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Traditional Monkeys: Received Wisdom and "The Five Monkeys Experiment"


In which the pilgrim wonders at the strange misreading skeptics give a modern fable, pontificates about the discernment and value of Catholic Tradition and traditions, and sings along with Tevye.

The Pilgrim ran across this contemporary fable today:
The Five Monkeys Experiment 
The Five Monkeys experiment with the skeptics' moral
An experimenter puts 5 monkeys in a large cage. High up at the top of the cage, well beyond the reach of the monkeys, is a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas is a ladder. 
The monkeys immediately spot the bananas and one begins to climb the ladder. As he does, however, the experimenter sprays him with a stream of cold water. Then, he proceeds to spray each of the other monkeys. 
The monkey on the ladder scrambles off. And all 5 sit for a time on the floor, wet, cold, and bewildered. Soon, though, the temptation of the bananas is too great, and another monkey begins to climb the ladder. Again, the experimenter sprays the ambitious monkey with cold water and all the other monkeys as well. When a third monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pull him off the ladder and beat him. 
Now one monkey is removed and a new monkey is introduced to the cage. Spotting the bananas, he naively begins to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pull him off and beat him. 
Here’s where it gets interesting. The experimenter removes a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaces him with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey begins to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pull him off and beat him – including the monkey who had never been sprayed. 
By the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left and yet, despite none of them ever experiencing the cold, wet, spray, they had all learned never to try and go for the bananas. -Source of this version
The almost universal moral attached to this fable (which is apparently based loosely on a real study) on the sharing sites goes along the lines of "what sad monkeys in the end who don't dare to go after the bananas; the evil scientists killed their ambition and creativity. Ergo, traditions stifle ambition and creativity, are irrational, and the people who follow them are foolish."

But that's not really the lesson at all if you follow the logic of the story. As long as one presumes that the scientists would in fact continue to spray the monkeys with cold water when one attempts the ladder, the tradition holds value and is an example of received wisdom from the monkeys predecessors.

The real moral should be along the lines of:

"Traditions should be given the benefit of the doubt first. Assume that your ancestors passed on these cultural treasures as wisdom that we might avoid dangers and reap benefits. However, not being monkeys, we should ask Why does the tradition exists? If the circumstances of the situation have changed (eg. all the scientists are dead) THEN decide whether the tradition still has value."

This is relevant to pilgrims of all stripes in that it helps us to distinguish, evaluate and respond to both Catholic Traditions and Catholic traditions. Concerning the Traditions, none of the circumstances when the received Wisdom was first given have changed; the big ones being Jesus hasn't returned and His Church is still standing, therefor everything received from Him still stands as is. The Traditions that do allow for scrutiny and logical testing have all held up immaculately (Catholic pun intended).

That being said, there are some Traditions that are there "because God said so" borne of His revelation alone that cannot be tested as to the "why?" (male only ordination would be an example); we can extract some little 't' traditional reasons (eg. Male priests accurately represent the masculinity of Father & Son, specifically the Incarnate Christ), but ultimately the reasons are going to be because Jesus only appointed male apostles when he could have appointed females (guy wasn't exactly afraid of bucking little 't' traditions, himself) and the early Church didn't ordinate women. The condition of His revelation hasn't changed—and God doesn't change his mind—so the Church, like the wise monkeys, will assume there is Wisdom in what has been received until we hear otherwise.

But little 't' traditions do bear scrutiny, evaluation, and discernment. For some of these it is good that we have, and will continue to alter or eliminate them as cultural and historical conditions change. However, even a tradition that arose out of circumstantial conditions does not necessarily lose all value if those circumstances have changed. Traditions big and little "t" have value in that they connect us with our history especially when its a living history like the Church's. Matthew Newsome has made a great argument along these lines for the continued use of historical liturgical languages according the differing rites (Roman = Latin, Byzantine = Greek, etc) for example.

Ultimately, be wary of eliminating or altering 'T'raditions just because they are "old" and be wary of accepting traditions just because they are 't'raditions. Regardless, the tradition will always have a reason, frequently one with still pertinent wisdom, and should be given the benefit of the doubt. Test the Spirits, St Paul tells us, and when it comes to received traditions of the Lord's Church, you'll find they test true.

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