Head to Head
As the apparently relentless tide of
secularism sweeps across the planet, so also do Christian traditions
tend to gradually disappear. Where once they animated and pervaded
Western civilisation, they now barely appear in the consciousness of a
large majority. The debate between Rick
demonstrates the gap between those Christians who want to move on
from traditions maintained for their own sakes, and those who regard
them as valid and worthwhile enough to be preserved across time.
The word tradition can be used to denote a number of meanings. It can refer
to religious practice, such as the Christian tradition, or Muslim
tradition, or to a body of social custom such as the tradition of
Halloween in the United States. In a general sense it denotes the
handing down of information, beliefs and customs by word of mouth from
one generation to another usually without the benefit of a written text.
Tradition may also refer to a continuity of social attitudes, customs
and institutions such as that associated with an institution of higher
learning such as the Yale or Harvard traditions. It may apply to any
organization of human activity as for instance the tradition of brewing
beer or the Mayo Clinic tradition.
There are a number of common
threads in each of the definitions. First, there is the dimension of
time past or history. Second, there is an act of transmitting to another
generation a body of information deemed worthy of preservation that has
come out of the past, having been tested by elders and experience.
For all intents and purposes,
every human being is subject to tradition in the course of maturation.
It cannot be avoided except by extraordinary efforts and means.
I have previously asserted that
human consciousness is a composite of time past, time present and time
future. This I have termed the
cell of consciousness. Similarly, there is a corporate or
again composed of the three time elements described above. In order for
communal consciousness to be fulfilled and stable, all of the
temporal elements must be satisfied. Thus, the element of tradition or
time past, is essential to the integrity of communal consciousness.
Once there is integrity of
communal consciousness, the individual members of a community become the
beneficiaries of the positive effects of
in their maturation. They become aware of who they are and what is their
place and function within the community. This process imparts a sense of
balance, predictability and security within a changing world.
For the most part I see
tradition as a good. Traditions can change and evolve to meet current
circumstances. Traditions may even die out completely; if they become
abrasive to the community they may even have a detrimental effect. It is
for each community to husband those traditions that best meet their
needs and circumstances.
In my own family, traditions are
rich revolving around Christmas, New Year and Thanksgiving Day. Also,
birthday celebrations are
particularly rich with traditions that make our grandchildren squirm
with joy and anticipation. Even family dogs participate with delight. I
know that all these traditions have had a positive effect on the
development of character in my children and their children.
After this long prologue, I
know, Mick, you are chomping at the bit to get a word in about how the
Church has abused tradition particularly as it has used revelation in
Your description of tradition is attractive. I certainly won�t dispute
its general outlines, while its particular demonstration in your family
another case. I come from a country where a centuries-old tradition that
indigenous neighbours were barbaric savages, best kept separate from
civilised people, eventually became the legal system we now know as
Apartheid. It was a �communal consciousness� highly valued by a
large group, many of whom struggled and died for it.
Isn�t there a negative side to
tradition, especially when it�s valued for its own sake? What of
cultural tradition when it becomes fossilised, when it fails to adapt to
Once upon a time, a
newly-married man noticed with considerable surprise that his wife cut
off one end of the Christmas turkey before putting it in the oven. When
he asked her why she did this she responded, �Because my mother always
did it that way.� When the couple asked Grandma why she did it,
she said, �Because our oven wasn�t big enough to take a whole turkey.�
I would suggest the term tradition be used only in reference to groups
and not a single person as you cite in the curious Christmas turkey
story. That would be better classified as a misinformed habit.
But I agree with you completely
that certain traditions such as
(I would also include
have horrendous implications for a given society.
As I stated earlier, traditions
can change and some may even die out. All traditions need periodic
re-evaluation to ask what were the original sources of the tradition,
and is it serving a good purpose? Critical to this discussion is the
question, who or what forces can and should trigger such re-evaluation
and who has the authority, will, and power to effect appropriate
I am of the opinion that the
best source of scrutiny is from within the tradition-group when
possible. Those personally affected by or living within the tradition
have the experience and sense of the deep meaning of the tradition to
make meaningful change.
So far we have been talking about tradition in a general sense. We�ve
noted that traditions can be deliberately created and deliberately
changed. So in the USA an annual Thanksgiving was informally celebrated
by many after 1863 or thereabouts. In 1941 it was made official by
President Roosevelt, thus gaining force, permanence and an element of
obligation. Similarly, Adolf Hitler created the tradition of a Third
Reich as legitimately following a First Reich (the Holy Roman Empire
from around 800) and a Second Reich (from around 1871).
are other kinds of tradition. One such is that created by Plato about
Socrates. We know relatively little about the former apart from what
we�re told by Plato - and yet many believe things about Socrates as
though those things are independent of Plato. That is, they have
formed a tradition about Socrates, even though in Plato�s works Socrates
is actually a character who puts forward Plato�s views.
