Why Tradition Matters

by Ilia Delio

The death of Pope Benedict XVI was a significant turning point in the Catholic Church. The Vatican’s watchdog of the magisterium was a medieval scholar, a noteworthy theologian who, in the 1960s, was considered a theological vanguard. In his later years, however, Benedict established walls that did not allow the aims of the Second Vatican Council to adequately develop.  His preoccupation with the tradition and his staunch defense of Christian doctrine effectively set him in opposition to the postmodern, scientific and technological culture.  His skepticism of the modern age was at odds with Pope Francis and his social-economic reform through a new, ecological framework. For Benedict, the High Middle Ages were the “best of all times” and the challenge was and remains, among Conservative Catholics, how to reclaim the medieval worldview.

Pope Benedict has been labeled a “traditionalist,” in contrast to Pope Francis, who is identified as a “progressive.” These terms, however, can be misleading, as if a progressive thinker does not value tradition.  A traditionalist is, in the broadest sense, one who upholds or maintains tradition. Anyone who celebrates feasts such Christmas and Hanukkah is, in some way, a traditionalist, in so far as one practices and celebrates the rituals and traditions of these feasts. Traditionalism can become problematic, however, when tradition is used to resist change, as if new ideas might dispel or eliminate precious elements of the tradition. When tradition becomes a retaining wall to defend one’s position, then the “-ism” can lead to a schism.  Hence, there is healthy traditionalism and unhealthy traditionalism, and both are present in religious institutions today. A healthy traditionalism means engaging the tradition as a vital way of life, in which a tradition can enrich culture, and, in turn, be challenged by culture to evaluate its core values. An unhealthy traditionalism can create opposition by refusing to engage culture in a mutually beneficial manner. In this respect, tradition can become like a giant rock, unable to budge, blocking the view of new life.

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 conserving the past, it is more than retaining the past; rather, it is the continual presence of a spirit and of a moral attitude. Yves Congar described tradition as a “spontaneous assimilation of the past in understanding the present, without a break in the continuity of a society’s life, 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 the tradition strives to maintain. Cicero once claimed that tradition is like a second nature, that is, tradition is integral to identity. Many ethnic groups still retain their traditions, although younger ethnic generations are completely assimilated to postmodern culture. Identity formed by tradition means construing the tradition as a framework in which one understands oneself, one’s social and natural world, and one’s place in it.

Tradition is the living out of a set of acceptable norms and doctrines. 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. Identity is inherent to tradition and which tradition strives to maintain. The act of ritual and celebration is formative of identity. Traditions give rise to cultures because they give rise to meaningful lives. Those who partake of a tradition bear witness to its particular meaning. It is they to whom the future of the tradition is entrusted, insofar as they remain faithful to its identity.  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.

It is unfortunate that traditional customs have become commodities in our own time. Walk into any store in late October and one can find Christmas trees and nativity scenes on sale. Our consumer society has thinned out tradition by turning symbolic rituals into consumer products. In his provocative work, The Analogical Imagination, David Tracy confronts the reader with a challenging question: “In a culture of pluralism must each religious tradition finally either dissolve into some lowest common denominator or accept a marginal existence as one interesting but purely private option?” This is what Pope Benedict feared. Must the Christian tradition either dissolve into some lowest common denominator or accept a marginal existence as one interesting but private option?

I consider myself a traditionalist, in so far as I deeply value the Christian tradition, while remaining open to understanding its core values in new ways. The beauty of the Christian tradition informs my entire life: what I am, what I do and how I choose to act.  What distinguishes my work is not negation of tradition but how I understand Christianity as a “living” tradition, an organic and evolving one. The vitality of a tradition is its ability to change, while retaining core values.  Just as a human person grows into the fullness of one’s identity, so too with religious traditions. While each tradition has its own “genetic code,” the features of the tradition mature through the lived experience.  It is only with growth and development that traditions can reveal their unique beauty.  A human person grows into one’s own identity by feeding the mind and soul.  Similarly, a tradition grows by developing insights that redound on its core values in order to live out those values in vital ways.

