Tradition(ed): ‘Holy’ Tradition

So far in these meandering reflections on the nature of tradition, we’ve seen that tradition, while unavoidable and necessary for culture, is also always received through interpretation and a gleaning. Tradition is thus a changing artifact of an ever-changing people in ever-changing circumstances. We need humility about how we talk about even the most sacred traditions that we consider requirements of orthodoxy, for our words and actions are always unable to capture the true, infinite Mystery of God, a genuine response to which is always humility, and which no words can truly define. All this is true — and is even itself an important part of traditional, orthodox Christian teaching — but it forces us to ask an important question: If our traditions really are “social constructs that are socially constructing,” in what way can we understand them to be holy?

To start, let’s return to Vladimir Lossky’s definition of tradition: “Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” To reframe it slightly, this suggests that tradition is ‘holy’ inasmuch as it witnesses to the transforming and life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the faithful, from generation to generation. These witnesses are varied; for Christians, they include such things as the books of the Bible, the Creeds and canons of the ancient Ecumenical Councils, the spiritual and theological writings and practices of the Church Fathers and Mothers, the sacraments, and the artistic, liturgical, and musical inheritance of the past two thousand years of Christian life. As witnesses to the Holy Spirit, all of these are wonderful and more-or-less authoritative guides for us. They make up, in Ken Wilber’s words, a great “conveyor belt” that promotes our spiritual growth and maturity. We only do ourselves, our friends, and neighbours, and our spirituality a disservice if we refuse to receive these with joy, humility, and thanksgiving.

But — and it’s a big but — they are manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s presence, not the Holy Spirit itself. They are maps, not the journey itself. Reading an atlas or memorizing a roadmap is very different from walking the road yourself. If those who reject tradition put their journeys at risk by not taking advantage of the wisdom of those who have made the journey before, people who love tradition for its own sake run the risk of creating idols out of the maps, of loving the markers of orthodoxy — the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Fathers (and their many Protestant correlates) — more than the God to whom they point.

I like the map analogy for a few reasons.

First, again, “the map is the not the territory” and “the word is not the thing.” You can be an expert map-reader — you can know your Bible and understand the Creed and serve a liturgy perfectly — and miss the point entirely if that knowledge isn’t transforming your heart and mind. (Or, in Paul’s words, “if you have not love”.)

Second, maps use symbols and we need to understand those symbols in order to understand what the map is telling us. Likewise, in order for the ritual symbols used in traditional liturgies — water, oil, bread, wine, fire — to convey the tradition to us today, we have to understand what they meant in order to understand what they mean. Similarly, the traditional vocabulary of the Creed (’consubstantial’, ‘proceeds from’, etc.) and Christian spirituality (‘the passions’ or ‘chastity’, for example) is very easily misunderstood by people today, who are operating in different languages and within vastly different worldviews and presuppositions about the world. In order for those texts to accurately transmit the tradition, we need to make sure we either translate that vocabulary into more contemporary language or be sure to define how the words are being used in those texts.

Third, while old maps can tell you a lot about your journey (Rome is still about 1400 km southeast and across the Alps from Paris, just as it’s always been), the details of the journey can change over time. Old dangers may not be a problem any more, and new hazards emerged in their place. The same is true with the journeys our religious traditions describe. There can be no doubt that being alive today represents a different set of challenges to life a thousand years ago. To cite just one example, we, just like our ancestors, are called to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, but the practicalities of ‘Who is my neighbour?’ look very different in a society with a global economy and access to 24/7 international news than they did in a small medieval farming village. The point is that even though the experiences our traditions describe may be universal, the details of what those experiences look like may be quite different.

And the fourth reason why I appreciate the map analogy is that the usefulness of a map depends a lot on where you’re starting from. A map showing how to get from Paris to Rome will be different from a map showing how to get from Athens to Rome. Where you’re starting is just as important as where you’re going. To me, this recognition is the greatest gift the postmodern world has given us: the understanding of context. We all have journeys to make to God — rich or poor, marginalized or privileged, introverted or extroverted — but those journeys aren’t going to be the same. We might very well say that a thief and the person he robbed both have business to do with God, but it’s not the same business; one needs a thoroughgoing instruction on repentance, the other forgiveness. Or, we could also point to the examples of St. Augustine, and Martin Luther: Both of these men spent years thinking they had to earn salvation through good works, before having a transforming experience of God’s grace in which they realized they could never do so and didn’t have to. But, while I definitely have my own spiritual foibles, trying to earn my salvation was never one of them. Their journey was not my journey and so I never found their experiences all that relatable or compelling. That doesn’t make their ‘maps’ wrong; it doesn’t even make their maps meaningless for me; they’re just not the maps I needed to get from where I was starting to where I needed to go.

The point of all this is that a tradition is holy inasmuch as it directs us, inspires us, teaches us, and changes us to live holy lives. The Gospels are ‘holy’ because they record the life-changing, world-shaking teachings of Jesus. The Psalms are ‘holy’ because they teach us to bring all of our feelings and experiences, no matter how raw they may be, before God. The Creed is ‘holy’ because it ensures the ways we talk about God preserve the full Mystery of the faith and encourage us to pursue that Mystery. The sacraments are ‘holy’ because they transform the mundane into vessels of the divine life. But, reading the Bible, memorizing the Creeds, or receiving the sacraments doesn’t make us Christians; being ‘christs’ in the world by God’s grace through the power of the Holy Spirit makes us Christians.

And that is holy indeed.

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