Saturday, May 30, 2009

Considering the Creative Leading of Tradition

... we must carefully distinguish between tradition and convention. Convention and tradition may seem on the surface to be much the same thing. But this superficial resemblance only makes conventionalism all the more harmful. In actual fact, conventions are the death of real tradition as they are of all real life. They are parasites which attach themselves to the living organism of tradition and devour all its reality, turning it into a hollow formality.

Tradition is living and active, but convention is passive and dead. Tradition does not form us automatically: we have to work to understand it. Convention is accepted passively, as a matter of routine. ... Tradition really teaches us to live and show us how to take full responsibility for our own lives. ... But convention, which is a mere repetition of familiar routines, follows the line of least resistance. One goes through an act, without trying to understand the meaning of it all, merely because everyone else does the same. Tradition, which is always old, is at the same time ever new because it is always reviving – born again in each new generation, to be lived and applied in a new and particular way. Convention is simply the ossification of social customs. ... Tradition nourishes the life of the spirit; convention merely disguises its interior decay.

Finally, tradition is creative. Always original, it always opens out new horizons for an old journey. Convention, on the other hand, is completely unoriginal. It is slavish imitation. It is closed in upon itself and leads to complete sterility.

(Thomas Merton, No Man is An Island, Boston: Shambhala, 2005, pp. 158-159)

The problem, according to our guest speaker, is that we tend to lose the distinction. I readily include myself among the guilty. There are those expressions I cling to, and others I sneer at and roll my eyes. More and more I feel like a dinosaur with more than a toe in the tar pits. Conventions behind me, conventions before me; conventions both claimed and eschewed. If "one man's meat is another man's poison," so is "one person's tradition another one's convention." In which category, for example, is Sunday School – or hymnals, or pews or clergy or worship on Sundays at 11:00 am? The Lord's Supper is almost certainly tradition, but what about the juice thimbles and pasty Chiclets? What about functional committees and church boards? Tradition, or convention? My sad observation is that we hardly know the difference.

But even if we were clear, my hunch is that conventions would rule the day. Why? There are harsh answers – they relieve us of the need to think; they are comfortable; they are habit. But there are surely more benign explanations. Conventions rather seamlessly intertwine with sentimentalities, keeping handy precious memories from our past. Why else would people feel so strongly about – and love so dearly to sing – hymns with such bloody, sappy and miserable messages? Think:

"Come to the church in the wildwood, Oh, come to the church in the dale, No spot is so dear to my childhood, As the little brown church in the vale."


"There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel's veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains."

It isn't, I would posit, because those hymns reflect one's theology – one's belief system -- but because they evoke echoes of the singer's childhood and favorite experiences. Fine, I say. Sing away. Make yourself hoarse. But don't go to the cross – or kill the church – over the "The Church in the Wildwood." Surely we can find more substantive altars to die on – or live by – than that.

What would it mean to recover tradition's creative spark? What would it look like to "open out new horizons for an old journey" as Merton suggests tradition can accomplish, as opposed to the "slavish imitation" and "sterility" of convention? I'm not quite sure, but I'm intrigued by the possibilities.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The DNA of Caring

"'Ikon doesn't care about you. Ikon doesn't give a crap if you are going through a divorce. The only person who cares is the person sitting beside you, and if that person doesn't care, you're stuffed.' People will say, 'I left the church because they didn't phone me when my dad died, and that was really hurtful.' But the problem is not that the church didn't phone but that it promised to phone. I say, 'Ikon ain't ever gonna phone ya.' [I] might, but if [I do], it will be as [me] and not as a representative of Ikon. Ikon will never notice if you don't come. But if you've made a connection with the person sitting next to you, that person might. Ikon is like the people who run a pub. It's not their responsibility to help the patrons become friends. But they create a space in which people can actually encounter each other." (Christian Century, June 2, 2009)
The speaker is Peter Rollins, creator of an emergent group in Ireland called Ikon. Rollins is quick to clarify that Ikon is not a church -- at least in any conventional sense of the word; he even resists describing it as a "community" -- which means, among other things, that it is hard to pidgeon hole. About the best you can do is observe that it is a monthly performance held in a pub that tries to "disrupt people's understanding of Christianity and get them to think differently." It is an open-doored experience designed to meet and relate to God on different terms -- it is related to religious tradition, insists Rollins, while seeking to reimagine how that tradition might function.

His decriptions of the events are fascinating -- and simultaneously disconcerting -- but it is characterization of relationships and responsibility that catch my attention. It isn't a new thought that institutions can't feel -- only people "feel" -- but churches and their "members" continue to err in the expectation that they will. The institution can create mechanisms and systems for visitation, "shepherding", pastoral care and the like, but the institution makes no visits or telephone calls. Only people do that -- people who have accepted an assignment, perhaps, or who will feel guilty if they don't, maybe, or quite possibly people who have come to feel a genuine connection with the recipient of their ministrations and respond.

In my experience the institutional systems that churches develop create about as many problems as they solve, not the least of which is creating the illusion that responsiveness -- concern, compassion, shared joy, etc. -- happen automatically, because there is a system in place. For my money, give me one person who has genuinely missed me or is glad to see me over 100 who have been assigned to shake my hand or follow up with a phone call.

No institution -- be they unions, fraternal organizations, the Rotary Club or even the church -- has the DNA to care. Only people can manage to do that.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Waving to the Circus Leaving Town

The volume, for the moment, has dialed down. Three weeks after the Iowa State Supreme Court ruled that denying same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional, and five days after those marriage licenses began being issued, the deafening euphoria from the one side has settled into a wide grin, while the apoplectic outrage on the other has focused into teeth-gritting mutters. The week began with plenty of media attention -- from all over the world -- and ended today with a story about out-of-staters filling a bus to Iowa City for a group ceremony and a few hours of wedded bliss before returning home to Missouri where their licenses would be worth about as much as the subscription cards that fall out of magazines. In between we have been subjected to various opinion pieces in the paper and incendiary letters to the editor (I wrote one myself, though it didn't make the cut), and human interest stories on the 6 o'clock news.

Gradually, though, life has moved on. This is, after all, Iowa. A wise and seasoned matter-of-factness dominates most of our days here that isn't disrupted for very long. Five days into marriage equality, the sky hasn't fallen. The rivers rose but didn't overflow, five inches of rain notwithstanding; the trees still blossomed, the banks still opened, no one turned into a pillar of salt, and no sinkhole opened up to transport the state directly to the Hell that some had predicted. If the company that I keep is any representative sampling, heterosexuals have discerned no change in the relative value or significance of their own marriages, and most have already shifted their attentions to the more mundane business of daily living.

I'm not surprised. It reminds me of the distressed conversation I pressed one evening at church camp several decades ago with a wise mentor after the particularly glorious religious experience of the day before hadn't sustained itself throughout the day following. "You can't live on a mountaintop forever," he sagely observed. "Among other things, your body couldn't take it."

Life, in other words, is not one long succession of flash points, nor is it an endless constellation of "issues." I know some people who try to make it that way, but theirs is a tiny audience. Most of us pour our breakfast cereal, pump our gas, pay our bills, brush our teeth, and pull on our pajamas without much sense of drama. Sure, we can get worked up, but few of us stay that way, and most who do are simply annoying. Life is too short for that -- or, as another wise friend once countered, "Life is too long for that."

I'm sure there will be more letters to the editor, and television stations won't let the sensation drop without a fight. But most of us here will simply go on living -- agreeing or disagreeing, but with more pressing things to do, not making a fuss one way or the other.