Tradition, Scripture and the Church – Pt. 2: “The Psychological Power of Tradition”

[For PDF of entire 5-part series, please click here.]

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In this and the next post in this series, I will seek to answer one basic question: “Why is tradition such a powerful force in influencing the human soul and shaping human society?”  We will look at the individual, “psychological” power of tradition in this post, and the collective, “sociological” power of tradition in the next.  Both of these aspects work together to make Tradition one of the most powerful forces on earth shaping all of human history.

When it comes to the Church, Tradition and Scripture stand as the two eminent forces influencing her historic development.  As was shared in Part 1, tradition’s relationship to Scripture is a complex one and runs the full gamut of being “Biblical” (according to Scripture), “non-Biblical” (indifferent to Scripture) and “un-Biblical” (contrary to Scripture.)  As we look into its unique power to influence the soul and shape culture, especially in regards to the Church, we need to keep this balanced perspective in view.  We should also understand that what makes Tradition so compelling is essential to its nature, and is not contingent on the form it takes.  What will be shared in these two posts, then, applies to the full range of Tradition’s expression and effect.

Before we dive in, however, I have a simple disclaimer to make:  I am writing on these matters as a simple Christ-follower and not a trained psychologist or sociologist.  I have had only a basic education in these subjects, and so I am wading in “feet first” rather than diving in “head first”.  What I share comes from my own experience, observations and musings.  I’ve done a bit of research on what the “experts” in these fields do have to say about the psychological and sociological power of “Tradition”, and have found very little as of yet.  So I am merely sharing my own thoughts and conclusions as I have meditated on and prayed over this subject for a good many years.  (I also invite you to share your perspectives, and also any scholarly works you may know of that might shed further light on these subjects.  Comments are open! 🙂 )

Tradition and the Human Soul (Psyche)

The question we want to zero in on in this post is “WHY is tradition so powerful in influencing the human soul?”  There must be something in the nature of Tradition that the human psyche gravitates towards, esteems and faithfully adheres to so as to come under and be shaped by its powerful influence.  That “something” is what we want to seek out.

As I have mused on this subject, the following are some of my thoughts and conclusions. I offer them for your consideration.

• The Power of the Familiar –  What I do know of how the brain works is that as we learn and as we experience life, (electrochemical) connections are made within our brains that form “neural pathways” which tend to track us.  Like pathways through the woods, the more these are used, the more developed they become.  Consequently, the familiar becomes more attractive and navigable to us than the unfamiliar.  A number of conscious and emotional factors also contribute to our tendency towards the familiar.  For instance, the familiar lessens our fear of the unknown, presents the simplest, “go to” choice, gives us a sense of confidence in managing it, is often accompanied by positive memories and has more predictable outcomes than that which is unfamiliar.  Tradition is the handing down of “the familiar” and as it is embraced and practiced, “the power of the familiar” grows.  When we are daily faced with choices between following that which is traditional or that which is unconventional, we tend to gravitate towards the familiarity of the traditional.  Tradition draws much of its strength from the “power of the familiar.”

• The Power of Meaningful Structure – Closely related to this is our need as humans to have a certain degree of structure in our lives.  We need basic frameworks to fill our days, weeks, months and years to help bring order, stability and balance.  This gives us a degree of security and peace in an otherwise chaotic, changing and uncertain world.  Very often this is where tradition comes in to fill the void.  Because traditions are usually the embodiment of some time-tested value, belief, or ideal, when they become established in our lives to meet this need for structure, they also bring with them meaning and purpose.  As those who have been made in God’s image, these are some of the most powerful needs and desires in the human heart.  We were created to live with meaning and purpose, and without them the human heart begins to wither and die.  When tradition, therefore, provides us with meaningful structure in our daily lives, we embrace it as one of our most desired and cherished “possessions”.

• The Power of Generational Honor – Added to this is the love, esteem and honor that we have for those from whom we’ve received the traditions that we embrace and practice.  “Tradition” by definition is that which is “handed on” or “handed down”, especially from one generation to another.  Because many of our traditions come to us from our parents, grandparents, posterity in general, and/or culture we belong to, whatever honor and esteem we have for those from whom we’ve received them, we tend to ascribe to the tradition itself.  This is similar to the way in which we ascribe special honor and value to material possessions that are handed down to us.  Take for instance, Great-Grandma’s china set, Grandpa’s old hand saw, a piece of military gear from WWII, a tattered book inscribed in the 1700’s, etc…  These things take on special meaning simply because of the esteem we have of our heritage and our history.  Traditions, likewise, build in force the older they are and the more closely they come to us from those we love and esteem.  This exponentially adds to the “psychological power of tradition” as it is built into our lives.

