When we are thinking, we have two parts of our brain. We have the Neo-Cortex areas, which we will call ambassadors and the subcortical areas that we will call primitives.
The ambassadors of your brain are very smart. They are slow. They are deliberate. They are really expensive to run. They do the planning, predicting, organizing. They are doing the hard work of understanding, grasping, and making decisions. They are the parts that use logic and reason.
Now the primitives are a lot different. They are fast, memory based and very cheap to run. Primitives are entirely automated. There is no thinking that is going on here. Our brains are working 99% of the time off the primitives. We can’t be using the ambassadors that often because we would fry our brain cause they use so much energy.
When you first learn to ride a bike, ambassadors are in full gear learning what it takes to do this. Once you have learned how to do it, the ambassadors store what it has learned in the primitives so that it doesn’t need to keep jumping into action every time you jump on a bike. So every time you ride a bike after learning it, it’s only your primitives that turn on to make it happen. Your entire body knows what to do without having to think about it.
Tradition is kind of like the primitives in the lives of the church. We all showed up into the church when the primitives were in full gear. Sermons were being preached, creeds were being recited, the list of interpretations of scriptures were available to study. Of course some of us came in later on and have been in full ambassador mode critically thinking our way through what this is and what is going on. But many of us that grew up in the church put that aside years ago and jumped into automation mode.
This can pose some interesting challenges. For some of us as individuals, we have never used our ambassadors to develop thoughtful, slow, logical methods, reasons and memories to do the things we do. We have inherited them as being part of the church. So we jump into the primitive part of the brain of the church and we just go on. We interpret scripture this way, we partake in rituals this way and we don’t really spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.
Now for the church as a whole. It think this can be a really good thing. The church grows and builds on itself. It doesn’t need to keep relearning the same lessons. It has a deep memory that spans across thousands of years. It has amazing rituals and beliefs that are spread out across the world that are beautiful and powerful in their own rights. So there are traditions within the church that we fall into, and there are traditions that we trust in order to activate our primitives. We depend on the ambassadors who have gone before us within our traditions in order that we don’t burn ourselves out and because we have faith that these traditions are good. Traditions are sort of like ambassadors from the past that we trust.
I see two red flags with tradition when looking at it from this regard.
First, the primitives are not necessarily good things when change comes. For instance, every relationship eventually falls into the 99% automated primitives section. They are only ever activated when something goes wrong. When you are on auto-pilot you might not be activated to act properly when your partner changes or has specific needs? I know this was true for me. When there was serious things that needed to shift in me in my marriage, I was on autopilot for so long because things were good, that it took me longer than I’m proud of to switch it off and kick my ambassadors into gear to create change, make new automations and respond slowly and wisely to what was in front of me. We get into such deep routines and habits that we can’t see that they no longer are appropriate means of operating in the situations that we are in.
When you are automated so long, us unhealthy people defend and protect our primitives in more automated ways. In terms of the church, we can see this all the time. Imagine having to work really hard and tirelessly to introduce changes to the kind of music your church was playing at, or to get rid of the organ. The amount of anger and defense mechanisms that go up when your primitives are threatened is intense.
Second, when tradition, our primitives, dictate how and when our ambassadors enter into the picture – it tries to control them with more primitive ways of thinking/being. So for instance. We have a belief in the church that through tradition has been passed down to us that hell exists and is this fiery place that people go and are punished for eternity if they don’t accept the love and forgiveness of Jesus. So that is our primitive belief and much of the evangelical church and beliefs/actions (like missionaries, conversion, personal saviour language) are a result of this traditional view on hell. Now if you are to kick your ambassadors into gear because you realize that this passed down belief is not doing the trick anymore, what happens?
Well first – anyone who doesn’t see what you see and hasn’t switched gears into ambassador mode is going to feel threatened. This is going to create tension, that might make you feel threatened and then it could bubble up into something pretty bad. We see church splits happen and divorces all the time because of this.
However, what I think the red flag is when the primitives/tradition has a automated system that dictates how the ambassadors are to act. Which tries to concoct a way for the ambassadors to stay in the control of the primitives when they do kick into high gear.
The best example I can think of this is catechisms. If you don’t know what they are, basically they are a way to train new believers into the faith in the form of question and answer. As children, you would memorize questions and answers like this.
Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A: That I am not my own,
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
This is an example of a tradition that seeks to take your ambassadors, and automate how they will learn and function. Instead of depending on someone to come to conclusions and create their own automation, the church has tried to do this for them. This can be very problematic for many reasons. For starters, it basically disregards experience and reason entirely. And these are important parts of your ambassadors that are needed for life. If they don’t learn to function, if they don’t learn to do the hard work themselves, then you end up with 100% automation on whatever the authority who is controlling that wants. Think Nazi Germany or Slavery in America if you want to know why that is problematic.
Instead of actually encouraging people to use their ambassadors, traditions when they become too dogmatic and too much in the hands of people that want power end up creating a facade of people using their ambassadors when really it’s already pre-meditated primitives at function meant to break the tension between reason, experience, tradition that we need.
All this to say, traditions, or the primitives, are essential to life. You cannot run on ambassadors alone. It’s completely natural to fall into automation. As Christians, we want to fall into automation that is meant to form and shape us into more loving, peaceful and just people.
As an aside, I see that I have a love/hate relationship with tradition. I’ve been able to determine where I love it and where I hate it.
Tradition as an external authority imposing itself on my life is one that I hate.
Tradition as an internal choice of an authority that I participate in is one that I love.
Traditions are not something that can be imposed on us. We all have traditions that we come from and that we hopefully have allowed the rest of the Quad to bring some balance to them and chosen to reject or accept them based on these other things. Traditions then are not authorities meant to dictate what is right and what is wrong. Traditions are choices that we make for ourselves using our ambassadors (reason and experience) in order to create automated lifestyles that are Christian which is an important and necessary part of any life – we have just chosen to make them very particular to these specific traditions.