Tradition as Community

Bo has been discussing the Wesley Quadrilateral in a couple of posts at Homebrewed Christianity, as well as on his own blog. I have absolutely zero background in Methodism or in the teachings of John Wesley, but I love the idea of the Quadrilateral, and his posts and the ensuing comments have me thinking.

Bo described the conversation: “Every time I bring up quadrilateral, more than half of the conversation will be centered on reason. This week was no exception. Reason draws the most concern – which is funny to me because tradition is the one that I find most suspect.”

I can relate to Bo when he writes, “I grew up evangelical and developed a disdain for tradition. It was a bad word to me – like religion. It meant thoughtless, empty ritual done on autopilot in rote repetition. I see things a little differently now.” The church in which I was raised thought of tradition as what those Catholics did, and singing the first, second and fourth verses of hymns and having weekly altar calls as authentic, self-determined worship. Tradition was man-made, and should be discarded, or that was how it was said.

While I wouldn’t say that I find tradition any more suspect than the others, I would say that of the four (scripture, tradition, reason and experience) tradition is the one that holds my attention recently.

It seems as though when tradition is called upon, it is the stick by which we measure our own conclusions. “Does this practice or idea square with the historical practices and ideas of Christianity?” Rather than seeing it as such, perhaps we could reevaluate what tradition means.

Tradition, in the context of the other three parts of the quadrilateral, isn’t a limiting force, nor a measuring stick. Rather it is a recognition of context and of community. Tradition is what we look to in order to see our own limitations. Acknowledging tradition is acknowledging the ways that our spiritual forbears shaped us.

Rather than being that with which we must be in accord, tradition is the means by which we engage in community with our brothers and sisters who came before us, and the means by which those who follow will include us in their own community. In looking at tradition we may easily become aware of the failings of those who came before us. We may see their prejudice and the ways their ideas damaged the world. By engaging those who shaped Christianity over the last 2000 years in community, we can learn from them and we can hopefully retain a sense of humility. In them we can get a glimpse of how our our failings and prejudices will be seen by those who come after us.

None of us are able to see the full picture, and none of us exist in a vacuum. Tradition is an acknowledgement of that. Tradition is welcoming those who shaped us, those are are shaping us, those who we are shaping and those who will be shaped by us.

Perhaps the word itself should be replaced in our minds.

Perhaps instead of appealing to tradition, we should say we are appealing to community.

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