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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Tradition vs. . . . Tradition

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Mark Jordan has a helpful article over at Religious Dispatches about the "conservatives vs. liberals" or "tradition vs. innovation" narrative that drives most talk about church conflict, particularly conflict about sex-related issues. His core point is crucial. If heeded, it would change the way these debates happen. Here's the money quote:
What we are living through is not a fight between a pristine Christianity and the encroaching world, but a divide within Christianity over what exactly should count as tradition. It isn’t a fight between religious conservatives and activist revolutionaries. It is a deep disagreement inside Christianity over what conserving faithfulness means.
What conserving faithfulness means. What counts as tradition.

In common parlance, traditionalists advocate for a faithfulness that amounts to continuity and maintenance of "the way it's always been." Liberals conceive of a faithfulness that enacts values like justice and peace, drawn from a progressive activist culture.

Of course, "the way it's always been" is a matter of negotiation, as Jordan deftly explains. Furthermore, the values championed by liberals are religious in character and are pursued for faithfulness' sake.

The last time I took part in a church (Presbyterian) debate about the question of homosexuality, I noticed something new happening: most of the Bible quoting was being done by the progressives, those advocating a change in the "traditional" church understanding of sexuality. They were mining the tradition to suggest a faithful way forward. The conservatives, for their part, argued for church unity and the relevance of the church to contemporary culture, and in doing so relied heavily on sociological language.

The "religious" case was made by the liberals.

The pragmatic case was made by the conservatives.

Of course, the tradition won out, an occurrence that didn't need any debate to bring it about. I left feeling as discouraged as I've ever felt about the prospects for a meaningful discernment of the faithful thing to do. Jordan's insight makes me a little less discouraged, but only a little.

It's still an inter-religious fight over what constitutes faithfulness. And whereas progressives pay a thorough deference to the faithful intentions of their opponents, many conservatives are driven by the worst kinds of stereotypes about the intentions of liberals.

How would the character of the conversation change if traditionalists held a higher view of the faithfulness of progressives?

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 9:36 AM

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