I frame this blog as a forum for me to reflect on the intersections of contemporary ideas in psychology and personal wellbeing and ancient spiritual traditions generally, and Christianity specifically. But while I’ve spent a lot of time here promoting and justifying the first half of that equation, I’ve spent less time (though not none) thinking intentionally about the second: What does it mean to be within a tradition? And why is it important or helpful?
And so I thought I’d start the year with a (hopefully) short series of posts unpacking my thoughts on this. I think it’s an important and interesting project, because — at least in my experience — most of the self-conscious discussion about tradition right now is coming from either revolutionary or reactionary places. In the former, tradition is viewed as a bogeyman for all that is wrong with the world; in the latter, tradition is seen as an emergency brake we need to pull as a society to keep us from hurtling into a moral and ethical abyss. While these extreme views may be helpful in selling books and encouraging clicks, neither are helpful. They both misread the current lay of the land for us as a culture — our tradition has as much to commend it as to cause offense, and if anything, we are becoming more, not less, concerned about ethics as a culture. And, more importantly for the purposes of this series, they misrepresent how tradition actually works.
Today I’d like to spent some time thinking about what tradition is and some of the assumptions that will guide this series. Later posts will take up such topics as the challenges to the idea of tradition over the past centuries, what tradition does, ideas of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, the relationship between tradition and creativity, and some of the components of the Christian tradition.
So, what is tradition anyway?
At its most literal level, a tradition is something passed on from one person to another. This is as good a place as any from which to start this discussion: Tradition is fundamentally about what we have received from those who have gone before us. The first thing to note about this is that this means that tradition is inevitable. The moment you have learned something from someone, you have to some extent engaged with tradition. This can be implicit, like how your family celebrates Christmas, or explicit, as with Sunday School lessons or being taught by your grandma how to bake cookies. A consequence of this is that even those who intentionally reject the authority of tradition end up creating traditions of their own. The churches of the Reformation, for example, all rejected Church tradition in favour of the Bible as the ‘sole’ source of authority, but all ended up creating interpretive and ecclesiastical (i.e., church institutional) traditions of their own. Reformed Christians may say they don’t accept tradition, but are quick to point out when you stray from their received traditions of Bible interpretation. In a similar way, Pentecostals may not have standard interpretations of the Bible, favouring a kind of sanctified ‘reader response’ form of Scripture reading, but this shared belief that the individual is led to the correct reading of the Bible for them by the Holy Spirit, is itself a tradition passed on in those communities. And so, to reiterate the first point: tradition is an inherent part of community life and as such, it is inescapable. Tradition is inevitable.
Because we cannot get away from tradition, we would do well to be intentional about it. If we deny that we have been ‘traditioned’, this doesn’t make us any less so. It simply pushes the ways we have been influenced by tradition into shadow, where we can’t see them, and where they might cause problems for us later on. We don’t come to anything in life with a blank slate. I, for example, grew up in the Anglican Church and have been formed by its approach to liturgy and sacrament as well as its intentional ‘big tent’ vision. I did an undergraduate degree in Linguistics, and share that discipline’s general distaste for prescriptive approaches. My theological education was under postmodern-friendly Evangelicals, including a Congolese post-colonial theologian, and I was shaped by their open, yet critical engagement with culture. I studied the mystical theology of the Eastern Church and my fullest, richest experiences of Church, liturgy, and community were in Eastern Orthodoxy, and I have drawn much of my theological vocabulary, ethos, and vision from the East rather than the West. I have also been influenced by the practices and understanding of the human person from the Ignatian tradition within the Roman Catholic Church. Finally, as someone born and raised in Canada, I am an inheritor of the Western liberal democratic political tradition, with its values of fundamental rights and civic responsibilities. When I encounter a passage of Scripture, an ancient or contemporary piece of theological writing, a spiritual experience, or even the news, all of these traditions and their common or conflicting impulses play into how I will interpret it.
