Tradition vs. traditionalism


I've been reading a bit on early church history. Six months ago, had someone told me I would be doing this, I would have disputed the prediction, because I've only ever been a dubious enthusiast of church, or history, and never in favor of anything that involves the word "early." Now I've finished Henry Chadwick's The Early Church, and I'm working my way through Jaroslav Pelikan's five-volume The Christian Tradition. Pelikan drew a distinction between tradition, which he called "the living faith of the dead," and traditionalism, or, "the dead faith of the living." Lately I've felt compelled to sort out this distinction in my life as a Christian, church member, husband, and father. What are the proper rituals of worship and church and family, and why do they matter? What are the traditions of dead faith that must be cast off?

One can err in either direction, I suppose, when it comes to tradition. A critique of the Roman Catholic church, for example, is that it lets rituals obscure the relationship between man and God, hindering the call to "draw near with confidence to the throne of grace." A critique of some modern Protestant churches, meanwhile, is that they are ungoverned by doctrine or discipline. Tradition divorced of meaning is a distraction, while complete independence neglects the wisdom of elders. I imagine one can even err in both directions at once, as in the elaborate rituals of a cult, or the contortions many of us go through to satisfy various family factions during the Christmas season. It is possible to get snared by traditions -- in our churches, our families, even our personal habits -- that serve no important, much less eternal, purpose.

The simple answer is to let our Bibles guide us, but as Pelikan explained, our philosophical worldview -- be it Platonic, as in the case of early theologians, or a pot of pseudo-psychological mush, as with some bestselling authors specializing in "spirituality" -- informs how we read the Bible. Tradition, in other words, is not so easily escaped. His solution was a thoroughgoing knowledge of doctrine and tradition, and an understanding of how each informs the other. Reading Pelikan has been refreshing, in fact, because his view about the illuminating effect of tradition is similar to the respect afforded custom and tacit knowledge by scholars like Michael Polanyi and Friedrich Hayek, oft-forgotten intellectual giants upon whose shoulders modern-day conservatives wobble.

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It is a serious thing, I think, to work out one's salvation with fear and trembling. Thankfully my inadequate worship, these filthy rags I call my righteousness, aren't the keys to heaven. I'm irreverent and rebellious by nature. Perhaps having children leads us to cast about for the wisdom of our ancestors. Or maybe I'm just becoming more curmudgeonly with age. Regardless of the reasons, I feel this call to delve more deeply into the meaning of human worship, this reaching out of the flawed to the divine. Coming as it does in the form of enthusiasm for early church history, it seems nothing less than a miracle. Who would have thought I would be sorting out the differences between Monophysites and Arians and Pelagians? The Lord indeed moves in mysterious ways.

I just hope His plans don't include Greek lessons.


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