DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Head to Head
Tradition

As the apparently relentless tide of secularism sweeps across the planet, so also do Christian traditions tend to gradually disappear. Where once they animated and pervaded Western civilisation, they now barely appear in the consciousness of a large majority. The debate between Rick and Mick demonstrates the gap between those Christians who want to move on from traditions maintained for their own sakes, and those who regard them as valid and worthwhile enough to be preserved across time.
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Rick
The word tradition can be used to denote a number of meanings. It can refer to religious practice, such as the Christian tradition, or Muslim tradition, or to a body of social custom such as the tradition of Halloween in the United States. In a general sense it denotes the handing down of information, beliefs and customs by word of mouth from one generation to another usually without the benefit of a written text. Tradition may also refer to a continuity of social attitudes, customs and institutions such as that associated with an institution of higher learning such as the Yale or Harvard traditions. It may apply to any organization of human activity as for instance the tradition of brewing beer or the Mayo Clinic tradition.
 

There are a number of common threads in each of the definitions. First, there is the dimension of time past or history. Second, there is an act of transmitting to another generation a body of information deemed worthy of preservation that has come out of the past, having been tested by elders and experience. 

For all intents and purposes, every human being is subject to tradition in the course of maturation. It cannot be avoided except by extraordinary efforts and means. 

I have previously asserted that human consciousness is a composite of time past, time present and time future. This I have termed the cell of consciousness. Similarly, there is a corporate or communal consciousness, again composed of the three time elements described above.  In order for communal consciousness to be fulfilled and stable, all of the temporal elements must be satisfied. Thus, the element of tradition or time past, is essential to the integrity of communal consciousness. 

Once there is integrity of communal consciousness, the individual members of a community become the beneficiaries of the positive effects of tradition in their maturation. They become aware of who they are and what is their place and function within the community. This process imparts a sense of balance, predictability and security within a changing world. 

For the most part I see tradition as a good. Traditions can change and evolve to meet current circumstances. Traditions may even die out completely; if they become abrasive to the community they may even have a detrimental effect. It is for each community to husband those traditions that best meet their needs and circumstances. 

In my own family, traditions are rich revolving around Christmas, New Year and Thanksgiving Day. Also, birthday celebrations are  particularly rich with traditions that make our grandchildren squirm with joy and anticipation. Even family dogs participate with delight. I know that all these traditions have had a positive effect on the development of character in my children and their children. 

After this long prologue, I know, Mick, you are chomping at the bit to get a word in about how the Church has abused tradition particularly as it has used revelation in its epistemology. 

Mick
Your description of tradition is attractive. I certainly won�t dispute its general outlines, while its particular demonstration in your family is delightful.
 

But here�s another case. I come from a country where a centuries-old tradition that indigenous neighbours were barbaric savages, best kept separate from civilised people, eventually became the legal system we now know as Apartheid. It was a �communal consciousness� highly valued by a large group, many of whom struggled and died for it. 

Isn�t there a negative side to tradition, especially when it�s valued for its own sake? What of cultural tradition when it becomes fossilised, when it fails to adapt to change? 

Once upon a time, a newly-married man noticed with considerable surprise that his wife cut off one end of the Christmas turkey before putting it in the oven. When he asked her why she did this she responded, �Because my mother always did it that way.� When the couple asked Grandma why she did it, she said, �Because our oven wasn�t big enough to take a whole turkey.� 

Rick
I would suggest the term tradition be used only in reference to groups and not a single person as you cite in the curious Christmas turkey story. That would be better classified as a misinformed habit.
 

But I agree with you completely that certain traditions such as Apartheid (I would also include anti-Semitism), can have horrendous implications for a given society. 

As I stated earlier, traditions can change and some may even die out. All traditions need periodic re-evaluation to ask what were the original sources of the tradition, and is it serving a good purpose? Critical to this discussion is the question, who or what forces can and should trigger such re-evaluation and who has the authority, will, and power to effect appropriate change? 

I am of the opinion that the best source of scrutiny is from within the tradition-group when possible. Those personally affected by or living within the tradition have the experience and sense of the deep meaning of the tradition to make meaningful change. 

Mick
So far we have been talking about tradition in a general sense. We�ve noted that traditions can be deliberately created and deliberately changed. So in the USA an annual Thanksgiving was informally celebrated by many after 1863 or thereabouts. In 1941 it was made official by President Roosevelt, thus gaining force, permanence and an element of obligation. Similarly, Adolf Hitler created the tradition of a Third Reich as legitimately following a First Reich (the Holy Roman Empire from around 800) and a Second Reich (from around 1871).
 