This leads to the second implication of this deceptively simple definition of tradition: A tradition is always interpreted. We receive from the past but never perfectly, and never uncritically. At its worst, tradition can be like a game of telephone: We hear something and pass it on, but that message can get distorted in transmission, whether intentionally or unintentionally. From one person to the next, the difference will be very minimal, but over the course of generations, these differences can start to add up. Depending on how we feel about the changes, this can be a good thing — a further helpful development of tradition — or a bad thing — a negative distortion that has skewed faith away from its original purity. But either way, traditions evolve, mutate, and change simply by virtue of the way communication and language work. All tradition is interpreted and reinterpreted in every generation. Sometimes this is just about the imperfections involved in how humans communicate, but this is also an intentional process as well. We don’t apply everything we’ve received exactly as we’ve received it. We sift the tradition for what is meaningful to us and are selective in what we pass on to others. Even writing from within a very conservative tradition, Eastern Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, has written, “Not everything received from the past is of equal value, nor is everything received from the past necessarily true.” (The Orthodox Church, 197). If a tradition is to be meaningful and living, it must stand up to scrutiny and investigation, and must be rediscovered and reinterpreted in every age.
We today are in a particularly privileged position with respect to this because of the sheer volume of information available to us. Even a couple generations ago, access to the writings of the Church Fathers was very limited. But now they are readily available to anyone with interest. In a sense, this means that we can go back and watch that game of telephone unfold: we can see exactly how ideas were transmitted and developed over time and to some extent heal any breaches and come to a fuller appreciation of the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition. (I find it a wonderful serendipity that the French word for this process of looking back, ressourcement ‘a return to sources’, has come to have connotations of revitalization or even healing.)
This last paragraph has hinted at the third implication of our very simple definition of tradition: Tradition is an active process. We don’t just passively accept we have received, but we actively engage with it, and then pass it on to those who come after us. Tradition is therefore not only backward looking; it looks equally towards the concerns of the present and our hopes for the future. In this way, tradition can be a very creative process. This is exciting, but also should give us pause. A lot of what passes for tradition, whether in liturgical expression, theology, or even in society as a whole, is actually relatively recent innovation — not a genuine expression of a venerable tradition, but nostalgia for a very local development. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with this creative interpretation of tradition, so long as we are honest about it. Traditions — especially cultural traditions (such as ‘the Western world’) and religions (such as Christianity) — are broad enough that we can find much to love, and hate, within them. To some extent, we have no option but to ‘pick and choose’ from the past. Not everything from the past is good. Not everything good from the past is appropriate or immediately applicable today. We have a responsibility to approach tradition with an open heart and mind and receive gratefully the ideas, practices, and attitudes that speak best to the present moment. ‘Picking and choosing’ is only a problem if we falsely claim to be representing the whole story. The fact is, we don’t just receive tradition passively, but we help to create it and perpetuate it. Again, this calls for intentionality. If we’re passing things on to those who come after us, we had better pay attention to what it is we’re passing on.
Tradition is dynamic, a give-and-take. It looks forward as much as it looks backward. This is what Paul Ricoeur meant when he called tradition a “dialectic of sedimentation and innovation:” Tradition is found in the tension between what we receive from the past and the ever-present need to adapt and change. In other words, tradition lives in the give and take between the wisdom of the past, the needs of the present, and our hopes for the future.
Tradition is not inherently a bad thing; it is not the cause of all the world’s problems. Tradition is not inherently a good thing; it is not the solution to all of the world’s problems. Neither revolutionary nor reactionary approaches to tradition are accurate or beneficial. This post has introduced the simplest definition of tradition — something handed down from one person to another — and has derived some important implications from it. Tradition is inevitable. Tradition involves interpretation. And, tradition is an active process. All three of these require a fourth principle: that we be intentional about how we engage with tradition so we can do so responsibly.
In the next post in the series, I’ll look at the journey the idea of tradition has taken over the past few centuries.
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