Jaroslav Pelikan, an excellent Christian scholar and author of the five-volume series The Christian Tradition once wrote the following,
Tradition is the living faith of the dead.
Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.
Many people who are acquainted with me will often mistake me for a radical believer. They’ll hear my critiques of our institutional slog and assume I’d rather be out on my own, free from all traditional constraints. But they couldn’t be more wrong.
The truth is, I love tradition. To me, as Pelikan asserts, Tradition is the voice of the Great Cloud of Witnesses calling out into the future, “Do not forget our faithfulness to our Lord. Allow us to cheer you on!” My struggle with the institutional slog of today isn’t because I hate Tradition, it’s because I want us to be free to embrace Tradition as we move forward. I struggle because when I find us stuck in forms which clearly do not function, but express anxiety over the possibility of shifting to something different, I experience the soul-crushing weight of traditionalism.
Does Tradition need to be critiqued as we pass through the years? Certainly. In fact, not critiquing our Tradition is often what drags us into the unthinking devotion of traditionalism – expressed with the dreaded phrase, “We’ve always done it that way.”
Critiquing, however, doesn’t mean tossing all that came before us aside. Nor does it mean we retroactively excommunicate people who express opinions we may find socially unacceptable today. Rather, critiquing tradition means we make those brothers and sisters in Christ who came before us part of our ongoing conversations. We may not agree with them, we may even decide to take a slightly different track, but we can never tell them, “You’re no longer have a seat at the table.” It’s not our table, after all, it’s Christ’s.
Allowing Tradition to be part of our conversation takes, above all else, humility. Because in fifty-years time it’s very likely the believers who come after us will be holding us up for critique. We are not the conclusion of the struggle of faith, we’re simply the most recent iteration.