This is so obvious it should not need to be stated, but contemporary man often imagines himself to be his own creation. The exercise of individual freedom is exalted as the defining characteristic of our existence: “I am what I choose to be.” To suggest that most of who and what we are is beyond the realm of choice would seem to be a heresy, an insult to the modern project.
The primary mode of cultural education is not choice – rather – it is tradition. Most of what and who we are is “handed down” to us (literally “traditioned”). For the most part it is an unconscious process – both for the one who delivers the tradition as well as for the one who receives it. From the smallest actions of speaking to a baby, slowly passing on language, to the highest actions of belief and understanding, the vast majority of what forms and shapes us will have come through a traditioning. Free choice is largely exercised within the tradition: chocolate and vanilla are choices but both exist within the same tradition of ice cream.
We’re often not very aware of the “tradition” in which we live. A student in a classroom would readily agree that the words of a teacher or professor were a “traditioning” of sorts. But they will fail to notice that how the room is arranged, how the students sit, what the students wear (or don’t wear), how the professor is addressed, how students address one another, what questions are considered appropriate and what are not, and a whole world of unspoken, unwritten expectations are utterly required in the process. The modern world often imagines that “online” education is equivalent to classroom education since the goal is merely the transmission of information. But the transmission of information includes the process of acquiring the information and everything that surrounds it. Those receiving the “tradition” online will have perhaps similar information to those receiving it in a classroom – but they will not receive the same information.
This reduction of the world to information is a common error of the modern period. The world and data about the world are considered to be the same thing. The reduction of the world to information is the reduction of what it means to be human. And the result is a diminished person.
The Christian faith is neither immune from nor above this cultural requirement. From the most simple forms of Evangelicalism to the fullness of Orthodoxy, traditioning is the primary form of religious enculturation. It is simply how people learn. The denial of the role of tradition does not remove tradition from its place, it simply narrows the field of vision such that people become unaware of what they are doing.
Years ago, an Anglican priest friend visited a Baptist Church for the first time in his life. He had never seen this most common form of Protestant Evangelicalism. I laughed the next week when he describe his experience. “I went in the Church and I wasn’t sure where to bow!” He said. “There was no Cross!”
The same experience could have been reversed as a Baptist might describe his dismay at crossings and bowings and the like. But something is being taught and transmitted by such actions (or their lack). The Evangelical might complain that he sees “idolatry,” while their absence can convey a lack of the presence of God or a lack of respect for the things of God.
To learn to be a human is to live in a tradition.
In Orthodoxy, Tradition is both conscious and unconscious. It is conscious in that its reality is acknowledged and considered carefully. It is unconscious in that most of it operates in a manner that is not frequently discussed. It is both what things are done and how they are done.
But above this is the understanding of the Holy Spirit itself as the Tradition.
But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him. (1Jo 2:27)
I’ve often wondered at how people think the Holy Spirit is supposed to “teach us all things.” Early in my Christian life I thought there should be some sort of inner urging or near-voice whispering, “Walk this way…” But time has taught me that such promptings are often rooted well outside of God. Some would dryly suggest that the anointing of the Spirit guides us solely through the Scriptures. But that inevitably means that the cultural matrix of the world precedes the Spirit and shapes the reading of Scripture.
There is, instead, the teaching of Orthodox Christianity that offers the whole of the faithful people of God as the place in which and within which the Spirit forms and shapes us.
He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence. (St. Ignatius of Antioch)
The life of the Church, lived in continuity with the gospel, bears within it the ever-renewing life of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is that which gives shape and informs the Church (and its ethos). It is this inner life and ethos that is recognized regardless of the outward culture in which it is incarnate. Over time, the Church as ethos, forms and shapes even the culture in which it lives.
All of this is deeply challenged in the modern world, for every ethos that is not the ethos of commerce and consumption is challenged. Religious believing is allowed place within the ethos of commerce and consumption – as a form of ideas to be consumed or sold. Thus evangelism in the modern world is often pursued in terms of our consumer culture. But this distorts the gospel. To “choose” the gospel reduces the Kingdom of God to something that can be comprehended. We cannot freely choose what we do not understand.