What stimulates the Christian tradition to grow today?  This is a question that divides the so-called “traditionalists” from the “progressives.”  Traditionalists want to preserve the past in its pristine form, while progressives seek to live out traditional values in ways that open them up to new meanings.  I suppose in this respect, I am a progressive traditionalist. So too was Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.  He was well-informed about the new philosophy of his day and acquainted himself with the commentaries of the Islamic philosophers. Thomas Aquinas was, what we might call, a “cutting-edge” thinker.  He was constantly thinking through the boundaries of the Christian tradition in light of science and culture.

Delwin Brown states that traditions are creative when they maintain a dynamic interface between culture and canon, that is, the established body of writings. 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. Tradition is canon lived—the negotiation of corporate and personal identities within canonical space.

The vitality and creativity of spiritual traditions is what makes religion, in the broadest sense, meaningful.  Teilhard de Chardin did not see himself outside the Christian tradition but one who was faithful to it.  He identified himself as an heir to the early Christian writers, especially the Greek theologians, whose cosmic outlook shaped a vibrant cosmic Christology. His notion of tradition was one that could organically develop in ways that its core values could illuminate culture and not be suppressed by it. For example, writing on the need to revise the doctrine of Christ in light of evolution, he wrote “what we now have to do without delay is to modify the position occupied by the central core of Christianity–and this precisely in order that it may not lose its illuminative value.”  For a tradition to be healthy and vital, it must be able to freely grow without losing its core values.  Only that which can grow and change has eternal value.

The core values of religious traditions, like cultural traditions, are becoming irrelevant in our algorithmic, internet world. With a sea of information at our fingertips, many people disregard the organicity of tradition for a smorgasbord of practices or beliefs, ideas gleaned from the internet, like cherries, and throw them into a basket of “likes” and “dislikes.”  Religious syncretism (the amalgamation of different religious cultures, ideas or practices) has been around for quite some time, but it seems to be growing with the internet, as one “jet skis” across websites for individual soul-building. The flattening out of religious traditions, turning deep-rooted values into sentimental ornaments or mere family gatherings, goes hand in hand with the flattening out of the human person.  In his famous article “Is Google making us stupid?” social critic Nicholas Carr lamented that we are becoming like pancake people, spread wide and flat, and mentally thin. When the computer takes charge of the human brain, we lose our ability to think and reflect and thus our capacity to imagine and create. Without creativity and imagination, we lose what is distinctly human. Without an organic rootedness in the past, an historical transcendence, so to speak, we cannot adequately grow into the future.

The Center for Christogenesis is committed to nurturing the Christian tradition as an living tree of life, rooted in the beginning of the universe and nurturing life into its future fullness.  We are not interested to hold on to the past but to cherish the past while engaging the future.  In an unfinished universe, where God is ever new, tradition must acquire new meaning of core values, if it is to continue to shape our lives. We need traditions today, as never before, because they provide road signs and symbols on how to direct the energies of our lives.  Teilhard was keen on this idea.  Not every invention or scientific development is good, he thought.  One must discern the insights of science and technology which can enhance human activity and evolution toward Omega. In his view, Christianity is not normative of religion but normative of evolution, a roadmap in an expanding universe. Valuing tradition is important today, to shape our development toward that which is most important to us, what we really cherish, and what makes fully human and alive.

View print-friendly version View print-friendly version
Posted in


  1. 4jjlakaaj on February 13, 2023 at 4:22 pm

    I need to add another addendum. I knew of Ken Wilber before I became acquainted with Ilia’s work. Ken who had read some of Tielhard’s work, appreciated and mentioned his contribution as he did with the writings of multiple renowned gifted pillars who each wrote from their perspectives in their field in their time.

    Because Ken appears, like many of our gifted writers, to be an avid student with a photographic memory is one thing in itself, but for Ken, over a period of time he saw a map forming. His book “Up from Eden” is incredible. I do not embrace all of his consciousness theories, but I do believe that whatever your spiritual experience is, your state of interpreting that experience tends to be grounded in one’s stage of awareness at that point in time. We can always reflect on our earlier perceptions. He says having a map isn’t the same as knowing the territory itself, but it’s good for getting out of one’s own “jail”. While I agree with the concept, what I believe is that without capturing the essence of each writer, without the more personal back drop of the actual path of the writer it’s difficult to experience a true visceral connection. When I first retired, I googled many of the writers whom he had drawn from in their respective various fields. It was incredibly enriching especially in light of each of their historical personal backdrops.

