I’m attempting this as another post from my phone, written over the weekend and edited in my lunchbreaks. Hopefully, that means it will be short. We’ll see.
Tradition is one issue about which I am quite passionate. On the few occasions I choose not to bite my tongue, I invariably get a torrent of abuse for doing so. This usually happens on Twitter which, due to the character limitations, is rarely the best platform for nuanced discussion. Taking shortcuts in the thinking or using alternative, shorter, words can lead to misunderstanding, which, in my view, is probably the leading cause of disagreements and arguments. It is therefore my hope that I may avoid such unnecessary unpleasantness here.
This should not be seen as any sort of attack or dig at particular groups or individuals. That’s not the sort of thing I would do. Instead, the motivation for speaking out is the hope that it will prompt others to think and have a reevaluation. Though as the post will hopefully go on to show, this may be a bigger obstacle for some given the subject matter.
What do I mean by tradition? Roughly speaking, it’s the practice of doing something on the basis that it has been done before, repeatedly, and for an extensive period of time. This might be done by an individual for a number of years or it could be done by an identifiable group over centuries.
Most traditions are, I believe, benign. Some are helpful, some are unhelpful though some may be positively damaging. I would hope that that statement is relatively uncontroversial. Where we might all differ is on which traditions fall into which categories. Part of the difficulty is that many traditions are ingrained within various cultures to the extent that the traditions help to form a significant chunk of that cultural identity. To question the tradition may be seen to call in question that cultural identity, or even to attack it. If an individual feels strongly identified with that culture then in order to defend it against a perceived attack, the individual will feel compelled to defend the tradition. Please bear this in mind when considering critiques of those traditions which you have a vested interest in. It is not a wholesale attack on on a person’s identity; though if considered rationally it might to lead to some reconsideration of the use of tradition within a given community.
To give an example of a tradition that I would consider benign, having the family and friends of a wedding party sit on a particular side; bride’s family & friends on the left, groom’s family & friends on the right. There’s no functional purpose to this and though it may a cause a little consternation for those who are friends of both, there is neither any great reason to stick to it, nor is there any pressing need to depart from it.
Though I may write about tradition in general, I will often have in mind tradition within the church. As a nonconformist, I do have the luxury of not being tied into any one tradition. Though I have qualms about those who identify themselves through their tradition (or else use the term ‘christian’ as a synonym for their particular tradition), that is not to say that any and all traditions are inherently wrong, misleading or unhelpful. Part of the reason they develop is because of their helpfulness to a particular community in a particular society at a particular time.
Yet that specificity is the seed of why I don’t wholly embrace one tradition or another. The very nature of tradition carries with it a normative overtone that may not translate across cultures and centuries, resulting in a community that can be anachronistic or simply ill-fitted to the society in which it finds itself.
It often strikes me as odd that those who are most passionate about quite radical reform within our present western culture are often those who most strongly defend their own brand of traditionalism. If the church is to be at the heart of God’s plan to renew creation, surely the church has to be the first to change. There is a strange irony here, though. Of the many -isms and -ists that pervade our lexicon, christianity seems to have its fair share. One I recently came across is one that could be used a fair description of me: restorationist (though if you click the link you’ll see it’s quite a jumble). Broadly speaking, though, I hold to the idea that the modern church should have the same aims as the early church. So in some respects, I could be seen as an ultra-traditionalist. Though I would contend that that’s not quite the right way to look at it, as I would not advocate replicating the praxis of the church as it existed then, but rather advocating that a modern praxis should have recognisable echoes of the early church.
The advantage the non-conformist has over the traditionalist is that of picking and choosing what lessons from the past we can best learn from. One need not, say, accept and bind ourselves to everything that is recognisably anabaptist, yet that does not mean we cannot look at their beliefs and practices, adapting the most helpful of these to our present circumstances. In other words, tradition is not something to be adhered to and defended in the face of prevailing circumstances and evidence; and it should certainly not be used as a substitute for scripture. Yet it can be regarded as a useful resource which may be used to help us understand where we have come from and how others have understood scripture, without having to adhere to the lessons of the past unquestioningly.
I’ve tried to talk in generalities here, though if you want more specifics, see other posts I’ve written on liturgical chanting, priests and saints. I hope that clarifies my position, though please do let me know if anything was unclear if there are any points you think I’ve overlooked.