – the beginnings and endings of relationships, moving house, moving to a new city, meeting new friends, learning new ideas – these are always the times of greatest spiritual growth for me. Suddenly I experience a flood of creativity; poetry and prose pours onto the page in an unstoppable flood. Then there may be years of stagnation, until something comes along to shake me out of my rut and force me to move and grow. I should really try to find a way to make change constant in my life…

There could be no stories without change, because stories tell about the transition from one way of being to another – the discovery of spiritual treasure, a struggle for justice, falling in love, journeying from one place to another. The scientist Jack Cohen has suggested that we be renamed Pan narrans, the storytelling ape, because storytelling is a major aspect of our human nature. So let’s celebrate change as being the basis of all good stories, including the unique and special story we are each currently living.

[originally published at Dance of the elements]