Tradition and Change

One of the biggest tensions that I feel in the Church (and elsewhere, really) is between tradition and change (I was tempted to use progression partially because “tradition” and “progression” sound nice together, but also showing my bias toward change. I decided against that because I’m not necessarily confident that changes are inherently progressive, some changes may be in some view traditional and therefore sort of progressive while being regressive in some sense of the word, and wanted to give fuller weight to the value of “tradition”). This isn’t a tension that I feel much in my own spiritual life, in the sense that I’m not overly tied to tradition and have felt fairly comfortable in how I’ve navigated the balance of tradition and change.

However, within the Church as a whole, I think this is a large struggle (and again, from my experience and understanding this is true of most if not all organizations). I was struck by how this tension played out in Novitiate (the first film I saw at Sundance this year), about novitiate nuns as Vatican II is happening and then being implemented in convents around the world. I’ve heard vaguely about Vatican II, but always in positive terms about the Catholic Church opening up and modernizing and reaching more people. The film did a fantastic job of adding some nuance to that (talking about some portions of Vatican II that I hadn’t heard of) and a human element to the struggle of change in religious contexts.

It’s probably no surprise that there are a number of changes I’d love to see in Mormonism (particularly relating to LGBTQIA members) and I’ve often wondered what the impact on Mormonism would be if such changes were made tomorrow. Given the faith and trust that more traditional members have in Church leadership (speaking in broad generalities obviously), would that outweigh the cognitive dissonance of something that has been preached against for so long becoming accepted? Novitiate provided a human face to some of that struggle in a way that helped me to sympathize with those that hold fast to tradition.

Tradition can lend stability to an organization. It also helps build a culture and create a sense of shared identity, which is powerful and useful for a religion (and most other groups or organizations). People can also have strong spiritual experiences linked with traditions and aspects of belief that others may feel the need to change. I frequently hear testimonies or other expressions of belief that are linked with aspects of Mormonism that don’t resonate with me and I’d be totally ok changing. For those in such a position, change can be as much a threat to their faith and belief as the lack of it may be to others.

Also, changes can sometimes have negative consequences. Perhaps these are better in the long run and inevitable, but it would be short-sighted and dishonest to suggest that all changes at all times are good.

So what’s the best course of action? Do you stick with tradition because that’s the more familiar and known path? Or do you strive to make changes, hoping to improve and perfect what is there? I’m partial to seeking change and working to improve, but there’s a lot of ways that change can go and there’s a particular path or two that I think is best. Yet, I’m reminded as I’m writing this of some discussion I saw online last year about a post from By Common Consent that was a list of changes that the author would like to see in the Church. The discussion was fierce and heated, with some suggestion that this individual was trying to counsel God (via the Lord’s anointed) and that we should simply embrace what we have.

I’m not proposing specific changes to the Church, rather suggesting that I think an openness to change and adaptation is useful and beneficial for most organizations. However, I believe that we, as Mormons, have a particular obligation to seek change in that we believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God. I mean, we know that we’re not perfect yet and that there’s room to improve as people, so why not as institutions? The Church has changed loads historically and we believe that all those iterations are true, so why not keep on changing?

Change should happen thoughtfully with respect for tradition and not occur just for change’s sake, but I think that tension should be used to push tradition in new and exciting ways. To change and evolve, to progress closer to God as individuals and as an organization.

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2 thoughts on “Tradition and Change

  1. But how to advocate for that change without making orthodox church members feel hurt or defensive? That’s the rub, I feel. I want to encourage certain openings in the LDS Church, but the simple mention of some topics can bring a whole Sunday School class on top of my head. And a protest like the Women’s March in downtown Salt Lake will hardly make change more likely. I simply don’t know on that one.

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    1. This is indeed the rub. And a piece of my weekly struggle at Church in knowing what and/or how to say things. I think it’s a long, slow process and that much of the work probably happens outside of Sunday School in more informal and intimate and less-defensive settings. But, perhaps not. I think I’ve been able to largely encourage openings or at least the possibility of openings in ways that haven’t been viscerally rejected. Though perhaps that’s due to such subtlety that the message is ignored or missed by practically everyone or avoiding certain particularly charged issues. I’m not sure. It’s something I’ve thought loads about and haven’t really come to neat conclusions with. So the thinking continues.

      Though this is definitely a conversation worth having and continuing. Even with my uncertainty about ways forward.

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