    Ken did not inherit a spirit based faith through his childhood formation, which even with our more primitive understanding of the Trinity back then, we had the daily Mass, preparing for the sacraments, doing penance, the Sisters and priests, our parents, their novenas, daily rosary, blessed water receptacles in each bedroom, gathering around the advent wreath each night, Ash Wednesday, fasting, giving up candy for Lent, the visiting missionary priests and their rigidity of faith.

    My adopted Mother who was a private, stoic, God fearing woman who offered her trials up daily for the poor souls in purgatory, and had been through some very painful times even sighed heavily each time she was told by those punitive men how wives were subservient to their husbands. It was so hot in the church that one woman fainted right out of her pew during the Gospel. Of course it was Mass, so they just propped her back into a sitting position in her pew. No one brought her water, as I said, it was during Mass! I was just a kid wedged with my brother between parents who also felt bad for her, but not enough to spare her from this visiting missionary priest who continued to reduce all of us to horrid sinners. However most of all we grew up each year with marking Holy Thursday with the washing of the feet (my favorite ritual for knowing Jesus the Christ) Good Friday, and the existential pall accompanying this day, the vigil of Holy Saturday and then the glory and resurrecting joy of Eastern Sunday. We often don’t appreciate how that indelibly shaped us, yeah we had lots of hiccups along the way, especially when we understood we didn’t have to pray for our poor Methodist friends anymore, which turned into resentment that we were even taught that we had an “Edge” for simply being born Catholic and began to understand the ongoing narrow upholding of the Petrine dogma that continues today. What I value most though is the Churches global call for justice. Finally we get over ourselves and our collective unintended lack of awareness and let go of what we can’t change and work for more unity.

    Back to Ken, he had lost his interest and desire for becoming what he and family had planned. He was called to go deeper and deeper into the well. He became reclusive and worked as a dishwasher, lived with a girlfriend and together they combined money for food and rent. He did this so he could study and write and like many at that time with or without whatever formation they had, they leaned heavily into Hinduism and Buddhism and he spent many hours a day in meditation. His gifted mind was able to organize his knowledge base in the now widely known quadrant theory.

    When I heard of Ilia and attended one of her presentations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I was enthralled, and have been ever since. Her faith background, her hunger and gifted mind has been able to bring Tielhard de Chardin alive. Through her we could walk together with him through his faith formation which carried the Divine Revalation of Christ Omega. I was 20 years old in 1968, and a Presbyterian college (Buena Vista) in Storm Lake Iowa was teaching Tielhard’s The Phenomenon of Man. A dear friend of mine who was attending shared Tielhard’s writing with me. He had no religious formation and was there with an athletic scholarship. He was captivated and had many questions for me. He tried to examine my cognitive reasoning for “just knowing” I firmly held my ground and then he started sharing parts of the book with me. His mind was sharper than mine, but he finally accepted my faith as my faith. His skepticism was shifting though and The Phenomenon of Man was the only book he kept after graduating from BV. I then years later read the book myself and now I share Ilia’s postings with him and and also John Haughey, SJ before he died in 2019

    Sadly, since it was only 1968, the Catholic Church was still rejecting Tielhard. In my journey with Ilia’s work, I have experience true moments of transmission into the presence of Christ in all, always has been, always will Be. This has enhanced and enriched all of my reading, including Ken’s and Raimon Pannikkar’s . It has helped me with a deepening understanding of Transcend and Include. I am presently now reading Ilia’s book Making All Things New which fully addresses Catholicity, Cosmology, and CONSCIOUSNESS. Better late than never.

    Due to my husbands health and my own we are unable to attend conferences, but I am genuinely grateful for all we can do to be a part of the community you all have created.

  2. 4jjlakaaj on February 3, 2023 at 5:11 pm

    Tielhard De Chardin was not only a paleontologist, but he knew in his own ‘bones’ the mystical depth of God’s Divine Love was far broader than the official Church was taking us, yet he didn’t drop his traditionalist Jesuit faith. He understood there were many stages of understanding and his awareness and understanding of science as part of the Whole was not just cognitive. I think we can get tripped up here, though Ilia has certainly been doing everything she can along with Panikkar, Rohr, and many many others to help us grasp that understanding Evolutionary Christogenesis includes cognitive critical thinking, but in doing so also Transcends and INCLUDES Traditional views. Just like the spiritual gift of Understanding transcends and includes our understanding of the presence of or lack of presence of development itself. It is healthy to embrace challenging concepts, however this also lies within our values system. Big money doesn’t seem to advocate critical thinking in our educational systems. Nor does it seem to have difficulty with not addressing our cognitive dissonance and the idea of alternative truths.

