Sunday, June 20, 2004


Chad asked on his blog how people can defend "tradition and status quo" in light of the Gospel that, to finish his implication, “makes all things new.” Here are some of my thoughts about that question.

Dear Chad,

Since we’re talking about tradition and change, let me tell you a joke about a discouraged Orthodox priest. He’s talking with his Baptist friend about diminishing numbers. “Well,” says the Baptist, “have you tried to change some of your features?” “Change?” answered the Orthodox priest. What is this – ‘change’?”

Jaroslav Pelikan once famously said, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." I agree with G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis and Pelikan (to name only a nano-fraction of those of the same mind) that tradition is important because it is one of the best defenses against “the tyranny of the present.” Chesterton argued in his outstanding book, Orthodoxy that it is precisely by having an unchanging vision of a better world that we are able to alter the present world. As Lewis argued in his preface to Athanasius’ classic De Incarnatione Dei Verbi (On the Incarnation of the Word of God), once we shrink our perspective to the present times only – once we read only the “new books” – we are enslaved to our own immediate assumptions, our own immediate biases, our own immediate needs. And, to haul out a famous truism, “Those that ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” (Of course, for a Nietzschean, this would be rendered, “Those who repeat history are forced either to ignore it or embrace it! Thwack!”) Precisely by having a living knowledge of the way things were before they are the way they are now is the best way to challenge the way things are now. If you’ve read 1984, you’ll recall Big Brother systematically erased the past. Big Brother erased the past – often literally – primarily in order to put blinders on people’s sense of the possibilities of life outside “the way things are now.” We can only challenge the status quo by knowing the status ante.

But I have a feeling that you, as a student of history, accept all this already. It’s unfortunate that you (unwittingly, I’m sure) opposed “orthodoxy” to “change.” The issue is not about “orthodoxy” versus “change,” as if truth were necessarily opposed to change. Rather, this dispute is about the tension between honoring the past and honoring the present. We need the past in order to see outside of the present. But we also must look into the present. The fundamental issue your church must face is whether the traditions we defend compromise the Gospel. You deny that such unbending, mulish resistance even to small changes is defensible in terms of living the Gospel. And I agree: such maladaptiveness is worthless.

But I also think the old Ents in your church are working from a good instinct. It often gets lost in the heat of habituated Bible-verse-slinging, but Jesus did not condemn tradition as such (in Mark 7), but only traditions that break the back of the commands of God. (This protest, incidentally, is the basis for Seventh-Day Adventists’ et aliae rejection of Sunday worship. But that’s a separate story.) Paul explicitly praised the Corinthians for holding to the traditions he passed onto them, traditions which he himself had received from his predecessors in Christ (see 1 Cor 11:2, 15:3). More than that, Paul commanded the Thessalonians (and, by implication, all churches) to hold fast to the written and unwritten traditions he had given them (see 2 Thes 2:15). This ardent defense of “the tradition of the Gospel” was meant to be preserved in a succession of bishops and presbyters as long as the Church should last (see 2 Tim 2:2; Act 1:20ff, 20:27ff; Titus 1:5, 2:1). So, clearly, these Ents have a biblical basis for wanting to preserve what they received.

The question then centers on whether their traditions have apostolic sanction. And it should be obvious that the length of your tie and the placement of your fried chicken is not part of the deposit of faith (Jude 3). Of course, you too must face the same hard question: do your preferences for “tweaking” the Church for “the sake of the Gospel” have any weight in the balance of apostolic authority? Being relevant can be as much an idol as mulish traditionalism. People don’t need seeker-friendly environments as much as they need God-seeker environments.

A final thought about tradition: I think our age could do well with a hefty dose of it. We, and especially we in the Church, need to be rescued from the tyranny of the present like never before. Our memories have become as instantaneous as our cooking. We already want to download knowledge (a la The Matrix). Soon enough we’ll want to download memories: so much faster than experiencing things for ourselves. (It’s like we’re determined at all costs to prove Qohelet in Ecclesiastes wrong. “There IS something new under the sun! There is, there is, there is! See! AOL Instant Messenger 5.1!”) Our era needs something that is temporally bigger than it, certainly not something else any commercially bigger. It sounds pretty hollow to say we are “one” with all believers when, as a matter of historical fact, we (intentionally or unintentionally) cut ourselves off not only from what the Church before us believed but also when we ignore it while we’re worshiping in what we’re too happy not to see is simply the latest praise fad. Daniel was awed by the Ancient of Days. I think people need to be awed by the ancient days.

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