My job recently had me in a hotel at the location of “the big game” of the college football weekend. Both schools have a long tradition in college football. Both schools are ranked in the Top 10. Both schools are undefeated. This game has implications for the eventual college national championship.
The town is full of supporters from both schools and there is quite a palpable energy in everyone I meet who is associated with either school. In each camp there is a shared experience among alumni that transcends age, gender, race, and ethnicity. Strangers become friends as they share in something bigger than they each are.
My Dad attended one of the schools, so I have a favorite in the game; however, I am not really vested in the game. In fact, I’m quite outside of the experience of those around me, unable to really connect even were I to wear the team logo. I am outside the experience because I never shared the experience of the traditions of my Dad’s school; I am not part of its history and its history is not in me. I am not a continuation of the stories of the people who attended, the heroes and anti-heroes and just plain folk. It is the shared experience of the tradition makes the community and the community passes on the traditions.
Every strong culture has its long-held traditions. These cultures can be as diverse as ethnic groups, religious groups, colleges, military branches or units, and even gangs…each, if it is a strong community, has traditions that are kept by the community and passed on to willing participants by the community. One’s participation in the established cultural tradition is the way one becomes part of the community.
In 1943, C.S.Lewis published a book entitled The Abolition of Man in which he critiqued the English educational system breaking from passing on tradition. He said:
[Previous generations of educators] did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly.
Lewis’ point: without the educators “handing on what they had received,” our understanding of what it is to be human would diminish to the point abolishment.
In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia and tried to remake the Cambodian culture with mass killings. They instituted Zero Year in which they determined to destroy or discard all Cambodian tradition and begin anew (beginning with year zero) from scratch. Like the communist re-education camps, their aim was to remake culture by abolishing the old.
The central pole in the Christian tent is that of our becoming. We are to partake of God’s divine nature, to become one with Him as the Three, Father, Son and Spirit, are one. An early saying of the Church was that we are becoming by Grace what God is by nature. To be a Christian is not just to have a “personal relationship with Christ” but to become part of the body of Christ, which is the Church. The Church must be a faithful keeper and transmitter of the tradition of the community. To be part of this community and to experience its fullness, you must experience life within the community. There is no other way to “become” like Christ. From within our engagement with the Church, the Way, the Truth, and the Life is transmitted to us.
In western Protestant Christianity, tradition has gotten a bad rap. I grew up in a small Midwestern town. There was one “parochial” school, a Catholic elementary school. Some of my friends had to eat fish on Fridays (this was in the days prior to Vatican II). In my Protestant Church I learned about the heroes of the Reformation and how they rescued the faith from “those Catholics” who, among other things, held to tradition.
And yet, Protestant Churches have their own traditions. Alter calls, the “sinners prayer,” Sunday worship as a song followed by a time of greeting then two more songs then a forty minute sermon and a closing song…all tradition. We simply cannot “become” without tradition even if we have to reform them.
Now, imagine following Jesus around during His time of ministry. Think of what you would have seen, learned, and experienced about what it was to live as a Christian. Imagine seeing Jesus’ mother, Mary, to observe up close the day-to-day life of the one “highly favored” and chosen by God. “Arghhh,” we might says we looked at our own lives, “that is what it looks like to live as a highly favored one of God!” Imagine following Peter or Paul…wouldn’t you be immersed so much more in the ways of living a life of Christ than had they simply tossed you a book to read!
The cry of the Reformers was Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. And yet from Scripture alone the reformers, Luther, Zwingli, then Calvin, could not agree on a central dogma of Christianity: the Eucharist. Something more than Scripture must be needed.
Scripture itself is a product of tradition and is foremost among the traditions. Scripture we have today was finally determined because the Churches of the 300s were all generally reading the same writings. In other words, the canon of Scripture we now have simply came from the Church leaders recognition that these were the traditional books being read. And, the Church members agreed to keep reading them.
Now some will argue that Jesus was angered by tradition. He is sometimes referred to as a rebel because He was no fan of some of the Jewish tradition of His day. “Woe to you…hypocrites…” were His words to those who had created tradition in the name of religion that they might enhance their own power and stature. But He also followed tradition, engaging in the manner of worship common during His time.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” His life is the way of Christian life in as much as we are able to follow Him in our fallenness. The Apostles received this life of the Father from Christ through the Spirit. They who succeeded the Apostles passed on this way of life to the next generation (Paul: “I give to you what I received by tradition…”), and they to the next, to the next, to the next…down to us. We inherit a way of life from within the Church: a community formed by Tradition, that keeps the Tradition, and passes on the Tradition.
Andrew Louth, in his book, Discerning the Mystery, suggest this:
…ultimately the tradition of the Church is the Spirit, that what is passed on from age to age in the bosom of the Church is the Spirit, making us sons in the Son, enabling us to call on the Father, and thus share in the communion of the Trinity.
By distancing ourselves from Tradition we have lost our way. There are tens of thousands of Christian denominations in the world, each claiming to have the right interpretation of Scripture. We are not the “one, holy, apostolic church” of our early creed and I don’t think we can reformulate the meaning into a spiritual oneness rather than a physical oneness. I believe Jesus meant what He said when He told us we were one. Paul, too, said we were to be one Church, one body of Christ. How can we hope to show others the truth of God if we cannot settle on it ourselves.
From Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof):
But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!
Tens of thousands of denominations, the Church is indeed losing her balance. What is the path forward? Tevye says it: Holy Tradition. That which was received by the Apostles and passed on is still in practice today. Come home and see.
If you want to read more, you might enjoy these articles:
Scripture and Tradition
Teaching the Tradition