II) TRADITION: Whenever I hear the word “tradition,” I naturally think of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The overture of that musical focuses on the importance of tradition in the Jewish community. The musical centers on the struggles of one Jewish man named Tevye. Three of his daughters choose marriage partners contrary to his hopes and expectations. Tzeitel, the oldest, chooses a poor, humble Jewish tailor; Hodel, the second daughter, chooses a radical Jewish student who is banished to Siberia by the Tsarist government; and Chava, the third daughter, chooses a Gentile. The third choice is the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” of Tevye’s tolerance. Chava becomes “dead” to Tevye. When the entire Jewish population of Anatevka is forced by the Tsarist government to leave their homes, Chava and her Gentile husband come to say goodbye. Tevye will not speak to or acknowledge his daughter. When Tzeitel tells Chava goodbye, Tevye’s love for his daughter overrules his strict obedience to Jewish tradition, and he prompts Tzeitel to add his blessing “God be with you.” As Tevye and his family begin to leave Anatevka, he hears the fiddler playing his violin on a roof. Tevye beckons with a nod, and the fiddler follows Tevye and the other Jews out of the village. Tevye has learned that he can neither abandon his tradition nor can he allow his life to be totally dictated by that tradition. The entire musical reveals the Jewish attempt to live by their precious traditions while, at the same time, having to survive in a hostile and changing world. Such a struggle is as precarious and beautiful as a fiddler playing his exquisite music perched on a roof.
Our English word “tradition” comes from the Latin traditio based on the verb tradere meaning “to transmit, to hand over, or to give for safekeeping.” The verb was used in Roman law to refer to legal transfers and matters of inheritance.
Today there are many definitions of “tradition.” The one most pertinent to our discussion refers to “beliefs, objects, or customs performed or believed in the past and transmitted through time by being taught by one generation to the next, and are performed or believed in the present.” I think we all would agree that traditions can be good or bad, helpful or hindering, significant or trivial, necessary or dispensable, liberating and grounding or oppressive and reactionary. The early church understood the absolute importance of “handing on/transmitting” the traditions regarding the Christ Event. (See I Corinthians 15 for a reference to the handing on of this tradition. Paul’s choice of words includes a technical term for such a transmission.)
From what we said about Scripture in the Quadrilateral, we should be aware of the continuing presence and necessity of developing church tradition. Once the gospel moved from a predominantly Jewish setting into the wider world, the church had to find ways of adapting its message to communicate to Gentiles. The tradition had to change and grow from the very first years of the Christian faith. The necessity of such modification intensified after the destruction of Jerusalem in the Great Jewish War of 66-70 CE. The Christian “headquarters” in the Jerusalem church also came to an end with that cataclysmic event. From that point on, the church increasingly became a Gentile religion. Although that development allowed a spread of the gospel into the wider world, much was lost as the church began to abandon its grounding in Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures. In some ways, it was not until the latter half of the 20th Century that biblical scholars and theologians began to recover this critical legacy.
We have two thousand years of Christian tradition. Because of advances in many areas of human thought and discovery during these years (especially since the Enlightenment), there are some religious traditions which are no longer helpful for contemporary followers of Christ (We will deal with this challenge in our discussion of Reason in the Quadrilateral.) As we said above, most Christians realize that there are helpful and harmful theological traditions in the history of the Christian faith. I will mention just three Christian traditions which have plagued both the Christian faith and the wider world for centuries.
- Augustine’s concept of Original Sin: Both Judaism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity reject such a concept. In Western Christianity it took a virulent form in some of the extreme Calvinistic traditions. For a while there were parts of the church which maintained that infants as they come out of the womb are sinful and without baptism, they will burn in hell. (Later the church modified this belief by placing unbaptized babies in “Limbo” where they experienced eternal peace but never developed beyond the state of infancy.)
- Penal Substitutionary Atonement: This theory of atonement is the predominant belief in almost all Fundamentalist and conservative Protestant churches. Such a view presents a God who must be appeased through the horrible suffering of Jesus on the cross before forgiveness can be granted to humans. This theory maintains that the only way to escape the fires of hell is to embrace this belief, ask for forgiveness, accept Jesus as one’s “Lord and Savior,” and give credence to certain “Fundamentals of the faith” (none of which most mainline Protestants could embrace). Those holding this theological tradition assume that the vast majority of the world will burn in hell forever, even if they never heard of Jesus. (Exceptions are made for children provided they die before “the age of accountability.”) This theory of atonement, with its arrogance, presumption, fear, and distortion of the nature of God who is love, has resulted in so much pain, death, and misery.
- Double Predestination: Calvin affirmed Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but he had to explain how a God of love could allow the eternal damnation and everlasting torture of so many people throughout history. His solution was that God’s sovereignty was greater than God’s love. God determined from all eternity that some people would be saved and others would be damned. The fates of both groups were final, and both destinies demonstrated the glory of God. People were damned for all eternity so God and God’s sovereignty could be glorified. There are Christians today who firmly believe in this kind of predestination.
These are other theological traditions that have been harmful in the history of the church—too many for us to discuss in these materials. I would hope that from the three presented above, we can all appreciate that not all theological traditions are helpful and that there are those that have been particularly harmful. (Some of the other harmful traditions in Christianity are belief in the Rapture, a punitive and everlasting understanding of hell, an excessive emphasis on individual salvation which overlooks or dismisses the healing of the earth and transformation of creation, the continuing legacy of Gnosticism, and the idolatry inherent in a doctrine insisting on the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. Every one of these destructive traditions continues to shape much of Christianity today.)
