Thursday, October 21, 2010

Faith and Authority

I have been thinking about two statements:
  1. Faith has no content without tradition
  2. Tradition has no definition without authority
When you accept Christ in faith what do you accept? Whatever the person or community leading you to that faith tell you following Jesus means. If they tell you it means reading the bible and doing what it says you will do it. If they tell you it means saying the sinners prayer or being baptized in the Holy Spirit you will do that.If they tell you it means going to church and bible study and probably a few retreats you will do that.

The point is these are all traditions. Sometimes people have an idea that tradition is something that is not in scripture. Scripture flows from the tradition of the church. So all of scripture is part of tradition in that sense. But also the precise way in which scripture is followed, which passages are emphasized, which biblical practices are emulated most frequently, these vary a lot based on tradition.

So when you think about it the only things we don't believe based on tradition are the things we have experienced ourselves. Like Thomas wanting to see the risen Jesus personally. But that is not faith. Faith is believing without seeing. So without tradition faith has nothing to believe. No content.

What about the second statement? Growing up in the reformed tradition was very different from the catholic tradition. One thing we were always asking was what was reformed. It was quite fuzzy. Some people believed being reformed meant sticking to the traditional liturgy. Some people believed it was a way of engaging the culture. Some thought it meant believing in the doctrines defined by TULIP. But there was no way to know for sure. Often we looked for leaders with enough clout to settle these questions. But no leader could survive when somebody said "I disagree" which someone inevitably did. In other words there was no authority.

What happens then is tradition gets reduced to sentiment. We have feeling about certain beliefs that flow from the relationships we have with people who hold those beliefs. It could be parents or pastors or teachers or friends. It could also be people you never met, the writer of a book or a song that touched you. You sense some holiness and you respect that. So you listen to that person with great sympathy.

This is something even non-Christians do. Some people stir something in them and they follow. What they are looking for is God. Sometimes it is someone very close to God. Sometimes it isn't. But even the most rational people can have their reason badly skewed by these emotions. This is why avoiding tradition is impossible. We need heroes of holiness. We cannot avoid embracing them and when we do they will gain some real power over our thinking.

Catholicism does not try and avoid tradition but it tries to shape it. To make it into the image of Christ. The way it does that is to give it hard edges. They are defined by dogma. Where the church defines precisely what is Catholic and what is not. Where the response "I disagree" cannot stand because God has appointed shepherds that are to be obeyed. So tradition is no longer sentiment. It is now solid.

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