From the Editor—Friday Reflections

March 15, 2019

Don't You Forget

Tradition Is Something We Can't Live Without

Tradition is a loaded word. It means that which has been handed over. It is used to describe everything from the trivial to the transcendent, from a secret family recipe to the Nicene Creed, from turkey on Thanksgiving to the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In this sense, it ranges from the mere human preferences to something like the Holy Writ of God, the sacred Scriptures.

It is also can mean the store of human wisdom passed on from generation to generation, the body of things, that, in the words of J. Budzisweski's book, are What We Can't Not Know. In this sense, tradition serves as the reminding conscience of the race, keeping alive the awareness of the law that St. Paul told the Romans was written in the hearts of all men.

Tradition is a fixed feature of the fabric of human life. We are by nature traditional creatures. We are traditional through, among other things, memory, language, education, and through the communion of persons.

Memory is a vital part of who we are. Amnesiacs are troubled by the lack of memory. There is a whole in the self. We are also temporal creatures, subject to time and to its passing. Our existence as we experience it sits on a razor's edge that we call the present, a moving point between the past and the future. In that space we depend on memory very much as we need hope and anticipation to keep integrity, keep ourselves together. To look forward to nothing is debilitating, much as having no memory robs us of a sense of our own identity.

In my youth, I assumed that because of my traditional Christian faith that I was at odds with much of the 60s. I was from my youth a committed believer. My religious beliefs did not consciously include a respect for ancient tradition, although we surely relied on our own traditions just the same.

In the late 1960s, while I counted myself a culturally a "conservative" Christian, in fact, I was in one sense as radical as the hippies. Many of us saw ourselves as a generation with little to learn directly from our fathers that would be valued as tradition. We accepted the fact that there was a generation gap, we were a new generation, uniquely enlightened, and helped unwittingly to create and widen the gap. Some were Jesus Freaks, some just freaks.

Most parents felt helpless as societal supports—schools, teachers, universities, politicians, courts, even some of the preachers, the media, the movies—either lost their nerve or aided the revolution. In a few years, it seemed, no authority effectively challenged the new orthodoxy of liberation.

I shared a myth about modern man: reason is fully equipped to determine truth for itself and that past tradition is not crucial. I never questioned where my church's doctrines came from, for as far as my high school eye could see, they came straight out of the Bible. But its interpretation came from a long history of the church.

But Scripture is also Tradition itself: it was handed down by a believing community to a believing community. When I receive the Bible, I receive the testimony of other witnesses handed on; I also receive the decision of church fathers who later declared what belongs in the canon. Therefore we are dependent upon tradition for the Church's testimony to who Jesus Christ is "according to the Scriptures."

Tradition is the voice of faithful witnesses still speaking in the present. The value of listening to the past is that in judging modern voices we have a yardstick: what has been received and accepted everywhere by all and at all times. The only canon we have by which to measure contemporary claims and current crises is that which has already been said and accepted. The collective wisdom of two thousand years of saints faithful to Christ should be enough.

Not everything handed down from one generation to the next is to be retained: it should be judged by the full length and breath of tradition rooted in the revelation of Jesus Christ. If something doesn't measure up, it's a doctrine of man, not of God. You may move a tree a great distance after cutting its roots. That's not progress. Not for a tree.

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,

James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James


James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.