It was Chesterton who famously said, "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around." (Orthodoxy, 1908).
As a confirmed Anglophile and Christian, I have always had a soft-spot for quotations by really smart English Christian guys. So, I grant, that I'm not a difficult sell. Still, I find Chesterton's quote compelling because it tracks with something I have been experiencing lately.
Recently I have been aware of how much I am enjoying my family. My wife, my children--they just bring me so much joy. We are certainly not a perfect family, but our pronounced humanness notwithstanding, I love them. And they make my life far richer and more full than it would be without them.
Occasionally, I shudder to imagine my life without them. What it would it be like? What would I be like? To tell the truth, I don't really want to know, but it wouldn't be good.
Not only does my family make me happy, they make me better than I would otherwise be. I terrifies me to think that I might have missed out on this tremendous joy and the growth I've experienced.
Happily, I didn't miss out on this, because in the culture where I grew up, getting married was a tradition, part of the established pattern of society. I could not have known at the time I got married and started a family how happy it would make me--but I didn't have to know. I didn't have to know because my grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents did understand this. A tradition, a cultural more, was created based on the collective wisdom and experience of many people.
In my opinion, this is the value of tradition. It tells us things we may want to know, things we should know, but things we cannot personally know at the point the decision must be made.
Tradition provides the benefit of experience and wisdom to the inexperienced and unwise.
Tradition also provides perspective. For example, during a rough spell with a colicky baby, a new parent might question the wisdom of having a family. Fortunately, tradition provides perspective--a perspective that says, "Hang in there--at some point, this is going to be worth it and you'll be so glad you stuck with it."
Of course, some traditions may not be wise or relevant, and I am not arguing that we should blindly follow every tradition. Still, the older I get, and the more I learn, the more I realize that while the world has changed a great deal, human nature has not, and in our most elemental moments, I believe that we, today, are asking essentially the same questions our ancestors asked. Today we travel on interstates in cars, whereas our ancestors travelled on dirt roads in carts. But the fact that we travel faster does not change the destination, and the fact that we have paved over the paths they blazed might make us more, not less, beholden to their navigational skills.
So, I think it is foolish to dismiss traditions without giving them a careful examination, even, perhaps, the benefit of the doubt. I have found, and this is only the most recent example, that when I am careful and thoughtful, I can usually find the wisdom that inspired the tradition. But, and this is a HUGE but--this requires humility, something that those in the present usually don't possess. Instead, we tend to arrogate to ourselves unique circumstances and singular circumstances--our situation, we are sure, is different and we are wiser than our fathers and mothers were--or at least that our world is so different from theirs that they can have little of use to teach us.
This is the conceit of youth in every era, and I fear that our current culture has elevated this hubris to a civic virtue.
And yet...I look back to those I knew who lived guided by wisdom and traditions that had been passed on for generations. Are we truly that wiser than they? Have we solved difficult problems by severing our connection to the past? Are we more content, more grounded, more virtuous or more tranquil? If changing or shedding traditions has freed us in some ways, are we freer inside--are our souls truly more free, are we happier than our grandparents?