What is “Tradition,” Anyway?

January 26, 2007

I’m just wrapping up a special January term studying the relationship between culture, faith, and religion.

It has been the most relevant course for so many reasons.

I only have 10 minutes before I have to be back in class for our last session, so I have to make this short.  But there was something said yesterday that I thought was particularly important.

We talked about the inculturation of religion through the ages– everything from the adoption of the name “Easter” for the resurrection from the pagan god Estre (goddess of dawn) to the dates for the Ember Days– set from the solstice and equinox days, days used in religions all over the globe based on the astronomical calendar.

Hopefully I can write more about this later, but the point is this:

If we study “theological anthropology” we find that the “official religion” breaks down only into local religion.  A quote by William Christian sums this up, “All religion is local.”  There are those seeking the “pure faith”– but I think such a thing does not exist.  Creeds, doctrines, and dogma only summarize a particular point of view at a particular point in time, usually by a particular culture.  But they are molded locally and infused with local culture to make something different.

That is why we are having such difficulty in the Anglican Communion.  There is a search for some for a “pure faith.”  But what is the “pure faith?”  It means something different to all of us based on our own local culture, our own local experience.  “Pure faith” is an illusion.

In other words, the ‘Tradition’ that some would say we are violating here is an illusion.  ‘Tradition’ in the sense I think they mean is perhaps the tradition of a singular, local people at a singular place at a singular time, but it is not the “overarching historic teaching and tradition of Christianity”– as if that were a monolithic thing that could be identified and held onto as such.  I imagine that if it could, it would very much be traced back to Anglo-European Enlightenment culture, which is so interesting given the current Nigerian and Ugandan interest in it.  Culture is dynamic.  Religion has always been in conversation with culture– it continues to be today, and it probably always will be in the future (consider the culture of the Israelites– their culture and religious identity were almost indistinguishable at many points; later under Roman domination the culture of oppression and occupation had to come into conversation with their theological understanding, and so forth).

The Archbishop of Canterbury has written about culture, but he almost talks about it as if it were a bad thing in totality.  Culture and religion are so intertwined it is inescapable to say that one can be discussed without the other.

I’ve got to run to class right now, but I only want to say this isn’t intended as a judgment of those seeking a “pure faith,” but rather as an observation in Christian fellowship.




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