    In spite of this, we should not fear, no matter our perspectives, that we are ever separate from God’s Divine Love, however we need to wake up and recognize we are a part of a global family and make time to let that resonate. Many of us have felt called to seek what others appear to grasp more readily. I’m certainly not comparing my understanding to the level of those people I seek to follow, but I certainly am aware of my inner intuitive ahh, when truth suddenly opens my heart to awe because my soul has resonated with their words, therefore with our collective soul.

    When I share what I learn and who my spiritual teachers are I sometime get, Oh she goes so deep, I get lost, so I introduce them to YouTube presentations, Like Buddha at the Gas Pump with Ilia where you get to listen to dialogue questions and responses. There are many more opportunities on YouTube besides some of Ilia’s, like Raimon Panikkar, also Richard Rohr, his last one is a favorite. Ilia’s focus has been on helping us grasp the Absolute Love that holds not only Popes, but all of us, especially those without the freedom of receiving human decency. She emphasizes our relationship with our Mother Earth, how the energy of matter is a constant we have always shared.

    When I speak of unity, I am not talking about identity with something or someone. I have found it very helpful to study Robert Kegan’s subjective/objective theory. Ken Wilber has a YouTube video “ Ken Wilber – Subject becomes object” that helps, that in my opinion helps develop Kegan’s understanding of stage development. It can be a vey helpful tool in aiding us to not become discouraged with our brain chatter during meditation eg practicing the letting go of kenosis. It reinforces our need for presence and openness, in contrast to our individual attachment to our egoic identity.

    Unity requires us to open our hearts and minds to the human condition in all of manifestation, yes that includes deep suffering, so yes that demands humility, trust and faith. Asking for the gift of forbearance and the courage to practice mercy while advocating for spiritual growth in all situations has always been our calling and purpose, to awaken to our eternal belonging in God.

  3. astralstar17572 on February 2, 2023 at 7:53 am

    Try as I might, I felt nothing but a generalized relief at Pope Benedict’s death. He was a child of God with all the wonders and flaws that entails. Yet he was entrusted with a mighty job to do and in my very humble, and admittedly biased view he failed. We must have younger blood(50, 60?)who might be cognizant of newer thinking! I realize however that age does not guarantee critical thinking. Enough on that.

    As for Google, religious syncretism, and the feeding of the Axis Mundi,(the Tree of Life),ever since we evolved we have been fostering these paths!

    As we moved from deep Central Africa, our seat of Maternal DNA, we began our process of syncretism. Evolving our faith. Sharing it along trade routes, smoke signals, drums, all early “surfing”. People were exposed to differences through violence, sharing, migration as well as other means. A choice was mandatory do I believe or not? Does it allow survival? Does it fit with what I am seeing around me?
    People needed to think. Syncretism grew our religions. Judaism grew from many of the older religions of the region. The African religions were monotheistic in the early BCEs and one syncretism is seeing Christianity and the Yoruba religion coming to comingle and maintain rich traditions of both religions.

    I believe the ” devil” is not Google(or any social media(per se) but the inability to critically think and contribute to the depth and breadth needed to our Tree, our Center, our Axis Mundi. Not to create a horror but what if all comes out sounding and being called something other than Christianity? Our Tree must be one which maintains many roots or traditions in the face of rapidly changing science, technology, values etc. People must learn to Critically Think.

  4. Carol Dworkowski on February 2, 2023 at 5:02 am

    Tradition would lose its required “place” without institutional protection.
    However, institutions tend to value stability over mercy and justice. The Latin/Western Church(es) in particular seem to have a problem with the Holy Spirit, the Trinity’s Wild Child who, like the wind that blows where it will and the wildfire that clears the dead and dying to make way for new growth.

    The Holy Spirit is never revealed as becoming angered in the Scriptures. The Spirit comforts and guides, never punishes.

    The Indwelling Spirit can be, and often is, quenched and/or grieved. The Spirit is the most vulnerable to the affects of manipulation and aggression by the untamed human ego when it chooses to “selfishly” serve the self instead of the soul.

