Neil Diamond wrote a love song called ‘No Words.’ The lyrics to the last verse go as follows:
‘There are no words that can solve life’s mystery or explain God’s eternal plan.’
As a lyricist Diamond knows that words go beyond straightforward dictionary definition and that value is either added to, or subtracted from, a specific word or phrase through common usage.
Words can be used positively, or negatively, defensively and aggressively, passionately or with fear and trepidation, with, or without, nuance.
Words can be used to build up, or put down and they often are, especially in the context of high stakes debates, like those around the Church’s response to same sex marriage.
Frequently our understanding of how a word is being used is gained through identification with the philosophical, or even theological, orientation of the word-smith; their ‘world or kingdom view.’
Words although neutral in their dictionary definition obtain potency through use. When we add nuance and subjectivity to a word we imbue it with the power to include or exclude. A fairly ordinary word can be used for ideological purposes.
Take a word like tradition. Tradition is often used in Church circles to defend a particular ‘conservative’ position. The Oxford English Dictionary defines tradition as:
‘The transmission of customs and beliefs from generation to generation to generation, and the fact of being passed on in this way.’
This is the factual definition of tradition and, it provides no insight whatsoever into its qualitative characteristics. These are added through use, and use, to state the obvious, is in the hands of the user!
Users tend to put boundaries around words, implying an acceptable limit to their use. But, of course all of this implied, for rarely do those adopting a particular word or phrase define their terms; for to do so would be to render the boundaries of definition somewhat porous.
In the debate over Same Sex Marriage those who are opposed to any movement towards the offering of liturgical rites to same sex couples will often describe themselves as traditionalists. In claiming the right to refer to themselves as traditionalists they add nuance and a sense of perceived morality to the basic term. Traditionalists frequently refer to those in favour of same sex marriage (myself included) as revisionist, liberal or progressive. The offering of a ‘mirror term,’ is a useful, deflecting,technique and, we all do it, don’t we?
I don’t mind owning up to the progressive-liberal descriptor but, would want to jettison revisionist. Furthermore, as a supporter of same sex marriage, I would also want to describe myself as a traditionalist.
‘How’, you might ask ‘is this possible?’
Well, returning to the idea that words have a qualitative dimension, as well as an objective or factual one, I would like to offer two characteristic features that can legitimately be identified with the word tradition, in its specifically Christian context:
The first is that tradition contains a series of practices, as well as beliefs, passed down as a gift, through the generations. In the Christian tradition these include our basic doctrines, described in the Catholic Creeds (orthodoxy), and our essential Christian practices : Baptism, Eucharist, Prayer and the Reading of Scripture (orthopraxy). We might add to this list rites, rituals, the lives of the saints and, liturgy.
These gifts should be nourished, cherished and enjoyed. They bind us together, foster our identity, tell our story and, create our Christian distinctiveness. They are our salt. They have been given to all Christians and are practised by liberal-progressives and conservatives alike.
The second characteristic is that tradition contains a history to be critiqued and, crucially, a future to be discerned.
Critics of mine often ask me ‘what right have you to throw away, or jettison, two thousand years of tradition.’ The assumption behind this question is, of course, that tradition, or the historical dimension of history, is in and of itself an expression of morality and, right judgement. But, is this necessarily true?
I clearly don’t think so, and as a progressive-liberal traditionalist I strongly believe that the Spirit ultimately ‘leads us into all truth.’ Critiquing our history is the job of discernment, which may, or may not, lead to change.
One final point: I would like to suggest that using new methods of reasoning and engagement with and through Scripture has always been part of the tradition.
Regarding tradition as something fixed and immoveable is, paradoxically, to stand defiantly against the tradition, isn’t it?