• The Power of Childhood Formation – Following closely on the heels of this is the fact that many of the traditions incorporated into our lives have been handed down to us during our most formative years of childhood.  Children have an amazing capacity for wonder and learning.  A bug crawling across the floor can utterly fascinate them. They stare at and study faces in the supermarket.  They laugh and giggle at the simplest things.  They are constantly absorbing their world with eyes and ears wide open and the impressions that are left are magical and lasting.  These are the formative years and the morals, values, habits, experiences, routines, practices, teachings, and the like that regularly fill their lives become ingrained in them and form the basis of who they are and are becoming.  Many traditions become deeply woven into the fabric of our being from the very first breath that we breathe.  These handed-down beliefs and practices become hardwired into our psyche and serve to form and shape our very perceptions and paradigms of life.  Traditions of this nature take on a power to influence the soul that is hard to over-estimate.

• The Power of Cumulative Associations – Because traditions do not affect our lives in isolation, all that is related to our practice of them tend to become associated with them in our soul.  If they are regularly practiced with other people, our love and esteem for those people tend to become incorporated into our love and esteem for the tradition itself.  If they are regularly practiced in a specific place, the significance and specialness of that place becomes associated with the significance and specialness of the tradition within our soul.  If there are pleasant and meaningful experiences connected with the practice of a specific tradition, those memories become incorporated into our overall affection of and attraction to the tradition.  Sometimes it is the sensory experiences of sights, smells, sounds, and tastes that fill and surround a particular tradition that become the strongest emotional and sentimental connections we have with it.

Furthermore, this aspect of “accumulated associations” takes on “Divine dimensions” when the context is religious and/or spiritual in nature.  Traditions that are practiced in such contexts accumulate to themselves all the significance and sanctimoniousness of the Deity they are directed towards.  Whatever religious atmosphere surrounds them or spiritual encounter accompanies them, even if it is not a direct result of the particular tradition, becomes associated with it in our soul.  As a result, the tradition can take on the significance, power and authority of Divine endorsement and engagement.  It is not hard to see why these types of traditions become the most devoutly held to and staunchly defended if they are ever challenged.

The more a tradition is practiced, the more these types of accumulated associations continue to multiply and thereby magnify our overall perception and estimation of the tradition. Sometimes the accumulation of secondary associations, in the end, even becomes the primary reason for the carrying on of the tradition.  Like a snowball rolling down hill, they gain more and more momentum as they accumulate more and more “mass” and “weight.”  This is the power of “cumulative associations” which is just one more reason why tradition is such a powerful force in influencing the human soul.

• The Power of Collective Endorsement – Most of us seem to subconsciously believe that humanity in general, over time, is a reliable “vetting mechanism” for determining that which is good, right, meaningful and true.  When something has passed down to us having survived this “sieve”, we tend to accept its validity and value without even questioning it.  We reckon that its weaknesses, faults and/or errors have already been found out and exposed long before it got to us, and so we tend to blindly trust the collective opinion. In this way traditions are handed on to us with a tacit, collective endorsement that holds a surprising amount of weight.

What we fail to realize, however, is that all of those individuals who make up that larger collective are likewise giving the rest of the collective the benefit of the doubt.  This, combining with the other factors already mentioned, give traditions the ability to take on a life of their own.  Drawing from the snowball analogy again, once it picks up mass and speed rolling downhill, it becomes all but impossible for an individual or a select group of people to stop it.  The power of collective endorsement is a major factor in the soul-influencing power of tradition.

• The Power of Personal Identity – Since traditions often embody and represent the core values, meanings, morals and ideals that mean the most to us, they often find a place in our lives close to the core of who we are.  As such we identify intimately with them, and, in turn, can readily take our identity from them.  This is especially true if the traditions we most closely associate with come to us from that which we already derive our personal identity: family, nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc..  When tradition reaches the point where it begins to define our self-concept and personal identity, it has reached one of its most powerful places of influence in and over our souls.  At this point it is extremely difficult to extricate from our lives for it has become engrafted into our very identity as a person.

• The Power of Conformative Development – Finally, and in summary, tradition has an inexplicable power to influence the human soul because of a process that may be called: “conformative development”.  This, I believe, is the most unrecognized factor, and yet is the most powerful, for it draws on the influence of all the others.

To illustrate this process, I’d like to consider the poem, “The Calf Path” that I posted as a prelude to this series.  What this poem describes, in essence, is the process of “conformative development.”  It traces the progression of the meandering trail of a lone calf, which progressively becomes a path, then a lane, a road, a village street and, finally, a city thoroughfare.  During this process, a village and then a city develops along its winding way, and eventually becomes a booming metropolis.  The “footprint” of the original wandering calf, however, never changes and ends up determining not only the course of the final highway, but also the configuration of all that develops and grows up around it.  This is what the process of “conformative development” is all about.

