Monday, December 11, 2006

Delivered from traditions which have lost their life....

Father Jake has a discussion going which I've had many times with myself. To cut to the chase (read his post for full context, if you like), the core of the matter is here:

"...Christians often define tradition as fixed, conflating it with ideas of custom, convention routine, and endowment. In this perspective, tradition must be maintained, guarded, protected, and perpetuated. Such definitions of tradition, however, are becoming increasingly untenable with philosophers and theorists as they recognize that tradition is essentially a dynamic concept, whereby 'continuity is capable of incorporating even the innovations and reinterpretations demanded by the present.' Sociologist Wade Clarke Roof suggests these two views are in constant tension in contemporary faith communities. 'Religious tradition persists, and will continue to do so,' he argues, 'but in one of two fundamental ways: either as a 'lived tradition,' and thereby in a constant state of reenactment, or hardened into rigid doctrines and moralisms'" (p. 40).

Dr. Bass suggests that the relationship between tradition and change is more complex than this. She offers French social theorist Georges Banlandiers' three forms of traditionalism:

"1. Fundamental traditionalism "upholds the maintenance of the most deeply rooted values and models of social and cultural observance" and is marked by sense of permanence;

"2. Formal traditionalism "makes use of forms that are upheld but changed in substance; it establishes a continuity of appearances, but serves new designs"; and

"3. Psuedo-traditionalism enables a "new construction" of tradition by interpreting the past and assuming continuity while recognizing disorder. It is a stance that calls on the past and, at the same time, "appeases" modernity" (p. 41).

In our current unpleasantness, it seems to me that we tend to group all those who disagree with us in Banlandiers' first category. They, in turn, tend to group us in his second category. I suspect the truth is that many of us actually fall into the third category; Roof's "lived tradition," also referred to by Dr. Bass as "fluid retraditioning."

As I was saying last night, I think that, eventually, our differing perspectives may discover that we need each other. We need a core of "tradition" that roots us in the faith of the apostles. But we also need that tradition to be lived in such a way that it is communicated to today's world, meaning that it will be constantly expressed in new ways that meet people where they are right now.

Without a core, we may lose who we are. Without flexibility, we can become irrelevant.
My metapor of choice for this is the circus tent. No, not because the church is s circus notable mostly for its clowns, or because it goes around in circles. Let me get that out of the way early. No, a circus tent because a big tent needs something to hold it up, and that something can either be identity, or tradition.

Identity is crucial, of course; it is what makes a group. A group cannot form without an identity, and it will form an identity of its own, even if it is given one from another source. Tradition, then, is simply a source of identity. It can be a rich, life giving one, or it can be a fossilized bone, a petrified tree in which all that once lived has now been replaced by inert stone. But back to the circus tent.

A small tent can be held up by a central pole, with a few stakes holding up the rest of the tent. However, with only a central pole, the tent itself centers there, and can't go very far in any direction away from that pole. This is "identity:" central to the endeavor, but quite limiting. The more the group clusters around the pole, the less the group wanders about seeking new things, new corners, if nothing else. And the less room there is for diversity in the group, as the group must stay around the pole, or leave the tent altogether.

Tradition is the outer edges of the tent, the smaller poles, the stakes, even a number of poles, that keep the tent up, but make it large, capacious, open to many. No part of the tent is better or more important than any other part of the tent. No one pole is central to the meaning and purpose of the tent. If ever it is, of course, that pole becomes the idol of the group, the reason for its existence, and sooner or later, that pole snaps. If our God is a living God, then our traditions are living traditions; and here the metaphor becomes quite awkward, because we have no metaphors for living things that don't involve control: and over God we certainly have no control.

The Celtic church reportedly used the metaphor of the wild goose for the Holy Spirit, since the Spirit goes where it wills, and no one can control it. We prefer to channel the spirit. When I was a student pastor, I was only licensed to perform the sacraments on the grounds of my church. As a friend in seminary said, for me the Holy Spirit was tethered to the church steeple, and I left it behind when I strayed too far from that spot. Control is our preferred sense of things, and that God is beyond our control is the mysterium tremendum par excellence. A tent pole gives us a greater sense of control than a large tent that seems to hold itself up, with only minor maintenance from us. Has there been a struggle between two factions of the church since at least 1945? No doubt. That was about the time the work of German scholars reached these shores. We are an immigrant community, an immigrant culture, which means we cling to the traditions of the lands we abandoned, long after the homeland has abandoned them as no longer useful. Those traditions we left behind are our identity, which is a large measure of why America is such a conservative culture in many ways. The work of Bultmann and others disturbed the nature of our understanding of God and church and scripture, and we are still reeling from those ideas, just as we are still recovering from the Romantic revolution, which is been over so long it has become not revolutionary but status quo, the measure against which we now mark all change today. We depart from Romanticism at our peril, still. It is our cultural tent pole.

Just as Pietism is, itself prompted by the Romantic movement. Wheels within wheels within wheels. But if we insist on gathering around one tent pole, on clinging to one way of doing things because it is the one we know best, we make an idol of our identity, and we push tradition aside in the name of tradition. (Irony of ironies, saith the Preacher, if he/she were here today.) Indeed, some of "pseudo-traditionalism" is a product of the Romantic movement, which looked to an idyllic past in hopes or recovering authenticity. It is to the Romantics that we owe the idea of the "divided self," even the arguments over Hellenism v. Hebraism, Dionysus v. Apollo; self-actualization v. a life of quiet desperation. But that wasn't new with the Romantics, either. The Renaissance didn't aim to be original, but to recapture the glories of Rome and Athens. It started us on a cycle that American Protestantism has echoed since the first, international "Great Awakening." The Enlightenment which gave rise to the US Constitution revived Greco-Roman architecture and put English grammarians, convinced Latin was the "perfect tongue" because the Romans spoke it, as watchdogs over our "mongrel speech." That the Romantics sought to look back to Bacchus, not Socrates, was only a shift in emphasis. We've been at this a long time, still declaiming that "our group," be it stalwarts for "real rock 'n' roll" or for "the traditions of the apostles," truly upholds the traditions that once made this earth a demi-paradise, or will make it one tomorrow. In the end, it is always about the identity of the group proclaiming the threat to "tradition."

But tradition is not the tent pole; it isn't even the tent. In a truly big tent, there are many tent poles, some more central than others, but none unimportant. And over time, the poles wear out and get replaced; perhaps oak replaces maple, or pine replaces cedar. Perhaps smaller poles have to be used for awhile, and then larger ones. The stakes around the tent have to be replaced, too; and from time to time they are larger, rounder, more pointed, more refined, rougher; often there is a mishmash of styles of poles and stakes, and even ropes: hemp and plastic and wire and what have you. And the tent itself is patched, repaired, replaced, removed entirely in some sections where it is no longer used at all. Perhaps one day even the word "tent" will have no meaning, and the stakes and ropes and poles will be replaced with technologies as yet unimagined. But the idea of the tent will remain. And that, in the last analysis, is the tradition; the living tradition.

Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.


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