I’ve been reading Henry Kissinger’s book, On China. Kissinger, of course, was the architect of America’s opening to China as Secretary of State during the Nixon administration. One of the more interesting parts of the book is Kissinger’s description of Mao Zedong’s strategy of continuous revolution.
As China’s leader, Mao had unbridled faith in the resilience of the Chinese people, but thought the country’s historical rule by Mandarin elites and their adherence to Confucian teachings made the country soft. What was needed was constant revolution that would eradicate the corrosive effects of tradition from the country.
This rejection of tradition led to the Cultural Revolution in which the young were encouraged to rebel against their elders. In turn, this led to a disintegration of order in the country and ultimately resulted in the deaths of about 25 million people in an avoidable famine, one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history. The Cultural Revolution failed, in part, because of its rejection of China’s own traditions.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that we have a high view of the so-called “Great Tradition” in our parish. For us, tradition is central to our beliefs and practices as Episcopalians.
However, there are those who would criticize our embrace of tradition. After all, where does it say in the Bible there has to be an altar, or beautiful music or priestly vestments, or candles, or four readings from Scripture or the Nicene Creed, or certain sacramental rites reserved for ordained ministers? All these issues have been debated throughout the long history of the Church.
Critics might point to something Jesus says in Mark to bolster their critique. Jesus was faced with questions from the Pharisees about why his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating. Handwashing was a custom not in the Bible (for laypeople, at least), but was strictly observed by most Jews at the behest of the Pharisees. Jesus responded, “You leave the commandment of God and hold fast the tradition of men” (Mark 7.8).
Is Jesus rejecting the use of tradition here? Not at all. The problem wasn’t tradition. The problem was the human heart which cares more about burdensome rules than the pursuit of genuine holiness.
As Christians, we can no more live without tradition than we can live without oxygen. Tradition is essential. It hands down to us the Scriptures, Christian teachings and the collected experience of how to be in relationship with Jesus. Tradition provides the language for how we speak about God.
Yet the danger of tradition is substituting a routine for a relationship. Like anything, we can misuse tradition. We can substitute rules and practices for genuine faith.
It’s natural to ritualize things that really matter in life. We create ceremonies around important milestones such as births, deaths, graduations, weddings, etc. Thus the problem isn’t tradition or ritual. The problem is our hearts which are inclined to stray. So hold fast to tradition, but embrace it to pursue an ever-deepening relationship with God.