the cover of the book Awake to the Moment
Tradition: solve the problems, make use of the possibilities

Notes on Awake to the Moment1, “Tradition in Action” (69-104):

The second chapter of Awake to the Moment discusses Christian “tradition” as a resource for constructive theology. What most readers probably think of as tradition, “sets of shared meanings and practices that repeat, or have continuity with, the past” poses both “problems and possibilities” for doing constructive theology (70). Christian tradition may have more than its share of heinous charges laid at its door, like the “crusades, inquisitions, slavery and pogroms” (71). And tradition appeals to authorities, who may become authorities initially because they are the biggest or strongest or loudest or richest members of the community, and who then turn around and authorize as authoritative tradition the very unjust privileges and patterns that made them authorities in the first place, in a vicious cycle (77). But the new life we associate with Christianity also comes out of the ground of tradition. So theologians can’t simply break free of tradition. Instead, they have to engage with it in constructive ways. “If there is anything unique about the approach of constructive theology to tradition, it is this: we grant privilege to the witness of those who have been hurt and harmed in our world and found faith to be the source of life, over the dictates of those who have been set upon thrones by the workings of religion (72).” (This is about where I left off last month.)

The authors use the metaphor of a family, which we could think of as a group of people “joined together by a common history and a common future and shaped by the stories that situate them in a particular time and place (73),” to make some key points about tradition, which they define more formally as

the always changing, growing, and contested repertoire of symbols, narratives, myths, teachings, rituals, and other practices (e.g., spiritual disciplines) that a community employs not only to constitute itself as a community but also to orient itself toward ultimate reality and to increase thriving in the community.2

The family metaphor does a couple of things. First, it emphasizes that tradition relates to the future as well as to the past. This point comes up over and over in Awake to the Moment, and it represents an important direction in thinking about tradition. It reminds readers that the arguments that have driven tradition forward typically have considered the future, that the arguments that shape tradition today typically do consider the future, and that the theologians who have a special responsibility for being the custodians of tradition ought to consider the future when they weigh in on what we ought to be carrying forward from the vast storehouse of tradition, what ought to become normative capital-T Tradition.

Not only that, we ought to be considering the future in a particular way, taking into account how our decision will impact the “lived effects of theological interpretations” for the various members of the Christian family (85). The story of Jesus can be and has been told many different ways by different Christians. Scripture always has to be interpreted and can be and has been interpreted many different ways by different Christians. In deciding how to tell and interpret our shared story, we ought to use “love, justice, and flourishing” as our normative criteria (81).

This normative choice moves away from some traditional criteria, including sola Scriptura and the authorized interpretations of the community, like the magisterium. Neither of these traditional ways of characterizing authority work as well as necessary, because neither of them attend sufficiently to the substantive outcomes of tradition-shaping decisions, especially for Christians “at the margins.” We know how this has worked out: In plenty of concrete historical situations, the authorized shapers of tradition used their authority to foreclose “love, justice, and flourishing” for some Christians. (For example, Christian pastors in the US antebellum South routinely appealed to Scripture to authorize the idea that black people, because of the “curse of Ham,” were ordained by God to be the slaves of white people, and to enjoin a particular code of conduct for slaves based on Scriptural passages like Ephesians 6:5.)

At the same time, the normative criteria of “love, justice and flourishing” have authentic traditional credentials. From the perspective of the Methodist quadrilateral, for instance, they have roots in Scripture, represent vital elements of historical Christian tradition, resonate with Christian experience, and are values that can be discerned in contrast to their opposites by the use of God-given reason (81-82). So in proposing these normative criteria, the constructive theologian authors of Awake to the Moment are not saying that we can’t make use of historic Christian tradition; they are saying instead that we have to ask searching questions of the tradition. Recognizing the close etymological connection between “tradition” and “treason,” they ask: “In what ways do inheritors of tradition betray it, and in what ways do inheritors live it? In what ways does tradition betray its heirs and in what ways does it sustain them? When should subversions be guarded against – and when should they be sought after?” (85)

Recognizing that diversity has always characterized Christian tradition doesn’t mean that constructive theologians consider every expression of tradition equally valuable or valid. “… we should name the diversity of Christian traditions itself as the norm and declare most valid those Christian traditions where love, justice, and flourishing abide” (90). The touchstone of this approach is Jesus’ parable of the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25, where the faithful who have helped “the least” in some material fashion have shown allegiance to the Lord. Because “Christian traditions are never simply the voice of God nor … simply that of flawed and fallen human beings” (92), contemporary theologians have a double responsibility. We need to allow traditions to challenge our commitments to harmful cultural norms, and we need to challenge and question our commitments to harmful traditional dictates.

They conclude with a reflection on the future of tradition in an increasingly “global” society. Christians are not only a diverse family, but Christian tradition shares cultural space with lots of other traditions. Some of these traditions aren’t even “religious”; “the Enlightenment” turns out to be one tradition among the many, that theologians of the modern liberal world struggled to integrate with Christianity. Thinking about what this might mean at this moment in Christian history, offer the example of interfaith action in New York City that helped bring about the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act in 2012. As they tell that story, an interfaith coalition, drawing on shared commitments and on the unique symbols of their different traditions, effectively translated their concerns for the working poor into effective public policy focused on “material justice”(97-98).

To illustrate the understanding of tradition they have in mind they offer a vision of a Christian “family reunion,” like the kind many Americans are probably familiar with, where all the generations out to the third and fourth cousins gather in a park or a hotel ballroom with their family t-shirts – the authors envision the t-shirts saying “Put On Christ” – maybe color-coded for branch of the family (the Catholic side of the family wearing green, the Baptist side wearing red, and so on). And within this large gathering, some “tensions” or disputes are going on within the various sides of the family, and some “friends of the family” have shown up and are working at one of the tables with members of various sides of the family on some common project to increase human flourishing in some way, and … hopefully, we get the idea that tradition is something we live with and in, that ties us to others with whom we may or may not agree, that may constrain us in ways we need to push back against, and that grounds and helps us, orienting us to our past in ways that equip us and direct us into the future.


1 Laurel C. Schneider and Stephen G. Ray Jr., editors. Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. (42-50)

2 The definition comes from Robert Ford Campany, “On the Very Idea of Religions (In the Modern West and China).” History of Religions, 5/2003, vol. 42, no. 4, 316-18, quoted in Schneider and Ray, eds, 74.

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