Saturday, December 09, 2006

Diana Butler Bass on Tradition

Jim Naughton points us to a discussion with Diana Butler Bass that recently appeared in the Washington Post. There are a number of comments within this chat worth noting, but I wanted to highlight one that I found particularly significant:

...To quote the former president, I feel your pain. A lot of people are in pain right now. Including me, even though I love my local parish; I love the Episcopal Church; and I love Anglicanism. It is painful when Christians have a public fight like this.

My argument relates to my answer to "Capitol Hill." I think that two parties in the Episcopal Church, the Old-line liberals and the Radicalized Conservatives have politicized their particular visions of Christianity into a winner-takes-all strategy of making all Episcopalians agree with their views. From a historical perspective, since 1945, there has been a well-documented, increasing politicization of all of American religion into hardened positions. It is those two groups that are involved right now in political hardball and are trying to drag the rest of us into their argument.

I do, however, think there are some significant groups of Episcopalians -- the centrists, the progressive pilgrims, and the emergent conservatives -- who are attempting to resist politicization in the church and are trying to reground the church on spiritual practice and Christian (and Anglican) traditions. I think this middling-groups (not exactly parties) are working very hard to have a genuine theological discussion (or even argument...arguments are okay in theology...without arguing in the right ways, theology wouldn't even exist!) in the din. So, while some people are concerned about Christian life and theological vision, most of the loudest voices are from partisan combatants. Politics is drowning out theology...
"...trying to reground the church on spiritual practice and Christian (and Anglican) traditions..." That brought to mind a late night discussion I recently had here. To unpack those comments a bit more, let me quote Dr. Bass from her book, The Practicing Congregation:

...Christians often define tradition as fixed, conflating it with ideas of custom, convention routine, and endowment. In this perspective, tradition must be maintained, guarded, protected, and perpetuated. Such definitions of tradition, however, are becoming increasingly untenable with philosophers and theorists as they recognize that tradition is essentially a dynamic concept, whereby "continuity is capable of incorporating even the innovations and reinterpretations demanded by the present." Sociologist Wade Clarke Roof suggests these two views are in constant tension in contemporary faith communities. "Religious tradition persists, and will continue to do so," he argues, "but in one of two fundamental ways: either as a 'lived tradition,' and thereby in a constant state of reenactment, or hardened into rigid doctrines and moralisms" (p. 40).
Dr. Bass suggests that the relationship between tradition and change is more complex than this. She offers French social theorist Georges Banlandiers' three forms of traditionalism:

1. Fundamental traditionalism "upholds the maintenance of the most deeply rooted values and models of social and cultural observance" and is marked by sense of permanence;

2. Formal traditionalism "makes use of forms that are upheld but changed in substance; it establishes a continuity of appearances, but serves new designs"; and

3. Psuedo-traditionalism enables a "new construction" of tradition by interpreting the past and assuming continuity while recognizing disorder. It is a stance that calls on the past and, at the same time, "appeases" modernity (p. 41).
In our current unpleasantness, it seems to me that we tend to group all those who disagree with us in Banlandiers' first category. They, in turn, tend to group us in his second category. I suspect the truth is that many of us actually fall into the third category; Roof's "lived tradition," also referred to by Dr. Bass as "fluid retraditioning."

As I was saying last night, I think that, eventually, our differing perspectives may discover that we need each other. We need a core of "tradition" that roots us in the faith of the apostles. But we also need that tradition to be lived in such a way that it is communicated to today's world, meaning that it will be constantly expressed in new ways that meet people where they are right now.

Without a core, we may lose who we are. Without flexibility, we can become irrelevant.

Dr. Bass also includes a quote from Cardinal John Henry Newman, drawn from his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:

If Christianity be a universal religion, suited not simply to one locality or period, but to all times and all places, it cannot but vary in its relations and dealings towards the world around it, that is, it will develop. Priniciples require a very various application according as persons and circumstances vary, and must be thrown into new shapes according to the form of society which they are to influence. Hence all bodies of Christians, orthodox or not, develop the doctrine of scripture.
It seems to me that tradition cannot help but change in relation to time and place. Can we not keep our link to the past, which constantly calls us to live into who we are as Christians, while still straining towards the future, which may require us to reimagine new ways to manifest that identity?

J.

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