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For as long as humans have existed, tradition has powerfully shaped all of our cultures.
Nations, communities, families and individuals have reflexively given preference to the traditional practices, beliefs, and customs handed down from past generations. But the iron grip of tradition has begun to loosen.
Of course, everyone the world over has experienced social change—and social change has always happened throughout history. But its pace has accelerated during the past two or three centuries—and it seems to accelerate more and more every day.
If tradition cannot provide suitable responses and solutions for today’s world, then we need an alternative. The teachings of the Baha’i Faith suggest that our innate capacity for knowledge and creativity can empower humanity to consciously direct cultural change, guiding it towards a divine vision of human fulfillment and happiness.
But before going there it’s important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of simply living by the traditions of one’s own people. One of its biggest appeals is that it works. If a tradition was ineffective, it probably wouldn’t have been passed down from generation to generation. Through an unconscious process of trial and error, tradition gradually shapes and molds the minds of a people. Harsh reality will grind down any new invention in behavior or beliefs that doesn’t suit a people’s needs. If the results are favorable, then it gradually solidifies into common sense.
Tradition marches on—as long as it works. But at some point, it stops working. A change in the ecosystem might require new methods in agriculture. The introduction of new technology might require unfamiliar abilities and skills from its users. The spread of a new religion might instill new desires and aspirations unmet by the old ways of doing things. In such cases, the continuation of a long-standing custom might then become impossible. New ways of thought and action emerge. New traditions take the place of the old.
Every society changes. Traditions always disappear and give way to new ones. But a culture remains traditional so long as the scope of change in the span of a generation is relatively narrow. However, in our time the pace of change has become so great that cultures all around the world have reached a point of crisis. Not only have those new conditions called a wide range of traditions into question, but the prestige of tradition itself has diminished. This is the condition all humanity has been in for at least the past two centuries: industrialization, colonization, de-colonization, globalization, atheism, fundamentalism, endless churn and convulsion.
Karl Marx once said about the challenges facing Europe:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. - The Communist Manifesto.
If the behavior and beliefs of our ancestors can no longer guide us reliably, in even a general sense, then what principles and practices can confidently give us direction as individuals and as communities?
To be brief, we can’t let past generations do our thinking for us. We can’t assume that they could possibly take into account everything we see today. If we follow in their footsteps, it must be with open eyes and after thoughtful consideration—and if we don’t renew their traditions, we must rely on the God-given powers of knowledge and creativity to consciously chart a new direction. On this Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
God has given us eyes, that we may look about us at the world, and lay hold of whatsoever will further civilization and the arts of living. He has given us ears, that we may hear and profit by the wisdom of scholars and philosophers and arise to promote and practice it. Senses and faculties have been bestowed upon us, to be devoted to the service of the general good; so that we, distinguished above all other forms of life for perceptiveness and reason, should labor at all times and along all lines, whether the occasion be great or small, ordinary or extraordinary, until all mankind are safely gathered into the impregnable stronghold of knowledge. We should continually be establishing new bases for human happiness and creating and promoting new instrumentalities toward this end. - Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 3-4.
The capacity for innovation is integral to human nature—it distinguishes us from other forms of life on this planet. In the Baha’i teachings, true religion is the system of spiritual knowledge and action that can best refine that latent power.
In the second article in this series, we’ll explore the question: How can religion enhance the conscious evolution of culture?