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

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

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As we continue this series, we will seek to answer the second aspect of the question we posed last time: “Why is Tradition such a powerful force in influencing the human soul and shaping human society?”  In the previous post, we considered the individual, “psychological” side.  We will now look at the collective, “sociological” side.  These two aspects are inextricably bound together and give Tradition its incomparable power to shape the whole of human experience.  We cannot get the full picture of its mighty influence until we consider both aspects.

With that in mind, if you haven’t had a chance to read the previous post yet, I encourage you to do so before reading this one.  We will draw much from it here, and it will help to give the full picture of Tradition’s influence.  To do so, please click here: “The Psychological Power of Tradition“.

The Synergistic Nature of the Collective

I ended the previous post by saying that when it comes to the “sociological” aspect, “Tradition goes on steroids.”  There is a synergistic nature to the “collective” which causes its most basic factors and effects to multiply exponentially from those which exist merely within the individual.  This is explained, on the one hand, in that the “collective” is the pooling together of all the “psychological” dynamics of the individuals involved.  This is additive in nature, and alone accounts for a significant degree of this phenomenon.  On the other hand, the “collective” is also the compounding together of all of the “sociological” dynamics that develop within a group.  This is multiplicative in nature as inter-relational dynamics form, compound and interweave in all directions and on all levels.  When all of the personal dynamics are mixed with all of the interpersonal dynamics, the synergistic power of the collective multiplies exponentially.

Tradition and the “Collective Soul”

Each aspect of Tradition’s influence which powerfully works within the individual soul also has its collective counterpart.  These help to shape what I will call the “collective soul.”  In calling it this, I’m not trying to be “New Age-y mystical” or something, but merely referring to the combined psychological and sociological factors of those involved which together form a common way of thinking, feeling, and acting that permeates the collective body.  Just as the individual soul is comprised of mind, will, and emotions, so the “collective soul” could be said to have its “collective mind” (common views, beliefs, perspectives, understandings, etc. ), “collective will” (united desires, goals, purposes, pursuits, etc.), and “collective emotions” (shared loves, joys, sorrows, etc.).  These combine together to create a unique corporate “persona” that has its own distinctive soulish features and is similar to the individual soul in the way it forms, develops, and expresses itself.  All of the factors which influence the individual soul in regards to Tradition, likewise permeate and influence the “collective soul”.

Let us consider briefly, then, the psychological factors mentioned in Part 2, as they likewise come to bear sociologically upon the “collective soul”:

The Power of the Collective Familiar – Even as on a personal level, “the familiar” forms neural pathways within the individual soul, so on an interpersonal level, “the familiar” forms “social pathways” within the “collective soul”.  These tend to forge and shape a group’s shared beliefs and common practices.  The collective familiar is an attractive, influential force in that it works to maximize social harmony, cooperation, and success, while minimizing social strife, dissension, and failure.

As was shared concerning the psychological dynamic of this factor, “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.”   These same effects, likewise, work within the “collective soul”, only in a compounded, exponential way!

To give a simple example of this, consider the changing social dynamics that would exist among a group of people as they repeatedly seek to navigate their way through a corn maze together.  The first time through the maze, everything is unfamiliar and the group dynamic is marked by uncertainty, hesitancy, and perplexity, along with a certain level of disagreement, dissension, and strife.  With each successive trip through, however, there is a notable difference in their social dynamic.  The group becomes marked by increased levels of confidence, competence, decisiveness, unity, and joy.  By the third or fourth time through, they move together as a perfect unit and with efficiency and ease.  The difference between these experiences is simply the increased levels of the “collective familiar.”

A corn maze is a static entity, but life is not. Life has enough unexpected and unfamiliar twists, turns and crossroads in it to more than satisfy our need for adventure. When navigating it together with others, familiarity is a welcome commodity.

This accounts for much of the impetus behind groups adopting, developing, and jealously guarding certain traditions as foundational to their collective makeup.  Traditions provide a familiar roadmap which settle an untold multitude of options that would otherwise call for unified decision-making, and possibly gender strife.  We are much more successful, and happy when navigating a  “maze” together we are familiar with, than one which is unfamiliar.  Tradition helps to supply this socially desirable dynamic and force.

