Innovation vs. Tradition: Christianity, the Vatican and Sin

This is one of the greatest stories of innovation and change I’ve heard about in some time.

Note: although there are religious themes here, I’m aiming at the nature of change, not theological debate (Keep that in mind in the comments please).

One tension we all face is how to reconcile respect for the past with the desire to making the world a better place. There is an inherent conflict: we use traditions to honor the past and stay connected with who we were. But if innovation is change, it means breaking with the past to make things better. And rarely do people agree on which traditions should be broken and how to break or reinterpret them.

The irony of course is that all traditions, even ones 1000 years old, were invented by someone. And on that day they asked people to break with whatever tradition came before it. The study of any history is the study of change. As Woody Allen said, “Tradition is the illusion of permanence.” However, even if it is an illusion, it’s a powerful one that can bring people together.

Recently the Vatican announced several new lists of behaviors they now define as sinful. The list includes pollution, drug abuse and becoming obscenely wealthy. They also released a curious list of rules for the road, leading to much sarcastic commentary.

On the one hand, wow. For the first time in nearly 1500 years, they’ve released version 2.0 of their list (Note that the 7 deadly sins as we know them do not appear in the Western bible). That’s not an easy thing to do – and it’s fascinating to see one of the oldest and most conservative organizations in the western world demonstrating renewed interest in the pressing issues of the day.

On the other hand, early Christian theology, or at least the Jesus Christ described by the approved gospels, has always been tough on the wealthy and those that take advantage of the weak (The whole eye of a needle thing). And this list can be seen as a call to return to those values – it’s a change, but a change in line with ideas from the past.

But the best way to comprehend all this comes from A.J. Jacobs excellent book, The Year of Living Biblically. In the process of trying to follow every instruction in the bible for 365 days, he learned that the bible has always been a matter of personal interpretation, from what laws apply, to how they’re applied. And when you add the multitude of translations, secondary gospels and other options on biblical law, the conception of there ever being a single definitive, comprehensible, interpretation free rulebook for living seems an impossibility, now or ever.

In this context, what we superficially see as static, say a bible or a religious law, rarely holds together when put into play by millions of different people. We make one tiny interpretation here, or exception there, and naturally gravitate to those who make similar choices, and in this sense, we are all low-scale innovators. Perhaps we do it in private, or in secret, but everyone’s unique nature surfaces even in how we follow the same rules. And of course all religious groups throughout history have had different leaders at different times and each emphasized different rules, beliefs, traditions and activities, while ignoring others (E.g. religious wars generally violate the core principles of the whoever founded the religion).

It seems a smart thing for a religion, or any powerful group, to do what the Vatican has done: to update its rules and guidelines to reflect the changing nature of people and the world. What could be smarter than a tradition to re-evaluate the traditions?

There can be no smarter tradition for anyone than to 1) encourage a questioning of old rules and what motivations their authors had, and 2) allowing periodic changing of rules for the present so they have the greatest value, until they need to be changed again.

13 Responses to “Innovation vs. Tradition: Christianity, the Vatican and Sin”

  1. Tony

    A great post.

    See “The Decalogue”, by master filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski.

  2. Scott

    Thx Tony – It’s on my netflix list, but haven’t gotten to it yet (I’ll move it up in my queue :).

  3. AJ Jacobs

    Hey Scott,
    A fascinating post. And not just because you mentioned my book. Though, you know, that does help!
    Thank you for that.

  4. Robby Slaughter

    I see the fundamental premise of this piece is Scott’s assertion that “all traditions, even ones 1000 years old, were invented by someone.” The basis for religious traditions, however, is exactly the opposite. According to the faithful for those religions, men and women *did not* make the rules. Those traditions come directly from the Creator.

    Innovation requires change, but change is not necessarily innovation. It’s arbitrary (and even disputed) that we drive on the right-hand side of the road, but to believers, it is absolutely not arbitrary which day of the week is the holiest. I think it will be a tough sell to claim that a change to deep religious tradition could be an improvement.

