Ever tried to do something completely original? Give up on traditions? Do something brand new, entirely of your own doing? It’s really not possible. Sure, you can act uniquely, but only accidentally. We rely on traditions to do anything of substance, such as the languages we use to communicate and the customs that dictate effective interaction. Just about everything we use has an origin outside of us. The same is true for our existence and the existence of the world around us. We simply can’t be entirely original. Only One has ever been completely original, and He is the origin of all things. This is a comforting, and humbling, truth.
Recognizing our inability to be original and our dependence on traditions is a necessary part of being human. Tradition, or receiving what is “handed on,” gives us the very tools by which we interact with the world around us. In many ways our lives and work are given their shape by those who have gone before us. Acknowledging the role that tradition plays in our lives is little more than accepting a truth about human existence. It is humbling to realize how dependent we are on others, both past and present, in order to do just about anything.
Think of modern scientists. They have to accept many traditions in order to accomplish new work. The entire body of scientific knowledge, as well as the customs regulating how to communicate it, are simply traditions. The same is true in the liberal arts, in culture, and in any other pursuit. One must be immersed in a tradition in order to contribute to that field. This is what makes different traditions or “schools” of thought so important. It is a recognition of the value of the work that went before you, and the desire to further its study. We are not the creators of our pursuits. We rely on traditions to give us the form in which we can flourish.
The same is true in religion. We are not the founders of our spiritual lives or the inventors of salvation history. The content of faith is passed down from Christian to Christian. For Catholics in particular, the Tradition we have been given has already been tried and found fruitful by those who came before us. It is a whole way of life which we take on to grow in knowledge and love of God. We can’t do it on our own. Everything has first been “handed on” to us, in order that we might discover its promises for ourselves. From the stories of the Old Testament, to its fulfillment in the New, and the development of the Faith through the centuries, Tradition is what gives us the supernatural form in which our lives of faith can flourish.
Recognizing any tradition can often seem like asking a fish to notice the water it swims in. Its ubiquity can lead to a lack of appreciation. Yet a fish must be humble enough to accept the truth that it can’t live without water. In an age that prizes self-determination, it is interesting to note that while many self-determining groups or individuals strive to be absolutely original, they turn out to be rather similar. On the other hand, accepting tradition (especially our Tradition of faith) actually allows us to contribute in unique ways, without the pressure of trying to be or do something completely new. We can still help create great things or develop great ideas, but this is done by first recognizing both the values and limits of what already is. Thankfully, we don’t have to be ex nihilo creators of the next brilliant new thing. In fact, we can’t.
Image: Rembrandt, Two Women Teaching a Child to Walk