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Tradition: Pitfall and Potential


It is easy, given the cultural trend of our age, to read the words of Jesus concerning tradition (Matt. 15: 1-6) and then climb up on our high horse and engage in a rant. “Yes, he is beating on tradition,” we say. “Giving it what it deserves.” “Tradition is out; the forward look is in.” But this would be a mistake and a careless reading of the passage. Tradition of course has its pitfalls. It can be dangerous and damaging. But in assessing it we must pay attention to the counterbalance found in a verse like 2nd Thessalonians 2:15. “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” As disciples of the Word, we have not the luxury, neither of a complete rejection, nor an unqualified acceptance. Rather we must aim at a good grasp of what tradition is and a mature understanding of how best to relate ourselves to it.

Over the last hundred years or so tradition has been increasingly maligned as a head in the sand phenomenon. I think of Tevye in the popular “Fiddler on the Roof” musical. Interspersed with music, his initial monologue goes like this. “How do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word—tradition” He goes on to say, “Because of our traditions we’ve kept our balance for many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, even how to wear our clothes.” Then comes the punch line. “You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I’ll tell you. I don’t know, but its a tradition.” It is the “I don’t know” that gives it away. Tevye’s whole life is reduced to nothing but a blind, unthinking adherence.

The tradition Tevye is describing is a dead tradition, cut loose from its whys and wherefores and imitated without understanding. But must all tradition be dead tradition? Listening to Tevye we are led to think that it must, that dead tradition is the only kind of tradition there is. Little wonder that throughout the musical the traditions give way at each step to the demands of autonomous selves. It is a sentiment to cheer if you have already consigned tradition to the dust bin of history, but it is a straw man rejection which ignores the reality of tradition’s actual function and role.

Tradition is about continuity, about the passing of something from one to another. It is about the development of patterns of thinking and living that persist through time, giving meaning and identity to the community that adheres to the tradition. A tradition at its best is never an end in itself, but always a means to an end. It is a living thing in living connection with the important issues and questions with which life confronts us. Tradition properly speaking is a rigorously developed answer to life’s questions. The best of traditions embody a cumulative wisdom making the riches of that wisdom consistently available to the community that embraces it. This is the kind of thing Paul is urging in his 2nd Thessalonians statement on tradition.

When we see tradition in this way, as an answer to life’s questions, we realize that tradition is inescapable. We cannot pit the traditional over against the avant garde with the assumed inferiority of the traditional. To answer life’s questions is by default to shape and build a tradition. We do not give up a tradition for something else that is not a tradition. No, we exchange one tradition for another, one set of answers for another, even if the new tradition is only in its nascent stages. And time itself will sitn judgment as to the value and propriety of the answers we choose.

Turning from Paul to Jesus we are reminded again that the best traditions are both hard to build and hard to preserve. Paul uses the word tradition positively, but Jesus alerts us to its pitfalls. (Matthew 15: 1-9; Mark 7: 5-13) Even when the touchstone of a tradition is the very Word of God, tradition can go sour, or to change the metaphor, run off the rails and lead us badly astray. Pride, arrogance, and selfishness can find their way into the embodied patterns; narrow legalisms can blight and blast the rivers of grace; well meaning innovations can distort and diminish the central verities; alien ideologies ingratiate themselves into subtle syncretisms. It is sobering to realize that religious tradition can end up arrayed against God—on both ends of the spectrum, both conservative and liberal. Of this we must be aware.

So then, if tradition is inescapably with us, and the questions of life demand answers worthy of being passed on, how are we to embody this passed on wisdom without falling prey to the pitfalls? To this question I offer four short comments, leaving room, intentionally, for discussion.

1. We will not avoid all the pitfalls. An essential part of moving towards a vigorous and healthy tradition is being willing to recognize when we have gone off the rails, to accept that failure and by God’s good grace to come back on the track.

2. We must realize and acknowledge our need of others. Iron sharpens iron, and the best traditions are formed when we submit our understanding of scripture and the life patterns we draw from it to the review of others who have demonstrated an aptitude for life giving wisdom.

3. We must develop an ability to listen to the Word apart from the arena of theological contest and battle. Though such contests may be essential (as in the book of Galatians) if they come to dominate all our interaction with the Word they will distort our outlook and diminish the growth of the most essential things, justice, mercy and the love of God.

4. Related to the last point, we must pray for an interaction with the Word which is rooted in the experience of Hebrews 4: 12 and 13.

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