  5. Scott

    Robby: Sure. I don’t think I disputed that claim here. But just by looking at the factionalism of every major religion, it’s clear that there are many different ways to interpret any scripture such that every individual believes they are interpreting it the right way, despite the existence of alternatives.

    On change vs. innovation: I agree, change isn’t innovation. Nor did I say more change is necessarily good. But I am saying that trying to understand why a past decision was made, and asking if there is a better decision to be made now, is a pretty good idea.

    I can understand if religion is an exception to change and someone believes it should not be questioned. But what about non-religious situations? Governments? Corporations? Family rules? Rules for Sports? etc. Having a tradition of review and the *possibility* for change seems to be a positive thing.

  6. Jeff De Cagna

    Scott, this post is both interesting and timely because I’ve just written an article exploring some of the same issues as they pertain to associations. You may be interested in taking a look at it. It can be found online at:

    I hope we can connect soon about rescheduling our podcast interview. Thanks!

  7. Robby Slaughter

    Scott: I’m just trying to caution you against saying that “all traditions were invented by somebody.” Don’t say that. :)

    I’m also a little leery of characterizing the actions of a church as “innovation”. Just because you and I think something is a change for the better doesn’t mean those making the change agree. They may not even think what they are doing constitutes change, just minor nuanced of interpretation for a modern world. The Vatican saying that pollution is *now* wrong and that any toxic sludge dumped before 2007 was just fine. Rather, this was *always* sinful, it’s just now being specifically enumerated.

    And yes, I think we *can* say that for any institution that is solely created and managed by people, regular review of traditions is a good thing. If anything, the problem is that people tend to think that traditions are immutable. Traditions like Texas A&M bonfire (, which collapsed in 1999 and killed twelve people, are an example where change is difficult for people to accept.

  8. Suzanne

    47 million uninsured people in the United States. Gas prices soaring with no end in sight. Homes being reposessed. Banks in serious trouble. Medicare and Social Security in dire straits, desperately in need of reform. In the midst of a war that is costing lives and an enormous of amount of money to fund.

    So, tell me what more will it take for us to change our “traditions”? At this point do we even have an alternative but to innovate and make change happen for the betterment (survival) of our country,our people and our economy? It seems to me that we are in the midst of forced innovation, occuring when there is really no choice left.

    It is far easier to live with the status quo than it is to tackle insurmountable problems and to break with tradition especially when the breaking of tradition could potentially impact the profits and bonuses which line the pockets of those in this country who seem to benefit from the way things are now – ex.the managed care industry.

  9. Mark

    Sometimes change comes at a cost.

  10. mpg


    For many faiths, “innovation” may indeed be the wrong word here: we might rather prefer “reinterpretation”. Many believe the Bible to be correct and all-inclusive, but that it must be understood and applied appropriately to any given culture and era. Further, such intepretation is up to each individual and/or, in some faiths, a set of doctrinally appointed individuals.

    I’ve admittedly not done the research, but I doubt “pollution” is mentioned in either the Old or New Testaments — Jerusalem and environs were not yet subject to DTD, CFCs, and PCBs. But the Bible does indicate that mankind is to take stewardship of the earth, and so with 20th century knowledge one could reasonably now understand such “pollution” to be a sin of some sort.

    (I’d love a venue to discuss this further — I’d happily submit a presentation entitled “On the Analysis and Interpretation of Product Requirements by Faith-Based Communities under XP and Agile-based Development Methodologies”. :-)


  11. mpg

    Surprisingly not wholly irrelevant to Scott’s thoughts, Joel Spolsky did a piece just the week on the “meaning” of standards with quite a nice side paragraph on the question of rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew bible. Worth a read.

  12. Vanessa Howell

    Quite a brave post Scott. Reinventing traditions seems like a very valuable tradition to have. The problem with how ‘it’s always been done’ is how difficult it becomes to question the wisdom of old, even if it no longer applies.



  1. […] “One tension we all face is how to reconcile respect for the past with the desire to making the world a better place. There is an inherent conflict: we use traditions to honor the past and stay connected with who we were. But if innovation is change, it means breaking with the past to make things better. And rarely do people agree on which traditions should be broken and how to break them, or them.”- Scott Berkun […]

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