Tradition

“…what I in turn had received” (1 Cor 15:3, NRSV)

 

I grew up wanting to believe that I was not much like my Dad, although I was not a very vigorous rebel.  I remember sitting across the table from Dad and thinking, “Boy, are you wrong about that,” without saying a word.  Beginning in my twenties and accelerating in my thirties when I became a father myself, I began to realize, for example, that my parenting style was patterned on Dad’s; that while we do not think the same thoughts, we certainly think the same way; that I learned my most deeply cherished values from him.  Long since, I have admitted to myself and to others that my father’s heritage lives on in me with vigor.  It has been a good thing.  I know myself better, more honestly.  I understand better whence and whither, why and how.  I am no creation ex nihilo, no self-made man.

A few years ago I saw a PBS documentary about a man who had suffered severe memory loss as the result of encephalitis.  He could not form short-term memories. He knew things, but only in the present.  He could not remember that he played the piano beautifully.  He surprised himself every time he sat at the piano in the parlor of the long-term care facility and discovered yet again that he was a pianist.  His wife visited faithfully every day, but he never remembered her visit yesterday.  What horror!  Can you imagine living life in the present only, disjoined, each moment totally unconnected?

Tradition plays the role of memory for a society; it is memory across generations.  The detail of human existence change across time, but people, their possibilities, and their problems remain fundamentally the same.  It is imperative that we remember and maintain the truths that our ancestors established and that we avoid the proven mistakes.

I suppose that one of the eternals of human nature is the tendency of each generation to consider itself supremely modern, to pity the oldsters for their old-fashionedness, to determine not to be like their parents.  Have you ever considered the contrary notion, that we moderns owe almost everything to those who have preceded us?  Without the ever-flowing stream of tradition, we would find ourselves in an arid wilderness, indeed.  Without tradition, within one generation, no one would be able to synthesize aspirin, construct a bridge, or read the Bible in the original languages, or, for that matter, read at all.  Most of us have studied the mathematical systems of the ancient Greeks Euclid and Pythagoras in high school.  They are still valid mathematical descriptions of the universe under certain conditions over 2,000 years after their first statements.  We can thank the former gladiator Galen, Pasteur and Lister, and Curie for teaching us about the circulatory system, sterilization, and radiation, respectively.  The human capacity for creation and celebrating beauty flows throughout human history from Ovid and Du Mu, to Keats and Hopkins and Soyinka, from Scarlatti and Hayden to Mahler and Bruckner, Jelly Roll Morton and Esperanza Spalding.

No, ignorance is not bliss; ignorance of tradition is blindness, it is crippling egocentrism, even solipsism; it is historical isolationism; it robs us of the rich heritage of our forefathers and foremothers.  We are our parents’ children.  We think like them, we reincarnate their possibilities for meaningfulness and their tendencies toward self-limitation.  We dare not fail to attend to their teachings.

All of this pertains to the contemporary church, I think.  Times have changed.  In the West, people have a different relationship with religion, generally, than they did a generation ago.  The church seems on the decline.  Consequently, many are now searching for new ways to “do church.”  It is almost a commonplace that the old ways of denominations, programs, and buildings must yield to new forms of community, to authenticity, and to other-oriented “missional” approaches.  The danger, of course, lies in the possibility that the new things being born today may lose contact with their roots.

Moses once instructed the ancient Israelites,

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when your rise…When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of [these] decrees and…statutes…and…ordinances…” then you shall say to [them], “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”   (Deut 6:6-7, 20-21; NRSV)

Luke began his Gospel with the comment that, “…[M]any have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the world….” (Luke 1:1, NRSV).  Paul assured the Christians in Corinth, “… I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received…” (1 Cor 15:3, NRSV).

Contemporary Christians face challenges that call for adjustments in the tradition, but they do not call for abandoning it.  The responsibility is not to transmit the tradition mechanically.  Christian tradition emphasizes not only truth, but the search for it.  It seeks not only to appreciate beauty, but also to create it.  It calls not only for an understanding of goodness, but also for the extension of its realm.  It lives.  It cannot be transmitted in an unopened container.

I am my parents’ son.  Their genes determined mine.  Their guidance shaped my character, my tastes, and my values.  I am not a clone, however.  Personal maturity involves celebration of the parental heritage and engagement with it through one’s own unique life.  The Christian tradition calls upon each generation to embrace its core principles and to give these principles a new voice, a new incarnation appropriate for a new day.  Could it be that the church faces difficulties today, not because it needs novelty, but because it has lost a vital connection with its roots?  Have structures and programs stifled the flame?  Can we find the ember in the ash-heap?