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.
Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006)
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? [1933], 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?


  1. Well, I sure don't know the answer to your question, Leroy. I like the distinction made by Pelikan between tradition and traditionalism, and I think tradition is fundamentally important. It is understandable why people would lock onto their tradition. After all, this is the time and place wherein we experienced the reality of God, the grace in life, the self-identification, meaning, and belonging we all need. Those of us who affirm the presence of God in all faiths, must recognize their traditions as the media through which the Divine comes to us, and we go to the Divine. This is the core insightful truth, so it seems to me, in the Catholic doctrine of tradition and the church as the mediator of grace.

    I tend to think that what stimulates people the most to pursue the "vital living faith" is pain, need, suffering, a discomfort of some sort; it could simply be a yearning for something more in life. This could offer perhaps a role for critique. (I think of Kant who critiqued metaphysics to save it. Some think he destroyed it.) If we critique our traditions, and can begin to see their limitations and shortcomings, that in itself can stimulate a quest for the "vital living faith" within the tradition.

    A problem I think I see is that suffering people often fasten onto traditions out of anxiety, fear, and panic. I think of a woman I once knew whose husband left her in middle age. Up to that time, she was cheerful, friendly, warm and open to anybody and everybody (this was in a very small town). When he left her, she joined the most fundamentalistic church in town, and suddenly everything was all about Jesus. And she manifested that somewhat glassy faraway look in her eyes I had theretofore associated with traumatized Vietnam vets.

    Well, your question is profoundly important within religious traditions, and it might be able to be expanded and transposed to social and political ideologies as well. The culture wars could be seen as a mighty struggle between those locked onto traditional ways of being in America (the reactionaries) and those trying to tap some core principles for changing things (the progressives).

  2. Anton, once again you have honored me and benefited other readers of the blog with very thoughtful and helpful comments. Many thanks!

  3. Hmmm, I think I would modify Pelikan's phrase to say that tradition can be the living faith of the living. One bias practitioners of faith must get over is emphasizing the aspects of tradition that are only interested in self-preservation rather than in those aspects that question tradition, challenge old ideas, and generally call for new adventures of ideas.

  4. MPH, I think you are on to something important here. Perhaps it is in questioning tradition, challenging old ideas, and exploring the new adventures of ideas that helps one form and maintain a vital living faith rather than falling into traditionalism.

  5. “Grumbling over her food”, “Hum-drum, gobby-gobby”. (Mark Twain’s description of religious practice at home and church.)
    “Two hymns and a prayer, another hymn and a hope-so.” Ern Baxter’s description of ritual Pentecostalism.
    “There is nothing worse than dead fundamentalism.” Dr. Vernon McGee
    There seems so much cold or lukewarm belief and practice across the brands.

    The 90/10 rule.
    The remnant.
    “Habits and disciplines (rituals) provide a framework for living, and for knowing God.” Don Hinton
    Those who find religion early are more likely to keep a form of it for life. Those who convert are more likely to go deep in the fullness, and be active in faith for the long run.

    I am thankful for the searching years back in my teens. I had witnessed (observed) enough to know there was another realm – some good, some evil. So I did a survey to experience several and determine what was true and good – eastern religions, pagan, monotheistic. Experiential with the mind, tokens, shrines, temples, mosques, synagogues, churches. Except for the clarity of life in Zen, monotheism captured a place for knowing the almighty God/Creator. Judaism tore apart Islam. Christianity the fullness of the Judaism. I am thankful for those mentors who assisted (Rabbi David, Rev. Ray, Pastor Ray, Fr. Helmut, Fr. Paisius, Cantor Eli, Bp. Ackerman, Fr. Doug, Fr. Issa) in going deep in Christ, especially in the experiential rituals of prayer, reading/meditating/memorizing scripture, experiencing the sacraments/mysteries of congregational worship. There were a host of others who testified and displayed it, plus the observation and experience of things that should not have happened naturally.
    I find myself among those late-comers, the 10%, the orthodox traditionalists who find present life in the ancient faith. I gag on the “theology of the absence” and the splits and splinters of the new ways and beliefs (many or most of whom are probably within the faith and are Christian – I am thankful for them within the whole of the holy catholic Church).

    Give me the vibrant living orthodoxy and tradition in the fullness of Christ. It may seem hum-drum, gobby-gobby to some, but to others it is deep, rich, and ALIVE – especially to the late comers.

  6. I like Pelikan's statement, especially if we have the courage to apply it to ourselves. Passing judgment on someone else's "traditionalism" is a more problematic undertaking, even if is sometimes necessary. Just look at the heat both Obama and Romney are taking for their respective faiths. Does anyone want more Jeremiah Wright or Mormonism? I guess we have political "traditionalism" to deal with, too!

  7. Dr. Glenn Hinson, a Thinking Friend who was also one of my seminary professors (when he was quite young), wrote:

    "Thomas Merton taught me to distinguish tradition from convention, Leroy. Tradition is the essence, the kernel. Convention is the external, the husk. We can dispense with a lot of conventions, but we must hold fast to the vital center. I think that is why Pelikan joined the Orthodox Church--to connect with the center. I once discussed the issue with him."

  8. Thinking Friend John (Tim) Carr, whom I knew long before starting to seminary, wrote (in part):

    "I believe a 'vital living faith' cannot be maintained unless the individual has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and has given their life to serving Him. Too many people have never answered an altar call or gone forward at a sermon where the Holy Spirit has touched their heart.

    "Just growing up in a family and following their traditional values in my humble opinion is not enough to have a 'vital living faith.'"

  9. Craig's point (above) about applying Pelikan's statement to oneself is well taken. Still, it is hard not to wonder if some people have not fallen into traditionalism from listening to what they say about their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

  10. Dr. Seat, Love Reading your blog and I also don't know how to answer your question except to say that as we mature both in years and faith, we need to always question if what we are doing and believing make sense. For instance if we have views that block us from accepting others, such as those of the gay community. Is this what God really wants. Although I came to believe that you should not exclude people, You still opened my eyes with your books about where you talked about enochs and what the bible really says on this subject.

    I can also say that it is hard for people to change their views because then they believe they are going against God's teachings, because this is all they know and they don't bother to explore something other than what they have been taught in their own faith or religious tradition.