What is significant about this process is that though the original cause determines the shape and contour of what develops around it, once the conforming complex around it is established, it “locks in” the original cause from ever changing, at least not easily.  If later, change is desired, not only does the “highway” need to be changed, but also the “metropolis” that developed around it.

This gives us a rough picture of what takes place internally within our souls as “neural pathways” are formed and as innumerable “synaptic connections” develop in association with them.  Over time these “pathways” become “roadways” and then “highways” and what develops around them becomes a vast neurological “metroplex” within our soul.  This “metroplex”  in turn tends to “lock in” the “highways” so that changing them later on becomes almost impossible.

This explains many difficulties we have with changing long-standing behaviors or giving up undesirable, old thought patterns. It is why it is said, “Old habits died hard.” and “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  It is why winning an argument often doesn’t change the other person’s thinking in the long run, or why people go just so far in a disagreement before they snap emotionally.  The changing of the “highway” requires too much of the “city” to be deconstructed and so the very threat of it evokes a strong rational or emotional defense.

Traditions are the bulldozers and pavers of these psychological roadways.  All of the aforementioned aspects of their influence synergize together to build the super-highways of our soul.  Around, and in conformity to them, grows and develops an intricate neurological matrix of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, beliefs, values, morals, perspectives, experiences, emotions, sensations, expectations, fears, memories, hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes, preconceptions, prejudices, assumptions, associations, intentions, convictions, and the like.  Once established, this conformative matrix gridlocks the highways, as well as the traditions that created them, in place.

In the follower of Christ, “Biblical traditions” have carved and paved some of these “highways” according to the roadmap of Scripture.  The “City of God” has accordingly been built up around them within their inner man. Many “un-Biblical traditions”, however, have also forged “highways” within their soul, and “stronghold cities” have built up around and according to their twisted ways.  As the Lord advances and takes command of more and more of the “land”, the Word of God continues to challenge the “highways” and conforming “metroplexes” of un-Biblical traditions within the soul.  Some of these fall before its divine power, but others just won’t budge. This is the ongoing battle within the soul of the believer.

This process of “conformative development” is possibly the most firmly-rooted factor why Tradition is so powerful in influencing the human soul, and why, as Jesus said, it has the potential to “make the Word of God of none effect.” (Mark 7:13)

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When we consider, therefore, how these eight factors all synergize together to give Tradition its soul-influencing force, we can begin to grasp why it is such a powerful force to be reckoned with, both for God and against Him.

And this, believe it or not, is merely half of the story. In the next post, we will consider the rest of the story: “the sociological power of Tradition.”  This is where Tradition goes on steroids! 🙂

Next: Tradition, Scripture and the Church – Pt. 3: “The Sociological Power of Tradition”

Previous in series: Tradition, Scripture and the Church – Pt.1: “Tradition and Scripture”

“The Calf Path” – by Sam Walter Foss (A pre-series post)
Centrality and Balance
The Stronghold of Traditionalism (#propheticresistance)
The Stronghold of Spiritual Eccentricity (#propheticresistance)

About David Bolton

Following Him who is the Way; learning of Him who is the Truth; living by Him who is the Life. - John 14:6
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3 Responses to Tradition, Scripture and the Church – Pt. 2: “The Psychological Power of Tradition”

  1. Bruce says:

    Yahoo!! Like taking a flyby in a plane over the cities, to see them in perspective before going down and walking the streets… I love it!

    This is very insightful and helpful to me, as I struggle so much in trying to understand the inner workings of why people (including myself) believe as they do, and why in general, the effect of truth is so slow, or rejected. Entire metropolis’s can be built up around a lie that cannot even be identified anymore amidst all of the chaos.

    What a need for spiritual discernment, coupled with a love for individuals, and a love for the truth. This gives great weight to the statement of scripture that we “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”
    Thanks so much for posting… a lot to chew on while awaiting the next.


  2. David Bolton says:

    Thanks, Bruce. Great comment! I really appreciate what you’ve expressed. I think as we grow in insight and understanding as to just how complex our beliefs and habits are interwoven into our souls, we can have greater compassion on others who are struggling in some area of their life or faith. It is usually not as simple as it appears on the surface.

    I also appreciated you bringing out the Romans 12 passage. That applies very much in this regard! I enjoyed looking at it afresh through this lens! So good!

    Now on to the collective side!

    Thanks again!


  3. Pingback: A hagyomány, a Szentírás és a Gyülekezet 2. rész: „A hagyomány pszichológiai ereje” – David Bolton | keskeny út – narrow way

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