Tradition refers to all those beliefs and practices that are passed down from one generation to the next. Traditions such as holidays and social norms can survive and evolve for hundreds or even thousands of years. As Gailey (1989, p. 143) pointed out, tradition encompasses objects, values, linguistic patterns, monuments, buildings, practices, institutions, depictions of people, books, machines, sculptures and tools. From a purely sociological perspective, traditions play a key role in promoting social cohesion. As reported by Gräb & Charbonnier (2014, p. 136), the modern missionary movement in Africa has brought together many hostile, tribal communities whose relations been adversely affected by European Colonialism. By converting entire communities to Christianity, missionaries used Christian rituals and traditions as tools to promote peace and unity.
Comparing two short stories revolving around tradition and heritage, Burkhardt (2000) observes that as an abstract and broad term, tradition can be interpreted in many different ways. If we look back in history, we will find that tradition and human civilization tend to go hand in hand: family gatherings and special feasts are only some of the many rituals that give meaning and power to apparently insignificant aspects of our daily lives (Williams, n.d.).

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In today’s increasingly heterogeneous, multicultural and polarized world, tradition is often accused of preventing mankind from looking forward and exploring new possibilities (Horn, 2010). With celebrities and high-profile figures constantly criticizing “useless” customs and beliefs, it is no wonder that many people across the world are starting to challenge old traditions in an attempt to reclaim their freedom. So is it correct to assume that tradition and freedom are completely incompatible? As Doctor Mark Cooray (1985) pointed out, tradition is something that nobody can escape: some people live in restrictive contexts where they have to comply with certain traditions, while other people have the luxury of choosing the traditions that they like most. It is important to keep in mind that even those who dislike all traditions and decide to live their lives according to their own rules will never be able to free themselves from tradition. After all, if societies had never embraced the liberal tradition of letting their members choose between traditions, nobody would be able to reject established customs and beliefs. As Horn (2010) noted, whether we like it or not, traditions are always with us, so it is better to understand what they are and how they influence us instead of simply criticizing and rejecting them.

Thanks to their ability to guide us and bind us, traditions act as a compass for all of our social interactions and daily endeavors. As human beings, we are required to make many critical decisions on a daily basis. We must decide whether to study or waste our time playing videogames or going out with our friends every day; we are expected to commit to a specific profession and prepare ourselves in order to be able to do our job; when we are older, we must decide whether we want to start a family and with whom. Those who have learned to listen to their conscience will find it relatively easy to make all the right decisions that will eventually allow them to achieve their goals. However, being human beings imperfect by nature, it is perfectly natural for each one of us to feel lost and confused sooner or later. It is in particularly difficult situations that we learn to appreciate the positive contribution that traditions can make to our lives. In a certain way, turning to tradition for answers is like asking an old, experienced man for advice: they both carry valuable knowledge and wisdom that can be applied to a wide range of different situations, regardless of where we are.

Despite being 2000 years old, the New Testament – as well as the entire Bible – is still used by billions of people across the world as a source of inspiration, motivation and knowledge. While many of the customs described by Jesus’ followers have no place in modern society, the New Testament is primarily appreciated for its absolute and universal truths which have been guiding mankind for thousands of years. In today’s multi-traditional society, we face the same challenges that our ancestors faced before us. When Jesus began preaching, many of the truths he revealed were incompatible with the traditions that Jews had been following before him. Two verses by Matthew should help us gain a better understanding of how important it is for us to decide what traditions are worth following and what customs should be abandoned (the verses have been paraphrased for intelligibility’s purposes):

Matthew 15:2-6 – Why do your followers transgress the tradition passed down by the elders? (Referring to the fact that the disciplines failed to wash their hands before eating bread) (The Holy Bible, King James Version, 1999).

Matthew 15:3 – He answered and asked them “Why do you violate God’s commands in the name of your tradition?” (The Holy Bible, King James Version, 1999).

Over the centuries, many thinkers have wondered how human beings should use private judgement when choosing between various rituals and traditions described in the Bible. A 1843 manual titled “How shall I understand the Bible?” (D.A.B., 1843) clearly states that the Scriptures contain certain non-essential rites (e.g. the kiss of peace) whose variable nature makes it difficult for Catholics to determine if and in what manner they should be performed. In 1914, Arnold (1914) wondered whether Christian ministries should focus exclusively on traditions and do their best to serve God by teaching them as effectively as possible, or leave tradition on one side and pay attention to the current needs of society.

As useless and insignificant as traditions may seem, nobody will deny that they represent a crucial aspect of every culture and have played a key role in laying the foundations of human society. Traditions are a constant reminder that we are part of something greater than us, and it is that awareness that connects us and keeps us together, regardless of our differences. Contrary to what many believe, tradition reinforces values such as freedom, diversity and altruism by encouraging us to appreciate what we have and do our part to preserve it (Sonnenberg, 2015). Another advantage of tradition is that it makes people respectful of their heritage and culture, thus enabling them to develop a strong identity which will help them overcome whatever obstacles they may encounter, without ever feeling lonely. Last but not least, tradition supplies us with a set of universal principles and concepts which minimize our exposure to potentially harmful theories concerning the origins, role and future of mankind. As explained by Bachika (2002, p. 4), religion and tradition have contributed to making people more spiritual, giving them rules and principles that have assisted them in confronting all kinds of issues in their everyday lives. However, in today’s globalized world, growing mobility and interconnectedness are threatening both religion and tradition, which is why it is crucial that people should be made aware of the key role that ancient knowledge and customs have played in the evolution of mankind (Bachika, 2002, p. 4).

In conclusion, tradition may be defined as a collection of lessons, beliefs, rituals, customs and practices that have been passed down to us in order to offer us guidance and assistance and prevent us from losing ourselves in an increasingly complex and challenging world.

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  • Gailey, A. (1989). The Nature of Tradition. Folklore, Vol. 100, No. 2, pp. 143-161.
  • Gräb, W. & Charbonnier, L. (2014). The Impact of Religion on Social Cohesion, Social Capital Formation and Social Development in Different Cultural Contexts. Zurich, Switzerland: LIT Verlag Münster.
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  • The Holy Bible, King James Version (1999). New York: American Bible Society.
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