Restoring the Great Tradition

I just started reading The Soul of Christianity, Restoring the Great Tradition by Huston Smith.  The author was  born to Methodist missionaries in China, and went on to become internationally known and revered as the premier teacher of world religions.  I’m not very far into the book yet, but I have found it very interesting so far.

In the Preface, Mr. Smith states that he feels like a voice crying in the wilderness, the wilderness of secular modernity.  He goes on to say “And yet a voice that can pull us out of the wilderness is on our very doorstep.  That voice is the voice of first-millenium Christianity, the Great Tradition, which all Christians can accept because it is the solid trunk of the tree from which its branches have sprung.  It is the voice of peace, justice, and beauty that emanates from the Christian soul …”

Later, in the Introduction section, he states that “today religion is hamstrung between liberals and conservatives who cancel each other out.  Conservative Christians, commonly tagged as fundamentalists, incline toward a biblical literalism that is unworkable because it ignores the contexts that give words their meaning … and they are in constant danger of slipping into disastrous political agendas.”  On the other side, he says “Liberal churches, for their part, are digging their own graves, for without a robust, emphatically  theistic worldview to work within, they have nothing to offer their members except rallying cries to be good.”

There are two main sections to the book:  The Christian Worldview, and The Christian Story.  I have read just far enough to discern a main thread.  The author maintains that God is coming back into the picture in our cultures because we now understand where secularism has gone wrong.  Secularism has equated two things, absence-of-evidence and evidence-of-absence.  However, it is clear that these are really two very different concepts.   I think that Mr. Smith is on to something pretty profound here.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of this book to see how this thread is developed.  I am also anxious to see how Mr. Smith believes we should navigate the middle ground of Christianity between the flawed approaches of those who are too liberal and those who are too conservative.  I’ll be sure to share my findings with you.

The Value of Tradition

Much of today’s Christian worship is based on traditions that have developed over the centuries.  The authors of Pagan Christianity? have documented the pagan origins of many of those traditions, and then conclude that Christians really need to go all the way back to the example of the first century church in order to worship “correctly”.  I’m not so sure about that.

Regardless of the origins of our Christian traditions, I believe that most of them have an underlying value that is still meaningful today.  My attention was drawn to this topic last Sunday, when I had opportunity to watch the televised Palm Sunday service at Saints Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona.  The service was a high Mass (more formal than the normal weekly Mass), and was led by Bishop Olmsted of the Phoenix Diocese.  The Mass included corporate prayer, the reading of scripture, singing, communion, and an excellent homily (sermon) on the last words that Jesus spoke from the cross.

There were also numerous activities that would seem odd, maybe even distracting, to a worshipper who is unfamiliar with the Catholic Mass.   The Mass has changed some in recent years, but still follows the same basic forms and traditions of Christian worship that go back to the middle ages.  Some of those practices are intended to demonstrate reverance for Christ and the Bible and for Holy Communion.  Others are included because they are remembrances of Christ and his sacrifice.  We need to remember that for many centuries the typical worshipper was uneducated and illiterate.  The liturgy that was repeated every Sunday was a form of instruction in the basics of the Christian faith.  It can still be a good reminder for us today.

As with any traditions that are practiced repeatedly, worship traditions can become so familiar and automatic that they lose their spiritual value in our lives.  Then we may be tempted to abandon them as worthless.  We may even go so far as to declare them “pagan” and offensive.  But if we really pay attention, and think “why am I doing this?” at each point in the church service, we may find a new appreciation for some Christian traditions that have been meaningful and instructive for many generations of believers.

For those of you who don’t normally attend a church with a formal liturgical worship tradition, I recommend that you visit one soon.  I think it will enrich your appreciation of the “church of our fathers”.