Sunday, February 21, 2010

Living the Tradition

Welcome to the new look of hyperekperissou and to my return to the basics. I think that one of the reasons why I have been having such writers block the last few months (besides sheer busyness) is that I’ve been trying to write entries which were just not me. So, I found myself facing the temptation towards trying to be respectable to the academy and produce ‘useful’ work such as translations or scholarly analyses. Not that this ‘useful’ work is a bad thing. It just doesn’t fit what I want to do with my writing.

For better or worse, I am an amateur patrologist and theologian. I make no apologies because I read the Fathers because I love them, because they are my teachers. I write about them because I want to apply what I've learned from them to my life. If firmly believe that the reason why Christians need to read the Fathers is not to mine them for some nugget of theological data, but rather return ad fontes and rejoice in swimming in that capacious pool from which all Christian thought has sprung.

This, of course, not a mainstream approach to theology or the Christian life. I don't mind that. Yet, what a growing number of Christians are realizing is the extent to which our iconoclastic dismissal of tradition in the later part of last century has brought us is theological incoherence and confusion of tongues. I'm not saying that tradition is a cure-all for all ills facing the Church today. Of course, tradition is a double-edged sword. It can stifle and restrict as often as it guides and supports faith. We all know periods when tradition's weight crushed faith and faithful inquiry. I don't advocate a return to those bad ol' days. I also don't think we're remotely close to that extreme today.

Tradition, at its best, supports faith. It gives the necessary boundaries to allow the faithful to dig deeper into the wealth of experience embodied in the lives of the many millions of faithful departed in the history of the Church. It allows us to learn from the successes and the mistakes of others throughout time. It helps us to see that our answers and even our most time-honoured truths developed over time and, likely, will continue to do so, but within agreed upon boundaries. It also allows us to both disagree with others within our tradition, but, also, allows us the resources to work out those disagreements in a productive and constructive manner. A living tradition is one that intersects with the world around it and develop its own answers to the dilemmas of its time. A tradition which isn't flexible enough to do that is dead and good riddance to it. If a tradition doesn't speak to each successive generation anew, it is worse than useless. It is fit only for the dumpster.

We all live in more than one traditions, whether we chose to acknowledge it or not. Some traditions are religious; others are ethnic; some are simply familial. Still others are cultural including the current tradition embodied by the modern university and the modern journalist. Usually, these traditions coincide quite peacefully with a minimum of friction. Sometimes, traditions clash and create dilemmas for those bound up in both. We are, I suggest, living at a time when the Christian tradition and what can be only called the dominant intellectual traditions clash on a regular basis. While we can always appeal to the strong undercurrent of tolerance which runs in the dominant intellectual traditions today (thank God!), there is no mistaking that it is harder and much less intellectually respectable to be a Christian today than it was, say, fifty years ago. A commitment to the Christian tradition isn't mainstream anymore, but, I submit, our witness to Christ in this increasingly secular world needs to be grounded in this commitment or we will become as rudderless as the culture we find ourselves in.

All this brings me back to what I'm trying to do in this blog. I am not interested in excavating the artifacts of the Christian traditions like little potsherds on an archaeological site. Nor am I interested in creating a two-dimensional gallery of long-dead heroes and heroines of faith. Nor do I want to know my tradition so I can ace a Jeopardy category on dead Christian writers. I want to learn from my tradition, certainly; not only from the good, but also from the bad and the ugly. But, as I know very well from teaching, knowledge is pointless unless it is applied in some relevant way to today's concerns and problems. And that is what exactly what I want to do. I want to learn from the Christian tradition, but, more importantly, I want to use the resources this tradition gives me to explain and to cope with the problems facing Christians today.

All of this is, of course, ambitious and I don't claim any special expertise or wisdom in attempting it. What I do claim is a willingness to listen to the teachings of traditional Christianity and to see how it fits my life. God willing, my reflections on how to apply the insights of my tradition will be useful to more people than just me.


Peace,

Phil

9 comments:

Jim said...

Welcome back!

FWIW
jimB

Jim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim said...

Sorry about the deleted comment - posted something incomplete by accident.

I came back to your post because I had noticed something and was not sure about it. So I re-read. I quote: It {tradition} gives the necessary boundaries to allow the faithful to dig deeper into the wealth of experience embodied in the lives of the many millions of faithful departed in the history of the Church. It allows us to learn from the successes and the mistakes of others throughout time. It helps us to see that our answers and even our most time-honoured truths developed over time and, likely, will continue to do so, but within agreed upon boundaries.

Now when a writer uses the same word twice in three sentences I begin to wonder why. Let me suggest your view of where the church is and is going is informed by a lack of control, a shortage of boundaries. We might agree about that but disagree on whether it is a problem.

