The Future of Tradition

Q: How do we hold the value of Religion’s past yet create communities of deeper Spirituality.

Ilia DelioIlia: Our question for this week is a good one. Many people fear the loss of tradition or core values if they embrace new religious ideas. The conflict of tradition is how we understand and interpret it. Do we cling to the past to support us in the present? Or do we understand tradition as interpreting the past in light of the present?  Years ago, I sponsored a symposium on the Franciscan Intellectual tradition in which we engaged the questions of past and present. Often people think of Francis of Assisi as a poor itinerant follower of Christ (which he was) but he spawned a theological and philosophical tradition that became a major school of thought in the Middle Ages.   Much of my work today builds on Franciscan Christology. I became enamored of Bonaventure’s theology as a student and I have worked over the years to bring a vital Franciscan theology to our world. However, I don’t go around saying these things explicitly; I simply try to understand the tradition in light of contemporary science and culture. How do I interpret the past in light of the present?

First, it is important to understand what we mean by tradition.

The word “tradition” comes from the Latin traditio, the noun of the verb tradere meaning to transmit, to deliver. Used as a term of ratification in Roman law, the word tradere meant to hand over an object with the intention of parting with it on the one hand and of acquiring it on the other. A good simile would be that of a relay race where the runners, spaced at intervals, pass an object from one to the other, for example, a baton or torch. Although the word tradition implies conservatism, it is more than retaining the past; rather, it is the continual presence of a spirit.  Yves Congar described tradition as a “spontaneous assimilation of the past in understanding the present. . . and without considering the past as outmoded.” Perhaps we might say that tradition enables the continuity of values/ideas as the past yields to the present. What links one generation to another is the principle of identity, which is inherent to tradition and which tradition strives to maintain.  How do these set of core values express identity in the present?

Every authentic tradition has certain features. First, there is a core of fundamental values and beliefs that are particular to the tradition. Next, there are witnesses to the tradition, those in whom the set of beliefs have taken root and become visible in such a way that the tradition has formed a culture. Clifford Geertz states that cultures are socially established structures of meaning in which human actions gain their meanings. Traditions give rise to cultures because they give rise to meaningful lives. The recipients of a tradition are those who bear witness to its particular meaning. It is they to whom the future of the tradition is entrusted insofar as they remain faithful to the identity of the tradition. What makes a tradition a tradition, therefore, is the reception and transmission of a core set of values/beliefs that shape a particular culture in such a way that the self-identity of the tradition is maintained from past to present by those who bear witness to it. Delwin Brown states that traditions are creative insofar as they maintain a dynamic interface between culture and canon. Canons are reasonably defined “spaces,” bodies of material—texts, doctrines, symbols, rituals, or combinations of these—within which and with which the negotiation is conducted. A tradition that lives within canonical space can grow creatively as long as fidelity to the core of the tradition (that is, core values) is maintained. He writes:

The creativity of a tradition is the tensive character of the life lived within, and sometimes against, its boundaries. The viability of a tradition is the vastness of its collected resources, unified enough to sustain needed continuity and diverse enough to create something new for new times. The power of a tradition is the worth of its space, the productivity of its complementary and competing voices, as it progresses through the novelties of history. The dynamism of a tradition is its contestability and therefore its perpetual contest. The relevance of a tradition is its contemporaneity, what it brings to and receives from the discourse of truth in every age. But the life of a tradition, its vitality as a real way of being in the world, is the assumption of its resources as one’s own.

Canons (that is, normative beliefs or values) are the spaces within which adherents continuously and repeatedly negotiate who they are.Tradition is embodied canon. Negotiating identity in relationship to a canon means construing the core values as a framework in which one understands oneself, one’s social and natural world, and one’s place in it. Tradition can never be a dead letter of the law but must be the life-giving spirit of core values that contribute in every age to meaningful life. In order for core values to be life-giving, they must be negotiated in every age within a wider context of change. For example, does the doctrine of original sin still hold value in today’s world of modern biology and quantum physics?  Or are there new ways to understand the emergence of sin in the evolution of the human person?  This was a question that Teilhard de Chardin struggled with and which cost him his reputation and ability to publish his writings.

Tradition is not about the past but about the future. What values from the past enliven us in the present to create a new future?  In this respect, tradition is integral to religious identity, and today, identity is best interpreted in light of complex dynamical systems.  Here I borrow from the work of philosopher Alicia Juarrero who has written brilliantly on the significance of complex dynamical systems. Juaerrero begins by noting that the problem of identity is a problem of change.   Is it the same thing (as before)?–an ontological question. By what criteria do we tell if it is or isn’t?—an epistemological question. Questions of identity often suggest the presence of differences in time, that is, change.

In the ancient world the question of change was taken up by the Greek philosophers. Parmenides’ answer to the question “What makes something the same?”  His answer, “whatever persists unchanged throughout the changes”— became entrenched as western philosophy’s answer to the problem of identity.  Heraclitus’ ontology of process seemed incapable of handling the problem of identity: constant, relenting, pervasive change, as it seemed to imply no continuity whatsoever, was just too intractable. The problem of identity as permanence is captured by the question: “What makes something the same thing as it was before?” The second, the problem of identity as unity (amidst diversity), is captured by the question: “What makes those two things the same kind of thing?” The first question involves the philosophical problems of change and permanence, which in turn evolved into two other philosophical problems, those of substance and personal identity. The second question, which can arise independently of the observation of change, gave rise to the philosophical problem of universals, and historically evolved into the problem of individuation.

