The composer Gustav Mahler said it all, when he put it like this.
It’s a pretty saying, but it wasn’t clear what it meant to me for quite some time.
Tradition as a Limitation
When you’re young, tradition seems primarily there to constrain and limit. You hear things like, “it’s always been done this way”. That is a very weak defense of a practice, which anyone can see. It isn’t a reason at all, it’s a habit.
And yet, while it’s just a habit, there is such a thing as a good habit! Some parts of our institutions are like a historical thread of tradition that runs through, that gives a culture it’s “heft” or feeling.
Contemporary arguments in favor of tradition are extremely weak, and yet we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. So how is Mahler’s quote helping us untangle this?
Two Elements of Tradition
Let’s think about tradition as being a collection of practices inherited through time, both profound and mundane. We might then divide these practices into two categories, the foundational, and the incidental.
Foundational practices are those tied to the meaning and identity of an organization. A volume of sacred law on an altar is a foundational practice in Freemasonry as it speaks to the institution’s core identity. The 25 landmarks of Freemasonry are the best basic list of foundational elements.
Incidental practices are customs adopted at a particular time for pragmatic reasons, which become habit. For example, in the United States many jurisdictions have a very particular order of presentation for the elements of a stated meeting, and sometimes require specific wording for portions of it. A particular set of words in a particular order might be thought of as an incidental practice. Why? Because it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and we still recognize all of those jurisdictions as having the same essence.
The Endless Conflict
Debates about tradition seem to frequently boil down to either being for it, or being against it in favor of innovation. Those who are in favor of tradition will argue that change causes loss of identity. Those who are in favor of innovation will point to changing needs and preferences, and the need for Freemasonry to stay relevant and speak to men of today.
Naturally, they’re both right. What’s missing is a distinction between the foundational practices, and the incidental practices. Or, as Mahler would put it, the difference between the fire and the ashes.
This debate will never, ever end as long as there are human beings on Earth, for two reasons:
- The world will never stop changing, so there will always be a reason and need to adapt and change
- The “good habits” and foundational practices are timeless, and won’t stop being good ideas in another 20 years.
Imagine this scenario: a young brother wants to raise a discussion in lodge about something he’d like to see changed. What if, instead of debating the merits of the change, the lodge used it as a jumping off point to talk about what is foundational to them about Freemasonry?
I believe that brothers advocating for change can recognize the necessity of not compromising the core of the institution. And I also believe that traditionalists can see the need for change. It’s about first building consensus on what’s important and how we’ll guard it. Then we can approach what to do about incidental changes with open minds & hearts.
We cannot preserve the flame without knowing the difference between it, and the ashes.