Tuesday, August 04, 2009


We all know Tevye's meditation on "tradition" in Fiddler on the Roof. And I hope you know Jaroslav Pelikan's distinction of "tradition" from "traditionalism" -- viz., that tradition is the living faith of the dead and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Well, there is also this from G.K. Chesterton, from Orthodoxy:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

More than anything, this has helped me to get a handle on why I think the ELCA is so misguided on the issues of a statement on sexuality and on proposed revisions to the standards of conduct (especially in the realm of sexual relations) expected of clergy (which are really the same expectations we have -- or ought to have -- for members, but that's another story): It disenfranchises the millions of generations that have preceded us in the faith. The martyrdom of the foreparents has been that homosexual conduct is, at the very least, problematic if not execrable. I don't happen to agree with the assessment; I think there is every reason to re-think the Church's teaching, just as we have faithfully done with respect to slavery, the ministry of and by women, the shape of liturgy. But in the past, as painful as the process was, we worked and prayed and studied together to discern whether and how to change the traditional teaching. When change came, say in the decision to ordain women in some branches of American Lutheranism, it came after it was clear that the traditional teaching could no longer be promoted. Oh, there wasn't unanimity in the decision, but it was impossible to say (as does the proposed social statement on sexuality) that we had no consensus (and implied: no overwhelming tide of opinion) on whether to ordain women and so it was OK for some and it was OK for others to resist.

Michael Root says something similar to this, only more elegantly and scholarly, in a comment at the online Lutheran Journal of Ethics. It is well worth reading.

For now, I hope and wish that the ELCA Churchwide Assembly (what an awful title for the synod) would heed the words of Chesterton and other wise teachers.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

In actually studying the history of changes in tradition, tradition doesn't change like the way you would have it. It happens in the opening up of liminal spaces and disagreements and confrontations, in making room to see what is good and what isn't and sometimes rejecting one another for a bit, not change all at once, and is often messy. And it could be, which traditionalists never address, because your argument sounds more traditionalist than traditional (getting to the deep down values of Christ's fidelity to us), that the traditional teaching does damage to fellow siblings in Christ, is itself in your words execreble if not outright vicious, and may not express the deepest love of Christ nor Christ's own fidelity. Tradition contains within it seeds of its own criticism.

To respond: "The past has a vote, not a veto."