Recently I’ve heard people in church leadership saying things like, “What makes our tradition the best?” Or “This is why I think OUR tradition is the best.” In all cases, people are talking about tradition (“We have such great hymns,” and “We don’t judge people who come to worship with us,” and “We have such a wonderful burial liturgy,” and “The thing I like about being Episcopalian/Presbyterian/Lutheran etc. etc. etc. is that we use language so much better than the others!”). They are also talking about culture–ritual, vestments, candles, all the rest of it.
Culture and tradition are not faith. It is a great mistake to confuse either of the two with the value and efficacy of faith.
We are all inclined to admire ourselves. We are all inclined to rest there in front of the mirror, oozing satisfaction in our identities and our heritage. We all do this, and we do it with such satisfaction that we are less than one step from implying that we have the true faith because our traditions are better than others’. Some people, of course, take that last step and stand firmly on the seemingly solid ground of opinion. “My tradition is the ONLY one by which you will be truly saved–” whether that means that you alone know how the Holy Spirit works, or you alone are privileged with God’s view of the goats and sheep in advance of the Last Day.
You can’t convince me.
It’s not just that being judgmental and exclusionary is not Christian in the least. The great trap and betrayal lying in wait here is that inability leaders have to see in proportion. Leaders and ordinary Christians MUST be able to distinguish between practice and preference, and stop acting largely on the latter.
Leaders in the church have to grow past the American cultural ideal of success and accomplishment (professional or personal). When they have learned to really distinguish the self-taught, self-reinforcing blindness of self-deception, they will stop seeing others as valuable only inasmuch as they reflect their own values. This behavior, not Christian at all, ends in worship of tradition, worship of one’s own cultural expressions of being human. “Come here, we do it better than anyone else does; you’ll have a better experience of salvation with us.”
Christians for centuries have been rightly accused and justly condemned for this behavior. There’s no difference in the effect if is a declaration of superiority or a condemnation of a difference. The claims of appreciative inquiry are bosh. The claim of being super-right is equally ridiculous. There’s no supportive need in the church’s early development or justification in the canon of Jesus’ example, (before the emperors claimed Jesus and the church weapons of their own). If you carry on as though your own tradition is better than anyone else’s, you are clear about your tradition, and the rest of us are just lucky if we get to see Jesus in it. People who claim their tradition and culture promote Christianity better than anyone else’s, are either converts or have never left home. The core values of Christian faith have a larger platform of common ground.
It’s hard enough to put up with nations fighting each other to declare supremacy of values (since we no longer tolerate claiming each other’s real estate). Let the leaders of churches and their professional helpers refrain from doing the same.
“As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
So–there’s only a modest point in being Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist, Moravian or United Church of Christ, Copt or Orthodox.
One’s best traditions are like good or beautiful choreography for some who are drawn to that way of dancing. Or, traditions are like rooms full of decor that appeal to one person’s tastes and not another’s. One can rejoice in the pleasant lines and heritage one has received, without claiming to have the best of anything. If one is to boast, one should try to remember that the only valid boast is in Jesus Christ.
The text in Galatians quoted above does not conclude, “and if you belong to the Episcopal/Methodist/Southern Baptist/Anglican/Presbyterian… Church, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
Jesus’ words in John, quoting Isaiah, run thusly: “This people knows me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” These are words to wrestle with when we feel particularly satisfied with our own ways. We rarely recognize it when we’ve become smug. But we can look after ourselves (and our traditions) without prizing ourselves. That way is the way of humility. That way is the most winsome and Christlike. Not easy, but plain; a low way and quiet, worthy of tradition.