If I had to summarize what this series about tradition has been all about it would come down to two points: Tradition is inevitable, and tradition is always changing. Tradition, and therefore our lives and societies, live in the tension between what we receive and how we receive it. This means that, if we truly want to be faithful in our own day and age, we need a lot of discernment. We need, for lack of a better word, a hermeneutic to help guide us, to avoid both ‘vain repetition’ of the past and simply giving in to the ideas, attitudes, and prejudices of the present.
Fortunately, as Christians, as a ‘people of the Book’, we are used to thinking through the need for interpretation. Today, I’d like to wrap up this series by exploring how the Integral Hermeneutic method I developed a few years ago might provide some helpful guidelines for how we might receive tradition faithfully today.
Integral theory understands that in order to grow healthily — or in the language of this series, in order to receive, interpret, and apply our traditions faithfully — we need to engage with and accept as much as we can from every stage of life and cultural development. My Integral Hermeneutic method expresses this idea by running texts and our interpretations of them through five steps: the reader’s experience, the person or people we encounter in a text (or in this case tradition), what we can learn by exploring secondary literature (history, commentaries, linguistics, etc.), challenging the text and our interpretation of it by asking questions about our own presuppositions and who or what it leaves out, and finally ensuring our interpretation of the text, or reception of the tradition, helps to expand our faith through greater awareness, empathy, and understanding the impact of the text/tradition has on others.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
This is the most basic level of tradition: the experience of the ritual, the reading of the text, or the singing of a song. This step asks us to step back and notice what this experience is like: What emotions does it evoke, positive or negative? How does it resonate with me, or, if it doesn’t resonate, does it evoke indifference or does it trigger a negative energetic response? And, what does the tradition call me to do? How am I changed, or being asked to change, by it?
The second level of engagement is ‘encounter’. It asks us to reflect on who or what it is we meet. At this stage, we ask questions like Whose voice am I encountering? and What exactly is it trying to say? In terms of applying this to rituals, we might look here at what materials are used and how they are used. The primary goal of this step is, as much as possible, to separate the text or ritual from our reactions to it, in order to make sure we are seeing it as clearly as we can.
This step moves us beyond the basics and into critical thinking. It asks deeper questions and — if available to us — requires some research: What is the historical context in which the tradition developed? What were the pressing concerns of the day that may have impacted what was passed down? What can scholarship tell us about the internal history and development of the tradition? What does the specific tradition being experienced set out to do? And how effective is it in accomplishing that aim?
Now we ask the big questions posed by postmodern thought: How might my own cultural context be impacting my experience? What cultural ideas or values might have impacted the tradition’s origins or development? Whose experiences and concerns are represented? Does the tradition leave anyone out? Who else might I listen to? There’s a sense in which questions like this are what give postmodernism its ‘no fun’ reputation. It’s very good at poking holes and tearing things down, and less good at building things up. But I am absolutely convinced these challenging questions are powerful and important. We cannot imagine that our traditions are somehow immune to the kinds of power plays and political machinations (i.e., sin) that make life in community difficult today. Opening them up to these questions doesn’t mean we have to toss them the minute we find something untoward in their history; it means allowing those things to inform how we receive those traditions today.
Finally, the method asks us to integrate all of this together in ways that expand our capacity and horizons. How does my reception of the tradition encourage growth? Does it expand my capacity for empathy? Does it bring more into my awareness? What are its impacts on the world around me?
(A couple examples of how I might apply this method to traditional materials can be found at the bottom of this post)
Tradition is everywhere. It is an inevitable and important part of human culture. It’s not a question of simply repeating the formulas of the past; nor is it a matter of rejecting everything from the past and entering a brave new world free from its shackles. Not only are neither of these approaches helpful; but they aren’t even possible. We are traditioned — and we ‘tradition’ others — by virtue of our humanity. The question then is not ‘whether’ to engage with or receive tradition, but ‘how’. For me this is a call to action, a call to active discernment. There are many ways we can do this, but once again, I find the general outlook and aims of an Integral approach to be a helpful guide in how we might receive our traditions faithfully — faithfully to the dead who have gone before us, faithfully to those alive today in our own messy circumstances, and faithfully to those who will come after us.
Experience: When I first encountered formal Christian iconography, I was conflicted. On the one hand, I was struck by the beauty of the stylized forms, and the richness of what they seemed to convey. On the other hand, I couldn’t see how the veneration of icons could be anything other than idolatry.
Encounter: Iconography represents a specific tradition of Christian visual arts, governed by its own rules. When I see an icon, I meet not the voice of the iconographer, but the collective voice of the whole iconographic tradition. Each icon has a specified form, designed to portray a specific theological message.
