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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thoughts on Christian "Tradition"

Without a doubt, the blog post entitled "The Use of Alcohol and Christian Faith" has received the greatest number of page views here by a large margin.  Whether this reflects the topic, or a growing blog readership, I do not know.  I have received a dozen or more personal responses from readers on the alcohol topic, most with stories to tell, all well written and thoughtful.  Thank you to those who wrote me.

As I reflect on these responses, it dawns on me how narrowly Christian tradition (or thought and practice) is defined for most of us.  Christian tradition is defined for us by what we learned in Sunday School, or perhaps by popular ideas of Christianity encountered in media.  In the case of alcohol, those who grew up in teetolalist congregations view teetotalism as the traditional Christian practice, which they might embrace, or rebel against, but in either case it holds as traditional.  But the truth regarding traditional Christian practice is quite different, and far more complicated.  The reality is teetotalism has never been the dominant practice among those claiming to be Christians, and only gained some traction in some places quite recently in Christian history.  (This is not to say a Christian case for teetotalism cannot be made in conversation with other Christians, only that it is dishonest to claim it is the traditional Christian practice.)

One method for dealing with diversity within Christian tradition has always been to define what it means to be a Christian in terms that exclude "people who are not like us."  As in, Catholics and Orthodox drink, but they are not real Christians.  If we claim that only Christians influenced by late 19th or early 20th century revivalism are real Christians, then we might have a case that teetotalism is the traditional Christian practice.

This is the tragedy.  When we define Christian thought and practice in such narrow ways as to limit it to our particular group (what I learned in Sunday School) we close ourselves off to the richness and depth and breadth of our tradition.  To be sure, we have our own individual traditions within the broader stream of Christian thought and practice.  But when we define Christian tradition in narrow terms, we discourage thoughtful exploration of the full depth of Christian faith found even within the boundaries of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  Instead of this holy exploration of a Christian heritage, some of us choose to look beyond the church for thought and values that are coherent and compelling for us as we orient ourselves in life.  It is unfortunate when we do this completely oblivious to the richness of our heritage.