When I was a kid I lived in the great American north, just a mile from one of the Great Lakes. Like every other part of the country, it had its unique cultural quirks and character. The opening of deer hunting season was practically the biggest holiday of the year and people were very friendly and very Scandinavian. Northern accents abounded, much like the accent of our Canadian neighbors to the north, but way cooler and non-Canadian. When, as a kid, my family moved to Kansas, a lot of people would comment on my parents’ “northern accent”. “Northern accent?” we thought, “What are they talking abowt?” After living in Kansas for some time, our speech was assimilated to the Kansan culture. When we would travel back up north to visit friends and relatives, the northern accent was instantly recognizable. We were suddenly able to hear the accent that we had previously just assumed was normal.
This experience illustrates an undeniable reality about how we all perceive the world around us. Everyone seems to think that everyone else has an accent. In America, we talk about British accents while in Britain they speak of the American accent. We respond, “American accent? We don’t have an accent, we just talk normally.” This insight holds true well beyond just the subject of accents. We as humans have a natural tendency of perceiving the way we’ve always done things as the “normal” way, while everyone else is different, everyone else has a unique cultural perspective or unique tradition, everyone else has a bias, everyone else has an accent.
This reminds me of some of the implicit ways in which I thought about my faith as a young person. Like much of certain strands of Christianity (especially Protestant Evangelicalism), I thought that the best way to get to the truth was by reading the Bible and doing so without any sort of tradition or “religious” baggage to get in the way. By doing so, one could surely gain access to the pure, “objective” truth. When I finally started to ask the question why so many well-meaning Christians, all reading the same Bible, came to such radically different positions and beliefs on nearly every topic (from peripheral to centrally important issues), the answer was that it was because “they” were reading the Bible through the perspective of their tradition and doctrine, which made them biased; they weren’t being objective enough. We, of course, read the Bible just as it is, with no biases, or at least few biases, because we don’t let “doctrine” get in the way of the truth of the Bible.
Once I got a little ways into my studies in college, where I studied biblical interpretation, this line of reasoning began to fall apart. I began to see that the claim that everyone who disagrees with me is biased, while I alone am objective is not just ridiculous, but a bit arrogant. I also began to see that the idea that one can just try hard to be objective and then be able to see the world without any biases is both naive and a poor philosophy (it’s called Scottish Common-Sense Realism*); we all interpret everything we learn and experience through our previously held presuppositions and paradigms of thought, both conscious and unconscious. We can and should strive to be as objective as we can be when searching for truth, but pure, completely objective, “dispassionate knowledge” is simply not possible for us as human beings as we are not omniscient; we should leave that naive notion back in the “Enlightenment” where it came from. Our reading of the Bible is always shaped by our traditions, doctrines and beliefs.
But beyond just the impossibility of pure objectivity, I began to see that this search for a pure Christian faith, without any of the trappings and baggage of “religion” and tradition was also a chasing after the wind. For many years my Christian faith consisted of trying to draw a direct line from the Bible to myself, as if the 2000 years of intervening history were irrelevant and had little to no influence on me. But the more I learned about the Bible and history and theology, the more I began to see how truly impossible this is. One simply cannot draw a line from the Bible to the present and not be influenced by the history and tradition of which on is a part. Whether we realize it or not, we have all absorbed the result of centuries of Christian theological reflection that shape both the content and the foundational categories through which we understand and articulate the Christian faith. Trying to avoid tradition is not only impossible, but it is counter productive; avoiding tradition is like trying to achieve an “objective” scientific result by ignoring all previous scientific discoveries and the scientific method itself, just taking an “objective” look at nothing but the data. Even when some Christians proclaim to have no tradition, they absolutely have a tradition, they are just blind to it. Whether it’s what we believe or how we practice our faith, we are always influenced by what we’ve seen, absorbed and been taught, by our tradition. As author Chris Haw wrote on this very subject, “No denomination is exempt from building a tradition, even if it is the tradition of attempting to escape tradition.”* Haw goes on to write that certain anti-tradition groups, “attempt to escape slavery to traditions and hierarchies only to construct mini-hierarchies with comparatively little accountability, to repeat the traditions of early-America revival pastors, and think they have freshly reconstructed the early Church.”* We cannot speak the Christian language without an accent.
One other thing that I have noticed when it comes to anti-traditionalism is that often times the Bible is set up in opposition to tradition as if these were necessarily competing forces. I think it is important to note that the Bible itself is tradition. The Bible is in our hands today because Christians copied and passed on the writings contained within it along with the belief that these writings were inspired by the Divine Creator. We have the New Testament of the Bible because a few centuries after the books of the NT were written, the leaders of the Christian religion (the Church) decided that it was important to settle some ongoing disputes and discern exactly which books were and were not of divine origin. (Before this point there was a broad consensus on most, but not all of the NT books. Some believed that extra books were Scripture while others questioned books that are now a part of the Bible.) What they ended up discerning is what we now call the canon of the New Testament, that is, the list of books that are in the NT. This was passed on through the centuries as a core part of the Christian tradition. It is important to see that one cannot appeal to the Bible without also appealing to the tradition of what books are a part of the Bible; to speak of the Bible in opposition to tradition simply becomes nonsense when you realize that the Bible is tradition.
With all that being said, the question then becomes, not whether you are a traditional Christian, but what kind of traditional Christian are you? How deep are the roots of your tradition and what causes you to remain a part of that tradition?
*Christ Haw, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart. p. 131 (http://www.amazon.com/From-Willow-Creek-Sacred-Heart/dp/1594712921)
* Haw, p. 136-7