Explore: A look at history shows that Christians were drawn to some form of visual representation very early. There didn’t seem to be much intentional thought about it until the Iconoclastic Controversy, which was essentially a civil war between those who supported the veneration of icons and those who rejected it. When I first learned this history it made me uncomfortable, not just because of the violence of this period of history, but also because the side I was most sympathetic to lost. This caused me to look more closely at the theology that did win the day, and there I found a rich and solid set of beliefs that powerfully upheld a belief in creation and the incarnation, and was careful to demonstrate how icons were doing something very different from what the Old Testament prohibitions on images were about.
Challenge: Here I saw the impact of my Protestant sensibilities on how I initially responded to icons. Not only did they limit my exposure to icons, but their almost single-minded focus on atonement theology also narrowed my theological vision away from the profound creational and incarnational theologies the Christian tradition had validated in its reception of iconography. At the same time, the periodic, recurring resistance to icons throughout history also reminds me that we need to take great care with icons not to slip into the dangers of idolatry — confusing the finite and created with the infinite and eternal Creator: Abuse does not prohibit proper use, but we still need to be aware of the possibility of abuse and where those boundaries may lie.
Expand: Perhaps this most of all is where I’ve seen the power of this tradition. In my days in the Eastern Orthodox Church, we would venerate icons in a similar way to how we would venerate one another in the liturgy. This embodied connection between the incarnate Jesus Christ, the presence of Christ in the Saints of the past, and in the faithful today was revolutionary for me. It enabled me to see the image and likeness of God in my fellow humans like no other practice, thereby expanding my circle of empathy and causing me to grow in faith. Traditional iconography’s insistence on using natural materials — wood, natural pigments, egg tempera, etc. — is also profoundly ecological, both as a way of offering up God’s good creation back to God in praise and thanksgiving, but also in avoiding plastics and other synthetic materials.
The Theology of C.S. Lewis
Let’s look at a very different kind of tradition now, in how I might receive and apply the thought of twentieth-century Christian writer C.S. Lewis, whose writings have had a tremendous impact on Christianity in the English-speaking world. Much much more could and should be said about all of the below; what follows should be taken as only an example of how the steps of the model could shape how we
Experience: I always have a big experience reading Lewis. Sometimes it’s positive — like his powerful descriptions of Aslan in the Narnia books or the sheer force of Mere Christianity; but sometimes it’s negative — like his at times reactionary social conservatism and use of ideas like ‘civilized’ and ‘savage’.
Encounter: From his writings, C.S. Lewis was clearly a brilliant and creative man. Though he was certainly ‘a man of his times,’ he was also smart enough to know that this was the case. His writing seems to have two simultaneous threads: first, an expansive and wildly creative theological vision (the scene of the lion Aslan playfully leaping as he sings Narnia into existence in The Magician’s Nephew comes immediately to mind), and second, a strong conservatism that emphasized themes such as loyalty and duty, and at times (though not at others) sought to reinforce traditional gender roles (Here, I can’t help but think of That Hideous Strength, in which the main female character finds her purpose in quitting her academic pursuits to be a ‘good’ wife to her husband, and in which the villain is a strongly queer-coded feminist woman!). Ultimately, Lewis is a thoroughly Modern man who was at the same time inspired by the mythology and cosmology of the past, and deeply suspicious of Modernity’s promises of technological and social progress.
Explore: Fascism and the Second World War hang over all of Lewis’ major works. The talks that became Mere Christianity were originally radio broadcasts whose aim was to strengthen and encourage the citizens of the United Kingdom during the years of the Blitz. It has been said that Lewis’ voice was second only to Winston Churchill’s in recognition during the War. These writings were, in a sense, war propaganda, and this unquestionably coloured their emphases and language.
Challenge: This step first asks me to step back and examine my own context. And it’s clear that there are big gaps in context between Lewis’ times and my own — gaps which in large part inform the areas in which I am uncomfortable with his language around race, colonialism, gender, and nation. But it then asks me to interrogate Lewis on precisely those themes: his language, whether intentionally or not, expressed a narrow understanding of ‘civilization’ and prioritized European ways of knowing and being; and, some of his ideas about gender marginalized the experiences of women, particularly in the years right after the War.
Expand: This step requires me to bring as many voices to the table as possible. So, yes, I can rightly question and criticize the aspects of Lewis’ language and social orientation that marginalize experiences of non-European-males. But I also need to receive his wartime experience with empathy — If his context and aims caused him perhaps to overemphasize themes like duty, honour, and loyalty, we have to ensure that our own context and aims don’t cause us to underemphasize them. It’s not a matter of a blanket acceptance or rejection of his wartime writing, but that it requires some added scrutiny and a return to the Scriptures to see how we might use those themes appropriately.