As heir to Parmenides, western philosophy has for the most part explained change as a function of substance, a substrate that sustains and underlies change. For any given thing, its substance was not thought to change; only its superficial (accidental) attributes did. By substance Aristotle meant primarily a concrete individual, but over the centuries the concept morphed into the concept of essence. A substance, in this view, is a nucleus of qualities that jointly embody the nature of the thing in question; a nucleus, moreover, capable of independent existence. If the object’s essential attributes were to change, the thing would no longer be that “type” of thing, much less that particular thing. So, the concept of substance as essence, a concept that can be traced to Plato’s theory of universal forms or ideas, was successful because of its claim to be able to answer both problems of identity. Because it also presupposes stable and immutable qualities, this way of looking at substance and identity got a boost from an ontology derived from Newtonian science that emphasized intrinsic qualities such as the atom’s mass. In this view only accidental qualities (such as temperature and color), which have to do with the object’s relations to other things, are subject to change. In short, the common thread that held this conceptual framework together was the belief that a thing’s identity is given by its substance, substance is that which is capable of independent existence, and only that with intrinsic unchanging properties can exist independently.

The coup de grace to the static concept of identity was given by Darwin. With the discovery of evolution, contemporary biology demonstrated that the notion of “essences” is illusory. There is simply no such thing as an organism’s “invariable nature,” unchanging immutable substance, or Platonic universal. Evolution is based on change and the openness of systems to change.  In the 20th century, new understandings of nature gave way to systems thinking, including chaos theory and emergence. The concepts of substance and essence were replaced by relationality and contextuality.  Essentially, Darwin put an end to Aristotelian philosophy.  How we understand this critical transition makes a difference on how we grasp the meaning of tradition.

Drawing from Juaerrero’s insights, dynamical systems are nonlinear systems open to the environment and can be affected by the environment. Complex dynamical systems are open to the environment so that sharp boundaries between the system and its environment are difficult, if not impossible, to draw.  Rather a system’s external relations are as critical to it as its internal ones. The environment and history of a dynamical system are also critical to its intrinsic attributes.  Because dynamical systems adapt and evolve, the concept of essence as a nucleus of intrinsic and immutable qualities cannot adequately address the system’s dynamical characteristic. In this respect, the problem of identity as permanence or sameness of a system does not hold. Rather, the identity of dynamical systems is based on unity and resilience; identity is integral to the system’s potential to qualitatively evolve, not just develop. Juarrero points out that autonomy and independence—the classical measures of identity—do not hold value in dynamical systems; autonomy and independence are seen as values associated only with dead, isolated things. Living organisms and their creations must instead be judged by their degree of resilience and thriving. Robust resilience, which in large measure is a function of connectivity and interdependence, plays a significant role in the dynamic integrity and flourishing of systems. With the advent of complex systems, therefore, the importance of interdependence replaces the former emphasis on autonomy—which now comes to be equated with isolation; and the importance of robust resilience replaces that of independence—which now comes to be associated with stasis and stagnation.[i]

Complex dynamical systems theory teaches that survival and extinction are a function of resilience, not stability. Stability, which consists of “low fluctuation around specific states” can be contrasted with resilience, the system’s ability to absorb perturbations and evolve into a metastable level of organization. A system that is very resilient can have very low stability—that is, it may fluctuate greatly—but survive. Conversely, a system with high stability may lack resilience such that any change or disturbance simply destroys the system. The more interconnected a system (both internally and externally), the more robust and resilient it will be.The integrity and identity of a complex system are therefore fundamentally related to its dynamical connectivity.  We can build on this idea and ask, what does a religious tradition look like in a world of complexity and globalization?   We might begin by asking if the core values of the tradition allow greater degrees of internal and external relations.  In dynamical systems, the more numerous (and diverse) qualities a process displays, the more uniquely individuated it is; that is, the richer its internal and external relations, the more individual and individuated—and the more resilient and robust—is the process.[ii]

The boundaries of complex dynamical systems are creative because they are the locus of evolutionary potential. Whereas the essentially unchanging furniture of the old conceptual framework was stagnant, the dynamic processes of the new framework are characterized by the potential to evolve into qualitatively new forms—not just develop into larger (but more of the same) systems. The paradoxical characteristics of permeable membranes—which both exclude some potential inputs (thereby maintaining system integrity) at the same time as they include others (thereby allowing for the possibility of dynamic transformation)—are thus ultimately responsible for both a system’s actual identity as well as its potential and actual evolution.

The identity of complex dynamical systems will therefore encompass not only what it currently is (given by its invariant relations) but also what it has the potential to become. Since openness to the environment (via feedback and feedforward) is crucial to evolutionary processes, the degree of permeability of a given system’s boundary—even as that same dynamical membrane or information closure confers the requisite robustness to maintain the system’s integrity—will be a central aspect of its identity as permanence.[iii]

I think if we can sit and reflect on tradition in light of complex dynamical systems, and bring these new insights into prayer, and allow the fruits of prayer to energize us for engagement with God’s loving presence in the world, then communities of deeper spirituality will creatively emerge.



[i]  Alicia Juarrero, “Dynamics in Action:  Intentional Behavior as a Complex System,”  Emergence 2(2) (2000):  24 – 57.

[ii]   Juarrero, “Dynamics in Action”

[iii]   Juarrero, “Dynamics in Action”



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