Friday, November 13, 2015

Tradition in the Church

This is my fourth post on the book Discerning the Mystery, by Andrew Louth. The first post can be found here.

In this chapter Louth goes into much more depth on what tradition is and how it works in the Church. In introduction, he first comments on the conflict over tradition that has existed between Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation. Louth argues that in this dispute both parties misunderstand the nature of tradition: namely, both seem to view it as something comparable with Scripture, either a complement or a rival to it. They are both objectified, as sources of truth we are seeking to understand. This tends to assume that what is being revealed or understood is a collection of objective, independent truths, so that tradition is seen as revealing additional truths not written down in Scripture. Of this, Louth comments, "The problem of how we know at all, what it is that is taken for granted when we seek to understand God's revelation, has not been broached with any very searching intensity." (73) This understanding of tradition as parallel to Scripture was not held by the  early Church Fathers.

The central truth or mystery of the Christian faith, he says, is not a matter of words, ideas, or concepts, but of deeds, of reality. The words of revelation, even the words of Jesus the Word, are secondary in the Christian faith to the ultimate reality of who he is and what he accomplished. "To be a Christian is not simply to believe something, to learn something, but to be something, to experience something." (74) The Church is the place in which this being, this experience, can take place. He correlates this with 1 John 1:1-3:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life-- the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us-- that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship [is] with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
What John proclaims is not only a message, but a physical (and metaphysical) reality; what he asks from his readers is not simply belief, but fellowship. "Joining a fellowship, commitment to a community, involves more than assent to its beliefs, but rather a sharing in its way of life, in its ceremonies, and customs and practices." (75) Presumably these things are not seen as simply derived from more basic beliefs. This understanding of engagement with the truth calls to mind Polanyi's idea of community and tradition as the context for our knowing, and Gadamer's idea of bildung or paideia as the initiation into the preconceptions that allow us to know rightly. Indeed the early Christians adopted the concept of paideia from Greek philosophy, seeing in it an affirmation of the nature of man as a social being and the inherent goodness of creation, over against the Gnostics with their secret, individualistic knowledge.

In his treatise On Christian Doctrine, Augustine does not limit his use of the word doctrina to simply mean "teaching", but appears to mean something similar to paideia, or even what we might think of as "culture" in the broadest sense—a deeply Christian culture learned within the community of the Church, which is seen as the Spirit-enabled fulfillment of human societies. The goal (or at least a major goal) of the Scriptures, Augustine writes, is to teach us to love God and neighbor rightly (both to truly love them, and to order these loves properly), and it teaches us this using signs, namely the words of human language. Augustine points out that since words and language are, in a sense, arbitrary (the signs are not intrinsically related to the things they signify), they depend for their efficacy on consent between human beings. So the whole enterprise of human understanding, and human society in general, is dependent on and grows outward from a shared tradition of sorts, a "common sense". This is not even a tradition of the Church, but a common human tradition. Augustine's understanding of the importance of tradition in Christian formation is visibly a Christian development of the classical Greek idea of paideia.

Other Church Fathers depict how the Church deepened and developed this idea. Clement of Rome highlights the continuity of the sending as described by Christ in John 17:18 or 20:21: "As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you." Christian tradition is not simply the continuity of the human search for truth, but of the divine sending, the divine mission, passed from Christ to the apostles to their successors and so on, the mission of the Church which she pursues in the world. This sending is in the power of the Spirit (John 20:22), who gives the Church the power to be a witness for Christ in the world. (15:26-27) In this sense, the heart of the tradition of the Church is the life of the Holy Spirit in her, her fellowship with the Trinity.

Louth turns to a well-known passage from Irenaeus next:
True knowledge is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor curtailment; and reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and the pre-eminent gift of love, (2 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 13) which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts. (Against Heresies IV.33.8)
Here Irenaeus describes the process of apostolic succession, by which not just doctrines or teachings but the "distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ", or what Louth calls "the whole character of the Christian community, its rites, its ceremonies, its practices, and its life." (84) This tradition manifests pre-eminently in the gift of love; it is not simply a message, but a life. Irenaeus often spoke of a "rule of truth" (called a rule of faith by others), the fundamentals of Christian belief and their significance, handed down from the apostles and received in baptism. And "the fact that it is received is almost as important as what is received—tradition is not something we make up, but something we accept." (85) Tradition is a shining example of our interdependence and commonality, of humanity in general and of the Church much more so

Basil the Great, in his work On the Holy Spirit, makes a distinction between the public proclamation of the Church and its dogmas, "which we have received from the tradition of the apostles and given to us in secret." (XXVII.66) Basil is not speaking of a secret unwritten body of teaching in parallel to the written Scriptures; this is the kind of thing whose existence Irenaeus vehemently denied against the Gnostics. From the examples he gives—the sign of the cross, prayer to the East, and other elements of the liturgy—we see that he is not speaking of teachings, but practices as the "secret tradition". These things are not publicly proclaimed or taught, but are nonetheless a subtle part of tradition, part of the 'tacit dimension' of the life of the Christian. "Christianity is not a body of doctrine that can be specified in advance, but a way of life and all that this implies." (86)

This is illustrated in Basil's "proof" of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which is based not on explicit scriptural evidence but on the Spirit's indispensable role in uniting us to God, enabling us to participate in his life—in other words, on the inward experience of Christian spirituality. This is the context in which this and other "secret" teachings of the Church can be proclaimed and understood. In other words, much of Christian tradition does not consist of "objective" truths that can be proclaimed and understood by anyone regardless of context. "They are not 'objective' truths which could be appraised and understood outside the bosom of the Church: rather, they are part of the Church's reflection on the mystery of her life with God."