But there are other kinds of tradition. One such is that created by Plato about Socrates. We know relatively little about the former apart from what we�re told by Plato - and yet many believe things about Socrates as though those things are independent of Plato. That is, they have formed a tradition about Socrates, even though in Plato�s works Socrates is actually a character who puts forward Plato�s views. 

What many Christians today are ignorant of is that much of what they accept about Jesus is tradition, not history. Early Christianity had many traditions about what Jesus said and did which were put down in writing to preserve them for the future. Few people in those times could read or write, so the very act of putting pen to paper formed a validation of traditions similar to that carried out by President Roosevelt or Adolf Hitler. Only four of many Jesus-traditions were eventually legitimised by the Church. 

Now, as you say, there�s nothing intrinsically wrong with either celebrating or scrapping traditions. They often perform valuable duty, personal and social - and just as often fall by the wayside. The gospels do contain some history, though it is hard to separate it out from what is a maze of hearsay, theology and contradiction. For me the issue is this: should people follow and revere a traditional Jesus of the gospels (if so, which one?), or a Jesus they have teased out from these traditions, one as close as possible to the real man who actually lived? We have spent at least two centuries examining the gospels as literature and history. Hasn�t the time come to ditch many traditions about Jesus? What�s your take on this? 

Rick
Before we ditch any traditions it would be prudent to evaluate each on a case by case basis judging what good or bad has followed from the tradition; what are the costs of continuing it and what values does the tradition uphold.
 

In order for me to respond to your question, �Hasn�t time come to ditch many traditions about Jesus?� I need you to specify which traditions you have in mind. Only then can I give a coherent answer. 

Mick
One such is the Christian tradition of life after death. I find no good evidence that Jesus ever concerned himself with this. It is an invention of early Christian teachers, based not on the life and teaching of Jesus but on beliefs about his physical resurrection from death.
 

Rick
What is your take on John 14.2?
     

In my Father�s house are many rooms; if it were not so would I have told you that. I go to prepare a place for you.  

It seems to me Jesus is talking about a life hereafter. In my view the doctrine of immortal life is a major pillar of Christianity. Without it the religion would be invalidated and collapse. I can�t believe you want to destroy Christianity. 

There are some who consider immortality to be a �crutch� for weak people to lean on, a part of the �opiate� atheists consider religion to be. I find it to be entirely opposite of this cynical point of view. It gives the believer courage to live life to the fullest and no matter what happens, to be assured that all will be well in the end, beyond life. 

I have previously asserted that consciousness is composed of past, present and future. Without all three dimensions represented the individual cell of consciousness is incomplete and the individual has a reduced sense of eudaimonia. Thus, some sense of future, even after death, is necessary to complete the cell of consciousness

I recently read Life after Death: The Evidence by Dinesh D�Souza. It is important reading as a background for this discussion and I highly recommend it to you. 

Whatever you or I hold to be true about this issue will probably have little influence over those on either side of the question. However, do you think harm is done to those who believe in life after death or do detrimental effects accrue to the larger society from it? 

Mick
Before I respond to your final question, let me put a few things to rest as best I can.
 

First, my conclusion is that most of John�s Gospel isn�t history but teaching - including the passage you quote. That is, you are referring to a particular traditional interpretation of Jesus, one of a number which existed in the first and early second centuries. There are many such gospels, but only four have survived into the list approved by the winners of early struggles between the many differing Christian traditions. 

Second, there is no such thing as a monolithic Christianity: there are only a number of Christian traditions. Mine happens to be the Anglican tradition; yours the Lutheran. Only time (and lots of it) will tell which will thrive, which will morph into something new, and which will disappear. Nothing I do will destroy any of them. 

Third, your �cell of consciousness� makes good sense. I am the �me� who exists not only now but who has existed over 70 years and will exist for a while to come. It may be that I will continue to exist after everything now identifiable as �me� has disappeared - but I personally have no assurance of that. I do have a hope which rests on Christian tradition, but I acknowledge the possibility that I will cease when I die. 

I don�t know if my particular Christian tradition helps or hinders society - that is, the 21st century, English culture of which I�m part. There is a fine line between Jesus the man and Christian traditions about him. But I am reasonably sure that if I cling to any Christian tradition for its own sake, I risk retarding changes in myself and in society which are important, perhaps vital. So, give tradition its place - but not pride of place.

Rick
For me traditions are means to navigate my way through a chaotic world. I observe them not for themselves but because they give me insight and stability. When they cease to do so I will discard them.
 

So it is with my Lutheran traditions that have sustained me for more than 76 years. Obviously, it is incumbent on the individual to decide which traditions are valuable and which should be let go. In the case of John 14.2, I take Jesus at his word.

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