Conversing with the Dead: On the Connection Between Tradition & Change

Jaroslav Pelikan, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jaroslav Pelikan, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

G.K. Chesterton once called tradition “the democracy of the dead.”  Another Christian intellectual, C.S. Lewis, encouraged his readers to avoid “chronological snobbery,” that is, the belief that our age is better simply because it is after a previous age.

What does it look to acknowledge that traditions develop and change without simply turning into a blind iconoclast?  We find some help in a wonderful little book by the late Yale historian of doctrine Jaroslav Pelikan, fittingly titled The Vindication of Tradition.  He suggests avoiding both “relativism” and “constructionism” in viewing the development of a given tradition:

There is a kind of historical relativism that will emphasize only the variety of opinions and the irresistibility of change over the years, but will ignore the continuity. There is also a kind of strict constructionism that proceeds as though development were not real and were only the application of an unchanging and unchangeable authority to outward change. The American republic, the Jewish community, and the Christian church have all had advocates of both these interpretations, and they still do. But their accumulated wisdom has taught them to recognize – and the critical-historical study of their traditions has compelled them to acknowledge – that development is real but that it goes on within the limits of identity, which the tradition defines and continues to redefine.  Like any growth, development may be healthy or it may be malignant; discerning the difference between those two kinds of growth requires constant research  into the pathology of traditions. But it is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the museum. (59-60)

To those who think that tradition and development are opposites, and completely unrelated, note Pelikan’s observation:

A “leap of progress” is not a standing broad jump through where we have been to where we go next. The growth of insight – in science, in the arts, in philosophy and theology – has not come through progressively soughing off more and more of tradition, as though insight would be purest and deepest when it has finally freed itself of the dead past. It simply has not worked that way in the history of the tradition, and it does not work they way now. By including the dead in the circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation. (81)

In other words, development occurs best within a tradition, in conversation with those who’ve gone before.  This epistemological humility is akin to Sir Isaac Newton’s insight that if we can see a little further than those who have come before, it is only because we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

There is a great deal of theologizing that falls into the above categories – a complete sloughing off of tradition (which is a bit like cutting one’s anchor in a violent storm), or an ossifying of tradition (as if we should use ether instead of modern anesthesia because ‘that’s how grandma did it’).  These are both dead ends.  Instead, healthy development happens in traditions that keep distinctive identities and include the dead in the conversation even while seeking new expressions and avenues.  As Pelikan put it elsewhere, tradition is “the living faith of the dead” while traditionalism is the “dead faith of the living.”

Where do you see the vibrant use of Christian today? How do we discern healthy development from unhealthy?  When does tradition become traditionalism? Leave a comment below!

 

 

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