Monday, June 21

The delicate balance of tradition

Tradition can be considered social glue. It is the inherited and transferred words and actions which most commonly work to define a social group. These things can be modes of dress or patterns of behaviour, certain phrases or exchanges of words, specific celebrations or methods of celebrating or even who is considered acceptable or not within the group. These traditions work to define us and shape who we are as a community. With all this good, however, there are some caveats.

The first would be that for a tradition to remain valid and useful, the community must recall the reason for the tradition. To perform certain actions or say things in a specific manner without understanding the underlying reason deprives the meaning from the act as well as allowing for incorrect/detrimental meanings to arise. One example which comes to mind is something you will see westerners do in oriental restaurants, the 'ritual' of rubbing one's chopsticks together.

Today, most who believe in some reason at all will tell you that it is ostensibly to get rid of splinters in the chopsticks (which, in fact, it causes more splinters than it removes). Indeed, the Japanese find it quite insulting to rub your chopsticks together. The custom was brought to the US by soldiers stationed in Japan right after WW2 who saw the locals doing it. The Japanese were rubbing their chopsticks together in emulation of Charlie Chaplin (who was, at the time, immensely popular there) who rubbed his knife and fork together in anticipation of a meal.

This brings me to the second caveat, which is that a tradition must be relevant to the people it serves. The Nicene creed was developed specifically to answer, in a point-by-point form, the variety of heterodoxies which were competing with the Church as it existed in the 4th century. Today, even those who know about the Arians, Docetists, Donatists, Ebionites, Macedonians, Marcionists and the rest would find it difficult to find relevancy in a creed developed to thwart ghosts from over 1500 years past.

Do the basic beliefs behind these heterodoxies remain to this day? Oh most assuredly, but the old names for these ideas have no power today and all too often the creed is not used to defend against them. As such, the creed does not hold the relevance it once did.

Please note that I am not suggesting that all tradition is without value or that change should be embraced for the sake of change. Despite the fact that liturgical dress has, by and large, resisted change for hundreds of years and the original purpose of many of the individual parts is no longer relevant, it's value as a distinctive 'uniform' has value and relevance to this day. What I am driving at is that each community should (probably generationally) examine the customs and traditions that they hold for relevance and understanding.

Put differently, if we are to use words and deeds to signify our community, they should have meaning and relevance to us, lest they become hollow deeds and empty words.

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