Christians today are ignorant of is that much of what they accept about
Jesus is tradition, not history. Early Christianity had many traditions
about what Jesus said and did which were put down in writing to preserve
them for the future. Few people in those times could read or write, so
the very act of putting pen to paper formed a validation of traditions
similar to that carried out by President Roosevelt or Adolf Hitler. Only
four of many Jesus-traditions were eventually legitimised by the
Now, as you
say, there�s nothing intrinsically wrong with either celebrating or
scrapping traditions. They often perform valuable duty, personal and
social - and just as often fall by the wayside. The gospels do contain
some history, though it is hard to separate it out from what is a maze
of hearsay, theology and contradiction. For me the issue is this: should
people follow and revere a traditional Jesus of the gospels (if so,
which one?), or a Jesus they have teased out from these traditions, one
as close as possible to the real man who actually lived?
We have spent at least two centuries examining the gospels as literature
and history. Hasn�t the time come to ditch many traditions about Jesus?
What�s your take on this?
Before we ditch any traditions it would be prudent to evaluate each on a
case by case basis judging what good or bad has followed from the
tradition; what are the costs of continuing it and what values does the
In order for me to respond to
your question, �Hasn�t time come to ditch many traditions about Jesus?�
I need you to specify which traditions you have in mind. Only then can I
give a coherent answer.
One such is the Christian tradition of life after death. I find no good
evidence that Jesus ever concerned himself with this. It is an invention
of early Christian teachers, based not on the life and teaching of Jesus
but on beliefs about his physical resurrection from death.
What is your take on John 14.2?
In my Father�s house are many
rooms; if it were not so would I have told you that. I go
to prepare a place for you.
It seems to me Jesus is talking
about a life hereafter. In my view the doctrine of immortal life is a
major pillar of Christianity. Without it the religion would be
invalidated and collapse. I can�t believe you want to destroy
There are some who consider
immortality to be a �crutch� for weak people to lean on, a part of the
�opiate� atheists consider religion to be. I find it to be entirely
opposite of this cynical point of view. It gives the believer courage to
live life to the fullest and no matter what happens, to be assured that
all will be well in the end, beyond life.
I have previously asserted that
consciousness is composed of past, present and future. Without all three
dimensions represented the individual
cell of consciousness is incomplete and the individual has a reduced
sense of eudaimonia. Thus,
some sense of future, even after death, is necessary to complete the cell of consciousness.
I recently read Life after Death: The Evidence by Dinesh D�Souza. It is important
reading as a background for this discussion and I highly recommend it to
Whatever you or I hold to be
true about this issue will probably have little influence over those on
either side of the question. However, do you think harm is done to those
who believe in life after death or do detrimental effects accrue to the
larger society from it?
Before I respond to your final question, let me put a few things to rest
as best I can.
conclusion is that most of John�s Gospel isn�t history but teaching -
including the passage you quote. That is, you are referring to a
particular traditional interpretation of Jesus, one of a number which
existed in the first and early second centuries. There are many such
gospels, but only four have survived into the list approved by the
winners of early struggles between the many differing Christian
there is no such thing as a monolithic Christianity: there are only a
number of Christian traditions. Mine happens to be the Anglican
tradition; yours the Lutheran. Only time (and lots of it) will tell
which will thrive, which will morph into something new, and which will
disappear. Nothing I do will destroy any of them.
�cell of consciousness� makes good sense. I am the �me� who exists not
only now but who has existed over 70 years and will exist for a while to
come. It may be that I will continue to exist after everything now
identifiable as �me� has disappeared - but I personally have no
assurance of that. I do have a hope which rests on Christian tradition,
but I acknowledge the possibility that I will cease when I die.
I don�t know
if my particular Christian tradition helps or hinders society - that is,
the 21st century, English culture of which I�m part. There is a fine
line between Jesus the man and Christian traditions about him. But I am
reasonably sure that if I cling to any Christian tradition for its own
sake, I risk retarding changes in myself and in society which are
important, perhaps vital. So, give tradition its place - but not pride
For me traditions are means to navigate my way through a chaotic world.
I observe them not for themselves but because they give me insight and
stability. When they cease to do so I will discard them.
So it is with my Lutheran
traditions that have sustained me for more than 76 years. Obviously, it
is incumbent on the individual to decide which traditions are valuable
and which should be let go. In the case of John 14.2, I take Jesus at