Saturday, November 20, 2010

The meaning of tradition

We’re just one week from moving into Advent, the season of the liturgical calendar during which we prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s birth by reflection, repentance and renewal of our baptismal vows. That is, if we can spare ourselves the time from the madness surrounding The Holidays, which seem to start earlier every year (the phenomenon I’ve seen referred to, with grotesque aptness, as “Christmas creep”). Indeed, the profane traditions of “Thanksmas” have so multiplied under the beneficent gaze of Mammon that to actually observe Advent you almost have to dispose of all the Santa-Claus-Jack-Frost-and-snowmen crap, retaining—if you must—only a tree and a crèche.

Why do we do this to ourselves every year? The instant response is, “Well, we do it every year because … it’s … traditional,” with maybe a futile shrug and hand gesture that says, “What are you gonna do?” The season itself is so full of chairos, so pregnant with meaning, that we reiterate the accidents as if they were inextricably part of the essence. And perhaps that’s not far from the truth: perhaps it’s a physical manifestation of the spiritual richness of this time, albeit corrupted to a certain extent by Hollywood and Madison Avenue secular concerns.

So if you were looking for a “Bah, humbug!” from me, you’re going to be disappointed. But stay on a bit, because I’m about to go off on another tangent.

Traditions stay with us over the course of years, decades and even centuries, transmitting encoded meanings and evoking allegiances, tying us to previous generations through the continuity of ritual. Consider basic military training: People outside the military subculture often believe that the services waste too much time teaching new servicepeople how to march in formation. But beyond the fact that marching is still a good way to get large groups of people from point A to point B, learning to march instills in the recruits not only unit cohesion (esprit de corps) but also a visceral connection to the ragged band of revolutionary soldiers whom Baron von Steuben made into a real army at Valley Forge … if not all the way back to the legions of Caesar and the phalanxes of Alexander. This feeds recursively back to the cohesion and morale, as the recruit becomes aware of having joined something larger than himself not just in numbers but in spirit and history, and becomes invested in the military not simply as an organization but as a culture, a community and a way of life.

In discussing religious tradition, especially the apostolic tradition of orthodox (small “o”, please) Christianity, there is a tendency to conflate various aspects of tradition, especially what’s known—with some inaccuracy—as “oral tradition”, with each other. The most prominent misunderstanding shows up in Evangelical/fundamentalist treatment of Scripture as something separate from and in opposition to the larger Christian religious tradition.

It would be oversimplifying matters to say that Scripture is a product of the larger tradition; we’re talking about the Word of the Lord, after all. But it’s only within the larger context of Christian religious tradition that we can recognize it as God’s inspired Word. In the non-Judeo-Christian world, it’s a collection of religious stories, different from the “scriptures” of other religious traditions only in that it sets those stories within the context of history; its divine inspiration is, to say the least, not obvious.

Moreover, the larger tradition shapes how we interpret Scripture, both directly (through each church’s hermeneutical rules) and indirectly (through the doctrines taught from the pulpit, the language of the communion, the liturgical worship, etc). In this sense, to steal a metaphor from convert Michael Cumbie, we read Scripture while wearing a pair of glasses provided by our religious tradition.[1]

Let me give an example: The Evangelical reads Matthew 15:1-9, sees Jesus condemn the Pharisees for using the tradition of qorban to violate the Law of Moses, and infers from it not only a general condemnation of tradition but a sense that tradition exists outside of Scripture. However, to Catholics, this interpretation does violence to the point Jesus was getting across, that a narrow, legalistic view of the Law interferes with and detracts from the “weightier matters” of justice, mercy and faith that are the intent and purpose of God’s commandments (23:23). Jesus didn’t condemn all traditions; in fact, as he was  preparing to leap into his “Woe to you” denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, he began by saying that the Jews ought to practice and observe whatever the scribes and Pharisees told them to (23:2-3)! Furthermore, he violated this condemnation by setting up a tradition of his own: the Eucharist. Finally, we’re not justified in generalizing it to all tradition precisely because it was aimed at the Pharisees’ use of tradition: a bad review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I doesn’t by itself lead us to the conclusion that all movies are bad.

