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Freedom in tradition

Freedom in tradition

by Tricia Gates Brown

Garlicky minestrone reaches down the hall and out the front door of the church, drawing me in on a wave of scent mingling with undertones of home-baked bread. I find myself thinking, church people know how to do food. If nothing else, you can count on the food. Then I immediately recant the sentiment, remembering nothing spoils the appetite like a bad church experience. Actually, encouragement of theological questioning and curiosity are what draw me to St. Catherine Episcopal. Thanks be to God.

Over ten years ago I completed a PhD in biblical studies because I was intensely curious about Judeo-Christian scriptures and wanted to teach bible. Then I proceeded to teach at an Evangelical-Quaker university with a strong fundamentalist student demographic, and let me testify, the experience cured my career ambitions with all the potency of chemo. I found that academically instructing young fundamentalists on the subject of biblical studies was like strolling through a minefield on the fringes of Afghanistan. The teaching experience had such a disillusioning effect, I didn’t even wander over to liberal colleges or write persuasive articles about uninformed scripture reading. I up and quit. Before I could teach biblical studies to anyone, I needed to figure out what was so fraught about the bible.

Though it’s taken a while, I have, over the last few years, developed one idea of why fundamentalist Christians need to defend the bible, and specifically, their own denominational interpretations of the bible, so zealously. Essentially, their institutions demand it.

Human development and the coherence of institutions necessitate structure and guidelines. But once humans reach a certain level, they are able to leave behind the structures and rules that helped them grow up. In fact, people at higher levels of faith development always let go of the need for defining structures. Yet scholars who study stages of faith and spiritual development, from James Fowler to Bill Plotkin, tell us that while this is true for individuals, institutions perpetually operate at an adolescent level of spiritual development. They cannot move onto the deeper concerns, or struggle through the formative losses, that steer us beyond the superficial boundaries imposed by others. Institutions, including faith communities, need sets of established guidelines and definitions to bind them together and power them forward. But unlike young people who learn the rules so they can effectively transcend them, adapt them, or outright break them as mature adults, institutions need guidelines, period. So dominant religious traditions throughout history directed their adherents with established rituals, creeds, and codified rules of conduct. This worked, even if the institutions thereby created were often immature and petty.

Over the last hundred-plus years, many modern Christians have eschewed such traditions in favor of free-form communities and “non-denominational” churches. Culturally, we have moved away from tradition and toward individual consciousness that is wary of institutionalism. As a result, many modern Christians demoted creed, ritual, and rules as structures for communal life, leaving a vacuum that had to be filled. In this vacuum, arose the Bible. The Bible-with-a-capital-B Bible, along with the rapid ascent of American fundamentalism. The Bible became the supreme authority for a large segment of American Christian communities. The bible is, for these churches, a bulwark against the formlessness that would threaten the institutions themselves.

But as it turns out, the Bible doesn’t simply substitute for the rule of tradition. In fundamentalist churches the bible is actually viewed as the word of God, not as a human-formed tradition that can, to some degree, be taken with a grain of salt and/or reformed. For many nondenominational fundamentalist churches and Christians, the bible not only replaced tradition, it eviscerated it. Who wants tradition when you can have God on the page, God you can hold in your very own hands? For non-historic, non-ritualized and uncodified faith institutions, the bible became the kind of authority every institution, like every adolescent, needs to define reality, but those who question or disagree with this authority are viewed as usurping the authority of God. The irony is that the bible is interpreted individualistically by people culturally predisposed to interpret so, yet it is held up as universal, divine, authority.

This elevation of the status of the bible has led to a fundamentalist American Christian demographic that increasing justifies violence and bigotry by misusing scripture. Past generations certainly saw violence and bigotry sanctioned by tradition. But different today is the tendency of fundamentalist Christians to cut off all discussion of the issues by appealing to literalistic biblical justifications of violence and bigotry. According to this hermeneutic, these things are justified because, simply put, God says so.

I am a Generation-Xer who has a strong aversion to institution for institution’s sake. In my early twenties I gravitated toward Quakers because the denomination seemed least institutionalized among Christian denominations. Tradition tends to rub against my grain. Yet when I tried to jettison church participation, I couldn’t stay away.

So I have made my peace with institutions, at least in theory. This is in part due to acceptance of how institutions, though often disappointing and adolescent and deserving of scrutiny, play a necessary role in communal life. I have also learned to value the traditions that hold many faith institutions together because, in healthy circumstances, the coherence around human-formed tradition and ritual allows intellectual and moral integrity to flourish. In a time of increasing income disparity, environmental crisis, and militarization, it is more important than ever for churches to allow discussion and dissent around issues of justice and violence and how Christianity can speak to them. This includes calling into relentless question portions of tradition and scripture that have been used to justify domination, exclusion and violence. Christians need stabilizing structures that hold communities together while allowing free and open-minded debate.

