How many times do we hear someone in the congregation tell us, “but this has been a tradition here for many years.” And when we investigate a bit further, it was perhaps done one time or not at all. I have often compared the memory of the congregation to a person who has dementia. Our short term memory fails us and our long term memory moves us back to a time and place remembered well but that no longer exists. I have found there are times when what is referred to as tradition by someone is a memory of something from their own background, not something built as a ritual over time with the goal to pass on faith from one generation to the next.
A quote by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, a scholar in the history of Christianity, Christian theology and medieval intellectual history, gives us pause to think more seriously about the traditions we build: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
I was reminded of this quote during a sermon given on All Saint’s Day by my pastor, the Rev. Dr. Marsha Garrett. It can help us reflect on those important rituals we learned from those in our lives who are no longer with us. These rituals that have built a faith-centered tradition play a significant role in our lives. It is what we do to facilitate faith being handed down to our children and grandchildren.
If we take this quote seriously, it may help us understand what we experience in our congregations when we encounter “push-back” as we build rituals leading to solid traditions for lifelong faith formation. The memories brought to the forefront by one or two people saying, “but we have always done it this way” point towards Pelikan’s description of traditionalism.
Traditions for lifelong faith formation established by a ritual practiced every week in the congregation during worship and then role modeled in the home are part of our faith heritage. It’s a wonderful way to equip the saints from generation to generation.
A ritual is something that is always done the same way every time. Rituals lead to traditions. Are traditions and building them understood in our congregations?
Or have we begun to shift from tradition to traditionalism?
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? Matthew 15:3 (NIV)
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