The high school from which my wife graduated 50 years ago is in a district of just one square mile, assuring that it will always be relatively small and tight knit. The many who have lived their entire lives in or very nearby are deeply and intimately dedicated to the school and what it stands for in a way I have not ever experienced. Consider that these people were together from kindergarten through grade 12 as one unified class. Those who remained in the area have only deepened their loyalty to the heritage that is theirs through that school experience.
Indeed, heritage is the word I heard over and over again during our few days in Oklahoma. Oddly enough, it was never defined, just assumed. Exactly what is the heritage of which they are so proud and to which they are so loyal? It was never said. The most common meaning of heritage has to do with cultural traditions and values, and I was fascinated that those traditions and values seemed to be assumed without the need to articulate them. As a visitor, even an informed visitor, all I could do was guess as to what they might be.
If I ever get the chance to sit down for a good long visit (interrogation?) with a couple of their leaders, I’d like to find out what they think that heritage actually is. It must be something important because they are certainly loyal to it. My one guess is that, however defined, it might serve as something of a bulwark against the anxieties of uncertain times and undesired change.
Does any of that have to do with church? It does in my mind.
It made me reflect on how we deal with heritage in the mainline Protestant church world. Do we clergy, who are deeply loyal to the traditions and values of our denominations, ever try very hard to articulate what they are to the people who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday? I don’t think so. Good people desiring a nurturing and nourishing worship experience wander from Presbyterian to Methodist to Episcopal to Lutheran to Baptist without ever recognizing the serious theological traditions and values that underly each of them.
For example, when I arrived in the parish from which I retired, I discovered an erstwhile member trying as hard as she could to remake it into something more out of the holiness tradition. I doubt if it ever occurred to her that being Episcopalian in the Anglican tradition was anything other than local custom. Moreover, I doubt if she knew much about the holiness tradition either. She just liked the style of worship and conservative theology that she saw in local congregations and read about in books from popular sources.
The point is that, regardless of denomination, most mainline Protestant clergy are lousy at articulating what it is that makes their particular tradition a unique part of the Body of Christ with unique gifts to offer. If there ever was a time when the heritage of a denomination could be assumed because everyone who is a part of it has always been a part of it, it is long gone.
There is no such thing as generic Christianity. The particularities of our denominations have real meaning. They cannot be assumed. They need to be well taught and well understood, not to further divide us, but for two other reasons:
First, so that members worshiping in a particular tradition more fully understand how that tradition leads them into deeper communion with God in Christ.
Second, so that we all may more richly benefit from what each has to offer to the whole.
2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Heritage”
I can't agree more with your basic point, Steve: going deep into the locality of your tradition will encourage you to learn from how others have gone deep with theirs: to learn from your common differences.So what's the problem? First: going deep. Second: the very idea of a tradition, of passing down that which invites you to go deep.The majority of the young faculty at Whitman, especially in the social sciences and humanities, are not just deeply suspicious of the whole notion of going deep into a tradition, but shape their teaching to insure their students won't know what that could mean, how it could work to give meaning to a life. And then the larger culture turns \”tradition\” into just another shopping experience (with churches then trying to find the best \”hook\” for those shopping).So, again, Steve: I wholeheartedly agree; and now: what to do?
About Tradition: The Muslim medieval philosopher,Al Ghazali, speaking at a time when it was still possible for a Muslim to speak and write freely about such matters,wrote \”There is no hope of returning to a tradlitional faith after it has once been abandoned, since the essential condition in the holder of a traditonal faith is that he should not know that he is a traditionalist.\” Self-knowledge is painful, and hard to articulate even for gifted wordsmiths, like poets, and tradition is a refuge. The Anglican convert poet T.S.Eliot (born in Missouri!)said \”Human beings cannot stand very much reality.\” In 1927 he announced that he had become British and \”Anglican in religion, royalist in politics,\”searching for tradition! That same year Sigmund Freud, the \”father of psychoanalysis\”, wrote \”The Future of an Illusion\”, about the amazing persistence of religious belief in a modernist world. When one asks a traditionalist exactly what is the tradition he holds, one may make oneself as unpopular with such people as Socrates became with the common people of ancient Athens, and look how he ended up! People love their traditions, as one admiral said to Winston Churchill when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty in the First World War,\”That is not the tradition of the Royal Navy\” to a reform proposal. Churchill snapped back,\”What traditions of the Royal Navy, other than rum, sodomy, and the knout.\”