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Tradition: Our Whence or Our Whither

Posted on: May 24, 2020

Category: Theology

On Tradition: Our Whence and Our Whither
When studying questions in history and philosophy, tradition is a term that often comes into play. The very word “tradition” carries a certain weight. It can seem daunting, limiting, authoritarian, and sometimes punitive. The often-heard phrase in churches or other community associations is that “we’ve never done it this way before”; that phrase is tradition rearing its sometimes-ugly head.

Tradition, though, can have a positive side because it gives permission to experiment and can encourage us to explore the world in a new way. Tradition, in this sense, can act like a parent, a good parent, who is supportive, encouraging, praising, and continues to love no matter what. Tradition can be that element in our memory where we know our ancestors tried out various ideas, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, but they tried. Tradition can say to us that it’s our turn now to try.

In Biblical Studies and Theology, tradition plays both these roles. It is likely not surprising to know that some scholars view tradition as authoritative and punitive, and others view tradition as encouraging and liberating. The difference in regard is often a question of personality. Many of my teachers in the past were authoritarian when it came to tradition; there were certain lines that one just did not cross. Other teachers were exactly the opposite. The biggest influence on me was a teacher who regarded history as a series of human experiments in culture, science, and the arts. The spirit of that teacher remains with me because it was such an encouraging, joyful, and exploratory spirit. That teacher made education fun.

Bob Funk talked about tradition in these two ways. He said that tradition was composed of a whence and a whither, of past settings that give birth to horizons we are yet to explore. We can see in this distinction that Funk was influenced by those who saw history in a creative, experimental way.

What concerned Funk particularly was whether we interpreted our “whence,” the settings of the past that have created our today, as inhibiting or liberating. He felt that the whence of tradition, the way things were, could stagnate and become a weight that inhibits change. When this happens, the repetition of tradition is more important or more primary than renewing tradition. Doing something the way we always have prevents us from admitting that the same old way does not work anymore. There are so many examples of this; in fact, Funk thought there were seven supreme examples. He called these sites of mindless repetition “dogmatic addiction.” There is addiction involved in the continual repetition of acts that are killing us. One of the seven, for Funk, was the environment. We seem addicted to destroying it.

The whence of tradition can get frozen in a religion, too. A religion can become addicted to repeating its statements of belief and its rituals as if nothing has changed. Beliefs and rituals become authoritarian. It seems like acknowledging the authority of tradition is respectful, but the opposite is true. When tradition holds such authority, it simply repeats itself in mindless ways, whether we like it or not or believe it or not, and in an endless circle. Tradition starts to atrophy and slowly becomes irrelevant. People cannot renew it, leave it, or change it because addiction has set in. Meanwhile, a new generation arises who do not see the point. The Christian church has become like this. Even in evangelical circles, there is an emerging generation who do not see the point anymore. When the whence of a tradition degenerates to mere repetition, the whither of the tradition dies. There is no longer a vision, a place ahead of us, a whither that beckons the journey we are on.

To be vibrant, creative, fun, and interesting, a tradition must have an unknown, mysterious, renewing, and summoning whither. A tradition that loses its whither to addiction loses its future to repetition. When the whither is out there before us, unconfronted like an unknown country, and when the whence of tradition gives permission to undertake that journey, there is no telling where tradition will go, what it will become, or how it will be celebrated. One thing, though, will be clear. The beckoning of the whither will mean there is a future.

People who understand that tradition is about permission-giving and changing will always be criticized by those who think tradition is about authority and repetition. It is a challenge to renew the world when the forces of repetition seek to silence change. The COVID-19 crisis has given a glimpse of what change looks like or could look like, but the forces of repetition will seek to cover the peephole the crisis opened and return things to the repetition of the normal. I feel sad about that. I hope if I am in any way a teacher, the lesson is about a whence that gives permission and a whither that celebrates creativity.

©By David Galston

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