I now worship with Spanish-speaking Episcopalians. Among this group of liturgy-enacting, ritual adhering, scripture-reading Christians, I am free, with others, to both question and relish the intricacies of scripture. We are free to roll our eyes at the tradition at times, or to discuss it critically as the human construct that it is. In a faith community ordered around tradition, rather than around the supposedly inscrutable Bible, we are free to communally worship the Lord God with all of our heart, soul and mind. Thanks be to God.

Tricia Gates Brown is a writer and garden designer working on the north Oregon coast, author of Jesus Loves Women: A Memoir of Body and Spirit. More of her work can be found at: www.


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I really liked this essay. It echos many things that I also think and believe, relative to fundamentalism, Christian or otherwise. (Think about what we see in the mideast and fundamentalism there.)

Cafe’ Ed’s, you folks are finding some great stuff, like this essay and the “Anonymous” one, too!

Kevin McGrane

Bill Dilworth

Ben, my pointing to the Catechism wasn’t meant to show that the Episcopal Church holds Scripture to be the Word of God in the same way that, say, the Assemblies of God do, but to counter the notion that we believe it is simply a “a human-formed tradition” or “human construct.” The Church may not affirm Biblical inerrancy or infallibility, or insist on a literalist reading of the Bible, but it doesn’t attribute a solely human origin to it, either. I could have pointed to the the use of “The Word of the Lord” at the end of readings in the Daily Office or the Eucharist, instead, or the use of lights and incense and congregational standing at the Gospel reading. The role of its human authors and redactors clearly does not preclude the Bible’s inspiration or authority as far as the Church is concerned.

Benedict Varnum

Bah. If an editor wants to put the closing parentheses “)” after the italicized word “tradition” above, I’d appreciate it. You’re welcome to delete this comment.

Benedict Varnum

I think Bill Dilworth’s comments about the prayer book catechism need to be held a bit more lightly; the catechism itself ought generally to be read through its preface on page 844 (a point of departure, rather than an arrival; a brief summary of the teaching of the Church’s teaching, rather than a sufficient and robust interpretation of it). It strikes me that the brief prayer book catechism is a tool to begin dialogue, not foreclose on it, and it is wonderfully Anglican in the vagueness with which it articulates a position as to whether and how Scripture may be described as the Word of God.

That said, the article’s dismissal of rules and institutions as the mere trappings of immaturity seems brusque and insufficient to me. I can’t help but draw the comparison to her experience with fundamentalist universities. Sure, some “rules and institutions” in the tradition have been ill-conceived or ill-used, as have some ways of teaching the Bible. But that doesn’t mean that rules and institutions are terrible things, any more than teaching the Bible is.

Whether or not we agree with the historical comment (that past violence was justified by tradition, for me, the rubber hits the road in this reflection here:

“This elevation of the status of the bible has led to a fundamentalist American Christian demographic that increasing justifies violence and bigotry by misusing scripture. Past generations certainly saw violence and bigotry sanctioned by tradition. But different today is the tendency of fundamentalist Christians to cut off all discussion of the issues by appealing to literalistic biblical justifications of violence and bigotry. According to this hermeneutic, these things are justified because, simply put, God says so.”

As is also often the case with the parables of Jesus, I think this reflection is best-received not when we use it to point fingers at one another, but when we wonder when and where we fit this description.

To leave it with a question, who do I demonize and abandon, because I think God is on my side?

Ben Varnum

Bill Dilworth

Ann, I read the biographical information, thanks. And while it’s true that Fundamentalism is a recent phenomenon, Gates Brown is wrong that the attitude towards Scripture that she assigns to Fundamentalism is also recent – no matter how many advanced degrees she holds. And bringing up her degree really seems like nothing more than an argument from authority, which I find rather surprising here.

And simply affirming something (with yet another appeal to authority) does not prove the affirmation. Neither you, nor Fowler, nor Gates Brown are possibly in a position to determine (a) exactly which individuals in the history of Christianity, much less religion in general, have operated at a “high level of faith development or (b) their attitudes towards religious guidelines and rules. Rather, the claim that this abandonment of rules is a universal mark of those operating at a “higher level of faith development” may well be simply a stacking of the deck: deciding that it this is an incontrovertible mark of such a person, and then using it as a way to determine just who those people are. It isn’t necessarily anything other than a determination that those who agree with your approach to rules are spiritually superior to those who do not.

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