So tradition is not really another source of teaching parallel to Scripture; it is the inner life of the Church, "that life in which the individual Christian is perfected in the image of God in which he was created." (88) It is not believed in itself, but received, participated in. It is not individual, but communal; not only active in the mind but in the heart, the way by which we are perfected in the image of Christ and enabled to know, to receive God more truly.

We can now see how central liturgy is for the enactment of tradition, for the liturgy is the Church's practice and tangible expression of that inner life. It is most fundamentally in the liturgy that we celebrate and share in the mysteries at the heart of the Christian tradition. "For the heart of the Christian faith is not merely something conceptual: it is a fact, or even better, an action—the action, the movement, of the Son sent into the world for our sakes to draw us back to the Father." (89) The liturgy echoes and repeats this movement; heaven and earth become intermingled, God comes down to us and we ascend to him.

Louth emphasizes that can simply "understand", much less make up; it must be participated in, with all that we are. The givenness of liturgy, the fact that we are receiving and joining in words and practices that we can't always readily make sense of ("the secret tradition" described by Basil),is important because it is in this way that the liturgy involves us in the "tacit dimension" of Christian tradition, the depths of the mysteries in which the liturgy makes us partakers. "What can be articulated, what can be understood, is only a part, if an important part. The life in which we share as we commit ourselves to the tradition of the Church goes much deeper." (90) This is why it is so dangerous to try to reduce worship to what can be understood conceptually, as is so often the case in modern liturgical reform; to do so is to cut ourselves off from this depth. The fact that liturgy goes beyond speech "impresses on us the importance of the inarticulate" (91)—this inarticulateness about what is most important, not coincidentally, is characteristic of the child we have to become like to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Vladimir Lossky puts forward the idea of tradition as silence or stillness (in Greek, hesychia), the stillness and receptiveness in which we hear the Word of the Scriptures. It is the light that reveals the content of revelation, or the breath which makes the words heard. In Ignatius, whom Lossky refers to, this stillness also connotes a sense of presence: the personal presence of Jesus (which marked out the apostles, rather than simply having heard his words); it is this sense of stillness and presence that tradition conveys. "For the truth that lies at the heart of theology is not something there to be discovered, but something, or rather someone, to whom we must surrender." (95)

Louth's discussion of Basil's "proof" of the divinity of the Holy Spirit is, I think, highly illustrative of this chapter's message. By arguing for the divinity of the Spirit from the Christian experience of life in the Spirit, Basil seems to assume that not only certain beliefs, but certain experiences, a certain way of being, can be normative or even definitive for the Christian faith. This was a striking realization for me, as I used to assume pretty strongly that Christianity was defined by and shaped around certain fundamental, deeply held beliefs (i.e. God as Trinity and creator, the Incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection...) from which everything else arises. This is implicit in the teaching of sola scriptura that the highest authority for Christian belief and practice, that which shapes and guides everything else in the Christian faith, is basically conceptual: the words of Scripture. But Louth argues that "the central truth, or mystery, of the Christian faith is primarily not a matter of words, and therefore ultimately of ideas or concepts, but a matter of fact, or reality." (74) That is, Christianity is not just a system of belief or a "religion" in the modern sense of the word; it is a way of life, a way of being, with all that that implies, a world-view in the fullest sense of the word.

In discussing the "rule of faith" as the basis of tradition, Louth stresses that the fact that this rule, this tradition is received is almost as important as what is received, for "tradition is not something we make up, but something we accept." (85) Later he adds, "we become Christians by becoming members of the Church, by trusting our forefathers in the faith. If we cannot trust the Church to have understood Jesus, then we have lost Jesus: and the resources of modern scholarship will not help us to find him." (93) This trust in our spiritual ancestors, this childlike attitude of receptiveness, is part of what it means to be part of a tradition, to live within a tradition. A baseline attitude of skepticism, of needing to have things justified or proved to us before we will believe anything, is innately contrary to this receptiveness; it does not place us within tradition but over it, as arbiters. (Expecting teachings to be shown to be objectively true goes even further, denying the particular role of tradition in shaping us to recognize and contemplate the truth.) As I realized while wrestling with the place of tradition in my faith, we cannot pick and choose the parts of tradition we follow; this goes against what tradition basically is. Of course the risk of false teaching is real, as the history of the Church shows, but we can't let this overcome our need to be receivers and participants of tradition; we do not treat everything we receive as false or only provisionally true until shown otherwise.

I can still see why not wanting worship to "make sense" or be "understandable" to a visitor seems like a terrible idea to many. Don't we want our worship to be welcoming and appealing to inquirers, rather than confusing or off-putting? This is the impetus for reforming the "peripheral" parts of worship to make it "relevant" or perhaps "seeker-sensitive", appealing to modern aesthetics while still conveying the important truth. (I have previously examined the assumptions behind this form-content division) The difference between modern and liturgical worship in the kind of understanding being sought is summed up by the distinction between problem and mystery in the previous chapter. If the alternative to worship (or Scripture, for that matter) being clear or perspicuous is its instead being confused or muddled, then of course we will want Scripture and our worship to be clear. But if liturgical worship is unclear or does not "make sense" to the layman, it is because it partakes in the hidden depths of the Christian tradition, hopefully bringing us into contact with the great mysteries which we cannot hope to "understand" as we do a simple, rational message. Again, limiting ourselves to what we (still more the inquirer) can rationally understand is contrary to the receiving attitude tradition means to teach us. Expecting the Christian faith to readily "make sense" amounts to a denial of the treasured depth therein. Any unclarity here is not a confusion in the message itself, but the result of the observer's not being "sufficiently at home in the tradition" (112), as Louth will say next time in the discussion on allegory.

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