Weekly Edgework #45 - May 9, 2005

Tradition Alive

A tradition is only truly a living tradition if, as Edmund Burke says, it constitutes “a partnership between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are yet to be born.” That means it lives and breathes, adjusts to new circumstances, and accommodates to change (Divine Hunger, Peter C. Emberly, 65).

Most of the time when we think of tradition we are thinking of something quite dead. Many people find themselves looking back with nostalgia to a specific period of time, frozen in the past, and wishing that life in the present would look like it did back then. Emberly refers to this false hope as tradtionalism. He notes that, “Traditionalism” is an idolatrous relation to tradition, for it is an attempt to arrest evolution and submit everything that is living to dead authority” (65). Trying to turn back the clock to an ideal time in the past is to attempt magic. And it only comes close to working for those living with illusion.

Those who want to live fully and authentically in the present must give up the notion that they can bring back life as it was in former times. And that is precisely why some people get increasingly frustrated as they get older. With their feet planted firmly in a by-gone era, they find themselves out of sync with what is happening in the present. In their minds the present is only a shadow or a distortion of “the good old days”. The fact is that those days in the past also had their shadow sides. But to the one trying to restore them they are filled only with purity and light.

On the north side of Highway One, between Steinbach and Winnipeg, sit a number of buildings clustered together. Most of the time they appear abandoned. On occasion a car is parked on the lane near the highway. I am told that the main building is an exact replica of the house the owner grew up in somewhere else. For a few years a sign on the highway indicated that these buildings contained a doll collection. But now the sign is gone and the buildings look increasingly forlorn and overgrown. Every time I pass this sorry sight I am reminded that it really is impossible to restore the past.

But I have noticed a similar thing happening with some people in church. They select a specific period of church life in the past and then push to have it recreated in the present. Whatever exists in the present is always critiqued on the basis of their perceptions of a glorious past. Usually the present comes up short. When they are unable to force the contemporary church into their idealized mold, there is nothing left to do but to live out their days estranged from present realities and dreaming of a heaven that matches their ideal time period in the past.

A case in point is the kind of music considered to be appropriate for an authentic worship service. Some of my older friends came to faith in the heat of the revival movements in the 1930s and 40s. The music that accompanied this movement was that of the gospel song with lyrics usually depicting heaven, sung in four-part harmony and preferably accompanied by a piano. A specialized version of this music tradition was the men’s quartet accompanied by a guitar. “Those were the days!” I hear them say. So much better than the chorales their parents had sung and the worship choruses of present day youth.” Judging both what preceded and followed their own glorious past they end their days without a genuine song on their lips.

I am encouraged by Emberly’s notion that a living tradition …breathes, adjusts to new cirmcumstances, and accommodates change. It frees me of the guilt I have sometimes felt as I step over boundaries my parents would have refused to cross. It helps me see that if I try to live within the parameters of an idealized past, I may in fact be unfaithful to a valid tradition. Anything that lives will move and change with time. And so will I. If I insisted on living out my faith today with the same understandings I had as a teenager, I might indeed be quite unfaithful to the tradition within which I found faith.

This understanding casts a new light on Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Thessalonica when he states, So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (II Thessalonians 2:15). Paul wrote these words during a time of great spiritual upheaval. He and the other apostles had been busy for a number of years articulating the broad outlines of the ways of God that Jesus had initiated earlier. Some of these perspectives lined up well with the Jewish Torah. Some moved beyond it and offered new light and life for the present generation. Paul’s letters document an emerging consensus about issues of faith and life in a variety of contexts.

There have always been Christians around who make claims of following the New Testament church in a literal sense. But which church are they talking about? Each church had its specific problems to which the Apostles gave specific advice. The ideal New Testament church is only an illusion. Each had to move beyond some entrenched traditions. Failing to do so would have meant that they were living with dead tradition. Could it be that some of our church traditions are so deeply entrenched that they are already dead? Is the problem rooted in our perception that true tradition is never really alive?

The challenge that remains for me is to allow the tradition within which I live to breathe, adjust to new circumstances and accommodate to change. That may not be the easiest route, but it will likely be more faithful than blindly clinging to visions of a by-gone era.