05 March 2017

Tradition: On Individualism and Lent

"The Crucifixion," by Enrico Manfrini,
Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption,
San Francisco, Calif.

My friend and I were driving into San Francisco when the topic turned to baptism.

Several years before this same friend lent me an exposition of Mennonite doctrine that made sprinkling a plausible mode of baptism. I knew the Presbyterian defense of infant baptism as a sign and seal of the covenant.

Though I found those arguments persuasive, it also seems everyone's case for baptism involves interpretation. The Bible does not spell out baptism quite as clearly as the ten commandments, for example.

My friend observed what we're left with, then, is tradition.

Though this was the first time tradition crystalized in my mind, I'd encountered it before.

Growing up Pentecostal, we defended the idea certain spiritual gifts continued to the present day, which led me to also wrestle with how the Bible came to be in the first place and to ponder a few clues that seem to emerge from the text itself.

Beginning in Genesis, we see God progressively revealing himself to his people. And we see successive generations of God's people living in and becoming part of a tradition, a tradition into which and through which God continues to reveal himself.


The gospel of Luke records Jesus' parents attended the passover in Jerusalem every year.

These prophets and apostles through their writings are eyewitnesses to us who stand at this distance in time. 

And in this context, the scriptures provide criteria for credibility. Moses instructs the Israelites, “...And if thou say in thine heart, 'How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?' When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:15-22, KJV)

The Apostle Paul similarly wrote to the Galatians, repeating himself for emphasis, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8-9, KJV)

But there's another question that brought tradition to my mind again. What are our generation's preoccupations building on...and what will they leave behind?

"The Visitation," by Enrico Manfrini,
Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption,
San Francisco, Calif.
I sat in a large church one Sunday—the video clips were original work, the worship band was good, Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll shared space on book racks in the foyer. It seems the folks love Jesus, that God is doing things, and that most of them didn't grown up in a church like this one, which made me wonder what the odds are that something this...trendy...would be obsolete by the time the children reach their parents' present age.

I see this tendency in myself...even in my thoughts about tradition. So much revolves around individual experience and choice...around doing this or that...around sociology and preferences.

Tradition is a community across time that grows roots beyond the individual...and sometimes requires doing things that don't feel natural...a renewable source of culture shock. In some sense, perhaps, that unfamiliarity...that counterintuition...makes tradition credible...less subject to the vagaries of generational preoccupation, personality, and sociology. Evidence that doesn't fit is, after all, what points to new insights.

So this Lent...as I attempt daily readings from the Book of Common Prayer...I shall also pray for the grace to enter in with others who trigger me...who are the antidote to my own brand of heresy.

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