Most of the things in our lives are not of our own making – they were given to us. Our language, our culture, the whole of our biology and the very gift of life itself is something that has been “handed down” to us. In that sense, we are all creatures of “tradition” (traditio=“to hand down”). Of course, these things that are not of our own making and are the least controllable are also those things that we take most for granted. We may hate our culture and our biology, but will still have to use our traditioned language (or someone’s traditioned language) to say so. Tradition is simply the most foundational, inescapable aspect of human existence.
A common fallacy in the contemporary world is to treat tradition as an option, the sort of thing you can value or dismiss at will. A number of contemporary Christian groups dismiss tradition as a stumbling block and hindrance to the spiritual life. But such an attitude creates a false spirituality, one that assumes that we can live without the necessity of tradition.
The Christian faith is a Tradition. This is inescapable. Everyone who names Jesus as “Lord,” does so because the story of Jesus, and even the reality of His Person have been handed down to them from someone else. The concepts with which they practice their discipleship will not be new – they will have been handed down as well. Christianity is a traditioned faith.
There is a proper spirituality that accompanies tradition.
First, tradition alone makes possible a life of grateful thanksgiving. Those who reject tradition fail to give thanks for what they have been given in that they refuse to acknowledge that all that they have is a gift. That gift is the very content of tradition.
Second, the rejection of tradition creates a false sense of competency. One of the great errors of our contemporary society is its assumption that the present exists in order to correct the past. There are inherent utopian assumptions about our ability to create a better world. The arrogance of those assumptions consistently produces a world of unforeseen consequences.
A spiritual life that rightly regards tradition is governed by the giving of thanks: it is eucharistic. All that we have, all that we are, all that we ourselves have fashioned is treated as gift. The gift is offered back to the Giver who continues to give.
It is equally marked by a spirit of humility and stewardship. Through no particular competence other than being born at this time, we have been given stewardship for everything that has gone before. It is the treasure of countless lives. Even the resources of the planet are a treasure, the energy of eons of time stored within the world we inhabit.
The character of every sacrament is gift. In every case the grace that we receive is the gift of God – it is rightly described as being “traditioned.” The character of the sacraments should also inform the character of our lives. We are not “movers and shapers,” the masters of the world, and the great makers of decisions. The imagery that marks much of contemporary spirituality is simply foreign to what we have received.
The path of salvation must be marked by humility and thanksgiving. Christ Himself confessed, “I can of Myself do nothing.” (Joh 5:30) And St. John the Baptist said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” (Joh 3:27) The way of salvation is the path of self-emptying thanksgiving in which we recognize that we contribute only our emptiness, while God gives the fullness.
St. Basil the Great in his treatise on the Holy Spirit, famously defends the sign of the Cross saying:
For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance that they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel at its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is there who has taught us in writing to sign with the cross those who have trusted in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ?
This is only the “first and most general example” of the things that have been handed down in the life of the Church. Not only have the Scriptures been handed down (yes, the Scriptures are a part of the Tradition), but the manner of reading them as well.
There is no “non-traditional” Christianity (for Christ Himself and all knowledge of Him comes from someone other than ourselves). I easily understand that many Christians fear that “the traditions of men” will somehow distort the purity of the gospel. But we cannot have a Christianity that is not a tradition. But we can have grateful hearts and learn to be good stewards of the mystery of God.