Tradition(Ed): Creativity and Tradition

In its worst caricatures, tradition is presented as vain repetition, nothing more than doing and saying what people did and said in the past. But, as we’ve seen, this perspective doesn’t hit the mark on how tradition actually works. Tradition is an active process: we receive from the past but inevitably apply it to the needs of the present for the sake of our desired future. But what exactly does this process look like? How does the relationship between tradition and creativity work? Today I’d like to take some time to think through these questions about how traditions change.

First of all, what is creativity? The best definitions I’ve encountered include two major components, originality and adaptability. Both halves of this are worth considering here.

First, originality: Creativity involves putting something new into the world. We might often think of this as a sort of ‘creatio ex nihilo’ — creation out of nothing — but this is far from the reality of human creativity. We are always making something out of something else. We make a table out of wood, a meal out of meats, grains, and vegetables, or a story out of existing words, experiences, and tropes. This remains true in the world of spirituality or religion. Jesus was revolutionary, yet simultaneously wholly within the traditions of Judaism. Similarly, Buddhism emerged out of the Buddha’s experiences with common Hindu ideas and practices. Later figures like Martin Luther and John Calvin were unquestionably original thinkers, yet both were clearly within the Augustinian theological tradition. The point here is that originality doesn’t involve creating something entirely new, but repurposing what we’ve received. Even transgressive movements presuppose the tradition against which they are reacting. (You need ‘Coke’ in order to have ‘New Coke’. You need swing before you can have bebop. You need to have the evangelical purity culture of the ‘90s and ‘00s before you can have today’s ‘ex-vangelical’ movement.)

Turning to the second half of creativity, adaptability, here we see that creativity isn’t just about making something new, but, it’s fundamentally about problem-solving. As they say, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’. This is just as true for creativity of ideas, concepts, and practices as it is for technology. Creativity happens when the limitations inherent in our traditions become apparent. Answers that sufficed at one stage in a conversation need tweaking when the conversation progresses; shifts in culture or education make our earlier answers less satisfactory; or changes in circumstance put our traditions under different stresses. We’ve had a great example of this last piece over the past two years with how churches have thought about online worship during the pandemic. New technologies have presented incredible opportunities for churches in this difficult time, but have also presented big questions that require thought: What does it mean to ‘meet’ in a virtual context? What implications does this have for rituals like baptism and communion? And so on. And unsurprisingly, different communities have come up with different answers to those questions, creating new alliances and new faultlines, within different Christian traditions.

With this in mind, how does creativity — the ability to change and adapt to new questions and situations — interact with tradition? I actually think this is a misleading question. Creativity is such an essential aspect of tradition that to my mind the best definitions of tradition have it built in. Tradition is less a “democracy of the dead,” as G.K. Chesterton would have it, than it is a “dialectic of sedimentation and innovation,” as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur defined it. To paraphrase the needlessly fancy language there, Ricoeur argued — and I think rightly — that tradition is the tension (’dialectic’) between what the past has given us (’sedimentation’) and what we create in the present (’innovation’). This represents only a small shift from how I spoke about tradition in the first post of this series. There I suggested that tradition ‘lives’ in the tension between the past, present, and future; here, I’m saying that tradition is that tension. To use Integral jargon, tradition is the whole positive-positive polarity that sedimentation and innovation — the past and the present-future, learning and applying — represent. We need both to be healthy; to stop growing and changing is death; to grow and change without limits or boundaries is cancer.

This means that any religious tradition — including its theology, liturgy, and sacred practices — is, in the words of my old mentor, Rev. Dr. Mabiala Kenzo, “a social construct, which, at the same time, is socially constructing.” It’s like a city we live in but which we also help to build. This may give us pause, but what we may lose in (false) certainty, we more than gain in the opportunity to contribute to the process. As Jeremy Wilkins has written, “A tradition that knows it has developed, a tradition self-consciously aware that it is developing still, has to ask of itself whence and whither with eyes wide open” (Before Truth, 38).

As Christians, even and especially as intentionally traditioned Christians, this should not be a surprise or concern. As the great twentieth-century Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky wrote, “Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church;” his colleague Georges Florovsky, similarly called tradition “the principle of growth and regeneration” (’Bible, Church, Tradition, 47). And, according to Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, “An Orthodox thinker must see Tradition from within, he must enter into its inner spirit, he must re-experience the meaning of Tradition in a manner that is exploratory, courageous, and full of imaginative creativity” (The Orthodox Church, 198).

We today are anointed with the same Holy Spirit as Jesus, as the apostles, as the Church Fathers. Our job is not to perpetuate a fossilized record of the Holy Spirit’s activity in them, but to be alive with the same Spirit, of whose activity their teachings and practices are witness. There is always change, always creativity, but this creativity is always informed by and formed from the creativity of those who have gone before us.

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