Tuesday, January 17, 2023

A mortal wound. . .

From Christopher Ruddy comes the pithy statement: “A Church that lives from tradition cannot reject its past without mortally wounding itself.”  It is the obvious that has become new because it was so obvious that it was easily forgotten.  Let me say that again.  It was so obvious that it was easily forgotten.  We tend not to forget the strange, unusual, or weird things we read or see but the ordinary things escape us.  So it is that this obvious truth has become scarce in a world so filled with affection for that which is new.  It is certainly true of many things but it is especially true of religion.

Ruddy is speaking from the perspective of a Roman Catholic and yet as a Lutheran I find his voice compelling for my own denomination and in these uncertain times.  Our greatest danger is not simply rejecting the legacy of those who went before for forgetting it.  We do not have to renounce our forefathers to render them antiques worthy more of curiosity than attention.  Surely this is exactly what G. K. Chesterton was talking about:  “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Of course, we usually get the quote and get it backwards.  He goes on to say: “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 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 asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”  It is also echoed in Jaroslav Pelikan: “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.”

There was a time when a slogan went around my own jurisdiction.  Not your grandfather's church, it was said (taking a cue from an Oldsmobile commercial so many years ago).  It was a time when we enjoyed trashing our own history and those who made it.  Now, to be sure, neither Ruddy or Chesterton or Pelikan means that tradition is given veto but it must be given voice.  I have oft mentioned that the 1940s and 1950s were not pristine years in Missouri Synod history or practice but I must affirm that it was in this church where I was brought to the waters of baptism to become a child of God, taught to pray at the hands of my mother and father, brought to the worship services of God's House, prepared to receive the Holy Sacrament, taught the faith through the Catechism, and prepared for service as a pastor.  For all the things I might find lacking, I cannot and will not condemn the living legacy of the faith and the faithful ones who planted me in the faith through the Word and Sacraments and nurtured that faith.  My parents were not perfect but they were godly people who knew to give me what would serve me to eternal life.  If for this reason only, I must be charitable in their failings.  I only hope to be remembered with the deep appreciation and affection I daily remember them, now sainted, and give thanks to God for their part in the tradition passed down to me.

It is not that the past is a straight jacket which we must wear but it is surely the first set of clothing we put on before we seek to alter our wardrobe.  As we wear it, we discern its strengths and its weaknesses so that we may improve upon it and not destroy it or make it unrecognizable.  That is the sacred deposit given to us.  We may add the best of what we have today but we dare not let go of the best we have received.  While this is true of doctrine, it is also true of liturgy.  While this is true of liturgy, it is also true of piety.  While this is true of piety, it is also true of virtuous and godly living.  If we cannot add anything better or more faithful, then at least we can pass on without impugning the blessed tradition, the living faith of the dead.  I daily give thanks to those who have gone before me -- the pastors who taught me the faith, the teachers of the faithful in generations past, the lineage of faithful that mark my own family legacy, and the those who built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ the chief cornerstone.  If I have anything to leave to those who come after me, it must be at least what I was given.  If we thought about this more, just might be better parents, better church members, better church workers, and better salt and light for Christ in the world.

Without the living faith of the dead, the Church is mortally wounded.  The hermeneutic of discontinuity that has come to define modern Christianity will certainly kill it and if there is a future it must come from those who remember, reflect, and rejoice to pass on what came before.  The beating heart of that tradition is not the opinion of men but the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  But thanks be to God that this is not a theoretical Word that lives only in our imagination or only in the moment.  It is and has been the might God moving through history to fulfill His saving will and purpose in Christ.  St. Paul insists that He passed down what was given to him -- faithfully.  He calls upon us to be equally solemn and faithful in what we pass down to those who follow us.  This is not for the sake of show but for the life of the world and for our lives.  God help us.


Janis Williams said...

Snarky comment: Oh, democrats love dead voters.

Janis Williams said...

Not-snarky comment: As we leave behind the obvious good of the past for the imagined good of the now, we fail to see the value of time. Past good is proven; present good may confirm our lack of understanding and foresight into a very long future.

Carl Vehse said...

"A Church that lives from tradition cannot reject its past without mortally wounding itself."

Still alive in places, the Lutheran Church rejected the false and heretical past traditions (e.g., the pope) of the Roman Church from which it separated.