But what of Saint Paul’s words: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Col 2:8 NIV)? Tradition, in this exhortation, is modified by the word human, which necessarily imports a distinction: not all tradition is necessarily human in origin or inspiration.[2] To conclude the opposite—all traditions are human—is akin to saying that, because X talks about a red Ford Taurus, all Ford Tauruses must be red. Paul himself made use of oral tradition as a means of teaching the faith, telling the Corinthians, “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you” (1 Cor 11:2 NIV), and commanding the Thessalonians, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings [paradosis, = "traditions"] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15 NIV; emphasis mine).

Saint Paul tells us that “All Scripture is God-breathed [i.e., inspired by God] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16 NIV) …. However, “all Scripture” doesn’t mean the same as “only Scripture”; useful does not mean sufficient (or even necessary, though I’ll cheerfully concede that Scripture is integral to Christianity). Nothing the Church Fathers wrote in the three or so centuries prior to the formal definition of the canons of Scripture indicates that they thought of it as comprising everything Christians needed to know for their salvation. For instance, St. John Chrysostom, speaking of the passage from Thessalonians, commented, “Hence, it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther” (Homilies on Second Thessalonians 4). And, in a passage too long to quote here, St. Vincent of Lérins reminded his audience that, even if we grant Scripture material sufficiency, Scripture is so deep and complex that a long list of heresiarchs had been led into error by interpreting it without guidance from the Church, even before the fifth century in which St. Vincent lived: Scripture by itself is formally insufficient to act as a catechism (Commonitory 5).

But what about the loss of fidelity, the accretions of legend that oral tradition is subject to? The modern secularist-inspired idea of oral history suffers from an inapposite comparison to parlor games like “Telephone”, which bears as much resemblance to it as an Estes rocket bears to a Saturn V or Minuteman III missile. Linguists and anthropologists who have studied the operation of oral history have noticed that cultures tailor it to optimize its “signal-to-noise ratio”, to maximize the integrity of the message over the long run, depending on what’s to be transmitted. In 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, and again in 15:3-8, we have an echo of its operation in passing down elements of the Faith, in the use of simple blocks of information learned by repetition.[3] In this respect, the liturgy also functioned (and still functions) as a catechetical tool, teaching through ritual as well as formalizing worship.[4]

Tradition, then, is not an un-Christian element. It isn't hostile to Scripture; indeed, without it, there would be no Scripture per se to be hostile to. Rather, it forms the matrix in which our beliefs as Christians are handed down throughout the ages, the ties which bind the Christian in Barack Obama's United States to the Christian in the Rome of Tiberius Caesar, the environment in which a disparate collection of Jewish literature can be recognized as the inspired Word of God.

Religious tradition is "the golden thread" of the True Faith. To escape it, one would have to step outside of Christianity altogether.

[1] Not even non-Catholics can escape this framing aspect of tradition. Atheists can’t even claim to see Scriptures straight-on, because not wearing glasses is no proof that your vision needs no correction.
[2] The reference to “elemental spiritual forces” seems to be a reference to Gnosticism, which was present in the Mediterranean world prior to Christ’s ministry and which would attempt to take over Christian symbols and figures during the next couple of centuries.
[3] Christians are fortunate, though, that Christ’s life and ministry took place within the confines of Jewish culture, which for that time was singularly literate … so much so that to intrude even twenty years between his ascension and the first written accounts of him smacks of agenda-driven scholarship. So why didn’t they write a comprehensive guide to their faith? Because they were passing it on to mostly-illiterate goyim!
[4] Which is why Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, Catholic blogger and maven of all things liturgical, has as one of his mottoes, “Save the Liturgy, Save the World”.