I read the story of Jesus's preaching, of the third Isaiah's prophecy, and of almost all of Jeremiah writing as a dismissal of boundaries. In Leviticus, that most boundary setting of documents I read of how the ancient Hebrews were to treat aliens and see a prophecy against boundaries. I see the pharisees trying to impose boundaries. Yet Jesus very deliberately, as he crosses from outside into the holy land violating the boundary, as he heals, forgives, disciplines and even disrupts worship breaching the boundaries of first century Jewish tradition.

So, that three sentence quote trouble me. Want to discuss boundaries?

FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

Hi Jim;

You're right. I did intend to keep the idea of boundaries in the passage, but I wonder if we aren't thinking about two different sets of boundaries. Let me explain what I'm trying to drive at. Then, I'll say what I think you're trying to say.

What was in my mind was the idea that tradition, any tradition, has a set of assumptions about the world which is central to it. These assumptions usually include broad sweeping statements about what the world is like, how do we know what we know and how do we decide something is right- all the sorts of things that philosophers stay up all night hashing out, but which most people just settle into, depending on their tradition (not that philosophers escape these assumptions, they just feel around them a lot). These assumptions compose the framework about how we think and reason about the world. They are, to a large part, what makes sense of the world for us and helps us sort out the tensions that are inevitable when any more than two or three start talking.

So, what this means for Christian tradition is that we assume that there are some common assumptions about the world that we can legitimately expect Christians to believe- God is good, God is full of grace, we know God through his self-revelation, the Bible is somehow important for us to understand God. There is, and should be, a lot of give and take in how the Christian tradition is played out, partly because the Christian tradition is, in fact, fragmented into many pieces with fairly compatable truth claims and partly because of the greater society in which we find ourselves is influncing us in making us shy about making truth claims.

Now, what seems to be concerning you is that it looks to you that, if I'm speaking about boundaries of tradition, I'm speaking about exclusion which Jesus, definitely, wasn't about. You link this to the OT and, especially, with the setting apart of Israel from other nations.

Yet, ironically, Jesus' challenge to the Pharisees isn't a denial of the Law or of tradition, but a clever use of it to open it up. Within Jewish tradition, the Jewish people are set apart, but not because of some inherent virtue of theirs (even a cursory reading of the OT will establish that!), but because God chose them to be a priestly people. That is, Isreal has a special place among the nations agreed, but it was to serve humanity as priests, not to dominate them or eliminate the impurity of non-Jewish blood (heaven forbid!). Jesus, by siding with the weak and marginalized, was utilizing the prophetic tradition of Judaism to bring the nations into the circle formerly the exclusive preserve of Israel. Jesus wasn't so much denying the tradition of Judaism, he was fulfilling the promises of its expansion from a maligned regional sect to a broadly accepted world religion. All this by expanding the bounds of the tradition to include the nations.

So, tradition here didn't need to be narrow, but was only narrowed because of the Pharisee's own understanding of tradition had turned inward, not outward as with Jesus. In that sense, it was the Pharisees who failed to understand how the greater tradition worked because they failed to follow through with the expansive possibilities of Judaism.

Does this help make better sense of what I'm saying?

Jim said...

Phil,

OK. I think we are on at least nearby pages. :-) I mentioned third Isaiah in my post, "My house shall be a house of prayer for all people." If we think of the "boundaries" as some basic assumptions about God and God's relationship with God's creation in general and us in particular then the word stops bothering me.

Let me offer another way of thinking about boundaries that would I think fit differently. A bishop down here once said that God has "built a fence around sex" and that only marriages the he (the bishop) thinks worthy are permitted by God inside the fence. That is another way of thinking about boundaries that I cannot quite see in the revelation. ;-)

FWIW
jimB

Weekend Fisher said...

Welcome back! Glad you're finding your zone.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Phil Snider said...

That is largely what I'm saying. All traditions share assumptions internally. This is why one can't entirely argue someone out of a tradition- it takes an act of conversion which cause one to adopt a different tradition.

Your second example strikes me as a problematic one as well. One can see holiness in the terms you suggset and, I guess, that could extend to sex, but really, I think we'd have the wrong end of the stick if we adopted this image. Holiness is about acting from a place of wholeness which can only be found in God.

Just a few quick thoughts which I hope make sense, given my sleep-deprived state.

Peace,
Phil

Suburbanbanshee said...

It's more like, "God dug the well of good water right here, inside the oasis of marriage. If you wander away from the oasis, be prepared to spend a lot of time living off condensation."

Anyways... what I really wanted to say was that your blog's POV _is_ the mainstream, if you look at it over the long haul. You just want to use the Fathers as intended, not going off onto side issues.
It's like explaining why you're using chalk to make marks.... :)

Anyway, I'm glad you take this view, and I never really thought you didn't.

Phil Snider said...

Thanks suburbanbanshee. I appreciate the observation. It is all to easy to get distracted by the ephemera and forget the true 'mainstream'. I'm glad that to stay in this mainstream because I appreciate its wisdom which outlasts the fads and academic crazes today.

Peace,
Phil