On the other hand, there are theological traditions which have emerged and developed over many centuries that are amazingly insightful and helpful for our own post-modern era. In fact, there are so many depths to the Christian faith that are unfortunately unknown to many Christians in our day.
Each expression of the Christian faith has limitations inherent in the time, place, and culture in which they have developed. But those specific historical settings can also allow for insights and perspectives that may be difficult if not impossible to discover and appreciate during other periods of history. For example, current materialism and consumerism blind us to the wisdom of those times and cultures when the seduction of greed and excessive individualism was not as dominant and pernicious as it is today. (Compare and contrast the “Seventh Generation” wisdom of the First Nations on this continent to the current exploitation of creation resulting from our rapacious greed and consumption.) We are not the first generation to have any intelligence or spiritual sensitivity. Furthermore, history and wisdom do not always progress. “Inevitable progress” is a modern myth which the horrific destruction of the 20th Century and the political insanity of our own time amply disprove. We would be wise to remember these words from Jesus: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of heaven is like the master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52) There are priceless treasures from the past that we would be foolish to overlook.
Here are four traditions from the past that we would be wise to embrace and celebrate:
- Eastern Christian Fathers, whose writings can seem so esoteric and pedantic, had profound insights into the nature of Being/being, consciousness, and cosmic connectedness. Current scientific and philosophical debates around these three factors could find some useful help in these ancient theologians. Gregory of Nyssa would be particularly helpful in any such discussion.
- Franciscan Theology emphasized orthopraxy over orthodoxy with its emphasis on how one lives the Christian life over what one intellectually believes. Such an emphasis would serve the church well as we relate to those of other faiths and to those who have no faith. This Franciscan focus on living the faith through compassion, solidarity, and deeds of love inspired a view of Jesus’ death which provides a healthy alternative to Penal Substitutionary Atonement. This Franciscan alternative reflects the good news of Jesus Christ in ways that can speak powerfully to the needs and hopes of the 21st Century church. In this tradition, all begins and ends with God’s essence being love.
- The Rhineland Mystics (most of whom were women) had a creation theology which focused on God’s revelation through nature, the connections which hold all creatures in the heart of God, and an understanding of God which is amazingly fresh, relevant, and compassionate. The Rhineland Mystics included Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-1282/1294), Meister Eckhart, the only man in this group (1260-1328), and Julian of Norwich (1343-1416). (Julian was a woman. She may have chosen the name of Julian when she became an anchoress at St Julian Church in Norwich. She lived in England all of her life but is included among the Rhineland Mystics because of the similarity of her writings to these earlier theological giants. Some of Eckhart’s writings and ideas were condemned by the church, but his message has been treasured by Buddhists. Some contemporary quantum physicists, psychologists, and philosophers are also attracted to his writings.) The rich creation theology of the Rhineland Mystics could provide a joyful and much needed grounding as we face the environmental crises of our day. (At the end of this part of the Quadrilateral, you will find some of the sayings from these Rhineland Mystics. Their wisdom and insights will change forever how we view the Middle Ages.)
- The various Liberation Theologies that flowered during the second half of the 20th Century and continue to our day also focus on orthopraxis. All these theologies are concerned with justice. Their understanding of the Hebrew Prophets and Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God has awakened the church and the world to the relevance of authentic Christian faith for both the oppressed and their oppressors. These Liberation theologies include insights and movements on the part of women, Latin American peasants, African-Americans, African Christians, Asian Christians, the LGBTQ community with their “Queer Theology,” and Native Americans.
QUOTES FROM THE RHINELAND MYSTICS
HB = Hildegard of Bingen
MM = Mechthild of Magdeburg
ME = Meister Eckhart
JW = Julian of Norwich
God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God. (HB)
In this life, we are to become heaven so that God might find a home here. (ME)
This, then is salvation: When we marvel at the beauty of created things and praise their beautiful Creator. (ME)
When Christ was in pain, we were in pain. All creatures of God’s creation that can suffer pain suffered with him. The sky and the earth failed at the time of Christ’s dying because he, too, was a part of nature. (JN)
God is not only fatherly. God is also mother who lifts her loved child from the ground to her knee. The Trinity is like a mother’s cloak wherein the child finds a home and lays its head on the maternal breast. (MM)
God is the true Father and Mother of nature. God Almighty is our loving Father, and God all wisdom is our loving mother. (JN)
What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? (ME)
We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born. (ME)
I, God, am your playmate! I will lead the child in you in wonderful ways, for I have chosen you. (MM)
When we say God is eternal, we mean God is eternally young. (ME)
Humankind, full of all creative possibilities, is God’s work. Humankind alone is called to assist God. Humankind is called to co-create. With nature’s help, humankind can set into creation all that is necessary and life-sustaining. (HB)
All things are interdependent. (ME)
The air, blowing everywhere, serves all creatures. (HB)
Whatever God does, the first outburst is always compassion. (ME)
God is voluptuous and delicious. (ME)
The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything. (JN)
Come, Love! Sing on! Let me hear you sing this song – sing for joy and laugh, for I the Creator am truly subject to all creatures. (MM)
Compassion means justice. The person who understands what I have to say about Justice understands everything I have to say. (ME)
All of creation God gives to humankind to use. If this privilege is misused, God’s justice permits creation to punish humanity. (HB)
If you love the justice of Jesus Christ more than you fear human judgment, then you will seek to do compassion. (MM)
What does God do all day long? He gives birth. From the beginning of eternity, God lies on a maternity bed giving birth to all. God is creating this whole universe full and entire in this present moment. (ME)
The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things. (MM)