The Power of Collective Meaningful Structure – In addition to this, no group is able to flourish and function without the two essential elements of meaning and structure.  Meaning brings purpose to a group, and structure provides a basic framework for cooperative function. (You would be hard-pressed to find a meaningless group that is flourishing, and a structureless group that is functioning.)  Tradition is a principle that provides both elements in one, and therefore becomes foundational, in some form, in most groups.  This helps to bring stability, balance, order, functionality, and purpose to the group.

When thinking of “Tradition”, I often think of the opening song from the movie, Fiddler on the Roof.  In the narrative that accompanies the song, the main character, Tevye, shares the importance of “tradition” and the stability that it brings.  Excerpted from his narrative, he asks, “And how do we keep our balance?  That I can tell you in one word!  Tradition!”; “…Because of our traditions, we have kept our balance for many, many years.”; “…You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I tell you. I don’t know. But it is a tradition and because of our traditions every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”; “…Without our traditions, our lives would be as…as….as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”  (You can click here for a YouTube video of the complete song from the movie.)

This narrative speaks to the stability that meaningful structure brings to any social group through the incorporation of… (sing with me…)  “TRADITION!” 🙂

The Power of Collective Generational Honor – Most traditions adopted by a group do not originate within the group but are inherited from another source.  Generally, they are taken from an esteemed and established social entity which the group feels a special connection with.  Whatever honor and esteem they have for the source of their traditions, they invariably transfer to the traditions themselves.  This makes them even more valued and cherished than they would be simply on their own merits, and adds to the sociological power of the traditions within the group.

This tendency is also fed by the common desire to belong to something larger than oneself.  This is not only true for individuals, but also for groups.  By incorporating and honoring the traditions of a greater, more established group than ourselves we strengthen our sense of belonging to it and thereby to something larger than ourselves.  Shared traditions often become the connecting bonds of these associations.

The Power of Collective “Childhood” Formation – Every group has an early formative stage in its development when its fundamental “DNA” is established.  As was just shared, this “DNA” is often inherited from other sources and includes some form of “passed on” beliefs and practices.  These become engrafted into the fabric of the group early on and shape its vision, purpose, values, beliefs, and practices.  Once these are established, they become extremely difficult to eradicate for they define the very nature and character of the group.  The “collective soul” develops similarly in this regard to the individual soul in its “childhood formation”.

The Power of Collective Cumulative Associations – The collective practice of traditions becomes a powerful force not only for their immediate, primary benefits to the group, but also for their secondary benefits of providing accumulated, shared experiences and memories.  This becomes exponentially greater on the social level than it does on the mere personal level.

Consider, for instance, the difference between going to a restaurant alone and going with a group of friends.  In both cases you would enjoy the same atmosphere of the restaurant, and the same great food, but in the second case you would share the experience with others.  Also, added to the experience would be all of the social interactions that would take place during and after the outing.  How much greater this increases the enjoyment and meaningfulness of the event!  All of the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings of the evening are shared and savored by the group together.  This is why dining out is primarily a social event. The same is true for, say, going to an amusement park, attending a sporting event, or even going for a hike.  When given the choice, we rarely choose to do these activities alone!

The same dynamic is, likewise, at work in the practicing of traditions together.  It is often the shared secondary experiences and memories that, in the end, become the primary reason for the continued practice of them.  With each successive experience, the secondary associations accumulate and give the tradition ever-increasing substance and significance to the group.

As was noted on this point concerning the individual soul, this takes on “Divine dimensions” when the traditions are practiced in a religious or spiritual setting for sacred purposes.  The collective associations of (even perceived) divine endorsement and engagement infuse a transcendent authority to these traditions which puts them in a category all their own.  Because of this, they are, rightfully or wrongfully, hallowed with collective devotion and defended with religious zeal.

The Power of (Collective) Collective Endorsement – Individual groups generally look to larger, more established social entities to both supply and authenticate their own beliefs and practices.  The more they are in line with established social customs and norms, the safer and more legitimate they feel.  When traditions are widely shared, they bear a tacit collective authority that is a powerful and sometimes blinding force.  We give great weight to those traditions that have survived the vetting process of history and come stamped with society’s  “collective endorsement”.

