‘Tradition’ is not a word that is greeted with much enthusiasm in our time. Whether used in a religious context or otherwise, ‘tradition’ can be taken to refer to all that is past and therefore obsolete, the residue of a life once lived as it’s been described. Talk of tradition can seem especially off-putting in an age in which innovation and spontaneity are prized above all else and in a culture which interprets itself, quite naively, as the fulfilment or highpoint of all that went before (despite much evidence to the contrary).
In today’s climate, to be ‘traditional’ is to be irrelevant, behind the times, and trapped in misguided nostalgia for a mythical ‘Golden Age’ (as an aside, it was the late American poet and critic Randall Jarrell who said that even in a Golden Age people would go around complaining how yellow everything looks).
In contrast to that view, Catholic faith has understood ‘tradition’ as a dynamic, necessary and even creative force. Indeed, tradition has much more to do with keeping a fire going than preserving ashes. The inheritance of the past, including sacred texts, signs and practices, is read by the Church not as an obstacle to creative living in the present but as the very medium of Christian identity, growth and even development in the here and now.
Tradition continually shapes our self-understanding and identity as disciples of one who came before us and, what is more, provides almost limitless possibilities for thinking and living faithfully into the future. This is because the ‘handing on’ involved with tradition is not an object or artefact but God’s revelation in the living Christ and so it can take us into the future rather than restricting us to the past.
Given its centrality to culture and the Christian tradition, it is fitting that the theme of tradition is being addressed by the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, at a conference next week. I’ll be attending when I can, in between work commitments and a road trip south to a neighbouring diocese. You can read more about the UNDA Tradition Conference here.
Perhaps a point to make on this subject is that all of us, knowingly or otherwise, are immersed in tradition. This is because we are not the first human beings to have ever lived. Each of us is born into a universe of words, concepts, symbols, and narratives that is not of our making, that was there before us and that we did not invent (even those who claim to be atheist or ‘spiritual but not religious’ for that matter operate, to some degree, in relation to an existing religious tradition, if only to reject it).
Tradition reminds us no one ‘starts from scratch’ or escapes their historical conditioning no matter how ‘contemporary’ or in vogue one seeks to be. In the arts, science and technology, as in religion, there is an inheritance or bequest from those who came before us that shapes – without ever completely determining – our present thinking and future aspirations at the deepest levels. Rather than being a source of embarrassment or condemning us to aggressive backwardness, tradition can open up fresh ways of interpreting the business of being human in a new time. The theologian Aidan Nichols concludes that, ‘contact with tradition is vital to every human generation because of the need for keeping open all possible imaginative options.’
It goes without saying that tradition is essential to a Catholic understanding of faith. The point of reference for Christian disciples is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, an historical event unchangeable in itself, that continues to be received by believers through their communal interpretation and expression of this experience through the ages and into the present. As individual believers we do not receive this event of revelation into our lives unmediated but depend on the communal memory, testimony and practices of those generations of disciples that went before us, that is, the Spirit-guided communion which is the Church.
Drawing on the language of Henri de Lubac, the Church is at heart ‘a life being passed on’ and it is the Church’s manifold tradition – including texts, teachings, images, embodied practices, narratives, theological insights, characteristic ways of speaking and acting, forms of sociality, worship and beyond – that transmits and makes accessible that sacred life from generation to generation.
Finally, given the tendency to think of tradition in static terms, it is also important to insist that each generation of believers must make this inheritance of faith truly their own, by receiving it, seeking to understand it and applying it in their own lives and in the circumstances of their time. It is only by this active and ongoing participation in tradition by disciples today, under the guidance of the Spirit, that what has been received can be passed on in a living condition and not as a museum piece or relic.
The Jesuit scholar Edward Yarnold reminds us of this living dimension of tradition when he writes,
. . . tradition is not the handing on of tablets of stone for the guidance of every age. In this process [of tradition] the act of applying the word to the situation becomes itself part of the tradition. What the Church proclaims today becomes in its turn part of the reservoir of memory on which tomorrow’s proclamation will draw.
So, as disciples of our time, we are not only inheritors of a tradition, ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) but participants and ‘extenders’ of it, called to pass on through witness, testimony, practices and signs that baptismal and eucharistic unity we ourselves have received. I’m looking forward to the Tradition Conference as an opportunity to learn more about this dynamic at the heart of the Church’s life, growth and mission.
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