I've given a lot of thought to the role and function of "tradition" in Christianity, particularly in the progressive form I happen to identify with.
Progressive Christians, in my experience, spend a lot of time deconstructing aspects of the Christian tradition, while creating a new (sub-)tradition, but I haven't seen much reflection on the role of tradition as a whole. So I thought I'd share my thoughts on the subject.
"Tradition" is a pretty broad concept. Etymologically, it refers to that which is "handed over," which, in a religious context, encompasses a whole lot of stuff. Any transmission of religious information is, in a sense, a participation in tradition.
In practice, of course, tradition is rarely defined this broadly. A line is generally drawn between "orthodox" and "heterodox" elements, the idea being that only "orthodox" elements should be transmitted.
The most obvious difference between progressive and "traditional" Christians is in which elements we have judged worthy of continued transmission. But this difference concerns the content
of tradition, which is not what I'm interested in right now.
The larger issue is the role
of tradition. For "traditional" Christians, tradition is inextricably tied up with authority. For example, consider one of the central points of disagreement between Catholic and Protestants, namely, the authority of "tradition," vis-à-vis "scripture." It is often said that Catholics affirm the authority of tradition, while Protestants reject it, but this is rather simplistic. When one realises that scripture is itself a product
of tradition, one sees that Protestants did not reject
tradition, they simply limited it's extent. And even this is a simplistic description: the doctrine of sola scriptura
is an extra-biblical element of tradition that is held up as authoritative. In reality, the Protestant Reformers didn't reject
tradition, they simply replaced the old one with various new ones (to which Protestants, to one extent or another, ascribe some measure of authority, de facto
if not de jure
What traditional Christians (Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise) have in common is a tendency to treat tradition as a norm against which each individual's faith can be measured. It provides a "box" within which each individual must sit in order to claim membership.
Progressive Christianity, as I understand it, largely does away with this. The role of tradition is not to provide a norm against which we measure our own faith to determine if we merit this or that label. It is simply a part of the context that shapes us, that makes us what we are. If we find fault with what has been handed down, we don't break with tradition so much as we expand it by seeking newer and better ways of expressing our understanding.
More on this later.
Labels: Progressive Christianity