    In popular Catholic spirituality Mary often takes the place of the Holy Spirit (Mariolatry) as Comforter, while in Protestant spirituality it is the Bible and subjective interpretation (Bibliolatry) that provides both psychological comfort and moral guidance.

    “The institutions of Churchianity are not Christianity. An institution is a good thing if it is second; immediately an institution recognizes itself it becomes the dominating factor.”
    — Oswald Chambers

    Institutions are a strange mix of the mass and the individual. They abstract. They behave according to a set of rules that substitute both for individual judgments and for the emotional responses that occur whenever individuals interact. The act of creating an institution dehumanizes it, creates an arbitrary barrier between individuals.
    Yet institutions are human as well. They reflect the cumulative personalities of those within them, especially their leadership. They tend, unfortunately, to mirror less admirable human traits, developing and protecting self-interest and even ambition. Institutions almost never sacrifice. Since they live by rules, they lack spontaneity. They try to order chaos not in the way an artist or scientist does, through a defining vision that creates structure and discipline, but by closing off and isolating themselves from that which does not fit. They become bureaucratic.
    The best institutions avoid the worst aspects of bureaucracy in two ways. Some are not really institutions at all. They are simply a loose confederation of individuals, each of whom remains largely a free agent whose achievements are independent of the institution but who also shares and benefits from association with others. In these cases the institution simply provides an infrastructure that supports the individual, allowing him or her to flourish so that the whole often exceeds the sum of the parts.
    John M. Barry, THE GREAT INFLUENZA: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

  5. Desmond on February 1, 2023 at 11:08 am

    I read this as the Preface of a new volume. I can’t wait for the publication date. Thank you Ilya. Stay well.

  6. Barbara Ciaramella on January 28, 2023 at 1:46 pm

    The points in your essay are fair enough. But, to describe the death of Pope Benedict as a “turning point” reads as “Middle Age thinking is finally behind us, and we are now in a position to be modern, scientific, and technological – which is the right way to believe these days.”

    With due respect, I find this to be unkind and judgmental of one who had strengths and weaknesses as does every child of God. Besides, while modernism is good in many ways, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical of some of its properties.

    You are preaching a new orthodoxy, whereas Jesus preached a new orthopraxy. Please consider if characterizing the death of a person as a turning point is consistent with that.

  7. Richard Gegenwarth on January 27, 2023 at 8:43 pm

    The unchangeability of tradition and dogma is a big problem. What has happened in the last 50 years with Near Death Experience, OBE and regression hypnosis needs to be acknowleged by the Church as it effects abortion, the repeated “resurrection” of the soul in a new body,etc., etc. The Church is staggering around with its eyes closed. E.g., ensoulment does not take place at conception, but much closer to birth.

  8. John R. (Jack) McDonald on January 27, 2023 at 3:19 pm

    A masterpiece; most especially in the last 3-6 paragraphs! “Christianity is not normative of religion but normative of evolution,” This is a powerful phrase and surely an essential guidepost to those valuing the creational/evoluntary gifts of intellect, will and the primacy of conscience in the deepest of human privileges – co-participations in our unfolding realities. Thank you !!

  9. Joe Masterleo on January 26, 2023 at 8:15 pm

    Tradition has its place, no doubt. Yet like Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee, past and future, tradition and innovation, can make uneasy bedfellows when it comes to laying claim on the sheets and mattress. A butterfly owes nothing to the creeping caterpillar it once was, or the sunless chrysalis it once inhabited. Having paid the supreme price for its beauty and freedom, like love, it now goes wherever it pleases, and pleases wherever it goes.


Related Posts

Hearts as temple

The Humility of God

This month I returned to my roots in Franciscan theology in order to write a book chapter on Early Franciscan mysticism.  I revisited the world of Francis of Assisi who was…

Embracing Connection: Wireless Signs and the Spirit of Togetherness

Trinity and Personhood

I have been teaching a graduate course on the Trinity this semester and it has impelled me to think anew about the Trinity and what the implications of the Trinity…

eternal glowing light in sky horizon, Spiritual divine power

Death Anxiety and the Cross

This week Christians around the world celebrate the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The death of Jesus was simply horrific, the worst of what humans can do to…