I grew up in Baptist churches. It felt to me they were steeped in traditions, most of which seemed wholly arbitrary. I had no connection to the traditions’ origins, no context that would justify them. Instead, I felt smothered, like drowning in molasses. From a young age I equated tradition with stagnation. As a pastor’s son, I saw time and again just how angry parishioners could get if their pet traditions were tampered with. It all seemed so petty, so pointlessly precious.
The first church where I noticed this behavior was in Akron, OH, the same church at which I was baptized. I would continue to see this behavior at each subsequent church I attended, even one I helped to plant. I should note, though, that this behavior isn’t unique to Christians. Comedian Louis C.K. has a whole bit about people and the lengths to which they’ll go for their “favorite way” of doing things. Traditions were, to me, purely selfish.
Maybe then there is some poetic justice that from the same city where I first learned to dislike tradition, a man was born that would change my outlook entirely.
Jaroslav Pelikan, in his 1983 The Vindication of Tradition, wrote that, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And... it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” In my rejection of certain behaviors, I threw the baby out with the bath water. I confused tradition for traditionalism. This didn’t excuse what people did in the name of tradition but I realized traditions themselves weren’t the enemy. I realized that they could, in fact, be beautiful.
Traditionalism is doing things a certain way simply because “that’s how it’s always been done.” Of course that’s not true. Every tradition was new at some point. They were put in place in order to hold something in remembrance. But for some people, holding onto a tradition is more important than what it represents. Instead of a celebration, it becomes a prison. Traditionalism can prevent examination (and you may remember what Socrates is reported to have said about the unexamined life).
Tradition, on the other hand, when accompanied by inspection, can yield wonderful fruit. Humans have short memories across generations. If passing generations don’t share the origins and context of their traditions with incoming generations, how can they be expected to understand or honor them? Similarly, how can new generations ever establish their own traditions if older ones are held too tightly? But, when the memory that a tradition honors is examined, the tradition not only justifies itself but the memory, too, lives on. Too often a tradition lingers long after the memory has faded.
The beauty of a tradition is not in its longevity but in its power to evoke a memory. When removed from its memory, it loses all purpose. When tied to a memory through regular inspection, a tradition reminds us of... any number of things. A shared history. An historic event. A celebrated figure. We have communion to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice and our place in His Kingdom. We gather together on Sundays to remember the Sabbath and fellowship with other believers. Growing up, my family vacationed in Florida every year that money allowed; not just for a break from work and school, but to remind ourselves of the importance of family.
Tradition, properly employed, keeps that which is important closest to heart and mind. It unites past and present and acts as a guide for the future. To paraphrase Pelikan, spiritual growth doesn’t happen when we ignore tradition but when we learn to creatively interact with it.
May I not be blinded by traditionalism but may I see the beauty in tradition. Help me to examine the traditions in my life, in my church and my family, to find not only the memories, but You in the memories. Let me honor the faith of those who’ve passed on, the faith of those who walk beside me, and the faith of those you’re bringing up. Amen.
Kola, by Damien Jurado. https://youtu.be/uzEXPRfTlMM
Two things. First, if you belong to a church, find a tradition you know little to nothing about, maybe even one you find irksome, and learn all you can about it. Second, create a new tradition. This could be in your church, with your family, or all by yourself. Adopt one you’ve heard of, like eating Chinese food on New Year’s Eve, or get creative and form it around a memory you hold dear.
Cook a traditional meal for yourself or your family. Find a recipe from your great-grandparents or learn about a meal your ancestors might have cooked. Then, while eating, discuss what the meal means to you.