Thinking about the (living) nature of tradition

Igor Stravinsky once wrote that ‘Real tradition is not the relic of a past that is irretrievably gone. It is a living force that anticipates and informs the present’. I got thinking about this recently when sparked by a comment over at James Hoffmann’s blog, a blog mainly about coffee. Rejecting ‘the idea that tradition is something immutable, something to be preserved and studied’, he proposes that that we think about tradition as ‘little more than persistent ideas, roughly copied using the human mind’. He continues:

‘Their memetic nature means that a tradition will adapt and change in order to be valuable and be passed on. What distinguishes tradition from historical cultural artifact is relevance to the current culture. What is traditional is not correct, nor perfect, it is merely useful enough to keep alive as an idea’.

He then asks what this has to do with coffee. His answer: ‘Espresso is Italy in 1950 would be further away from espresso in Italy in 2010 than espresso in the USA in 2010. I hope, and strongly suspect, that espresso in Italy today will be abhorrent to an Italian in 2060. Tradition must evolve’.

I love this way of thinking about tradition (and coffee) as dynamic. Indeed, one nature of tradition is that the retelling of traditions typically births stories which themselves become part of the tradition itself. In other words, traditions are living things, birthing realities. So, for example, in his book, Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams, Ian Bradley helpfully recalls how (through 6 epochs or distinct movements of what he calls ‘Celtic Christian revivalism’) the tradition has co-opted and even bastardised Celtic faith and created a mythology with serves its current interests, whether political, ecclesiological or missional.

Or we might prefer to think along lines drawn by Jürgen Moltmann in The Church in the Power of the Spirit:

The tradition to which the church appeals, and which it proclaims whenever it calls itself Christ’s church and speaks in Christ’s name, is the tradition of the messianic liberation and eschatological renewal of the world. It is impossible to rest on this tradition. It is a tradition that changes men and from which they are born again. It is like the following wind that drives us to new shores. Anyone who enters into this messianic tradition accepts the adventure of the Spirit, the experience of liberation, the call to repentance, and common work for the coming kingdom. Tradition and reformation, what abides and what changes, faithfulness and the fresh start are not antitheses in the history of the Spirit. For the Spirit leads to the fellowship of Christ and consummates the messianic kingdom. (p. 3)

Two further thoughts on tradition, the first from Steve Holmes, the latter from Katherine Sonderegger:

‘When we learn to listen to the tradition faithfully, not assuming that we already know what we shall hear, but instead allowing earlier voices their own integrity, we will inevitably be surprised by the strangeness of much what is said. At that point we will be faced with a choice: we might take the modern way of patronising earlier voices by assigning them to their ‘place in history’, and so pretending that they have nothing to say to us; or we might believe that to listen to these voices in all their strangeness, and to regard their positions as serious, and live, options is actually a theological imperative. Perhaps the most two obvious areas where this will be true are sexual ethics and biblical interpretation …’. – Steve Holmes, Listening to the Past, 86.

‘It is to be admitted on all sides, I believe, that religions are deeply traditional in character-to their glory or shame-and do not find transformation over and out of their past an easy act, or a welcome one. Indeed, it is this very traditionalism that has made observers of religion-sociologists or anthropologists-keen to compare or conflate religions with the social ideals and structures that they mirror and guide. It is not simply the reductionism of Ludwig Feuerbach, or rather only a caricature of him, that stands behind the association of religion with social practice and ideal. Instead, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber see in religion what historians have long recorded: the antiquarian nature of religious dress and language; the preservation of older, sometimes ancient custom in ritual and rite; the fondness for the old and customary in guilds and furnishings; the retention of laws, texts, and titles from an earlier age that slowly become the cultural and technical terms of the religious world; and finally, the backwardlooking posture of religious teaching that loves its own past and sees in those ancient teachings wisdom that shapes and instructs the new … Tradition is not simply the church’s past. It is not even its living or continuous past. Tradition is both a body of teaching, practice, and lore, and an attitude toward that body. Tradition – to echo a favorite phrase of the Protestant scholastics – is both the piety by which we honor the past and the piety that we honor. It is a communion with the saints and their witness to God that makes them our contemporaries in the life of faith. “The past,” William Faulkner wrote in a haunting phrase, “is not dead; it is not even past.” So we might say of tradition. It possesses a quality of the present that resides in our midst, not in fact because of our recollection or use of it, but rather because as a cloud of witnesses, it participates in the eternal history of God made present in the Spirit to us now. Tradition is itself, in this way, a part of the trinitarian and christological dogmas of the church, and draws its power from the divine reality on which it depends and is given grace to echo’. – Katherine Sonderegger, ‘On the Holy Name of God’, Theology Today 58:3 (October 2001): 387, 389.