The word ‘tradition’ has Latin roots. My Latin is quite rusty but there is enough left to remember that the word goes back to the Latin verb tradere, which means: to deliver, to pass on. So, a tradition is about passing things on from one period to the next, from one generation to the following. In itself it is a rather neutral word.
For many Protestants the term ‘tradition’ has a distinct Catholic ring to it. The reformers promoted the Sola Scriptura principle (the Bible alone), but Catholics maintain that through the centuries the church has generated a treasury of wisdom and insight (the tradition) that provides a source of revelation, besides the Bible.
Adventists usually speak in negative terms about ‘tradition. In addition to what they consider unbiblical Catholic traditions they also discovered in other Christian denominations a predilection for ‘dead forms’ and ‘unchangeable traditions’. What was said and done in various denominations, was, they said, not put to the test of Scripture, but was largely derived from documents and decisions of synods which together formed a rather cast-iron ecclesial tradition. In their condemnation of traditions, Adventists sometimes (often?) tended to forget that every institution develops traditions and that this is also true for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And they often failed to recognize that other religious communities have, in fact, some beautiful traditions. Some of these at times make me rather envious.
Traditions are not limited to churches and to the religious domain. Countries and ethnic groups have many traditions. Many of these are good and should be preserved. Some are not so good or even morally wrong (e.g. bull fighting, female circumcision, student initiation rituals). Some traditions are imported (mainly from the USA) and are quickly adopted, as for instance: Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Black Friday. All of a sudden the Black Friday craze has captured the Dutch imagination (or is it: the lack of imagination?).
Recently some Dutch traditions have become rather controversial. On December 5/6 the Dutch celebrate St. Nicolas—the annual feast for the children. It is the time for giving presents (rather than at Christmas time, although giving Christmas presents is slowly also become a tradition in the Netherlands.) A few weeks before December 5 St. Nicolas makes his entry, accompanied by a group of black helpers. There is increasing opposition to this aspect, which, it is argued, combines the concept of servility with that of blackness. The helpers of St. Nicolas can no longer be black, some groups insist, while others feel strongly that this old tradition has nothing to do with racial discrimination and must not be diluted in any way.
This past week has seen considerable unrest in a few quarters of the city of the Hague, after the city has banned the traditional fires on New Year’s eve. Last year these fires led to dangerous situations and the regulations have therefore been tightened to the extent that, in fact, the traditional fires will be a thing of the past. Many are convinced the city has taken a wise decision, but others feel deprived of an important tradition!
I believe it is wrong to be locked into traditions that must continue-no matter what. Yes, traditions must have continuity, but there should also be the freedom to constantly adapt. I look forward to the coming weeks with many Christmas traditions. Some of these traditions may gradually disappear, while other, new traditions, will emerge. We need traditions in our personal lives, in the city, region or country where we live, and also in the faith community of which we are part. It contributes to what we call identity.
To be quite honest, if some traditions would disappear from my church, I would not miss them. But a church must definitely have traditions. If there is nothing we can hand on to those who will come after us, things that we find important and that make us what we are—and this is more than a list of 28 ‘fundamental beliefs’—we are in a sorry state indeed. Being grateful for the traditions that have been handed on to us, while feeling free to adapt them, when and where desirable, and creating new traditions ourselves and handing these on to those who come after us—this make a faith community into a living movement.
(Adapted from my blog of September 19, 2012)