|Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006)|
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Tradition and Traditionalism
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Those are the perceptive words of Jaroslav Pelikan.
Pelikan taught at Yale University from 1962 to 1996 and wrote more than 30 books, including the five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1971–1989). It was in the July 26, 1989, issue of U.S. News & World Report, that he made the oft-quoted statement about the difference between tradition and traditionalism.
Although it is much different now than in times past, still, most people tend to remain affiliated with the same religious tradition of their parents. This is the case not just for broad religious affiliation, such as Christian, Jewish, Muslim and the like. It is true also for denominations within the religions, such as Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, or Mennonite. The same is true for those who come from atheist homes.
All of this is by no means surprising. The home is the first and most important primary community, and everyone’s worldview is shaped primarily by the community of which they most closely identify. Moreover, even minor paradigm shifts are difficult and sometimes even painful.
And so we land in the problem of traditionalism. The family religious tradition, for example, is often maintained by those who no longer possess the living faith that initiated that tradition. Religious ideas and practices are maintained just because that is what we always believed or that is the way we always did things. It is a part of our tradition.
Tradition makes for continuity. As Tevya said, “Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as... as... as a fiddler on the roof!” But tradition often disintegrates into traditionalism. Those within the Christian tradition maintain the accoutrements of faith in Christ, but in reality there is little there but the “dead faith” that Pelikan referred to.
On Easter Sunday our pastor at Rainbow Mennonite Church introduced an intriguing novel: Martin Gardner’s The Flight of Peter Fromm (1973). I am currently reading that book and finding it fascinating. In my May 13 sermon at RMC, I quoted the following statement by the narrator (a seminary professor and Unitarian pastor):
“For most Protestants today their ‘religion’ is little more than a weekly ritual which they endure for reasons which have nothing to do with God. The ritual is familiar and comfortable. It reminds them of their childhood. . . . The church is a place to meet friends on Sunday morning, listen to good music, and (hopefully) to hear a sermon that arouses a warm feeling of piety without suggesting—God forbid!—that one alter a single prejudice or behavior pattern” (pp. 13-14).
This is a good description of tradition having become traditionalism. And it is no new problem. Long ago, Leslie Weatherhead, one of Britain’s finest preachers, declared, “One of the things which hold back progress in modern Church life is the presence of vast numbers of people who not only have had no real experience of God, but who do not believe there is anything to find save which they have found” (How Can I Find God? , p. 32).
How can those who have been brought up in, and who have sought to maintain, exemplary traditions keep from falling into traditionalism? How can a vital living faith be maintained?