Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Tradition, teaching, cooking and serving for a nourishing Church

I reject the idea that the 'tradition' of the Christian Church is just a load of stuff from the past, which we receive unchanged from those who have gone before us, and pass along unchanged to those who will come after us. That, to me, is like saying that a recipe handed down through a family's generations must always be made with the same ingredients as used by the originators of the dish--and if even a pinch still remains from the larder of the multiply-great-grandmother who invented the dish, in the same packaging, all to the better. What foolishness! Ingredients go stale, go off the market; learning over the decades and centuries may tell us that something is not beneficial, and we should find an appropriate replacement (or leave it out altogether--does any educated woman still use 'belladonna' to make her eyes sparkle, or lead to give herself a fair, smooth complexion?). As well, methods of preparation change--few of us still make our morning toast by holding bread in a pair of tongs over the kitchen fire, and most of us will resort to melting chocolate in a microwave rather than in a double-boiler. Recipes are living things, often representative of a time gone by, and of people whom we love but see no more--but they are adapted and adjusted to new knowledge and circumstances.

How we use what has been left to us by Christians who have gone before us is, in my view very similar to family recipes. Tradition involves change and adaptation, as much as (and perhaps more than) it involves fidelity to the past. I admit here that I am deeply indebted to the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's view of tradition in After Virtue, where he explains that a 'living tradition':

is a historically embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations.(p.222)

In MacIntyre's view, tradition is not about 'stuff' (sayings, authoritative texts, ceremonial), although the 'stuff' is important. It is the constant questioning about whether the stuff is the right stuff for this group of people best to accomplish and embody what they intend. The endeavor of accomplishing and embodying, over time, for MacIntyre, is a practice. He uses the example of a hospital or a university as a practice, which is constantly engaged in a (sometimes quite heated) argument (the tradition) about how best to do the tasks, and be the community, which they are called to do and be. It is, I think, a more than adequate way of describing the Church--or at least, what the Church (on earth) is meant to be.

All Christians are part of the tradition--not merely the 'professional' theologians or the ordained. This, I think, is part of what Congar was trying to express when he spoke of the 'duty and corresponding right' of the lay person to be a fully mature Christian (see previous post). Those involved in the public ministries of the church have a primary responsibility to facilitate growth so that all Christians can take part in that ongoing argument, rather than allowing the 'professionals' to determine the tradition without challenge.

This, I believe, requires better preparation of the teaching office of public ministers. They need to know their 'stuff'--what has been said, done, believed, succeeded, failed, or just frankly botched--but the 'stuff' is only the beginning. Tradition, using MacIntyre's description, is more about method, although it relies on good content. The 'method' part is the real work. It involves selecting the appropriate elements of content, combining them in good order and proportion, questioning and testing to see what will help the faithful (corporately and personally)answer its calling in ways that are life-giving to them and to those among whom they live and move and have their being.

To go back to the cooking analogy, a pile of random ingredients don't constitute a finished dish--certainly not one that is nourishing and satisfying, while still creating the desire to return to it (whether to make it or partake of it) again and again, or to share it with others. The cook, if she or he is any good, chooses the vital ingredients without which the dish will not be what it is meant to be (it is silly to think of risotto without rice), what will add nourishment and flavor, reject what is harmful or detracts from the finished product, prepare the ingredients, combine them in the right order and under the right conditions, and serve the finished dish.

The 'cooking' is an important part of the task of the public minister, but the 'dish' (whether it is a sermon, an educational program, pastoral visit, etc.) is not an end in itself. The 'diners' have to be well-served by what is prepared. It needs to be appropriate to the needs of those who receive it; as Archbishop Temple once famously said, 'it is harmful to give the best beef to a man with dysentery.' Admittedly, this is not easy when there are members of a congregation at so many different stages of life and faith, but, just as one must supply the needs of all at the family table (the infant, the growing adolescent, the food-allergic, the elderly), it cannot be neglected without bad effect on the well-being of all who eat there. All need to be nourished, not so they can stay at the table--but so they can get up from it, and get on with what they need to do, contributing to the table fellowship, to the life of the family, and in the wider world.

Public ministers, in their teaching role especially, need to use the 'stuff' of the church to help strengthen and nourish the laity. They must know the content--scripture, history, theology, pastoral theory, liturgy--but it needs to be served well. Furthermore, they need to pass along good 'methods of faith' to those they serve, teaching them to use the content of the Church's tradition to grow into the adult Christians that Congar says it is our duty and right to be.

'Cooking', however assumes that the dish served will be digested and converted into energy, sometimes an energy that could not have been predicted when the meal is planned. Likewise, what is taught to faithful Christians does not enter the system without transformation. The Church's teaching is not simply content to be memorized and repeated unthinkingly; it does not, when it is done well, produce unthinkingly obedient Christians. An Irish Catholic bishop, during that country's raging debates over abortion, said that 'We don't dictate to people. We have no right to dictate but we have no option but to teach.' Mature Christian faith needs teaching, but what is learned may--no, sometimes must--take directions that the teacher did not anticipate.

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