The Power of Collective Identity – Furthermore, every group develops some form of collective identity that is shaped by, and in turn solidifies, their own self-perception.  This identity also defines their public image and designation.  Because traditions become engrafted into the very fabric and fiber of a group’s nature through the collective power of “the familiar”,”meaningful structure”, “generational honor”, “childhood formation”, “cumulative associations”, and “collective endorsement”, they often become the foundation of a group’s “collective identity”.

As Tevye said in The Fiddler on the Roof, “because of our traditions every one of us knows who he is…”  This is true individually, and it is also true collectively.  As with “the power of personal identity”, shared in Part 2, when traditions penetrate and permeate a group to the point where the group draws its identity and social distinction from them, Tradition has reached the pinnacle of its power to shape, mold, and hold that collective. At that point, it becomes very difficult to ever alter or extricate.

The Power of Collective Conformative Development – This final dynamic, as with its psychological counterpart, is, likewise, “the most unrecognized factor, and yet is the most powerful…”  If we are going to fully grasp the sociological power of Tradition, we must understand this final factor.

As a group forms and develops with traditions built into its foundational structures and interwoven into its ongoing life, every aspect of the group’s existence and expression begins to take its contour from the shape of the traditions it embraces.  Built upon and around the core of its established beliefs and practices, a complex matrix of social interactions, activities, experiences, expectations, goals, protocols, taboos, values, habits, ideas, ambitions, visions, philosophies, organizational structures, leadership dynamics, physical assets, public images and reputations, and the like, begins to form and develop.  This “conformative matrix” takes its shape from the “formative core” of the traditions it is built upon and around.  The more that time goes on, the more established and complex this matrix becomes.

As with the psychological process of “conformative development” within the individual soul, the sociological process has the same effect within the “collective soul”.  Once the surrounding matrix is established, it in turn “locks in” the “shape” of that which it is formed according to.  If an attempt is made later on to change some aspect of the “formative core”, it is most difficult, if not impossible, for it pulls and strains against the “conformative matrix” that surrounds it and ever wants to keep its original shape.  If change is forced, there are usually tears in the encircling enmeshment which have significant consequences for the unity and harmony of the entire social construct.

This is the nature of how social groups and institutions of all kinds form and develop, and it is all but inevitable that they follow this progression.  It is imperative, then, that the utmost consideration be given to the foundational principles and practices that a group is founded upon, so that they serve the group well for its intended purpose, various stages of development and full lifespan.  It is also wise to consider this final factor when considering the nature and cost of change to an established group when it comes to addressing well-established fundamental beliefs and practices.  There is much more involved, and the cost is much greater than that which may initially appear.

This final factor completes Tradition’s “tour de force” in its sociological power to shape the “collective soul”.

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All of these eight factors which come to bear upon both upon the individual and the “collective soul”, begin to give us a handle on the psychological and sociological power of Tradition.  Taken together, with all of their synergistic energy and interplay, they are truly an indomitable force in “influencing the human soul and shaping human society!”

In the final two posts of this series, we will look at the place and power of Tradition as it relates to the end-time matters of apostasy and restoration in the Church.  There may be no greater factor involved in both of these processes than this complex matter of Tradition. I look forward to sharing with you along that line shortly!

Next: Tradition, Scripture and the Church – Pt. 4: “Tradition and Apostasy”

Prior in series:
Tradition, Scripture and the Church – Pt. 1: “Tradition and Scripture”
Tradition, Scripture and the Church – Pt. 2: “The Psychological Power of Tradition”

Related: “The Calf Path” – by Sam Walter Foss (A pre-series post)


About David

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

  1. errollmulder says:

    Thanks again David for doing the hard work for many of us and providing a ‘handle’ on what is obviously a pretty complex issue. Looking forward to your final post!


    • David Bolton says:

      Thank you, Erroll. I know these posts are a bit of a challenge to get through, but I hope that they are worth the time and effort. It is such a crucial area for us to get a “handle” on. I pray the final post pulls it all together and gives us some clearer vision for the path ahead!
      Thanks, my faithful brother!


  2. john morris says:

    David, I also thank you for all you effort here. The Lord has given you an ability to break down a complex issue in a way that makes it understandable, even to one who would normally not venture into areas such as these.
    I look forward to the next post, thank you again. JM.


  3. Pingback: A hagyomány szociológiai ereje – David Bolton | keskeny út – narrow way

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