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Learning From the Dead: Tradition and Traditionalism

Updated: Dec 26, 2021

*I still dress for church services and mass, ever since 1968.

“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.”

—Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

Years ago I attended a conference where an internationally known speaker, author and pastor gave us an overview of the traditions of various churches and denominations. He summed up what he believed was their deficiencies with a curt, “They stopped being relevant.” A major crime according to this pastor, because being relevant was the highest virtue he believed all pastors should seek for their churches. He continued: “I am not going to force people to learn a new language to understand what I am talking about.” In other words he was against any Christian language—and he was against tradition.

In a way I don’t blame him for his actions and words. After all, he was the founder and lead pastor of a well known church which attracted thousands of 18—34 year olds, that magical demographic every pastor, and church leader (and market) wanted. In addition to new relevant language, suits were out, and skinny black jeans, Nike sneakers, and fashion forward labels became the new ecclesiastical garb. Also out was most Biblical language and titles, e.g., pastor, elder, sermons and sin. The meaning wasn’t replaced, only the words were replaced to make them more relevant: pastor became Cultural Architect, an elder was now a Warrior, sermons were Talks, and sin became Darkness. You get the idea. We were told to use relevant words to convey Christian ideas, because most Biblical, Christian words were loaded with negative connotations.

For certain churches at the time—and maybe now—being relevant is a priority. In 2002, there was a magazine launched by “twenty- and thirty-something Christians seeking God and striving to impact the world around us. We are people who want to live well—outwardly, creatively and intentionally.” named… wait for it…RELEVANT. That’s how important that idea became. Every pastor wanted their church to be, relevant. The second most overused word of that time was, community. Now I was part of that world and there’s a part of me which cringes when I recall the work and effort we put in to not be “churchy”. I am convinced that was a mistake, because by turning our backs on the heritage of the “church” and it’s living traditions, we lost a tremendous amount of intellectual, and spiritual robustness.

Now I embrace tradition, and the willingness to embrace “the democracy of the dead.”

To learn wisdom, I listen to the dead; those who lived before us; philosophers, rabbis, mystics, imans, and saints all have something valuable to teach. I love tradition, but I have no time for traditionalism. So before you turn away from traditions, take a second and third—hard—look. Is it possible the current, “relevant” voices you allow to speak into your life today, voices you allow to guide, and shape your thinking, are not going to stand the test of time? And since we only get one life to live, wouldn’t it be a better to trust, and listen to the traditions of those who lived well before us?

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